Tennis paradise paralyzed: players echo shock, sadness at Indian Wells

Tennis paradise paralyzed: players echo shock, sadness at Indian Wells

As Vasek Pospisil and Belinda Bencic explain among others, adjusting on the fly has been a trying process for everyone impacted by the unforeseen alternative—and unknown immediate future—caused by the coronavirus.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Usually when driving along Miles Avenue this time of year, the entry point to the BNP Paribas Open flows with an endless line of cars. Miles extends beyond its name, as fans from the area and all over the world follow signs for general parking, before pouring in to soak up the Palm Desert’s take on tennis paradise.

But this week, indicators on how to park are nowhere to be found. Temporary placards instead flash, “TENNIS EVENT CANCELLED.” The best players in the world are not converging to launch the first combined U.S. tournament on the calendar. Paradise has been paralyzed, evoking widespread emotions of confusion, sadness and shock.

On Sunday evening, event organizers made the decision to pull the plug on staging the event after a coronavirus case in neighboring Rancho Mirage was confirmed. Immediate reactions from the tennis community were blasted on social media, with several players finding out for the first time via Twitter.

Andrew Heitzman/Tennis Channel

Respective player council members from both tours were in emergency meetings. They too didn’t have much notice to prepare for the stunning outcome and its subsequent reverberations.

“The player council didn’t get to weigh in at all. We were just told very abruptly that the tournament was cancelled,” Vasek Pospisil told Tennis Channel. “We were given a 15 to 20-minute heads up that these discussions were being had and there was a possibly of a cancellation, and suddenly it was cancelled. We haven’t had any dialogue with the officials. Once they made the decision, they welcomed our feedback at that point. Now we’ll be discussing it the next couple of days in terms of what the fallout effect is and what the best solutions are moving forward.

“It's kind of a weird situation, because you also understand the gravity of the coronavirus and you need to respect that. At the same time, I think it’s just a confusing time for everybody. Emotionally it’s tough to really pinpoint how we’re feeling because it’s out of our control.”

Countrywoman Bianca Andreescu, the defending champion, had already withdrawn due to a lingering left knee injury that's kept her out of action since the 2019 WTA Finals. On the road with her mom, Maria, and dog, Coco, the 19-year-old stuck around in Palm Springs to fulfill other commitments previously arranged.

“I was pretty shocked. All of us tennis players want a chance to compete at every tournament," the reigning US Open winner said. “But I know that everyone [who] made that decision made the right decision because health is No. 1.”

Fellow Canadian teen Felix Auger-Aliassime was struck by the lifeless energy. Driving past Stadium 1 on Monday evening, Auger-Aliassime noticed the vivid lights were nowhere to be found, getting his first taste of what the area looks like when tennis isn’t the main attraction in town.

“I was obviously very sad and disappointed. It’s one of the best tournaments during the year,” said the world No. 20. “It’s [usually] such a good atmosphere. The whole city comes together, people from all over the world come, and it’s pretty sad we can’t have this event going.”

Andrew Heitzman/Tennis Channel

WTA No. 8 Belinda Bencic hadn’t yet reached her final destination when news broke. After traveling for 18 hours, the Swiss arrived in Denver and was set to board her connection to Palm Springs. Like many of her colleagues, Bencic initially felt stunned. After visiting the site the past two days, Bencic echoed Pospisil’s description of the circumstances.  

“The overall vibe is pretty weird. Obviously before the tournament, you’re really nervous and excited and you kind of can’t wait to start. And now, this excitement kind of fell down and everyone is too relaxed, I would say,” Bencic said.

At one point, that level of relaxation Bencic expressed was tested. Early Monday afternoon, a middle-aged man arrived by bike to Tennis Channel’s off-site tent. He peppered our team with a range of questions, from the best way to enter the Indian Wells Tennis Garden to which players we had encountered. Two colleagues explained that the event had been cancelled and there was no access to the grounds, but he continued to push.

A security officer quickly picked up on the escalating concern and drove over to step in. As he reiterated the current state of affairs, the bicyclist’s tone noticeably shifted after asking if this happened due to the coronavirus.

“This event is on my bucket list. I want to see it!”, he barked.

Andrew Heitzman/Tennis Channel

We found the same man trying to push his way onto the premises a few hours later. As a result, safety measures were upgraded. Our area now had a roving officer. Local residents who were previously permitted to walk their dogs, or knock out a morning run around the empty parking lots were absent the next day. Adjusting on the fly has been a trying process for everyone impacted by the unforeseen alternative, and unknown immediate future.

“Everyone is hanging around training but not really knowing how hard they should train, because we don’t know when the next event is,” said Pospisil. “At least from my perspective, it’s tough because I was training pretty hard getting ready for this event. Now we don’t really how many days we have until the next one and where it will be.”

The 29-year-old is among the group of players staying put through the end of the week, along with Bencic and Aryna Sabalenka. Outside of striking a balance with preparing for the possibility of the Miami Open moving forward as planned, Pospisil will use the unexpected free time to spend with his parents. Taylor Fritz, who learned he wouldn’t be playing this tournament on his way back home from a workout, will also be taking advantage of the lighter workload. 

“My plans are to just go back to L.A. and take a little time off,” he said. “It’s something that we don’t really get a lot of on tour. [I’ll] keep up with the training if they’re going to play Miami.”

Indian Wells will put on hold until later in the year, or 2021. Rain further dampened the gloomy mood Tuesday afternoon, but as Pospisil reminded everyone during his visit with Tennis Channel’s production team, there could be worse places to hang around than the Palm Desert with a situation completely out of his­ hands.