By Anita Stahl

  • BNP Paribas Open returns with fewer fans, restaurants, and top billed players

INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA, USA — The BNP Paribas Open was one of the first global sports events cancelled for the pandemic. As it tries to regain footing from its temporary place at the end of the season,  pandemic mitigation protocols on site and at the borders have led to a change in the fan experience.

 

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The 2021 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is an uncanny iteration of the annual event that was one of the first major sporting events globally to cancel in 2020. With the tight tennis schedule in this Olympic year, the hard court tournament in Southern California, usually played in the spring, was pushed back to October. In the absence of some of the most popular players and international fans, the stadiums have had an eerie emptiness, compounding other subtle changes that have affected the atmosphere.

This year, even the courts feel empty. The usual lines judges replaced with Hawkeye automatic calls. Rather than a buzzer sound to call faults, operators chose recordings of different human voices making the call to be piped through speakers. The sounds are familiar, and yet the sights and experience feel off. Audiences no longer hold their collective breath as they watch player challenges appear on the screen because the human error has now been replaced with computer margins of error that are not readily overturned.

 

Stadium 1, the second largest tennis stadium in the world, feels empty without the usual international and domestic visitors that plan their annual vacation around a spring trip to the resort area. Snowbirds, Canadians who rent area homes for months at a time, are almost entirely absent under the US travel restrictions.

Many on-site restaurants remained closed for the duration of the tournament, not expecting to recoup operating costs with limited attendance. The spider camera suspended by cables over the stadium to swoop down to capture unique angles for broadcast is another absence that is not immediately noticeable but adds to the uncanny experience of attending the tournament.

The universal vaccine mandate for visitors has meant great freedom for fans who fans mingle comfortably without masks. However, because the vaccine is only available to children 12 and over, the rule has led to absolutely no children attending. The absence of little kids running down the steps with oversized tennis balls to get an autograph after the match is just one of the subtle changes to the landscape.

The vaccine mandate does not extend to players, who are kept at a distance from the press. While players still go to the usual press room after their matches, they now sit in front of a computer screen, while the press corps sit at times shoulder to shoulder in the media center using their own laptops, appearing in the zoom gallery alongside off-site press joining from all over the world.

There have been moments where the audience’s excitement to be back at the event has been palpable. When Angie Kerber played Katerina Siniakova in Stadium 3, a temporary structure that feels intimate next to the large permanent stadiums, the crowd erupted in a Mexican wave. On a third set changeover at the night match, some fans started the wave and it moved through the stadium over and over until players were at the baselines, Kerber looked around laughing and clapping as the wave dissolved into collective cheering from every corner. In a cathartic moment for all, the German was near tears thanking the crowd for support after she won that match 7-5 in the decider.

The slow return to ordinary life has not been universally civil, however. When Andy Murray played Carlos Alcaraz in Stadium 2 for an early round day session, the crowd seemed to have forgotten some of the usual graces of the sport’s spectatorship. Fans were arguing over seat assignments while ushers who were clearly out of practice in managing the crowds inconsistently enforced basic rules. Conventionally, fans can take their seats during the changeovers, but some gates were opened at the conclusion of each game while others remained closed. Crowds proceeded to stream through just a handful of gates with insufficient time and only to climb over others as they find their seats far away. Under the hot sun, the atmosphere grew impatient and uncomfortable. While one couple was getting into a vocal argument about seating inside the stadium, a woman just outside was shushed by fellow fans for too loudly asking staff to call medics for a health emergency.

The event feels much like a dry run for the 2022 tournament, when it is expected to reclaim its usual spot early in the season with the return of snowbirds, children, and the biggest names in tennis.

 

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