Australian Open 2021: Between a rock and a hard place
At least 72 players have been told to go into quarantine in Melbourne following positive coronavirus cases on their charter flights last week
As Robert Burns put it, though in a rather broader dialect in 1785, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
Tennis Australia, and in particular the director of the Australian Open, Craig Tiley, had clearly worked their socks off in the months leading up to the first Major of 2021.
With the coronavirus pandemic still raging around the world, it entailed a postponement of three weeks, the relocation of several other events to Melbourne—with some tournaments cancelled along the way—and minute negotiations with the Victoria authorities, whose primary concern was, rightly, the Covid security of its population. A population, indeed, that endured long and severe lockdowns to earn what is now a near infection-free country.
And a large tennis event poses one of the biggest challenges in sport, involving as it does a coming together of individuals from countries across the globe. In this case, well over 1,000 players, staff and officials landed in Melbourne in the space of fewer than three days on 15 chartered flights.
For some, though, the optics were poor from the start. Many Australians are still stranded outside their country due to the limited flights available for their return. Cue a social media commotion at the perceived injustice of ‘privileged’ athletes taking precedence over the national population.
In practice, the Australian Open personnel were not denying spaces to other passengers: these were bespoke flights chartered at Tennis Australia’s expense—as was all the hotel accommodation, transportation, and food.
Yet no matter all the precautions ahead of the players’ departures from Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi and Doha—and everyone boarding those quarter-capacity flights had to prove a negative test beforehand—there was always a chance that this slippery, determined virus would eat its way into proceedings.
Sure enough, five days after those flights took off for Melbourne, three of them carried passengers who later tested positive. And that has led to a strict quarantine for at least 72 players, which has entailed staying in their rooms for two weeks rather than enjoying the five hours a day of practice, training and meal-times at the tennis centre.
Among those confined are former Australian champions Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber, former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Kei Nishikori, and Briton Heather Watson.
Some players have, inevitably, taken to social media to express their despair. Some asserted their ignorance that they would be confined if someone on their flight tested positive—subsequently denied by Tiley—to unfairness between those undergoing ‘hard lockdown’ and ‘lite lockdown’, to perceived inadequacies about food and other services.
Twitter was, in the first few days, full of complaints, but many have now been replaced by more pragmatic responses, a few positive ‘calls to arms’, and even a few apologies.
Little wonder: it did not take long for the kick-back from Australians—and many others besides—to sink in.
Of course, not all the players in Melbourne are in the super-rich category, though ‘rich and entitled’ was the gist of much of the criticism. And while Round 1 losers in singles are assured of $100,000 (about £57,000), their doubles equivalents only get $30,000 (£17,000) between two. Not much change, then, had they been paying for the flights and accommodation for half a dozen for the three weeks before the actual Open begins.
As it is, the likes of Azarenka have been trying to pour oil on the troubled waters, with an open letter to her fellow competitors that said:
“I would like to ask all my colleagues for cooperation, understanding and empathy for the local community that has been going through a lot of very demanding restrictions that they did not choose… I would like to ask all of us to have respect for people who work tirelessly to try to make our lives easier… Lastly I would like for us to please try to support each other as much as someone can.”
The men’s world No1 and owner of a record eight Australian titles, Novak Djokovic, also attempted some firefighting via a different route. He reportedly sent a letter with a list of suggestions that would help the players coping with the strictest lock-down. Among his recommendations, fitness material in all rooms, ‘decent food’—though in fairness, Tennis Australia had already given an extra daily allowance to players for ordering in food—and a request for a reduced length of isolation underpinned by more PCR tests. The reported request that drew the most raised eyebrows, however, was to “move as many players as possible to private houses with a court to train”.
There were soon photos of exercise bicycles being delivered to hotel rooms—a win—but any suggestion of a relaxation in quarantine was flatly denied by Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews.
Of course, irrespective of Djokovic’s good intentions, the fact that he attempted to level the playing field from the altogether more comfortable environment enjoyed by the elite players hosted in Adelaide did not go unnoticed.
But sympathy must surely go to Tiley himself, who has undertaken countless interviews and conference calls in an attempt to keep the tournament’s head above water. In his latest Zoom interview on Tuesday, reported by The Australian, he admitted it had been “a challenging few days.” And he conceded, too, that the locked-down 72 will be at a disadvantage from lack of court time.
“I’m not too sure what the extent of the [dis]advantage will be—we’ll have to wait and see… I used to coach and I know for high-performing athletes, getting prepared takes a couple of weeks at least and longer to get to the maximum preparedness.”
His final comments did more than hint at the scale of the problems, and resultant workload, that this week has generated:
“There has been a lot going on. It has felt like we have had one year in five days… If you look back over the past five days, I don’t think any of us had grasped the difficulty we would have in managing such a mammoth task and just delivering this.”
More changes may well come: How will they attempt to level up that playing field? And is it even possible within the remaining time constraints? There are, after all, five events shoe-horned into the week between quarantine and the Open start date on 8 February.
The best laid plans, then… At least by Burns Night—25 January—the quarantine fortnight will be well past its half-way point, but will it be all downhill from there? Tiley can only hope.