The most jarring difference comes while driving in the car, going West on Grand Central Parkway, approaching the exit “9P-Flushing Meadows/Billie Jean King Tennis Center.”
It is on Monday, 15 minutes before the first ball will be struck at the 2020 U.S. Open. And mine is the lone vehicle veering right off the congested highway and onto Exit 9P.
The usual gaggle of policemen lining “9P” are nowhere to be found. In fact, there isn’t a policeman — or person — in sight as you drive toward Parking Lot A, alongside Arthur Ashe Stadium. It’s that way every morning this year, at about 11 a.m., when the Open is set to come to life.
Three days into the Open, you even miss the traffic pouring into the facility.
Almost everything that makes the U.S. Open the most special Grand Slam is missing.
Flushing Meadows traditionally has felt like the most diverse place on the planet in late August and early September.
It has bustled with European tennis tourists — from Switzerland to Sweden, Slovakia to Spain — who make New York their vacation destination because of a tournament. Last year, attendance finished at 854,227.
The World’s Fair was staged here in 1964, but the U.S. Open became its own world’s fair once it moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows in 1978. But you can’t stage a party without guests.
This tournament feels like a tennis apocalypse, all tennis fans from all tennis nations disappearing.
As one of 11 print journalists granted a credential, I’m honored to be on site, even making it to the illustrious “President’s Box’’ of Ashe Stadium where all the A-list celebrities come to be seen. Sorry, Alec Baldwin.
Two stadium workers each cleaned my box seat a few minutes apart with disinfectant before allowing me to sit.
Journalists sit alone, with masks — spaced out from each other by 10 seats.
The President’s Box notwithstanding, the ambience has a feel of the state high-school tournaments I covered early in my career. (The events used to be held on these grounds.)
“What is it when you have no atmosphere?” Sloane Stephens asked. “I think everyone is very used to having people and noise, things going on in the crowd. I just say it [feels] back to girls’ 12s [junior tournaments], where it’s like you’re you and your parents. But it’s just at the U.S. Open.’’
Compelling marathon rallies on the Ashe court are punctuated not by the usual raucous cheers, but by a couple of clapping sounds from coaches. Odder is the challenge review. As the scoreboard depicts a ball landing a fraction of a millimeter out, the usual loud oohs and groans are replaced by deadly silence.
“I feel like I feed off the crowd’s energy, so if I’m just having a bad day, it’s a little bit lonely,’’ Naomi Osaka said.
According to a source, John McEnroe is also having a rough time getting pumped up calling matches in a barren stadium.
Mind you, the USTA has done a commendable job in attempting to pull off a festive vibe. We wrote a preview about the Ashe Beach recreational area by the fountain in front of the big stadium.
Three dozen white Adirondack chairs with accompanying umbrellas, cabanas and beach balls are situated in front of the popular fountain. But the chairs remain mostly empty of sunbathers. The rec games that have been set up — miniature golf, paddle tennis, soccer pool, a basketball hoop — mostly go unused.
The USTA is attempting to have players remain outdoors when on site. Instead of sunning on Ashe Beach, however, many are coming off the practice court and bouncing into the stadium with their coach and tennis bags to watch a few games, along with the 20 or so others.
“It’s nice to just be able to watch a match and not be disturbed,’’ Stephens said.
Alongside Ashe Beach is the largest U.S. Open Collection retail store that typically has a line just to get inside to buy snazzy tennis gear. Now it’s a warehouse for practice balls and furniture not being used. Depressing.
Randy Walker, the former USTA public relations guru, always reminds me of a remark I made many years ago. Acknowledging the yearly miseries of the Knicks, Walker once asked whether it’s a reprieve to cover the Open.
“Favorite two weeks of the year,’’ I replied.
It isn’t quite that this year in covering my 24th straight Open for The Post. The saliva tests the media must take every four days are part of the routine. (Players take the much-easier and quicker nose swab.)
The good news is the actual tennis, despite a five-month layoff, is still brilliant. They are still artists and masters of their craft. Sitting front row at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Wednesday to view No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev jackhammer in serves at 134 mph is breathtaking. When God built a tennis player, he built the 6-foot-6, spindly thing Zverev.
Wish you were all here to see it live, too.
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