Site Unseen: A Lament for the Untelevised Early Rounds at Indian Wells

The Indian Wells Outer Courts, scene of many unwitnessed classics.

The main draw matches at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells are scheduled to commence today, which is to say on Wednesday morning local time. Even as I write, the men’s qualifying draw – dense with fascinating matches – is slimming down to an even dozen. The women’s qualifying draw is already there.

Television coverage is due to begin on Friday, provided initially by the Tennis Channel. In the dreary parlance of marketing, we are informed that this is ‘one day earlier than the network’s traditional first-Saturday start’, ‘tradition’ in this case being employed capaciously to denote anything that previously happened for any length of time at all. For the arithmetically challenged, this radical new Friday start will occur fully two days after main draw play begins. I’m not the first person to note this discrepancy, and I won’t be the last. Nor would I be the first to suggest that the decision to delay coverage until the third day of play isn’t driven by money.

In any case, pointing it out is redundant, since no one, including the networks, is pretending otherwise. Instead we’re left to bask in the rapturous news that ‘the tournament will culminate with 12 live hours on ESPN networks’. One cannot elude the impression that the fans are supposed to be grateful. Any fans particularly overcome by gratitude are encouraged to call up the network and let them know.

However, it is debatable whether the main draw really begins today. Indian Wells, like Miami, doles out an extravagant selection of byes: all thirty-two seeds are granted safe passage to the second round, the point at which Andy Murray ‘traditionally’ loses. This is precisely one third of the main draw (which is 96 strong). The remaining 64 players – qualifiers, wildcards and those unwashed members of the top hundred whom Ernests Gulbis cannot pick out of a police line-up – are left to vie for the privilege of facing a seed. By this rationale, the Indian Wells first round is really just a supplementary or transitional qualifying round. In order for a seeded player to win the title, he or she must win six matches. A non-seeded direct entrant or wildcard must win seven matches. Qualifiers must win nine matches. It doesn’t seem fair, but, once again, I assume that’s the point.

The goal of seeding is to protect the best players from having to face each other early on, thus limiting the opportunity for upsets. A little over a decade ago the seeding in 96 (and 128) player draws was expanded from sixteen to thirty-two players, which provided added protection. The bye system provides even greater protection. Even without a bye it is eminently unlikely that, say, Victoria Azarenka would lose in the first round, but the bye removes any doubt whatsoever, thereby transforming a theoretical unlikelihood into a practical impossibility. For the general sports fan – who really just wants to see the most famous players facing off – this probably isn’t a bad thing.

More to the point, it isn’t a bad thing for ESPN. Those twelve hours of semifinals and finals coverage that we’re supposed to be grateful for didn’t come cheap. ESPN will do everything it can to guarantee the best return on its investment, and from their point of view the best return is to have Federer, Sharapova, Nadal, Williams, Djokovic and Azarenka present at the tournament’s conclusion. (Williams of course won’t be at Indian Wells, and you can be sure that the presiding television interests aren’t thrilled about that.) The only exceptions are if a local player makes a deep run. Last year’s men’s event was thus pure spun gold: Federer and Nadal in one semifinal, and Isner defeating Djokovic in the other. Each protagonist was recognisable to a general sports fan, and the narrative of local boy making good is always compelling.

And it’s those general fans that provide ESPN’s revenue, which has invested considerable time and effort grooming Chris Fowler in order that he can render the eldritch intricacies of the sport comprehensible for the layperson. In and of itself, there’s no inherent problem with having the best players contest the later rounds at every tournament. Some may (justifiably) contend that seeing the same few players fight for titles each week grows stale. On the other hand, the freshness gained by seeing a new face is often offset by the perfunctory thrashing they receive when they encounter an elite player. But it is a problem when the urge to see certain outcomes causes the sport to tilt results in that direction, which is more or less the tacit goal of the bye system (and, let’s be frank, the seeding system). The top players have an objectively easier time reaching the later rounds than their lower-ranked peers, notwithstanding that they’re already better players anyway.

Unlike ESPN, the Tennis Channel by definition caters to viewers with a specific interest in the sport itself, who’re willing to pay a premium to watch tennis theoretically whenever they want to (though in practice they’re often constrained by the superior purchasing power of rival networks). These are fans whose interest extends beyond Sharapova or Nadal, all the way to, say, Gasquet and Kuznetsova, and beyond. Although, apparently not far beyond. Not far enough that they’ll get to see the WTA’s first round, let alone any qualifying. Fans who are that hardcore will have to resort to alternative means, such as audio coverage through the website.

The combination of the 96 draw and a midweek start (rare in tennis) conspires to make the qualifying event feel more like a part of the tournament than is elsewhere the case. Qualifying began on Monday, which is the point at which tournaments traditionally begin – and here the term ‘tradition’ is warranted. Meanwhile having a weirdly inconsequential first round helps the qualifying tournament shade into the main one. In some ways, this would be a nice thing, if it wasn’t so effectively undone by the clear message of the television coverage, which is that the initial few days (and the men and women playing on those days) aren’t worth the effort. The three levels of fandom, it seems, neatly correlate with the three classes of players in the respective tours: the big names, the lesser names, and the unwatchables.

Sadly, the lack of early-round coverage hardly helps the lower ranked players, whose already anaemic aspirations might be starved by a lack of exposure. What Indian Wells really does is reinforce the multi-tiered system that seeding originally created, and that the expanded seeding arrangement later augmented. The television schedule then makes it clear for all the non-seeds that their necessary toils do not merit a wider audience.

The BNP Paribas Open likes to refer to itself as the unofficial fifth Slam. This is mostly a fairly meaningless marketing term, but it is only rendered more so by the consideration that the last Major we enjoyed – the Australian Open – had coverage not only from day one, but high-definition streams running through qualifying. Indian Wells certainly has the money – the prizemoney increase this year is to be heartily applauded – and the technological wherewithal. I can watch Thiemo de Bakker play Christian Garin at a Challenger in Santiago, but I couldn’t watch Gulbis play Christian Harrison in southern California. Is it too much to ask to have some cameras rolling from the outset?