It was around 4:30 p.m. local time on March 8 when Petra Kvitova landed in Los Angeles. The two-time Wimbledon champion collected her bags and headed to a car, bound for Indian Wells and the first big North American hard-court event of 2020, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
Kvitova was about an hour into the three-hour journey to Palm Springs, California, when she received a message from her agent, Marijn Bal, and her press agent, Katie Spellman, telling her that Indian Wells had been canceled because of COVID-19.
“It was very weird,” Kvitova told ESPN.com via email.
Spellman, who also manages Simona Halep, had arrived a few hours earlier and, soon after, the rumors started to fly.
“There were already rumblings around site about it potentially being canceled, mainly because someone had tested positive for COVID-19 in the Coachella Valley that day,” Spellman told ESPN.com. “Suddenly it became much more real for everyone on site; the whole tournament site was set up, everybody was arriving, lots of players were there. This news was kind of breaking all around us.
“There was a huge meeting of everybody on site, including players, happening downstairs. We saw everybody come out of that meeting and then the news spread very quickly that it had been canceled. It felt like a huge shock at that point, because it was the first tournament to be canceled and the players were all on site and, yes, everybody was a little bit miffed that we’d gone all that way to be there, not realizing at the time how serious the situation was very quickly going to become.”
The speed of the decision took many by surprise. A few days before, the tournament had announced that it would be taking a number of special measures in light of the developing pandemic. Ball boys and girls would wear gloves and not handle players’ towels, while the players were advised not to take pens from fans for autographs.
Many players found out on social media and though they understood the decision, they were not too impressed by the manner in which they were told.
“It would be nice if [the] ATP Tour communicates a bit better to the players about a suspension of such a tournament when we are all here,” Argentinian Diego Schwartzman said via Twitter. “Finding out about it on social networks or WhatsApp is quite loose.”
Halep had pulled out of the event with a foot injury, so she was home in Romania. But Kvitova and many others were left to wait to find out whether the Miami Open, the next stop on tour, would go ahead or suffer the same fate. The Indian Wells Tennis Garden quickly went into lockdown, with journalists and photographers not allowed through the gates, and players and coaches were left in limbo, wondering whether to stay or go home immediately.
“Even if there was no tournament, we still had a lot of marketing shoots and everything to do, plus we had to wait and see what would happen with Miami,” Kvitova said.
For a while, it seemed that Miami might sneak in before the cull. Discussions continued behind the scenes over the next few days, but on March 11 the decision by the World Health Organization that COVID-19 was a pandemic sped things along.
On March 12, even while The Players Championship golf event was beginning at nearby Sawgrass the same day, the ATP announced that it was suspending its tour for six weeks. Miami, Houston, Marrakech, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Budapest were all canceled.
Kvitova had been doing promotional shoots for the WTA, Wilson and Nike, among others, in Indian Wells, but as soon as she heard the Miami news, she arranged to fly home.
“In those few short days there, everything changed and the world locked down pretty quickly,” she said. “We had to rush to get home and had to drive home from Vienna as our connection into Prague got canceled.”
As players scrambled for flights home, officials were holding talks behind the scenes.
“(Indian Wells) was a huge decision and we did realize the magnitude of it and how it would likely lead to other decisions,” WTA CEO Steve Simon told ESPN via email. “The tournament did everything they could and had all the conversations to see if the event could happen, but in the end it was deemed the best decision was for it to not be held. It turned out to clearly be the right decision.
“A focused and concerted effort around communication and education then followed, with all of our members. The world changed overnight with respect to the decision that was made and we had to communicate as effectively and quickly as we could to our players, tournaments, partners, staff and fans.”
The new ATP chief, Andrea Gaudenzi, said players and administrators had mulled over the idea of playing the event.
“It was something we discussed in Indian Wells because the players were already on site (but) we couldn’t guarantee the safety of people on site, not only players but ball boys, linesmen, physios, everyone who was there,” Gaudenzi told ATP Tennis Radio.
While the ATP and WTA discussed their plans, events moved forward with pace, most notably with the shocking announcement from Roland Garros that the French Open was moving this year’s event from the traditional May-June dates to Sept. 20 to Oct. 4.
That meant it would start just a week after the US Open finished, and the manner of the announcement did not go over well with the other Grand Slam events, as well as the ATP and WTA.
“It is correct that we did not receive any real advance notice of the decision,” Simon said. “But we have moved past this and I believe we are working together now in a much more constructive and cohesive manner.”
Halep, the winner at Roland Garros in 2018, was as surprised as anyone.
“Of course it was a shock to hear that it moved to September,” Halep told ESPN.com, before offering a bit of healthy realism. “So many people are worrying about Roland Garros being in September and the clashes with the calendar, but, to be honest, I think it will be great if we can even get in any tennis this year. September is still a long way away, and I think if we have tennis to play, we will all be celebrating.”
One day later, the ATP and WTA announced all tennis would be suspended until at least June 7. Almost immediately, thoughts turned to Wimbledon.
At that stage, with Britain on a soft lockdown with advisories (rather than orders) about social distancing, the idea of canceling Wimbledon still seemed a long way off. Since the first championships in 1877, the sport’s most famous event had been staged every year except during the two World Wars.
At the All England Club, though, officials had been discussing possible scenarios as early as January, including playing behind closed doors, moving dates and even an altered format. As March progressed, though, sources were telling ESPN.com that a move was too problematic. Cancellation appeared more and more likely.
But when the decision came that there would be no Wimbledon in 2020 — on April 1 of all dates — it was still a huge shock.
“That was a sad day,” Spellman said. “There’s something really sort of infallible about Wimbledon. I think we thought if there was one tournament that could find a way to be held it was Wimbledon … but that was the solidification of the long-term worry about whether there will be any tennis at all in 2020. If Wimbledon can fall, then how can any other tournament make it work?”
Unlike Roland Garros, Wimbledon had been in close touch with the other governing bodies, all of whom knew what was coming.
“We had been in consistent communication with Wimbledon for weeks leading into their announcement and there was good coordination surrounding the eventual decision reached and the timing of it,” Simon said.
“We agree that it was great coordination and compliments to the team at Wimbledon, the ATP, ITF and other Grand Slams on working together as we should. I believe we all saw the positive results that came from this well-coordinated announcement.”
Others were also given a heads-up. “We had a bit more warning that the Wimbledon announcement was coming,” Halep, the defending champion, said. “The club wrote me a nice email afterwards and explained the reason behind the decision.”
The All England Club took pains to let all of its stakeholders know what was coming before the announcement was made, at 4 p.m. that day.
Canceling Wimbledon also meant canceling the entire grass-court season. On April 11, Tennis Canada announced that the Rogers Cup men’s and women’s events, which should have been held in August, would be held over to 2021.
The US Open is still scheduled to begin on Aug. 24 and the French Open soon after, but with so much uncertainty about the extent of the pandemic, nothing is certain.
Kvitova, locked down in the Czech Republic, is not thinking too far ahead.
“(When Wimbledon canceled), that was a sad day for sure,” she said. “Everyone knows Wimbledon is very special to me. It was the tournament that motivated me to come back to tennis a few years ago, and it is always a highlight of the year for me. So for sure it was disappointing to have it confirmed. After that, with the whole grass court season going, I have found it easier just to not think about when we might be back playing tournaments and take it day by day instead.”
Though US Open officials said this week that playing with no fans is “unlikely,” talk of resuming the tours continues. Players, including Kvitova and Halep and most on the men’s tour, would rather not play without fans, but, according to Gaudenzi, nothing is ruled out.
“I think it’s extremely difficult for tennis because these people travel from all over the globe, they are not locals, and it will be extremely challenging,” he said. “We are exploring our options, including closed gates. But safety and health is the priority. If we can play with closed gates, guaranteeing everyone health and safety, then we will do it. If not, I think it’s best to probably wait.”