Patrick McEnroe on What to Expect at the U.S. Open — and How It's Different This Year

In March, Patrick McEnroe had coronavirus — he tells PEOPLE how he's feeling now and why he's excited to be back covering professional tennis

patrick mcenroe
Patrick McEnroe. Photo: Steven Ryan/Getty

The environment at the U.S. Open this year is totally different, Patrick McEnroe says — but that's to be expected.

"It's like an oversized player lounge," he tells PEOPLE of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York. "Normally when you walk into the player lounge, that's sort of the place where the players can hide out. There's no fans. There's no media. And it's pretty busy, because there's a lot of people that are coaches, trainers, family, agents, business people. Even a lot of those people are gone. So it's kind of surreal to walk around the grounds."

McEnroe — a former professional tennis player with 16 men's doubles titles to his name — is back at the Open as a tennis commentator for ESPN. In the week leading up to the Grand Slam tournament's start on Monday, he says he was tested for coronavirus four times — part of countless precautions to ensure player and staff safety.

Many of this year's tennis Grand Slams were canceled or have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 Wimbledon tennis championships were canceled, as well as the 2020 Indian Wells and the 2020 Miami Open. And though the U.S. Open is still happening, fans aren't permitted to attend to ensure a bubble-like atmosphere.

"I think the USTA has done an unbelievable job," McEnroe says of the health measures implemented.

Still, as the tournament is underway — and with many top players, including Rafael Nadal, opting to sit it out — the differences are hard to ignore.

McEnroe insists that those who tune in on television are "going to see great tennis," though. "I've been able to see first-hand covering the Western and Southern Open, which is normally in Cincinnati, but which [was] being played in Queens. So the tennis has been amazing."

"If you'd given me a choice between a U.S. Open with no fans and no US Open, I'll take the former."

The 54-year-old knows, of course, the seriousness of the pandemic as he fought coronavirus himself back in March.

"I feel pretty good," McEnroe tells PEOPLE now. "I never really had serious symptoms. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel just a little something in my chest when I take a deep breath sometimes."

But he's been "working out pretty regularly," and is feeling "strong." Adds the father of three: "I taught a lot of tennis this summer before I was able to go back to TV work in the last week, so I was on the court a lot. And I'm feeling good."

And from that COVID-19-imposed self-isolation, sprung another gig: a new podcast, Holding Court, which covers tennis, often with the help of McEnroe's celebrity friends (who have so far, included, Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller, Steve Nash, and Chris Evert, to name a few).

"It started with me in the basement, when I was in my own quarantine," he explains, noting that his "state of the unions of the tennis world" are "popular" with listeners.

patrick mcenroe
Patrick McEnroe. Julian Finney/Getty

And as for the tennis world this week, McEnroe has his eyes on Novak Djokovic for men's singles victory, telling PEOPLE, "He's looked awesome in his last couple of matches." Djokovic will play in the open's second round on Wednesday.

For women's singles, McEnroe says "Obviously Serena [Williams] is the number one draw, no matter, pandemic or no pandemic."

"She's still chasing history and trying to tie Margaret Court, so that's the big story," he says ahead of her first-round match.

"People say, 'Well, there's going to be an asterisk next to the win,' " McEnroe notes of the smaller competition field due to the pandemic. "I don't really buy that. I mean, I think it's different. Obviously, we're all going to remember 2020 is something incredibly unusual, to put it mildly, in the sports world or in the world. So I'm just happy that the U.S. Open is back."

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