Tennis’s biggest stars face threat of sanctions if they break rigorous Covid-19 protocols when they arrive this week for an Australian Open deemed by its top boss to be in need of a ‘little miracle’ to go off without a hitch.
The first Grand Slam on the calendar normally begins in the third week of January, but planning for this year’s tournament has been a logistical nightmare for the embattled organizers.
Tennis Australia initially wanted players to arrive in Melbourne in mid-December.
But restrictions on international arrivals in Victoria state have pushed the tournament’s start date back to February 8, with a series of WTA and ATP events being played in Melbourne the week before to ensure players are up to date. .
Melbourne was the epicenter of Australia’s largest second wave coronavirus outbreak, resulting in strict lockdown measures for four months.
This grim backdrop has fueled tense negotiations between government officials, organizers and players to iron out a pleasant health safety protocol for the Australian Open.
The sticking point was allowing players to train during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, but authorities eventually gave the green light and granted five-hour daily blocks for training and treatment.
Players, however, face stricter measures compared to last year’s US and French Open which were held in cities affected by the virus and will have to spend 19 hours a day in quarantine confined to their rooms. hotel.
Defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin admitted that “the situation was not the most ideal”. ” It is what it is. The rules are pretty strict, but it’s for everyone, ”she said.
There is also the threat of penalties, including heavy fines, spending extra time in quarantine or deportation, if the rules are broken.
Ukrainian world number five Elina Svitolina hired a mental trainer in an effort to deal with stress and uncertainty.
“I think during the tough times right now, mentally it’s very important to stay strong, to stay fresh,” she said.
– ‘Just crazy’ –
Six-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer’s decision to step down – breaking his record-breaking streak of 21 consecutive singles matches in Melbourne – affects the tournament’s pulling power, which was left out after suggestions which he omitted due to quarantine rules.
The 39-year-old underwent two rounds of knee surgery last year and has not played since his semi-final loss to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open 12 months ago.
“The problem is that Mirka (Federer’s wife) and their children couldn’t leave the room,” Andre Sa, Tennis Australia’s player liaison officer, told Brazilian media.
“They should stay 14 days in the room. The exception concerns only players. ”
Just days before the players arrived, organizers were forced to scramble to find more accommodation following the withdrawal of a luxury Melbourne hotel that was supposed to accommodate them.
In a late twist, it was revealed on Saturday that a contingent of up to 50 – including stars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka – would be quarantined in Adelaide with an exhibition tournament being held there. down before the Australian Open. .
This led to world number 72 Jeremy Chardy to accuse the organizers of preferential treatment.
Australian Open chief Craig Tiley admitted there would be “certain advantages” for players in the Adelaide small cohort, but said “the training conditions will be the same. “.
Tiley said the organizers’ toll has been enormous with a contingent of 1,270 people on 80 charter flights, funded by Tennis Australia, to Melbourne and Adelaide this week.
“It’s just crazy, we’ve never seen anything like it,” he told Tennis Channel.
“Logistically, pulling something like this out will be a little miracle, but we’re fine. ”
Even though Melbourne recently experienced a small new outbreak of the virus, Tiley expected the crowd capacity at the Grand Slam to be around 50-75%, surpassing the largest audience in a tennis tournament since the start. of the pandemic.
“We are doing our best to deliver an Australian Open as close as it was in 2020,” he said. “I hope there will be normality. ”
© 2021 AFP