Deputy Sports Editor Rose Annable on the latest developments at the Australian Open.
This week the 2021 tennis season got truly underway with the first major tournament of the year, the Australian Open. As the first Grand Slam of the year, it is always a hugely important event for players looking to make a strong start to the season, and fans looking for signs of what the season is likely to hold. As such, the build-up to the tournament is usually strongly focussed on which players look to be in form, who was playing well (or not) at the end of the previous season, and speculating about who might be the dominant players for the next year. This year, however, has been slightly different. The build-up has centred not around the sport itself, but around the quarantines imposed on players on their arrival to Australia.
Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to the state of the word recently should probably not have been surprised that anyone travelling into Australia is required to quarantine on arrival. Tour level tennis players, however, have seemingly been taken aback by these requirements, resulting in complaints from many about their living and training circumstances. To some extent, these complaints are understandable. The majority of players flew directly to Melbourne, where they were required to complete quarantine in assigned hotels. Most of these players were allowed out of their rooms for 5 hours per day in order to train, however, 72 players were forced to spend the 14 day period in their rooms, with no time out to train, after being on a flight with somebody who tested positive for COVID-19. Compare this to a select number of top players, including Nadal, Djokovic, Osaka and Serena Williams, who quarantined in Adelaide, and were permitted to play exhibition matches before travelling to Melbourne.
It is easy to understand why those who have been subjected to the strictest levels of quarantine may be upset that the big names of the sport seem to be getting preferential treatment. They have not been allowed to train for two weeks, which left multiple players with just a few days before the start of the event to get on a tennis court and practise. It is worth noting, though, that a week into the tournament, it has not been clear that this lack of training has had any real impact on how matches have played out.
However, the complaints coming from players have, for many members of the public, been deeply frustrating. All players were informed of the regulations before they travelled, and indeed some decided not to attend the tournament. The impression many players have given is that they believed they would be given special treatment upon arrival, rather than accepting that the rules do apply to them. Roberto Bautista-Agut, the world number 13, complained that quarantine was like being in prison, while it was reported that Novak Djokovic submitted a list of demands for loosening restrictions, including moving players to private homes with tennis courts for training purposes.
I am sure I was not alone in my frustration at hearing Djokovic making such requests. Last year he demonstrated his lack of interest in following COVID regulations when he staged his ill-advised Adria Tour, which involved him and other players pictured clubbing, and subsequently testing positive for the virus. He has refused to accept responsibility for the event, despite being the organiser, and this reads as another sign that he believes tennis players are above the rules.
I have particular sympathy for the Australian residents who have, entirely reasonably, expressed annoyance that players have been allowed to travel into the country. Players were flown in on chartered flights, and questions have been asked about why this has been possible for them, while the thousands of Australians currently stranded in other countries are still waiting to get home.
At a time when sport is struggling, due to the complexities involved in staging tournaments, and the fact that revenue is being lost through the lack of fans in attendance, it is not helpful to have players suggesting they deserve special treatment. As we have seen in the UK recently with anger towards influencers not taking COVID regulations seriously, the general public doesn’t look kindly on rich, famous people who believe they should be exempt from rules in place to save lives. Victoria, where the Australian Open is taking place, has just gone into a snap five-day lockdown, demonstrating how seriously the Australian government is tackling the spread of COVID. The least players can do is endure the same rules as the rest of us, without complaint.