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Mailbag: After Indian Wells Cancellation, How Will Coronavirus Impact Tennis Going Forward?

The BNP Paribas Open was postponed due to growing concerns surrounding COVID-19, but how will the virus affect players, ranking points, prize money and tournaments in the foreseeable future?

Hey everyone. Barely two months ago, we wrote about our sheepishness discussing tennis when a continent (Australia) was burning. Now we have the same emotions as the world deals with a global pandemic.

On the podcast this week, Dr. Celine Gounder shared her expertise about infectious diseases and what we might expect going forward. Our guest last week—which seems like a year ago—was Max Eisenbud, and he was excellent.

We anticipated writing this on the flight to Palm Springs for the 2020 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. As you likely know, on Sunday night, the tournament announced that it was cancelling the 2020 iteration. Many of your questions stemmed from that, so let’s start (and end) here….


What happened?

Despite the growing concern over COVID-19, the tournament was supposed to go on as planned, with a few accommodations built in, such as reduced player access and ballkids not touching towels. Wild cards were disbursed. Draws were being prepared. Following the tournament’s social media feed even through Saturday, there was no indication anything was in jeopardy.

As I understand it, a prominent member of the community had been away on business and became infected. Upon her return to the Coachella Valley, she went to a social outing and then went home feeling awful and showing symptoms. Not only did she go to the hospital, but people in her social circle descended on the Eisenhower facility in Palm Springs asking to be tested. Eisenhower alerted the tournament and said something to the effect of: “If—heaven help us—there’s a sporting event with 500,000 fans and someone takes ill, we will be completely overwhelmed.”

On Sunday, there were a series of urgent meetings. There were discussions about holding the event without fans. Players weighed in and held council meetings. (Roger Federer called in from afar.) Ideas were floated for alternate plans. In the end, the tournament decided to take the path of prudence—and limit their liability—and called the whole thing off.

What happens to the players?

Again, I am reporting this from New York and not on-site, but I am told Indian Wells is being generous and allowing players to use the facilities and keep their hotels. At a time like this, you realize that tennis really is a sport made up of independent contractors. Some can book flights home; others can’t. Some have a plan; others are scrambling. Some have the means to book new airfare; for others the costs are a consideration. Spare a special thought for Jannik Sinner. The kid is 18. He is from northern Italy which is on lockdown. And he is 7,000 miles from home.

As for ranking points….right now, they are scheduled to drop, as they ordinarily would, in the 52-week cycle. But I’m told an alternative is at least being discussed. Imagine you are, say Dominic Thiem, the defending champ. It’s one thing if you are hurt. It’s one thing if you lose early. But when you lose your chance to defend a title because …the tournament made a unilateral decision to cancel the event? You might be understandably upset.

The other issue is prize money. These are extraordinary—nay, unprecedented—circumstances. But how does a tournament, sanctioned by both tours, make the decision to cancel the event. And then not compensate the players. At least partially? I suspect a fair resolution will be reached. But if nothing else, it’s an interesting thought exercise for a law school contracts class. Force (fifth) Majeure, you might say.

What now?

The big question: was Indian Wells cautious, in its risk analysis, and special set of circumstances given the (older) demographic of the region and the relative paucity of hospitals? Or was this just the first in a series of sporting events—and tennis events specifically—that will close shop? Do we envision a future of games and events being held with no fans, only available to viewers (and, not insignificantly, gamblers) watching on screens? In some sports, the decision is easy. Television/media revenue is so significant that it makes it OK to hold games played before pastures of empty seats. The NCAA tournament, for example. And perhaps even the Tokyo Olympics. It’s a little different in tennis. The media rights deals are lucrative, but not howlingly lucrative. Of a tournament’s revenue, I was once told that 40% comes from media, 30% from suites and sponsorships and 30% from conventional ticket sales. Still, if the choice is playing the Rome Masters event behind closed doors or not playing at all, who wouldn’t favor the former?

Story to watch: I am told—by non-tennis folks, which often makes the information more reliable—that the WME/IMG folks are hellbent on holding the Miami Open. Unless state or federal governments expressly say otherwise, the organizers want the games to go on. Stay tuned.

Some more scattered thoughts here:

Hot take

My hot take is really a cool take. And it is this: respect the unknown. We are in completely uncharted territory here. This story changes by the hour. The historical analogs—the Spanish flu, even the Black Death—fail us. People speak with certitude. “Indian Wells screwed up and bought into the panic!” No wait, “Indian Wells absolutely did the right thing!” People read a post on Reddit (apologies to A. Ohanian) and suddenly they are the second coming of the Surgeon General. I’d say we acknowledge this is unprecedented, we consult data and science and we go easy on making sweeping, dogmatic statements. And we all wash our hands.

With Indian Wells cancelled, is the Mailbag cancelled too?
James, Portland

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• Come on. You know me better than that.

Still hoping that Indian Wells will happen this year, albeit at a later date. But while adjusting to this unexpected turn, it occurs to me that, apart from how the cancellation of this major sporting event could affect the sporting landscape in general, it will also have major seeding implications for later slams, like Wimbledon. Players that did well at Indian Wells last year who weren’t planning on playing this year, like Roger Federer and Bianca Andreescu, will undoubtedly benefit. Their ranking points gained last year would have dropped to zero anyway, but now so will all the other players’ points.
Miles, Hudson, Mass.

• There is a rumor that Indian Wells is angling to reschedule for after the U.S. Open. I can’t imagine that happening. The tennis calendar is booked solid and if the tours moved to bump another event, there would be a breach of contract or anti-trust suit. Then again, I couldn’t imagine a two-week event would cancel because of a global pandemic. So, who knows?

A little actual tennis chatter….

I was intrigued by one of your reader’s questions last week, relating to the hypothetical that if all of Muster, Kuerten, Nadal, Sampras, Becker, Edberg, Federer, Agassi and Djokovic had turned professional and peaked at the same time, how they would have fared against each other at the majors. I have to throw Borg into the mix at the French Open. How do you see Borg versus Nadal at the French Open? Borg’s retirement at age 26, I would submit, is tennis’ great “What If,” he had not retired so young and in his prime.
Shonn Moore

• I’m so ambivalent about these inter-era comparisons. They’re fun—helpful even—and are not just fundamental to being a sports fan (who was better Jordan or LeBron?) but fundamental as we assess history. (How would Churchill have handled Brexit and the rise of populist nationalism?) But they are unanswerable and have the effect of denigrating great players.

That out of the way….Nadal would have rolled Borg. Sorry. It’s disrespectful. It’s recency bias. It’s dismissing the limitations of 1980s technology. I know, I know. But come on. Look at what we are comparing. Their physiques and their physicality. The action their ball generates. Lefty versus righty. The risks they took. Go back and watch a YouTube clip and consider what would happen if Borg—even armed with a Babolat stick and Luxilon—had served to the middle of the box like this?

Again, I write this with full self-consciousness. But, as a species we are meant to evolve. Sprint times and swim times get smaller. Major League pitchers, collectively, throw faster. The average weight in the NFL is (we can argue why this is so) comically greater than it was in the 1980s. Nadal beats Borg. And something would be wrong if it were otherwise.

Are you really surprised that Sharapova's retirement was not celebrated the way Wozniacki's was? Even if you put all the meldonium ban aside, they are the exact opposite when it comes to how they had formed relationships within the tennis circle. Wozniacki seems to have made a lot of friends and they were there to wish the best for her future. One needs to nurture friendships to have the kind of goodbyes that Wozniacki got. Wozniacki went through the retirement process on court. She let people in on her feelings during the whole time. It takes courage to bear your feelings and know that you are among your friends and well-wishers to do the way Wozniacki did it. Sharapova wrote a Vogue essay to announce retirement. That is like putting a wall between her and the world. It has helped her to have the kind of career she had. She can't make her colleagues feel affection for her, when she has repeatedly said she was not there to make friends. We can all respect her accomplishments, but no one can demand affection. If you have nurtured your relationships with affection, you can hope to get it back.
Jay Jayanna, San Diego, Calif.

• Fair points all. And, yes, if Sharapova had retired at a major, she would likely have received a warmer reception than when she did so writing a first person essay for a non-sports publication. (I would add that this also meant she did not have to face any questioning in a press conference and avoided all the uncomfortable What-are-you-taking-to-address-all-these-health-maladies-now-that-meldonium-is-banned? questions)

I’m an avid reader, and tennis player for 30 years. I’m also a nurse here in Seattle, and I can tell you firsthand this scare is real and growing—mandatory OT shifts, and restrictions on visitors, plus screening of workers. I wonder what the impact will be or already is on upcoming tournaments? It’s known that COVID-19 thrives in public gatherings. Have you heard anything?
Jon B., Seattle

• Jon sent this a few days before the IW announcement. NPI: it’s a fluid story.

Jon, so I was watching a bit of the Monterrey Open yesterday on TC. Somehow, Astra Sharma had never been on my radar before, hadn’t seen her play. After watching for about an hour, I came to an important realization… Astra Sharma is one killer tennis name!! Sounds like a superhero. But of course it pales to the greatest, most rock-solid names of all time: Tornado and Hurricane Black. I mean, in the Hall of Fame of Cool Athlete Names? They have their own wing.

Now for a serious question: Three major sets for women vs. five sets for men. I’m pretty much with you on this one… If the match is good and enjoyable, who cares how long or short it is. I’ve read all the writers’ and fans’ observations and explanations as to why they think it is that way. I buy some of it; some I don’t. But here’s what I’d really like to know, what is the “official” rationale from the WTA? (I presume it’s the WTA, or is it the individual majors who make this decision?) Does an official explanation even exist or is a matter of “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”? Has anyone in a tennis governing body ever written or come out and stated, for record, “The women only play three sets because we don’t feel they’re physically strong enough to last five sets,” or “We feel fans will lose interest,” or some other equally lame rationale?
Shayne Hull

a) Astra Sharma is, indeed, a celestially excellent name.
b) Root for any player with a Vandy degree.
c) Stay tuned for a Tennis Channel piece outlining rules of rooting.
d) As for best-of-three, at the risk of getting all Elizabeth Warren v/v Chris Matthews here, let’s shift the burden of proof. The onus should be on the men to explain why—at a time of maximum physicality and minimum attention spans—we insist on best-of-five over seven rounds. Not why women don’t.

Shots, Miscellany

This week, just one memorable release in case you missed it:

• INDIAN WELLS, Calif., March 8, 2020 – The Riverside County Public Health Department has declared a public health emergency for the Coachella Valley after a confirmed case of coronavirus (COVID-19) locally. As a result, the 2020 BNP Paribas Open will not take place at this time due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and the safety of the participants and attendees at the event. This is following the guidance of medical professionals, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and State of California.

“There is too great a risk, at this time, to the public health of the Riverside County area in holding a large gathering of this size,” said Dr. David Agus, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. “It is not in the public interest of fans, players and neighboring areas for this tournament to proceed. We all have to join together to protect the community from the coronavirus outbreak.”

“We appreciate the proactive stance tournament organizers are taking to ensure public health and safety,” said Martin Massiello, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Eisenhower Health.

“We are very disappointed that the tournament will not take place, but the health and safety of the local community, fans, players, volunteers, sponsors, employees, vendors, and everyone involved with the event is of paramount importance,” said Tournament Director Tommy Haas. “We are prepared to hold the tournament on another date and will explore options.”

Any patron who has purchased tickets directly from the tournament may request a refund for the 2020 tournament, or a credit for the 2021 tournament. Patrons can visit to request a refund or credit.