Suspension of Pro Tennis Season Had To Happen Now

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

As the tennis world grapples with the domino effect of the coronavirus pandemic, an issue full of enormous scale and human impact – where the current situation is very fluid – its various governing bodies have had to react to unprecedented circumstances in postponing or canceling pro tennis tournaments throughout the world. It had no other choice.

Sunday night, the plug was pulled on the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., one of the world’s biggest and most significant tennis tournaments, after public health officials in California declared a health emergency in Riverside County, which includes the city of Indian Wells. While it was one of the first major U.S. sporting events to be cancelled, it would merely serve as wake-up call to what was still to come across America: cancellation of the NCAA national basketball championship tournaments for men and women, suspension of the National Basketball Association season, and a delay to the start of the Major League Baseball season. The coronavirus pandemic is affecting many other international sporting events and, it seemed just a matter of time before it would affect more than just one ATP/WTA combined tennis tournament.

On Wednesday, the ITF postponed the Fed Cup Finals in Budapest and Fed Cup Playoffs scheduled throughout the world set for mid-April following Hungary’s decision to limit indoor public gatherings to 100 people or less. Then, on Thursday morning, Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez of Miami-Dade County (in Florida) announced the Miami Open would not be held as scheduled from March 23 to April 5 because of the on-going concerns of the coronavirus outbreak.

Finally, after reacting instead of being proactive, the ATP Tour announced it had shut down professional tennis for six weeks. At 2:32 p.m. (GMT), ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi announced a six-week suspension of the men’s professional tennis tour effective immediately due to the health and public safety concerns over COVID-19.

“This is not a decision that was taken lightly,” said Gaudenzi in a statement.

“It represents a great loss for our tournaments, players, and fans worldwide. However, we believe this is the responsible action needed at this time in order to protect the health and safety of our players, staff, the wider tennis community and general public health in the face of this global pandemic.

“The worldwide nature of our sport and the international travel required presents significant risks and challenges in today’s circumstances, as do the increasingly restrictive directives issued by local authorities. We continue to monitor this on a daily basis and we look forward to the Tour resuming when the situation improves.”

All tournaments on the ATP Tour and ATP Challenger Tour are cancelled until April 27. Besides Indian Wells and Miami, other ATP Tour events that won’t go on as scheduled include: Houston, Marrakech, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Budapest. The start of the European clay season is severely affected by Thursday’s announcement.

“We were looking forward to hosting another world-class event, but our priority remains the health and safety of everyone involved in the Miami Open, including the South Florida community,” said James Blake, Miami Open tournament director. “As a former player and now tournament director, I understand how disappointing it is for the players, fans, partners and tournament staff who worked tirelessly to get the site ready. We thank everyone for their understanding and support and look forward to returning to Hard Rock Stadium March 24-April 6, 2021.”

Shortly after the ATP issued its statement, the ITF followed suit and suspended its tournaments until April 20. Surprisingly, the WTA did not make a formal statement on the status of its future tournaments at the same time as the ATP and ITF. However, WTA spokeswoman Amy Binder told the Associated Press that currently, the women’s tour is “not looking to” impose a six-week tour suspension the way the ATP did. In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, Tennis Channel Live reported that WTA chief executive Steve Simon notified players via letter that “any player who is not based in the USA should travel home or to their home base as soon as possible to protect themselves against ever-changing travel restrictions.”

Finally, about 7 p.m. (GMT), a statement was issued by Simon in conjunction with the cancellation of the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C., which was scheduled for April 4-12:

“There isn’t anything more important than protecting the health of our players, staff, volunteers, and fans who attend our events, along with the general public. We are disappointed but the decision has been made in the interest of public health and safety, which is the top priority. The WTA, working alongside our player and tournament leaders, will make a decision in the week ahead regarding the European clay court season.”

According to the Charleston, S.C.  Post and Courier newspaper, the economic impact of the cancellation of the Volvo Car Open “is considerable at an estimated $30 million per year.” The week-long tournament usually brings in about 90,000 spectators.

Then, later Thursday evening, the WTA announced that the Copa Colsanitas, in Bogotá, Colombia (April 6-12), and a 125K event in Guadalajara, Mexico (March 16-21), were also cancelled.

As word of the different tennis governing bodies spread, players, coaches and tennis journalists took to social media to express their feelings and thoughts:

• Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, currently ranked No. 13, tweeted: “The wisest decision these days.”

Mardy Fish, U.S. Davis Cup captain, tweeted: “ATP Tour suspending season for 6 weeks. Can’t think they will start back up in Madrid and Rome and then into Paris…??? Maybe hiatus through the clay season? Unprecedented times.”

• Paul Annacone, coach and Tennis Channel analyst: “It has really been cataclysmic. I mean it’s horrible to see all these different sporting events going away. I’m very encouraged to see a lot of the actions taken and the communications by a lot of these leagues. We’re seeing them coming forward to tell us what they’re going to try to do. I think so much of it now is look and learn and wait. For our industry, it’s terrible, but safety first. All of this is new territory. The biggest thing is to stay safe and do things the right way.”

Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis correspondent, said via Twitter, “Unlike Indian Wells, no chance of staging the vent at a later time in 2020 it seems. Stadium’s main tenants – the Dolphins – and other commitments make that untenable. And obviously the chances of Indian wells being staged later in 2020 are very slim but unlike most other tour events, they have their own world-class stadium complex ready to roll when needed and an owner with particularly deep pockets.”

Abigail Johnson, British tennis writer and commentator, tweeted: “In just three days, we’ve gone from the cancellation of Indian Wells being a huge shock to the cancellation of ATP and ITF events (and surely WTA, too) for several weeks not being shocking at all. Life moves fast.”

Indeed, these are life-changing moments, but for now, our first-world fun must take a back seat while cooler heads figure out how to combat this worldwide pandemic. The health and safety of tennis players, of their support teams, of tournament event staff and paying spectators must be priority. Deciding what to do with rankings points and prize money will be sorted out in the days ahead. There will be other days to play and cheer on center court.

The heads of professional tennis did the right thing and made prudent decisions. They had to – immediately.