INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (Reuters) – Hordes of maskless, smiling tennis fans made their return to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden this weekend in the latest sign that fear of COVID-19 is beginning to fade.
The March tournament was the first major sporting event to be canceled in 2020 as the pandemic began to take hold and last year’s edition in October struggled to draw fans.
But under sunny desert skies, tennis enthusiasts have once again flocked to the popular event, warming the heart of tennis great John McEnroe, a man not known for his patience.
“Normally I hate traffic and I freak out,” McEnroe said on Saturday. “And there was a lot of traffic around here when we were coming in, and I was, like, thank God we have people in the stands!
“Needless to say, I think all of us that are involved with the sport are very thankful that hopefully it seems to be getting back to at least a new normal.”
Digital proof of vaccination is required to enter the grounds but there are no capacity restraints and masks are not required.
The press box is maskless and reporters are required to don them only when speaking with players inside the main interview room.
“It feels like normal for the first time in a long time,” said Kim Peterson, a Phoenix resident who was taking in the action with her husband Kevin on Sunday.
“People from all over, different accents, no masks – everybody just feels good. I don’t know if we should be that way, but it feels good that we are that way.
“Normal life, it’s great.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Rafa Nadal staged an epic third-set comeback on the main court during Saturday’s day session, which drew 30,673 fans, and the night session saw 11,785 attend.
Those numbers were approaching a return to pre-pandemic levels, tournament organizers said, adding that the absence of marquee names including Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty also played a part.
Seven-times Grand Slam champion McEnroe, who has taken up a second career as a commentator for ESPN and other networks, said he was relieved not to be working from home anymore.
“I called the last two Australian Opens from Connecticut and my apartment in New York,” he said.
“I called the last two French Opens from Malibu. So it was getting to be a little bit of a bummer. I mean, it’s nice to be able to be in your house, but it’s a whole lot different when you experience it.”
The absence of full stands at last year’s Wimbledon and US Open was particularly hard, he said.
“It was horrible for everyone involved. But we are trying to persevere, ‘we’ being the tennis community,” he said.
“So to see now people just flocking in is awesome. Everyone’s excited about that.”
(Edited by Clare Fallon)