18 January, 2021
Our son, David, was a professional tennis player on the ATP Circuit for 15 years until 2003. Every January we would be at the Australian Open in Melbourne supporting him: sitting on the sidelines anxiously watching match after match. David succeeded as a Men’s doubles and Mixed doubles player and won two Grand Slam titles and 19 ATP titles.
The Australian Open (AO) is one of the ITF’s four Grand Slams on the circuit and a ‘must-attend’ for every professional tennis player. Just getting into the main draw is a huge achievement. The money and points they can earn at the Grand Slams is a major drawcard for all players. The players all say they love coming to Australia and the tournament is well run. Sometimes they would play run-up tournaments in Brisbane or New Zealand or in Dubai on the way.
I need hardly explain how big an event this tournament is for Australians, for all tennis enthusiasts and for sports fans worldwide. If you did not get tickets to attend Melbourne Park, two weeks in January were spent watching the tennis on TV. The sound of the ball smacking back and forth was a backdrop to our days. We did not have to stay up until the midnight hours as we had to for the French Open or Wimbledon. The AO is our local Grand Slam.
With Covid-19 changing our world, holding the Australian Open was put in doubt. How to bring players, their coaches and their entourage to Australia safely? How to manage the crowds?
It was finally negotiated that the AO would be delayed to begin on February 8th, that players would come in early and quarantine for 2 weeks and then play. Qualifying rounds were to be held offshore in Dubai (men) and Doha (women). All teams would be tested before they leave, and when they arrived on our shores. During quarantine they would be allowed out to practice and exercise for 5 hours a day in controlled circumstances. What could go wrong?
Tickets have gone on sale with special arrangements in place. ‘The Australian Open has a new game plan to ensure the safety of everyone onsite. As part of this focus, the Melbourne Park precinct will be divided into three zones, each including one of our three major arenas. Each zone offers its own unique combination of live experiences, food and beverage and tennis action. Please note that your ticket is specific to a zone, and travel between zones is not permitted after entry.‘
It all seemed set to go ahead smoothly. Except ….
The new covid-19 strain is very infectious. Apparently three people on the first tennis-player charter flight tested negative when they left LA and were found to be positive when they landed: one crew member, one coach and one journalist. All the people on that flight have now been put into HARD quarantine. Since then, passengers on another two flights with AO players and supporters have been found to be infected and all passengers have joined the others. Now 72 players are in hard lockdown quarantine. (Some of these details are now in dispute – were the infected people really infectious or were they just ‘viral shedding’ and not infections? A fine point.)
This means, no practicing, no leaving of their hotel rooms. There is much complaining! Tennis players don’t like being confined. They have honed their skills and their training to reach peak performance at the AO, the first of the four Grand Slams. The difference between winning and losing (often after 4 hours on court for the men) might come down to one or two points. You have to be on top of your game.
And there is the money!
A first-round loser in the main draw wins $100,000 (USD 76,850). The total pool of prize money is $80 million AUD. The prize pool has increased 12% from last year. And your chances of getting past the first round are enhanced if you are seeded. Seeding depends mostly on ranking and ranking depends on your ATP points. Here is the men’s ranking.
and the women’s
Ranking depend on points earned in tournaments. More points means higher ranking and less chance of being knocked out in the first rounds. The points are accumulated and drop off when you play the same tournament the next year. Thus, all those players who did well in the 2020 AO will be defending those points this year. They don’t want to miss out.
And players are skittish. They are highly tuned physically and mentally and the idea of being subject to HARD lockdown is causing great anxiety. Based on the timing, they will have one week to get back into fitness before the tournament begins.
Novak Djokovic, the former president of the ATP Player Council, and no 1 ranked men’s singles player, has demanded that Tennis Australia provides ‘equal and better conditions for all players stuck in quarantine’.
Here are his demands:
- Fitness and training material in all rooms.
- Decent food for all players, after a number of players complained about their food on day one of quarantine.
- Fewer overall days of isolation for the players hotel quarantine, while also carrying out more COVID tests.
- Permission for players to visit their coach or physical trainer, as long as both have passed COVID tests.
- Permission for players and coaches to be on the same floor of the hotel, if they pass COVID tests.
- Relocation of many tennis players as possible to private houses with a court for their isolation period.
Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, was NOT sympathetic. He has said that the rules applied to the tennis players were the same for everyone else: that they were advised of the conditions before they left and they knew the risks. There’s no negotiating with him!
Some media are saying that the AO will not go ahead, others say it must be delayed. And then there is a vocal outcry about allowing ANY players in. After all, 37,000 Australians are struggling to get back home. Emirates airlines have cancelled all flights to three major Australian centres (they will still fly into Perth) due to ‘operational requirements’. They say it is not economical. No more Emirates. Our government is now promising they will charter 20 flights to bring Australians home. Due to arrival restriction in major cities these flights will land in Northern Territory, Canberra and Tasmania.
It’s getting more complicated each day.