By Dakota Busch
Imagine you are one of the top professional tennis players in the world. Just after your charter flight arrives in Melbourne, Australia, you discover someone on that flight tested positive for COVID-19. You must now self isolate in a hotel room for 14 days. You cannot go to the gym, cannot play tennis, and cannot physically prepare yourself properly for the first grand slam event of the year. This predicament is what over 72 professional players found themselves heading into the Australian Open tournament this year.
The Australian Open, which already started three weeks later than usual, forced all tournament players and anyone else associated with it to undergo a strict quarantine procedure.
According to Tennis Australia, the Australian Open’s governing body, everyone associated with the tournament was to fly into Melbourne on carefully orchestrated chartered flights from Los Angeles, Miami, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha, both sites of the Australian Open qualifying tournaments. Planes were just 20 percent full to allow for social distancing, and players, coaches, and support staff members were tested for Covid-19 before takeoff. Players would quarantine for two weeks, though they were allowed out of their rooms for a total of five hours per day to practice, do physical training, and eat at the tournament site.
“The benefit to undergoing such a strict quarantine is once it’s over, you can go out, you can go to a bar, you can go to a restaurant, you can go to the theater, you can go hang out on the beach, you can play a tennis tournament in front of fans, you can go live a normal life, or at least what we all used to think of as normal,” said Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University, in an ESPN interview.
However, when nine players on three flights tested positive for the virus upon arrival in Melbourne, that forced everyone on the three planes, including 72 players and hundreds of support staff members, into a complete lockdown for two weeks. This means that these players could not leave their rooms for more than the allotted twenty seconds given for them to grab their meals outside their doors. These players were completely self-isolated and expected to prepare for the year’s first big tournament in a regular-sized hotel room.
“I thankfully had brought a lot of my equipment with me, so the next day I started getting creative — putting some sofa cushions against the wall, I started just to see what I can do, what I can get myself busy with,” said player Victoria Azarenka, in an ESPN interview.
Besides Azarenka, this quarantine protocol forced many players to get creative to train. Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) player, Aryna Sabalenka, challenged fellow players to a window-volleying competition. According to the New York Times, several players hoisted their beds up against the wall and turned them into makeshift backboards to practice against.
World number one Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) player, Novak Djokovic, sent out a list of changes the tournament could provide to better support the players going through the self-isolated quarantine. He demanded that players in quarantine receive a reduced sentence, better food, exercise equipment in their hotel rooms and even suggested that some players be moved to houses with private tennis courts.
“People are free to provide lists of demands, but the answer is no,” said Daniel Andrews, the premier of the state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, in a public statement. “There is no special treatment here. Because the virus doesn’t treat you special,so, neither do we.”
However, some players argued that special treatment was received for the top-ranked players. Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Jannik Sinner, Serena and Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Simona Halep were initially sent to Adelaide to quarantine in apartments instead of Melbourne. In exchange, they held an exhibition for residents. Although it was more relaxed, these players did quarantine than the other players who were quarantining on the tournament site in Melbourne.
According to a New York Times article, even the players not in the self-isolated quarantine had to follow a strict protocol. After self-isolating for their first four days in Melbourne while awaiting multiple test results, players find out their daily schedule via an app the night before. Players get 30 minutes to get to and from the site, two hours on the practice court, an hour and a half in the gym, one hour to eat, all before having to return to their rooms to quarantine.
“This is the contribution that they have to make to get the privilege of when they do come out to compete for $80 million ($62 million U.S.) in prize money,” said Craig Tiley, Australian Open tournament director, to ESPN.
One of the most significant changes the tournament did this year involved new technology. Instead of on-court line judges, the tournament used live electronic line calling on every court, thus minimizing the on-site support staff. It is the first time the system was used on all courts at a major. Fans were able to attend due to Australia’s low COVID-19 cases. However, that number remained limited compared to past years. Tickets were available for three different zones, and fans had to stay in the zone they selected.
“This is normally the happy Slam,” said WTA player Elina Svitolina to the New York Times. “This year, I’m not sure. With everything happening around the world and so many people dying, it’s very sad. But we have to accept it. This year it’s going to be different. But I’m still happy to play there.”
The Australian Open concluded on February 21st, with Naomi Osaka winning the women’s championship and Novak Djokovic winning his eighth championship. The next big tournament for both the ATP and WTA is the Miami Open set in Miami, Fl, starting March 22nd.