Now that the PCR test results have started to come back, nervousness has set in among the players preparing to compete at the Australian Open. Three individuals, including 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu’s coach Sylvain Bruneau, tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Melbourne on flights from Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi. This led to all the 47 players aboard the two planes to be forced into a 14-day hard quarantine.
On Sunday, Australian channel Seven News reported that a fourth individual, aboard another chartered flight from Los Angeles has tested positive after landing in Melbourne. The number of players in quarantine till January 29 has gone up to 63 now.
This includes two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber, two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2017 and 2019 US Open champions Sloane Stephens and Andreescu, and former men’s singles World No.4 Kei Nishikori.
Tennis Australia, organisers of the year’s first major, had secured permission from the Victorian Government to allow players to leave their hotel rooms for a maximum of five hours a day in order to practice and train. That luxury however, will not be granted to the 63 players who were on board the three planes that had an individual (no players) test positive.
This has led to an array of complaints from players and cases of protocol breaches have been reported.
According to Seven News, two players were caught opening their hotel room doors despite being warned not to do so. One player is said to have “opened his door to try and have a conversation with his training mates down the hallway,” said Emma Cassar, head of Victoria’s Department of Corrections, which deals with issues like public health and safety.
“You can pick up the phone and use that instead of putting yourself and other people at risk.”
Another player had opened his door to shout at “the maids and to some other people on the floor. (He) was praising himself for his great efforts, and opened his door to do so. (These instances are) very low level, but they are dangerous acts that we cannot tolerate.”
Reportedly, Tennis Australia and the state government had agreed that players may be fined up to AUD 20,000 (over INR 11 lakh) for protocol breaches. But Cassar is considering having a Victoria Police officer placed outside the door of regular offenders.
These actions have led to concerns about player behaviour. During one of the flights from Abu Dhabi, Kuznetsova had taken a photograph in which she was seen without her mask – as it turned out, there was a positive case on that flight.
Unable to leave their rooms, players have started working out inside with whatever equipment they have. Doubles specialist Santiago Gonzalez has put up videos on his Instagram account where he’s seen doing crunches and other body-weight exercises.
Vasek Pospisil of Canada has been working with resistance bands, Alison Riske used a carton of bottled water as weights, Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva has been using a wall to hit a ball against, and Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas has simulated surfing on his bed. Amidst the social media posts, there have been complaints about slow Wi-Fi, or even no internet. Fabio Fognini and US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta have complained about the food, and Putintseva has published a video of a mouse in her room.
Frustrated at being forced into a hard quarantine, World No.28 Putintseva posted on Twitter: “What I don’t understand is that, why no one ever told us, if one person on board is positive the whole plane needs to be isolated. I would think twice before coming here.” Her sentiment was echoed by Romania’s World No.71 Sorana Cirstea. “If they would have told us this rule before I would not play (in) Australia… I would have stayed home. They told us we would fly at 20 percent capacity, in sections and we would be a close contact only if my team or cohort tests positive.”
‘We are still lucky’
Amidst the complaints that players were uninformed and are being treated unfairly, New Zealand’s doubles specialist Artem Sitak posted a video to put matters “into perspective.” “We had a call with Tennis Australia about a month ago, and not a lot of players were on that call, which was surprising to me,” said the doubles World No.78, who was on board the flight from Los Angeles that had two positive cases.
“Tennis Australia and the organisers told us the risks that we were going to be undertaking and they did mention that if somebody tests positive on the flight it will be up to the health authorities to decide whether they want to quarantine the whole flight or isolate compartments of the plane.”
Big-serving World No.25 John Isner had decided to skip the Australian Open due to the COVID-19 protocols in place. “I think we need to put some things into perspective,” added Sitak. “A lot of Australians cannot get back home because of restrictions and we as foreigners, over a 1000 people, are here in Australia, we are going to be competing in a Grand Slam, earning a lot of money. We are still lucky to be here.”