Reading the COVID Fine Print: the Undoing of the Australian Open

The decision to go ahead with the Australian Open, the first of the grand slams of the tennis calendar, was always going to be fraught with problems.  Players journeying from designated “hot spots” of novel coronavirus outbreaks; large entourages of individuals taking up places on chartered flights even as Australians struggle to get seats to return home; and the issue of what training facilities would greet players on arrival, were all ingredients for potential cockups.

Fifteen chartered planes are involved in the project, transporting more than 1,000 players and team members.  The initial mood was optimistic, even filled with gratitude.  An important international tennis tournament could resume.  Business and sport could resume.

Then came the shaking realities. It took only a few of the flights to be compromised.  Four travellers on two of the chartered flights had tested positive for COVID-19 on arriving in Australia.  These included a broadcaster, coach and aircrew member on a flight from Los Angeles; the other, from Abu Dhabi, saw a stupefied Canadian coach Sylvain Bruneau return a positive result.  A stunned Bruneau claimed to have “followed all safety protocols and procedures, including testing negative within 72 hours before the flight departure and felt perfectly fine” when boarding the plane.

This meant that 47 players and 143 travellers would be confined to their rooms in strict quarantine for 14 days, including Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Angelique Kerber, Kei Nishikori and Heather Watson.  Another flight from Doha, Qatar also had a passenger who tested positive on January 17, meaning the quarantining of more players.

Doing so has meant that tournament participants will have a good slice of their training time cut from preparations, leaving opponents that much better off.  Swiss tennis player Belinda Bencic had the following observation: “We are not complaining to be in Quarantine.  We are complaining because of unequal practice/playing conditions before quite important tournaments.”

Bencic has a point, but from the perspective of some tennis players, reading regulations and conditions of entering both a tournament and a country are of secondary importance.  Tennis and training come first; their minders will do the rest for them, with uneven levels of competence.  The rest is just bureaucratic fine print.

This would explain the brattish quality of some of the notes coming from players now quarantining on arrival.  All of them have the same running theme: we were not told.  “What I don’t understand,” groaned Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva, “is that, why no-one ever told us, if one person on board is positive the whole plane need[sic] needs to be isolated… I would think twice before coming here.”  Romanian player Sorana Cirstea was in full agreement.  “They told us we would fly at 20% capacity, in sections and we would be a close contact ONLY if my team or cohort tests positive.”

Each player seems to have had a different reading in this feast of postmodern interpretation.  Alizé Cornet has her own.  “We’ve been told that the plane would be separated by a section of 10 people and that if one person of your section was positive, then you had to isolate.  Not that the whole plane had to.”  It would be good to have seen this in writing, and also, which body issued such instructions.

Cornet, it should be said, subsequently issued an unreserved apology, having been reminded in the indignant Twitter deluge that Victorian residents had endured conditions less accommodating than her own during the extended lockdown last year.  “I guess I feel a bit anxious about all this and I better have shut my mouth.”

The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, is clear in his mind what was furnished to the players prior to getting on their flights, resisting a stab at any tenuous grasp of reality.  “I’m here not so much to be opining about how in touch with the real world these people are.  That’s not my job.  My job is to make it very clear.  People were told what the rules were (before they got here).”

Australian Open director Craig Tilley’s account does not deviate from Andrews.  “We did make it very clear at the beginning.  That’s why we had the player groups in cohorts.  There was always a risk that someone would be positive and have to go into 14 days of isolation.”

Some of the players have even had their own ideas for what the Victorian government and Tennis Australia should do.  Perhaps the least qualified to do so, given his previous disastrous foray into COVID tennis, is the world’s number one ranked Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic, it will be remembered, tested positive for COVID-19 in June last year after organising the Adria Tour, a tennis exhibition display in Serbia and Croatia that turned sour with infections, calumny and collapse.  At the time, Tennis Australia’s Chief Operating Officer Tom Larner saw a bright side in the organisational mess: “There are a fair few learnings that have come out of that (Adria Tour).”

Some of the proposals by Djokovic, outlined in a letter to Tilley, are bound to find a receptive audience among some of the more disgruntled players.  They include, not unreasonably, adapted fitness and training material for all the quarantine rooms and appropriate meals.

Then comes the proposed loosening and adjustments that will terrify the COVID-19 strategists: reduced isolation periods for players; the carrying out of more tests to confirm they are negative; permission to visit coaches and physical trainers (as long as they test negative); permission that both player and coach be on the same floor of the hotel; then a move of players to private houses with appropriate tennis court amenities.  Melbournians with tennis courts, please stand up.

Andrews was firm and curt in response.  “People are free to provide a list of demands.  But the answer is no.”  Emma Cassar, Commissioner of COVID Quarantine Victoria, was also unmoved in rejecting the requests.  “It’s a firm no from me.”  Cassar is also proving rather matronly in her sternness of the competitors in quarantine, noting various breaches of lockdown rules that have so far taken place.  These include the opening of hotel doors to communicate with other players on the same floor.  “It is really low-level but really dangerous acts which we just can’t tolerate.”

In Australia, the tournament is also causing domestic fraying.  New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian finds it rich that Victoria maintains a closed border with Australia’s largest city, Sydney, while accepting international travellers from virally ravaged lands.  “There is nowhere in Australia currently designated a hotspot, so why shouldn’t people be able to return home?” she stated with unconcealed irritation.  “I have always been arguing for that and I think this international event highlights the inconsistency of that.”

But as the Madam Premier would appreciate, money does not merely talk, but growls.  Even in this case, her Victorian counterpart, the designated hard man and prosecutor of one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 regulations, has relented in agreeing for the tournament to take place.  The result, when it starts on February 8, is likely to be a skewed, scrappy affair.

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This post was originally published on Radio Free.