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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Explained: How Australian Open went from Happy Slam to Uneasy Slam

Why was the Australian Open rescheduled? Why were there complaints during the quarantine period? Was there any further threat to the Grand Slam after the quarantine ended?

Written by Shahid Judge , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: February 10, 2021 8:28:55 am
United States' Serena Williams makes a forehand return to compatriot Danielle Collins during a tuneup event ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

The shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom over the Australian Open, even as the year’s first major successfully started on Monday.

There was no shortage of drama in the build-up to the marquee event though. It was a struggle, for organisers Tennis Australia to get the necessary permissions from the Victoria state government because of the strict coronavirus prevention protocols put in place. The modified 14-day quarantine period too was chaotic with players complaining for various reasons.

And just days before the rescheduled tournament, there was another positive case that forced a short quarantine, and changed the mood among the field at the ‘Happy Slam.’

Why was the Australian Open rescheduled?

The original date for the event was January 18. However, in November, the Australian government had announced that nobody from abroad will be allowed inside the country till December 31. In addition, a 14-day quarantine was mandatory, which would have meant players would be allowed on court for practice just a few days before the major.

Accordingly, the tournament was shifted to the new February 8 date, and players started to arrive in the country – on 17 chartered flights organised by Tennis Australia – between January 13 and 15. That way they would be able to complete the quarantine period (by January 29), compete at the warm-up events before playing the Australian Open.

Japan’s Kei Nishikori makes a forehand return to Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta during their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Why were there complaints during the quarantine period?

Tennis Australia had secured permission from the state government to allow each player a five-hour window per day, in which they could leave their rooms to train and practice. However, that luxury was withdrawn for those players who travelled on the three chartered flights that had a passenger test positive for the virus upon arrival. It meant that 72 players would now be forced into hard quarantine. Some of these players, such as Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva and Romanian player Sorana Cirstea, complained that they were not informed about the possibility of this happening, otherwise they would not have travelled to Australia.

Later, New Zealand’s Artem Sitak explained that players were invited to attend an online meeting where all protocol possibilities were discussed, but most opted to skip it.

Furthermore, there were complaints about the quality of food made available to players, and Putintseva had a problem with mice infestation in her room, twice.

Once quarantine ended, were players allowed to leave the hotel?

Apart from the requirement of wearing a mask whenever indoor, players were granted all the freedoms that they would have had during any other Australian Open edition – be it roaming around Melbourne, or enjoying the food or nightlife.

23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams visited a zoo with her daughter a day after quarantine ended, before she played her exhibition match against Naomi Osaka. Kazakh player Elena Rybakina went to practice on court well past the midnight hour. Meanwhile, India’s Ankita Raina, who will play her first ever Grand Slam match after making it into the women’s doubles main draw, visited an Indian restaurant to enjoy a masala dosa.

Japan’s Kei Nishikori serves to Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta during their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Was there any further threat to the Grand Slam after the quarantine ended?

On Wednesday, a security official at one of the player hotels reportedly tested positive for the virus. Immediately, all the players, their support staff and tournament officials who were staying at that venue were put in a day-long quarantine, and were only allowed to leave their room once they cleared a PCR test.

All play on Thursday – at the ATP Cup along with the two ATP and WTA warm-up events – was cancelled for the day. The Australian Open draw ceremony, which was to happen on Thursday, was also postponed by a day in order to see if any players had tested positive.

Eventually, all the 507 people who had to enter the day-long quarantine tested negative.

But Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley had to reiterate that the event would indeed be “starting on Monday.”

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United States’ Serena Williams adjusts her mask as she leaves the court following her match against compatriot Danielle Collins at a tuneup event ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Are there any further precautions that are being taken?

The event will take place at 50 percent capacity – around 30,000 fans per day. The number will decrease during the later rounds when there are fewer matches. Fans are not required to wear masks while in the stands, however, if the roof is closed, then it will be mandatory.

Meanwhile on court, in an attempt to declutter, the Australian Open will become the first Slam to have the Hawk-Eye Live system on all courts, meaning that the line-umpires will not be needed on court. The 2020 US Open had also used the system, but not on the two show courts: the Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium.

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