Like clockwork, 15 chartered flights transporting players for the Australian Open landed in Melbourne, within the 36-hour period dedicated for their arrival. Organisers of the year’s first Grand Slam, Tennis Australia had spent months haggling and fine-tuning their COVID-19 safety protocols with the Victorian Government to ensure the tournament indeed takes place. One of the measures that they had to have in place was to deal with the possibility of individuals testing positive after they land in the country.
It just so happened that as flight QR7493 from Los Angeles arrived in Melbourne, two travellers returned positive tests, and the protocols kicked in. A few hours later, there was another positive test after flight EY8004 from Abu Dhabi landed.
There were 79 people on board the flight from the US, including 24 players, and 64 passengers on the plane from Abu Dhabi, including 23 players.
The Australian Open subsequently put out similar statements, confirming that none of the three positive tests belonged to a player.
“The two positive tests have been returned by a member of the flight crew and a passenger who is not a player, who returned a negative test within 72 hours prior to boarding the flight,” read the statement after the Los Angeles flight landed.
But by being in aeroplanes for flights that lasted over 13 hours each, everyone on board became a ‘close contact.’
Since the Victorian Government made it clear that a 14-day quarantine period for international passengers was mandatory, Tennis Australia managed to arrange a provision that players would be allowed outside their hotel rooms for no more than five hours a day in order to practise and/or train. That relaxation, however, will not be extended to the players who were aboard QR7493 and EY8004.
“Unfortunately, we have been informed by the health authorities that two people on your flight QR7493 from LAX that arrived at 5.15am on Friday 15 January have returned positive COVID-19 PCR tests on arrival in Melbourne,” read a letter sent to the people on the flight from Los Angeles, which was posted on Instagram by doubles World No. 48 Santiago Gonzalez.
“The Chief Health Officer has reviewed the flight and has determined that everyone on board needs to isolate and will be confined to their rooms for the 14-day quarantine. We know this is not how you imagined your preparations for the AO would start, but our entire team is here to support you and do everything that we can to get you through this.”
A similar letter was sent to the individuals on board the Abu Dhabi flight.
In the Los Angeles-origin flight. along with Gonzalez were (but not limited to) two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens,former World No. 4 men’s singles player Kei Nishikori (who missed the US Open last year after testing positive for COVID-19), and former World No. 18 Alison Riske.
Also present on the plane was Argentina’s Guido Pella, whose misfortune continued to follow him. Ahead of the US Open, his trainer had tested positive for the virus, and since Pella was a close contact (but never tested positive), he was forced to withdraw from the build-up Cincinnati Masters 1000 event.
Meanwhile, American player Tennys Sandgren, who had tested positive before boarding the plane in Los Angeles but was allowed to travel after his case was determined as “viral shedding,” was also on board.
On the flight from Abu Dhabi was former World No. 1 Angelique Kerber, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and former World No. 4 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland.
None of these players will be allowed to leave their hotel rooms for 14 days – ending on January 29. These players, however, will be provided exercise bikes in their rooms to help them keep in shape.
One of the ways Tennis Australia hoped to reduce the risk of players contracting the virus during their journeys to Melbourne was to organise charter flights. These flights from Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore and Los Angeles, carrying no more than 25 per cent of passenger capacity, were available only for qualified players who had cleared the PCR test before the day of travel.
Players like three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray and former World No. 7 Madison Keys did not make the cut as they tested positive days before they were to travel.
But the organisers had made players aware of the possibility that there may be positive cases after arrival.
“Obviously not great, but that’s the risk we were all taking,” doubles World No. 78 Artem Sitak, who travelled on the Los Angeles flight, wrote in an Instagram post.
“(Organisers) kind of warned us this was going to be the direction of the Australian government, Australian health authorities if something like this happened. It’s just unlucky that two of them contracted the virus.”
Players get preference
To allow players to travel to Melbourne, there are reports that several Australian citizens are stranded abroad. The government has enforced an arrival cap on people travelling to the country per week.
According to ABC News, 1,505 international travellers are allowed to enter New South Wales per week, 500 in Queensland and 512 in Western Australia. The news organisation also reported that there are over 37,000 Australian citizens abroad waiting to return home.
Over 1,200 people – including players and officials – are expected to travel for the Australian Open.