Coronavirus and a Lost ATP Tour Season?

Due to the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the ATP Tour has suspended play for the next six weeks, wiping out the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami as well as a number of smaller tournaments. But with 56 tournaments remaining on the ATP calendar and the pandemic showing no signs of abating the question now is: how many of those events will still take place?

ATP Season Postponed For Six Weeks

Although tournament officials in Florida intended to keep the Miami Open on the schedule, even after the cancellation of the Indian Wells Masters, it always seemed an unlikely ambition. Particularly because there were two confirmed cases of coronavirus just 24 miles north of the tournament grounds in Broward County.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic on March 11th. For context, the only other current pandemic recognised by WHO is the HIV/AIDS pandemic, whilst the most recent flu pandemic was the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. It is worth noting that the H1N1 pandemic, known to most as Swine Flu, did not officially end until August 2010.

Shortly after WHO’s announcement, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus. That was enough for the NBA to suspend its season indefinitely. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has since revealed that the league’s current suspension would last at least 30 days, but there’s a chance the season will not resume at all. In Silver’s communications with NBA fans, he discussed the possibility of refunding tickets or giving ticket credits for next season. And with a second NBA player confirmed to have been infected with coronavirus, this situation is trending in the wrong direction.

Suffice to say, it’s hard to see the NBA resuming in 30 days. Perhaps a truncated season/playoff starting in mid-June seems possible, but even that might be too soon. It’s also significant that at least one online sports book, Betonline, has a bet on the NBA’s Return to Action: Next NBA Game to be Played June 1st or Sooner. The odds are slightly in favor of Yes (-150). June seems to be the target date, at best.

That left the Miami Open in an untenable position and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez took the decision to cancel the Miami Open. It’s not clear what degree of consultation there was between his office and the Miami Open organisers, but it was only after the Mayor’s statement that the Miami Open made a statement supporting the decision. Previously, the only communication from the Miami Open was that the tournament was to move forward as planned.

But one suspects that governments may come to play an increasingly important role in making decisions regarding sporting events. Italy, for example, is at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe and the government has decreed the most restrictive measures since World War Two, with the cancellation or postponement of all ongoing sporting events just one of many decisions taken by the Italian government in their fight against the virus.

On Wednesday afternoon Novak Djokovic said: “I’m currently in Los Angeles but I will take a flight today or tomorrow. Honestly I don’t know what can happen under these circumstances and I don’t know if we can play Miami or any other event until the coronavirus pandemic ends. My advice to the guys that are still in the United States is to return to Europe in the next 48 hours, or even sooner”. The Miami Open was officially “compelled to be annulled” shortly thereafter.

Did Novak Djokovic’s statement influence the Miami Open? Most likely, and rightfully so. When the world #1 says he’s flying home and suggests every other player do the same, that doesn’t bode well for the tournament going on as usual.  With WHO having just declared a pandemic, Djokovic was right to speak up for himself and the rest of the players on tour.

The question that needs to be asked is what would have happened if the Miami Open hadn’t been cancelled and Djokovic had refused to play? How would the ATP have handle a scenario where players refuse to participate in a tournament due to legitimate health concerns? What would be the protocol at Roland Garros, which remains on the schedule despite the increasing severity of the outbreak in France.

ATP Tournaments in the Near-Future

Taking the above points into consideration, below are predictions regarding the viability of play at the upcoming European clay-court tournaments.

Bavarian International, Germany, April 27 – May 03 2020

This is set to be the first ATP tournament following the six-week suspension. However, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that up to 70% of the country’s population -some 58 million people – could contract coronavirus. If she’s correct, it’s hard to imagine a tennis tournament taking place in Germany in six weeks.

Probability of Play: 0%

Estoril Open, Portugal, April 27 – May 03 2020

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa called coronavirus “a threat to survival” and declared the country on a “state of alert” until April 9th, with events held in open spaces with over 5,000 people prohibited indefinitely. Costa said yesterday that “the pandemic has not reached its peak. It is evolving and it is highly likely that in the coming weeks more people will be infected … and it could be a more lasting outbreak than initially imagined”.

Still, Portugal hasn’t been hit as hard as neighbouring Spain, and has yet to report a coronavirus-related death. This tournament might have a chance of going forward. But the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better in Portugal, making play as soon as April 27th unlikely to say the least.

Probability of Play: 10%

Madrid Open, Spain, May 03 – 10 2020

Spain is the worst-affected European country after Italy, with nearly 8,000 cases reported and over 200 fatalities. That has seen the Spanish government enact strict measures in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus with a 15 day lockdown of the country set to be declared on Monday. But despite enacting similar measures, it took China nearly three months for China to limit the spread of coronavirus across the country. As a result, it seems highly unlikely that Spain can achieve the same in just over six weeks.

Probability of Play: 10%

Italian Open, Italy, May 10 – 17 2020

The European country hit the hardest by coronavirus is Italy with 17,660 cases, 2,547 new cases, 1,266 deaths and 250 new deaths. Indeed, one Italian hospital is receiving a new coronavirus patient every 5 minutes, whilst one nurse in northern Italy said that fighting the outbreak was like being in the midst of a world war. It is surely all but impossible to imagine a tennis tournament being played in less than two months.

Probability of Play: 0%

Geneva Open, Switzerland, May 17 – 23 2020

Switzerland ranks ninth globally in terms of total coronavirus cases, just behind the United States and France. That is already a significant number for a relatively small country and with infection spreading rapidly, there is a real very possibility that the number of cases could rise exponentially in the coming days and weeks. Still, with the tournament start date two months away, this event likely has the best chance of going forward as planned. With one caveat: France. If the global situation is so bad that the Lyon Open is canceled, this tournament will also surely be called off.

Probability of Play: 25%

Open Parc Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Lyon, France, May 17 – 23 2020

French President Emmanuel Macron said “We are only at the beginning of the epidemic. Everywhere in Europe it is accelerating”. Nicolas Locker, virologist at the University of Surrey, said “It is fair to assume that what’s happening in Italy is going to be reproduced in France, Germany and the U.K. over the next weeks”.

This tournament may well get cancelled for the same reason the Italian Open; the crisis is still escalating. If the French President is correct in his assessment, his nation’s going to need about three months to halt the virus’s progression. But, on the outside chance government officials and experts are wrong, this tournament has a slight chance of going ahead.

Probability of Play: 25%

Roland Garros, France, May 24 – June 07 2020

It seems almost unthinkable to be discussing the cancellation of a Grand Slam. But there are several factors that could derail, or at least delay, the French Open. Will other major sports seasons have resumed by late May? Can officials in France guarantee the safety of players, staff and fans? What if the players refuse to fly into Paris? Those are the big questions surrounding this tournament. But with about nine weeks before the start of this tournament, as well as the magnitude of the event, if any clay-court tournament is able to go ahead, it will surely be this one. Nonetheless it is far from certain.

Probability of Play: 51%

The Lost Season?

Seven ATP tournaments have officially been suspended; seven more are in serious danger of following suit. As a result, the ATP tour will have lost 14 tournaments this season. That’s 14 out of 63 tournaments, or 22%. But although that would be an unprecedented hit for the tennis world, with the WTA likely to face the same situation, it would leave 78% of the ATP season intact. It may well be too soon to call 2020 a lost season as a result. Indeed, even if the ATP cancels every tournament through to the French Open, if it also freezes all ATP points before Sunday, March 22nd (when the Indian Wells points are set to drop), and play resumes in June, the season would still be salvageable.

Let’s hope for a lucky bounce of the ball.

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