Coronavirus crisis forces sportspersons to contemplate playing behind closed doors while chess and poker go online

A few days ago, some of the top tennis players in the world got together on Instagram Live—in different batches over different sessions. So World No 1 Novak Djokovic chatted with former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka while World No 2 Rafael Nadal sparred with 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and then Murray, all of them taking friendly digs at each other.

“You have been practicing for 3-4 hrs on the PlayStation,” Murray asks Nadal. “I played last night and I chose to play as you, obviously, on clay. But I played against Roger.”

“You hit against the backhand all the time?” Nadal asks, laughing.

“We, me and you, were playing unbelievable,” adds Murray. “After a set, your guy was unbelievably tired. I never saw you getting tired after one set before.”

The genesis of this part of the conversation lay in the ATP Masters Madrid Open, initially scheduled to be held from 3-10 May, but now cancelled due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the world’s best players will face off online — from their homes — from 27-30 April, trading their racquets for PlayStation 4, with the Manolo Santana Stadium recreated in the Tennis World Tour video game. The roster of participants includes Nadal, Murray, World No 3 Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils and David Goffin among others, prompting Murray’s questions on the social networking platform.

“We can play a match later,” says Nadal, from home in Mallorca, Spain.

“I would be up for that,” replies Murray, seated on a couch in his London residence. “I don’t have a character…I have to choose someone else to play as.”

“Maybe Nick,” adds Nadal, laughing while referring to Australian troublemaker Kyrgios.

Hyperactive sportspeople, used to living out of suitcases and in different continents every other week, are grappling with adjusting to the new normal, which is to stay at home and do squats to maintain fitness. Some sports, like tennis, have found a temporary breakthrough, with a tournament like the online Madrid Open.

Formula One launched a Virtual Grand Prix Series featuring a number of current race drivers. The virtual races are scheduled to run in place of the actual events, starting with the Bahrain leg on 22 March, and broadcast on the official F1 channels and YouTube. An online shooting competition was held in mid-April with about 50 shooters, including India’s next-big-thing Manu Bhaker, from seven countries participating from their homes with electronic targets.

Others are taking baby steps, like badminton, football and hockey, using WhatsApp and Zoom, among others, to share fitness and coaching tips. “Coaching is often a trading of information to educate the player or team. This is not new in hockey, with coaches providing players with online video of their own performances or of the opposition for the past three to four years,” says David John, director of high performance, Hockey India, over email.

Some sports like chess and poker — if the latter qualifies as sport — are ideally placed to go digital. Viswanathan Anand, isolated in Germany currently, will play in the Online Nations Cup from 5-10 May, having already participated in a charity event on 11 April. The $250,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational online event, suddenly put together by the world’s highest rated player to fill the stagnant space left in the calendar due to Corona, runs from 18 April to 3 May featuring eight world-class players. The EndBoss online poker tournament, with a guarantee of Rs 5 crore and a winner’s prize of Rs 1 crore, was held from 15-19 April.

“Physical tournaments are not likely to happen this year, for casinos to open, people to feel comfortable flying, sitting around a table, touching chips and cards,” says Pranav Bagai, chief operating officer and founder of Poker Sports League (PSL). “I think about 95% of poker players are already online. The amateurs will play more, depending on salary cuts etc, which will affect liquidity. For professionals, this is a good time. The online cash game space has seen a boom.”

Bagai is already working on creating an online PSL, a mini version, so that their three-season old brand continues. They are figuring out the technology so viewers are still able see the players. Prize pools will be affected because of sponsorships and live streaming, but Bagai says they are close to announcing some changes.

Chess and poker remain exceptions, because the very definition of sport involves physical movement, athletic achievements and direct competition. Technology can play a part in modern sport, but anything played online will, by default, fall into the category of eSport.
“You can do video recording and data (for other sports) to pick patterns,” Anand told this writer last November while talking about the use of technology. “Earlier tennis players used to guess by intuition. Now, you can ask the computer to analyse the last 50 forehands and find some pattern. That way chess is a perfect game for a computer.

“But there is a reason,” he added, smiling, “why a computer can’t play a sport yet.”

While the German football league Bundesliga is considering starting in early May, becoming among the first top flight competitions to resume, others remain unsure. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have announced the suspension of their tours till 13 July. The Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour plans to resume in June with the first few events being restricted or closed doors ones while the Indian Premier League cricket has been suspended without a further date.

Sports bodies are gearing up for the possibility of playing in empty stadiums, which has already happened in Europe. News agencies carried pictures of Bundesliga, UEFA Europa League and the English Premier League football matches played in empty stadiums during the first few weeks of March when the impact of Corona was still building.

The obvious question for administrators and supporters is whether sport in an empty arena is better than no sport at all. Some like the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) chief Sourav Ganguly are broadly opposed to the idea of holding sport events at this time. Others like former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia feel if the government permits, football should resume in empty stadiums. Sania Mirza, who only recently returned to competitive tennis after a maternity break, said at the India Today E-Conclave that it’s better to play behind closed doors than not to play at all.

“The first priority even for us is definitely the safety of everybody,” says India cricketer K L Rahul over a text message. “While nobody enjoys staying at home, there is a silver lining in that we get to spend a lot more time than expected with our loved ones.

“I just want to play cricket—with or without crowds. But that decision lies with the administrators and I’m sure they’ll make the right one, for players and fans alike.”

“It would be so difficult to perform in an empty stadium,” says wrestler Bajrang Punia as he prepares for the Olympics to be held next year. “Because supporters help a lot.”

Whatever the new normal may be over the next few weeks or months, sport and sportspeople might have to adapt beyond postponements and home videos of doing pull-ups.

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