From Indian Wells cancelled to Indian Wells rebooted: The 11 unpredictable moments that shook the tennis world
From bubbles to masks and protocols, the emergence of new stars and some serious issues, the tennis world now looks a lot different now than it did in March 2020
In 2020, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was, as usual, expected to be one of the highlights of the tennis season. Scheduled to start on March 9, the field was stacked. The top-ranked players in the world were all expected to be there, from the world No 1s Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty downwards.
There were, obviously, some withdrawals due to injury – notably defending women’s champion Bianca Andreescu, who had been struggling with fitness for months; Simona Halep, who had a right foot injury, and Angelique Kerber, who had a problem with her left leg. Roger Federer was still recovering from knee surgery, so he was unable to be there, and Kei Nishikori had an elbow issue. Closer to the event’s scheduled start, there were some late withdrawals – Guido Pella pulled out, to be replaced by Jannik Sinner, for example.
Still, there were wildcards on offer – all five of the men’s ones went to Americans, including Jack Sock and Brandon Nakishima; five of the women’s did too, with Caty McNally one of the beneficiaries, but Kim Clijsters and Leylah Fernandez, ranked 118 by the time the tournament was due to start, were also given one.
The tournament was cancelled on March 8, 2020 due to concerns over the growing Covid-19 pandemic.
The tennis tours closed down for the next several months until international travel was once again possible. By the time Indian Wells returned to the calendar again – in an autumn slot having decided to pass up its usual spring spot for 2021 – the tennis world looked very, very different. Here’s how.
1. Wimbledon cancelled – completely
This one really hit home. Roland-Garros went for an autumn spot on the calendar, shortly after the 2020 US Open, bringing its own challenges but the Wimbledon organisers opted not to hold their event at all, for the first time since the Second World War.
2. The ball boys and girls not delivering towels anymore
Each tournament has different rules, but pretty much everywhere is thinking very carefully about how to protect players, staff and fans from Covid-19. Initially this was by hosting tournaments behind closed doors, as seen at the 2020 US Open; masking up indoors is compulsory in many places; and it’s also brought in a rule change many had been calling for over a number of years, with ball kids no longer required to handle players’ towels.
Although some players have been vocal about the need for widespread vaccination in order to develop herd immunity – Andy Murray and Victoria Azarenka notably among them – others have been much more reticent. With tight tournament bubbles, it has not caused too much of a problem, so far, but with Australia’s borders closed to international travel at the moment and mandatory vaccinations being phased in, it may well come to a head before January’s Australian Open.
3. Tennis rules being completely reshaped for a new competition
One of the nadirs of tennis’s pandemic so far was the Adria Tour, Novak Djokovic’s brainchild, in which social distancing was thrown out of the window and unsurprisingly half the player roster ended up catching Covid.
That was tempered by the successful launch of Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS), Patrick Mouratoglou’s brainchild, in which matches are split into quarters, coaching is encouraged throughout, and the pace is fast. The four editions so far have featured an all-star line-up including Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Matteo Berrettini.
4. A players’ union launched, independent from the ATP
With the tennis tours on hiatus, the biggest names in the game broke one of the biggest taboos – and suggested it was time for the WTA and ATP to consider a merger – or at least work together. Roger Federer was the one who broached the subject, posting on Twitter: “Just wondering, am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?”
And Djokovic made his own bid to change the sport’s governance when he established the Professional Tennis Players’ Association alongside Canadian Vasek Pospisil, as an alternative voice to the ATP Players’ Council. Although all the initial members were men, there have been mentions that the women might be joining at some point in the future.
5. Big Three’s stranglehold now smashed
The Big Three’s monopoly was broken at the 2020 US Open after Djokovic’s disqualification opened up a route to the final for Alexander Zverev, who was beaten by Dominic Thiem 2–6, 4–6, 6–4, 6–3, 7–6(6).
And a year later, Daniil Medvedev also won his maiden Slam, beating Djokovic in straight sets 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
6. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic now tied on 20 slams
In March 2020, Federer was leading the all-time Grand Slams list with a 20-19-17 lead over Nadal and Djokovic. But with Nadal adding another French Open title to his tally in 2020 and Djokovic picking up two Wimbledon titles and a French Open crown, each of the Big Three are now sitting pretty at the top of the record charts, with 20 majors each. Since the pandemic began, Federer has played just two of the six slams to happen, with his best run a quarter-final at Wimbledon, while Nadal has been there for just three, with just one semi-final to his name in that time.
7. Swiatek and Raducanu: fearless teens rip up the rule book
Iga Swiatek, the 19-year-old from Poland, blazed a trail through the autumnal Roland-Garros of 2020 to lift her first Grand Slam title. (Although she couldn’t defend her crown seven months later, it was taken by another first-time winner, Barbora Krejcikova.)
And Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez put on a real show as they tore it up at the 2021 US Open – with the teenage Brit coming through qualifying to lift the title without even dropping a set.
In March 2020, Swiatek was No 49 and Raducanu was No 333 in the WTA rankings.
8. Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff find their political voices
The Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 was supported publicly by tennis stars. As Naomi Osaka returned to the scene of her first Slam victory in New York, she wore a different mask on to court for each match, emblazoned with the name of a victim of police violence. Coco Gauff, too, was stepping up and making speeches at public rallies. Then aged just 16 years old, she told a Florida crowd that she was demanding change, and that they too should have “tough conversations” and use their voices – and that racism was a problem that involved everyone.
9. No media for Osaka because of mental health issues
Osaka won the US Open in 2020 and Australian Open in 2021 to take her Grand Slam tally to four. But within the space of a year, Osaka had stepped back from tennis. She had refused to do the mandatory media conferences at Roland-Garros, eventually withdrawing from the tournament entirely, and ultimately decided that playing tennis every week and being in the spotlight was not conducive to good mental health. She revealed at the 2021 US Open: “I feel like for me recently when I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
She will not be at Indian Wells in 2021 – but has happily hinted more recently that she is missing tennis and hopes to return to competition soon.
10. Serena Williams, now aged 40, still chasing Margaret Court, Grand Slam history
Serena Williams turned 40 in September and time is surely running out on her bid to equal, and then pass, Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. The American reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open in February but has been beset by injuries of late and she’ll need something special to happen if she’s going to equal Court in 2022. Not that you would put anything past Serena, even if her ranking has fallen to No 41, as of October 4, and even if her last Grand Slam final was in at the US Open 2019, since when she has made just two semi-finals.
11. Indian Wells preparing for a very different tournament
Leaving aside the unique timing for this year’s BNP Paribas Open, it will be a very different trip to the desert. None of the Big Three will be there at all, and nor will world No 1 Ash Barty.
Some of the big names in the women’s draw are relatively new ones. Swiatek – ranked world No 48 just before the 2020 edition was due to take place – is now the world No 4; Aryna Sabalenka, outside the top 10 in March last year, is the world No 2; and Raducanu, now ranked world No 22, was the world No 338 when she played her first match at Wimbledon just three months ago.
And there are some names to watch in the men’s draw too. Teenager Carlos Alcaraz won his first senior title in 2021 and reached the US Open quarter-finals, having only broken into the top 100 in May. Jannik Sinner – now world No 14 – won’t need to wait for the withdrawal of a higher-ranked player this time round, either.
Some things, however, stay the same – with Kim Clijsters once more ready to continue her second comeback from retirement courtesy of a wildcard into Indian Wells.
And – all being well – Indian Wells will return to its usual place in the calendar in 2022, in six months’ time. With question marks over the future of the big three and with a new generation of exciting teenagers on the women’s tour, who knows what tennis will look like by then?