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It was the day the coronavirus pandemic hit home for tennis. All was quiet the evening before qualifying was scheduled to began at Indian Wells, and then, with no notice, came a statement that the tournament had been canceled.
The news fell on the sport like a small grenade. Even players on site were caught unaware—some were practicing or warming up when they heard they now had no tournament to play.
Little had seemed wrong up until that point—there was even a Challenger event being played on site that day—but the California area had found a case the day before, prompting local officials to announce a public emergency and the tournament to cancel. It was difficult, 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.
Most of the field was already in Indian Wells, and initially wondered whether to go home and come back, or stay until Miami. But there would be no Miami, either. All ATP, WTA and ITF competition was eventually canceled for the next five months—a practically unheard-of break in a sport with an off-season of just a few weeks.
Until Indian Wells, there had been little anticipation of any serious disruption to the schedule. But from there, events began to fall like dominoes—Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome were also canceled in the coming weeks, and even Grand Slam events began to seem questionable as country upon country went into lockdown.
The tours would not return until August, with a WTA event in Lexington, followed by the Western & Southern Open that had been relocated to the grounds of the US Open. By that point, tournaments had been transformed with strict protocols, testing and often no fans in the stands.
Looking back, Indian Wells’ decision seemed prescient. No other significant sports event had been yet canceled in the United States, and the decision was surprising to many at the time. But actually, it had just been the leader.