Even at the very start of the new season, the tennis world has not been able to hide from controversy. A media frenzy has already developed surrounding the current situation at the Australian Open. Following several positive Covid-19 tests on planes arriving in Melbourne from Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, at least 72 players have had their five-hour training allowance revoked, and must now endure a strict 14-day quarantine in their hotel rooms.
The players affected by this changing circumstance include title-holder Sofia Kenin, former champion Angelique Kerber, Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori, and many other high-profile stars. As you would imagine, this decision was not hugely popular among the players, who have, in many cases, taken to social media to speak their piece. The situation has now developed into an all-out local media frenzy, dampening the excitement for what is usually a highlight in the tennis calendar.
Tennis Australia, the Australian Open governing body, were always facing an uphill battle with this year’s tournament, with Australia being one of the strictest countries when it comes to Covid-19 response. In my view, running the tournament at all is an enormous logistical feat. Allow me to bore you with the details:
Tennis Australia chartered 17 flights from all over the world for the players, coaches, physiotherapists, officials, and more. Every person on each flight had to produce a negative test prior to their boarding. Upon arrival to Melbourne, the entire cohort is to take another Covid-19 test and quarantine for 14 days in their hotel rooms, where they can mix with their team (coach and physio).
Anyone who does break any of the rules will immediately be fined $20,000 and be suspended from the tournament
They are allowed a leave of five hours daily to train; two of which can be spent on the tennis courts. Everyone involved will be swabbed daily, and the exits of the three hotels have been modified with an alarm system to ensure that nobody can leave. Anyone who does break any of the rules will immediately be fined $20,000 and be suspended from the tournament. Three meals are provided to the quarantined players and staff, as well as a daily $100 Uber Eats coupon.
Depending on where you’re reading this, your reaction may range anywhere from unbelievably impressed to infuriated. It is clear to see that a gargantuan effort has been made to make sure everything is safe; from the testing, flights, quarantining, to the court scheduling, hotel preparation, and the catering. Surely the players can appreciate this, right?
Since the positive tests and resulting quarantine, many players have complained about these conditions on social media . Some, like Sorana Cirstea, claiming that this specific scenario was not made clear to the players. World no. 28 Yulia Putintseva backed this claim, tweeting that she would have reconsidered her participation had she been aware of this possibility. More recently, Roberto Bautista-Agut has compared the experience to spending time in “jail”.
I sympathize with the players to a degree. Quarantining isn’t easy, or fun. Of course, some complaints are more valid than others. Nobody has time for Instagram stories moaning about professionally prepared, free food. Or for Bernard Tomic’s partner distressing about having to use the toilet in front of him for the first time (big step in the relationship, I hear).
However, I will spare a thought for Putintseva’s rodent problem, perhaps the most valid complaint is the issue of training. One that Novak Djokovic (who is enjoying a more relaxed quarantine in Adelaide) attempted to remedy with a letter to Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley, detailing several requests with varying levels of reasonability (These requests have been firmly denied). A player who has been subjected to this stricter quarantine is seemingly at a disadvantage to those who can practice on court every day. While this is true, it’s hard to imagine any alternative for the Australian government.
Is it fair? No, but who said anything about this being fair? How can a tournament played during a pandemic be fair? Far from me to tell tennis players how to think, but the world of sports during a pandemic needs to be viewed in context. One cannot pretend that this is a normal Australian Open. Just like how one must accept the strangeness of this year’s NBA, Premier League, and NFL seasons. This is the unfortunate nature of sport in 2021.
This is not to invalidate the genuine concerns, but it would be greatly appreciated if any of these players (or their managers) expressed even the slightest ability to look around the country which has bent over backwards to get them there.
Indeed, one wonders how these players can be so tone-deaf. I propose that this is the result of a major culture clash. Or, at least, a ‘Covid-culture-clash’. In the case of Roberto Bautista-Agut’s native Spain, there are currently over 30,000 positive tests a day. In Los Angeles, where a couple of the chartered planes took off from, the number of daily Covid cases also comfortably exceeds 30,000.
In fact, the 5 positive results from the chartered flights represent 2.5% of the entire country’s active cases
In Melbourne, however, the daily number of community transmissions is currently floating around a big fat 0. In fact, the 5 positive results from the chartered flights represent 2.5% of the entire country’s active cases.
Admittedly, there has been an exaggerated media response to all this. Not all the players have been complaining. And this whole story is sure to die down in a few days, once all the players have accepted the situation. Many have viewed this confusion and controversy as an indictment of the ruling and organization, my view is the exact opposite. The refusal to bend in the face of overwhelming pressure is in fact a testament to the steady and unwavering leadership of this grand slam.
The big question, then, is: why have this event at all? If you can’t make it fair, if there are so many logistical headaches, if there’s not the usual local excitement, is it all even worth it? I guess it remains to be seen. But if there’s one thing that we’ve seen from the world of sports in these times, it’s that the show must go on.