As the 15 chartered planes transporting more than 1,000 players and team members began to land in Australia this past week, many athletes punctuated their arrivals with a stream of statements expressing deep gratitude towards Tennis Australia, the Victorian Government and the Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley, for making the event possible.
That heartwarming honeymoon did not last long. There were no positive messages on Saturdaymorning as two groups of players were confined to their rooms for 14 days. The tournament begins on 8 February, meaning those players on the affected flights will be restricted to little more than a week of practice.
The ruling came after a coach and a flight attendant on the charter flight from Los Angeles and one person on a flight from Abu Dhabi tested positive for Covid-19.
It meant 47 players and 143 travellers have been confined to their rooms, including Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Angelique Kerber, Kei Nishikori and Britain’s Heather Watson.
There were further murmurs after the fitness coach of the Serbian Filip Krajinovic, who is Novak Djokovic’s training partner in Australia, tested positive for Covid-19 after his flight to Adelaide. According to the Serbian journalist Sasa Ozmo, he was cleared after antibodies were found.
The players have understandably been expressing their dismay. Part of the reason why negotiations were so complex was the predicament of players being able to maintain their physical conditioning before a slam. The compromise decided on was a “modified quarantine” with players allowed to practice for five hours per day under strict conditions.
Nearly 50 players are now in a position where they could be risking injury by competing if their preparation is not sufficient.
“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,” said Alizé Cornet on Twitter.
Much of what has occurred was already known. Transporting so many people from countries where the virus continues to rage was always likely to yield positive tests. A negative within 72 hours of a flight does not mean that someone will not test positive two days later. Coronavirus exposure on planes or elsewhere does not fit neatly into zones, particularly not when one of the positive cases was a flight attendant.
There has been minimal sympathy for players from some quarters, which has not been helped by the perception that some athletes are entitled, particularly due to the frequency some use social media to vent and complain during their travels. On Saturday, some players answered the criticisms with defiance.
“I have no issues to stay 14 days in the room watching Netflix,” said Sorana Cirstea on Twitter. “Believe me this is a dream come true, holiday even. What we cant do is COMPETE after we have stayed 14 days on a couch. This is the issue, not the quarantine rule.”
But there are inherent risks in not only whisking so many people around the world to a tournament, but doing so all at once. One small outbreak could have a dramatic effect on the community, threatening to undo the collective work of Australians. The tremendous efforts and sacrifices of the inhabitants of Victoria, which endured more than three and a half months of lockdown in order to drag its new community infections to zero, must be maintained at all costs. There should be no Australian Open if the organisers waver from that priority.
What i don’t understand is that, why no one ever told us, if one person on board is positive the whole plane need to be isolated??♀️ I would think twice before coming here
— Yulia Putintseva (@PutintsevaYulia) January 16, 2021
The questions are already piling up. The Australian Open had only just navigated the first negative headlines after Tennys Sandgren, who was on the contaminated Los Angeles flight, decided it was a good idea to live-tweet the frantic minutes following his positive test. He was eventually cleared to travel after his positive test was deemed to have been triggered by residual virus from when he was infected in November. The damage, however, was done. The news of a tennis player testing positive for Covid-19 with minimal context was always going to be alarming.
The mere presence of the world’s leading tennis players in the country continues to be a deeply contentious issue. While some Australians are still stranded abroad and others are partitioned by domestic border closings, international athletes have sauntered into the country. It is jarring. The show, though, will plough on and considerable work has been put into making an event of such a grand scale function, but these events offer a reason to wonder whether this is all worth it.
For the lower ranked players, there is one source of sympathy. This tournament has served to further underline the preferential treatment afforded to the elite, even when all players are theoretically in the same position. A dozen of the most prominent players were sent to Adelaide, which has allowed them to travel with their bigger teams and in greater luxury.
As Naomi Osaka posed with her four team members, Djokovic held a pleasant conversation with a Serbian fan from his balcony and Daniil Medvedev gave a glimpse of his hotel suite, others prepared for two weeks stuck in their still pleasant hotel rooms with no fresh air and just an exercise bike to keep them company.
“You know players from another hotel?” said the world No 99, Marta Kostyuk, on Instagram. “Their windows open.”