Cancellation of Indian Wells Masters due to coronavirus fears could be start of barren tennis summer

Since its inception in 1974, the Indian Wells tournament has never been cancelled, and never not played a huge part in shaping the tennis season.

Musab Abid March 09, 2020 19:40:46 IST
Cancellation of Indian Wells Masters due to coronavirus fears could be start of barren tennis summer
  • Indian Wells tournament director Tommy Haas suggested that the event could be held at a later, but given the tightly packed schedule, that is highly unlikely

  • Some players – like Sorana Cirstea and Kirsten Flipkens – expressed surprise that the players were not consulted before the announcement

  • WTA CEO Steve Simon said he was ‘supportive of the concept’ of empty stadiums, and there was apparently an extensive discussion on it

After Novak Djokovic won the Dubai Open last week to extend his perfect 2020 start to 18-0, he jokingly said at the presentation that it was his goal to go unbeaten the entire season.

Perhaps sensing that the tennis world would self-combust out of horror/excitement at hearing that, Djokovic quickly added, “No I’m kidding.” But then in the very same breath he said, with a mock-serious tone, “No I’m not kidding actually.”

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Novak Djokovic would have come into the Indian Wells Masters with an unbeaten 18-0 record in the season. AP

It was hard not to think back to Djokovic’s ominous proclamation when we woke up to the news that this year’s Indian Wells Masters has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. One tournament getting cancelled doesn’t mean all the tournaments on the calendar will follow suit, or even that the next one (the Miami Masters) will. But it does serve as a chilling reminder that nothing in this world is set in stone – not the supposed impossibility of a player going an entire season unbeaten, and certainly not a tournament that has had an uninterrupted run for nearly 50 years.

Just how big is this development? You can judge for yourself from the fact that the cancellation is already a part of history; it is an absolute first, with literally no precedent. Since its inception in 1974, the Indian Wells tournament has never been cancelled, and never not played a huge part in shaping the tennis season.

On Sunday everyone was eagerly anticipating the resumption of some ‘real’ tennis action after a month of post-AO doldrums, and a possible battle for No. 1 between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But now, everything has gone for a toss.

A quick overview of the facts that necessitated the cancellation: a public health emergency was declared in the Coachella Valley (where Indian Wells is located) on Sunday, after a confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus in the region. In response, several doctors and medical organisers advised the Riverside County Public Health Department that a public gathering the size of a Masters-level tournament was too big a risk in the face of the pandemic currently spreading like wildfire throughout the world. “It is not in the public interest of fans, players and neighboring areas for this tournament to proceed,” said Dr. David Agus, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California.

The Indian Wells organisers wasted no time in announcing the cancellation. Tournament director Tommy Haas took the news on the chin, stating that the “health and safety of…everyone involved with the event is of paramount importance”. Haas even suggested that the tournament could be held at a later date this year, but given the tightly packed schedule, that is highly unlikely.

Not everyone is happy with the decision though, with a few fans wondering whether the tournament pulled the plug too soon given that there was only one confirmed case in the region. Some players – like Sorana Cirstea and Kirsten Flipkens – expressed surprise that the players were not consulted before the announcement. Heather Watson meanwhile asked her Twitter followers to vote whether they thought the cancellation was the right decision or an overreaction; so far, nearly 65% have said it was an overreaction.

However, if you take into account the speed of the virus’ spread and the inability of various national governments to contain the damage, it is tough to blame the officials for erring on the side of caution.

111,262 cases of the coronavirus infection have been reported globally so far, with as many as 3,882 of them resulting in death. The statistics for the US are a little less severe, but still alarming: 554 confirmed cases, 22 deaths. And judging by the reports of the virus’s sources and patterns, those numbers are likely to keep rising.

A global pandemic of this scale hasn’t been seen in a long time, so it makes sense that the measures taken to combat it are correspondingly stringent. In Italy, the country with the highest confirmed cases outside Asia, most public gatherings have been cancelled or postponed – with the Serie A football matches being held behind closed doors (i.e. no spectators). This week’s Champions League fixtures will follow the same model, as will the Bahrain Grand Prix and the Gymnastics World Cup (in Doha) later this month.

Many other events – including the Women’s Ice Hockey World Championship in Canada, the Barcelona Marathon and the Japanese baseball league – have either been postponed or cancelled.

There was always the option of holding the Indian Wells tournament behind closed doors, like the Serie A has successfully done with its matches. WTA CEO Steve Simon said he was ‘supportive of the concept’, and there was apparently an extensive discussion on it.

But the tournament organisers ultimately decided against it because it wasn’t in their ‘best interest’, and it’s easy to see why. The share of broadcast revenue for tennis events is relatively lower than what it is for football and Formula 1; the net cost of hosting a tournament while earning zero ticket sales is probably too high, even if you are bankrolled by Larry Ellison.

So what does this mean for the people directly at the center of the storm – the players? For starters, those who did well at the tournament last year will see an immediate (and perhaps unfair) fall in their ranking points. Tennis’ rolling 52-week ranking system means that failure to defend your points from the previous edition of a tournament is always going to hit you hard, no matter what the reason for the failure or how extraordinary the circumstances.

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Rafael Nadal reached the semi-finals of Indian Wells Masters and would have defended 360 points at the Californian event. AP

Dominic Thiem, who won last year’s tournament, will automatically lose 1000 ranking points, while Nadal (who reached the semis in 2019) will lose 360. Fortunately for Thiem, his closest challenger for the No. 3 ranking – Roger Federer – will also lose 600 points (although Federer had pulled out with injury anyway).

Nadal is not so lucky; the gap between him and Djokovic has widened further, since Djokovic was only defending 45 points from last year. Assuming the two players maintain the kind of form they’ve shown lately, the No. 1 ranking will likely remain with the Serb until at least Wimbledon.

But whether Djokovic and Nadal will be able to showcase their form until Wimbledon is up in the air. So far no other high-profile tennis tournament other than Indian Wells has been officially cancelled, and Simon said, “the intent is still for Miami to operate”. It is, however, anyone’s guess whether that stance will remain the same two weeks later, which is when the Miami Open is scheduled to start.

Florida so far has had 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus and two deaths, which are obviously not small numbers. The Miami organisers may well be forced to follow the example of Indian Wells and cancel their event too.

That said, the bigger crisis (for the tennis world at least) will likely emerge during the European clay court swing. At this point the Rome Masters looks highly unlikely to take place, even though it is two months away. The Monte Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open and Madrid Masters may also be under a cloud. And the two summer biggies – Roland Garros and Wimbledon – do not seem entirely safe either, as Jamie Murray pointed out on Twitter.

Some might say we are needlessly pushing the panic button by worrying about tournaments that are still months away. For all we know, the situation could improve considerably once the high temperatures of summer set in (studies suggest COVID-19 is sensitive to warm conditions). But the fact remains that the spread of the virus has shown no signs of slowing down yet. What happens in the summer is still an estimate at best – and an estimate based as much on hope as expectation.

Public health is always of ‘paramount importance’, as Haas rightly said. And tennis tournaments are a luxury that the world can afford to do without, when the alternative is illness or death.

That’s the somber reality that tennis fans all over the world have to accept. The cancelling of a tournament is disappointing for everyone involved – most of all the players and tournament organisers, whose earnings depend on uninterrupted play – but these disruptions are minor when compared with the loss of life.

It’d be really unfortunate if more tennis events are cancelled, but infinitely more tragic if more lives are lost to the deadly virus. So if the officials are trying to do their bit by sacrificing their big-ticket events, then the least we as fans can do is extend our support.

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