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Tennis News • Covid-19 Probably Cancels Out The Clay Court Season

By Alix Ramsay

The past five days have been spent waiting for the other boot to drop.

Since the announcement on Sunday night of the cancelation of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, the tennis community has been waiting for the rest of the calendar to be torn to shreds. One reported case of the Covid-19 virus in Riverside County had wiped out a $17 million event. What next?

The second boot fell with a deafening thud on Thursday morning. First it was the ATP announcing that their tour was on hold up to and including the week of April 20. No tournaments, no matches, no nothing. Minutes later, the ITF announced that all of its events were cancelled until April 20, too. Hours later, the WTA announced that Miami had been cancelled (although the tournament had released that news long before) and so had Charleston.

This was hardly a surprise; the rumours had been circulating for 24 hours or more and tweeted pictures of players and their teams boarding international flights at LAX was something of a giveaway. They were not heading to another event; they were going home.

The suspension of the tour was immediate and it was total. This was not a ‘oh, I won’t be in Barcelona next month’ announcement; this was ‘down tools now and get yourself to a place of safety’ decree. The ATP’s statement made this clear.

“The suspension of ATP events takes place with immediate effect, meaning this week’s ATP Challenger tournaments in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and Potchefstroom, South Africa, are not able to be completed,” it said.

The ITF made it clearer still – this is a worldwide crisis and there is no time to waste. Its statement pointed out that this suspension was to take effect immediately. Within the hour.

Their statement read: “Matches currently in progress – including those subject to a rain delay – may be completed today but cannot be carried over until tomorrow. Any matches yet to be started today will be postponed.”

It was the World Health Organisation’s declaration that the spread of the Covid-19 virus was now a “global pandemic” and the US government’s decision to impose a 30-day travel restriction on  flights from European Union countries that tipped the balance. Tennis tournaments around the world had been biting their nails waiting for local advice from local health authorities (like Indian Wells waiting on a decision from the Riverside Public Health Department) but WHO and President Trump had taken things to a whole new level. Tennis was out of business for the foreseeable future.

There are many, many practical problems to be sorted out over the coming weeks, not least the matter of ranking points. The rolling calendar means that the points earned for last year’s Indian Wells will still drop from each player’s tally on March 23 but with no tournaments to play until April 27 at the earliest, there is no way to replace them. The rankings, then, will go haywire until this crisis is over. That, though, is just a first-world-tennis problem.

The outside world sees the social media posts from the top players and shrugs its shoulders. Huh. Novak and Rafa can’t play this week. Oh well.

But the Indian Wells tournament is for the very top players, most of whom are multi-millionaires. Their opportunity to add to their bank balances has been taken away by this virus but they will survive. And survive comfortably. It is the rest of the people involved who take the hit.

The tennis business is like a travelling caravan, a huge family of people roaming the globe trying to make a living. Most of us are freelance; independent contractors. When Indian Wells shut up shop, they kept the facility open for the players and provided them with hotel accommodation, food, treatment and practice facilities and promised to do this until March 16. In other words, they were looked after.

The media, on the other hand, were told that they could not return to the media room to collect their belongings. Let’s say you are a photographer. You have a lot of kit. You have locked your kit in the media complex. You cannot return to pick up your $60,000-plus worth of equipment. And you are a freelance. This is kit you have bought with your own money. Your hotel and flights have been paid for from your own account. Now you not only have no income to cover those costs, you have to negotiate with the tournament to have your cameras returned to you. Now you cannot cut and run to another job in order to pay the bills; you have to wait until you get your stuff back.

This is not the fault of the tournament; this is a fact of our new Covid-19 lives.

But we in the media, although always struggling to make ends meet and then, pray the Lord Harry, actually make a living (staff jobs with expense accounts are as rare as hen’s teeth these days), do not have it so bad. Think of the ancillary staff involved in these tournaments: the food vendors, the cleaners, the drivers, the security people, the hundreds of unnamed workers who make the event possible – they have all lost three week’s work and three weeks of pay cheques.

Years ago, a friend and I worked with a tennis magazine. We went to Indian Wells and the magazine said we could have a couple of rooms in a house the company had rented. We would have to share it with some other people from the magazine, but the rooms were there if we wanted them. So we took them. And then we discovered that we were sharing with a bunch of lads who were selling the mags and all that went with them. We called them the Box Boys because whenever we saw them, they were hefting huge boxes of magazines, posters and tennis memorabilia that the magazine company was trying to sell.

The Box Boys were young, they shared all the bedrooms and the overspill Box Boys slept on the floor in the front hall. The had invested the price of a few tanks of petrol or a handful of tenners for the bus fare to get to Indian Wells and, in return for a couple of weeks of hard work and long hours, they would make a few hundred dollars. Judging by their sartorial style, eating habits and general levels of personal hygiene (they were boys, after all), a few hundred bucks was a small fortune to them.

The tennis world is full of Box Boys. It is propped up by Box Boys and their like. And for the next six weeks at least, those Box Boys are not going to make a penny.

Similarly, pity the poor guys on the lower rungs of the tennis ladder. A young player trying to make his way on the tour, scrabbling around for those first, few, precious ranking points, is in Kazakhstan. His tournament, like all the others, is cancelled. He is thousands of miles away from home and has no money and no way of making any now that the tennis world has stopped turning. What does he do? How does he get home? He is not like Novak and Rafa – he cannot take a chauffeured car to the nearest airport and waft a golden credit card at the check-in desk to get home (the fare being tax deductible, natch).

The Covid-19 virus is affecting everyone around the world. For most of us, it is just a bloody nuisance; a flu bug that means we cannot get what we want at the supermarket and our kids have been told not to go to school. We may even have to work from home. Life is so, so bad.

(As an aside, we offer these words of wisdom: stockpiling toilet rolls will not cure Covid-19. It’s official. What it will do, however, is ensure than anyone catching you doing it will remember you, find out where you live and hate you forever. So think on: put that fourth bale of bog paper back on the shelf and leave some for somebody else.)

Tennis will survive this situation but whether the thousands and thousands of Box Boys who depend on the tennis tour as a source of income, people who cannot afford to miss a week’s income much less six, will survive is anyone’s guess.

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