New US Open director Stacey Allaster is confident in tennis’ plan despite pandemic

Tennis

Stacey Allaster sat in her official seat as the chief executive of the United States Tennis Association at Arthur Ashe Stadium last September during the women’s final of the US Open and felt as if her own career was playing out in front of her.

The match featured Serena Williams, the 23-time major champion with whom Allaster had worked so closely over the years in her previous role as chairperson and CEO of the WTA, and Bianca Andreescu, the teenage upstart who represented everything Tennis Canada, the organization with which Allaster had spent nearly 15 years at the start of her career, had ever wanted.

She said she was torn and ultimately neutral about who she wanted to win in the battle of her pasts. But when Andreescu finally hoisted the trophy above her head as the new champion, becoming the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title, she couldn’t help but feel it was a dream fulfilled.

“It was so surreal,” Allaster said recently. “When I was at Tennis Canada, we hoped one day we would have a player win a Grand Slam, so then for it to happen at the Grand Slam I was involved with was pretty incredible. It was amazing to be there and to experience that, and see Bianca own that moment and rise to the noise level and energy of 24,000 fans.”

Less than a year after Andreescu’s momentous triumph, Allaster made history of her own as she was announced in June as the tournament director of the US Open, becoming the first woman to do so in the event’s 140-year existence. Days after taking the job, Allaster was formally introduced with her new title as she took the court at Ashe for a news conference, and she says that was the first moment she realized the true weight of her barrier-breaking appointment.

“It felt like a ‘This is real’ moment,'” she said. “Before that, you’re kind of in the get-things-done mode, so hearing it aloud made it sink in. I had the privilege previously of running the organization that Billie Jean King founded, the WTA, and there I was walking onto court, and I put my hand on ‘Pressure is a Privilege,’ Billie’s quote that’s right there at that entrance.

“It is a privilege for me to have this opportunity because so many other women, Billie, and the ‘Original 9’, Chrissie [Evert], Martina [Navratilova] and so many others have paved the way for a woman to have this leadership position. It is symbolic, but also more importantly, showing all other leaders, especially young leaders, that they too can achieve their leadership goals within our sport. I haven’t really been able to fully reflect on it, but it is a very important moment.”

Of course, Allaster hasn’t had much time to think about anything over the past several months that hasn’t been related to the global coronavirus pandemic, and how the US Open can be played in spite of it. Even her introductory news conference was to discuss the organization’s plans to hold the event and the protocols they had already set in place.

Like most sports around the world, professional tennis was shut down indefinitely in March ahead of the BNP Paribas Open. The French Open, originally slated to start play at the end of May, was moved to late September. Wimbledon was canceled. With New York considered the epicenter of the virus in the United States in the initial months, the tournament’s status was in flux and at times it seemed nearly impossible to stage.

But Allaster, who called the decision-making process a “journey,” said she feels confident in their current plan. With several of the events of the US Open hard-court series leading into the major canceled, the Western & Southern Open, traditionally played in Cincinnati, opens this weekend at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. Players will be able to remain in a “bubble” and stay in the same official hotel (or private housing) for both events. Players will be limited to a support team of three, and all those on site will be tested regularly throughout the duration and will be quarantined if they test positive for the virus. There will be no fans allowed at either tournament, and qualifying, juniors and mixed doubles were canceled.

Players’ response to the plan has been mixed. Williams, a six-time winner in Queens, recorded a video message for the news conference, announcing her intention to play in the tournament, and Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s player and 17-time major champion, is already on site. However, several other big names will not be in attendance. Neither Andreescu nor Rafael Nadal, the two defending champions, will be playing, and following the latest withdrawal from world No. 2 Simona Halep, just four of the top 10 women will be in the draw.

Allaster is the first to say the event will be called off if it ever seems unsafe for the players or staff, but as the start date looms near, it seems less likely this will be the case.

“If at any time we don’t feel that level of confidence that we have today, then we’ll make a very easy call, and we’ll work with the local public health authorities along this journey,” she said. “We feel it’s worth a try and in the best interest of tennis and the industry overall to do so, but the health, well-being and safety of every person involved in the US Open will always be at the forefront of our decision.”

Allaster admits it hasn’t exactly been the easiest time to take over the role, but she relishes a challenge and is doing her best to navigate the event in the choppiest of waters. And, she says, her previous roles have uniquely prepared her for this specific moment in time.

“With 15 years with Tennis Canada and 10 years at the WTA, which has 55 events in 33 countries, I am an expert in crisis management,” she said. “Because within the live event experience, you don’t know what is going to happen, but you know something is going to happen. I have dealt with everything — being in a country where there was terrorism, significant earthquakes, the hurricanes, a tsunami, the nuclear reactor cracking in Tokyo and radioactivity coming across the Pacific, contamination of food, the Northeastern Seaboard blackout, SARs in 2003.

“I used to go to all these industry conferences representing the WTA, and they would have all of the commissioners and leaders of various sports, and there would almost always be the question, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ People always say, ‘revenue growth’ or ‘social media,’ but for me, the thing that honestly kept me up at night were geopolitical issues because they’re real. There’s no question that this is definitely the toughest, and no one has experienced anything like this to this degree, but we have a strong team and we’ve considered every option and scenario.”

Allaster knows the event will be markedly different for everyone this year, including the fans, who will now have to watch from home instead of packing the stadiums and outer courts throughout the fortnight. She understands their disappointment perhaps better than most — she counts the event as the site of one of her most special and memorable dates with her then-boyfriend John Milkovich. The two flew down from Toronto, where they both lived, for “Super Saturday” in 1992, and sat in the sweltering hot stands of Louis Armstrong for 15 hours, drinking Heinekens and meeting other diehards of the sport.

“[The tournament] has a very personal spot in my heart, because ultimately, I did marry John, and I don’t know if that particular moment sealed the deal, but it was such a great day and a perfect date,” she said. “And thank god he loves tennis because he’s been my mixed-doubles partner ever since. To be successful in my career, if I didn’t have John’s support or that of my family and my [two teenage kids], none of this would have been possible.”

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