The cloud of doubt over the 2021 Australian Open has lifted, and the year’s first Grand Slam is set to take place despite the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the event, however, many changes will be set in place, including a delayed schedule and a specifically designed set of quarantine protocols.
Originally, the elite tournament was to start on January 18.
“It’s been a while, but the great news is it looks like we are going to be able to hold the AO on February 8,” Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in a letter to players, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.
The change in the date itself, however, will have an impact on the tennis calendar for 2021.
Why have the dates been changed?
The Australian government had announced previously that no foreign tennis players will be allowed to travel to the country before December 31, and the Victorian state government refused to exempt anybody from the compulsory 14-day quarantine period. So should the Australian Open have gone ahead with the January 18 date, players would have only been cleared from isolation four days before the opening matches.
Furthermore, it would have allowed no room for tune-up events— all of which had been shifted to Melbourne (from Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth and Hobart)— to help create a bubble.
The February 8 start-date will allow players at least a week to compete in a tune-up event before playing at the Major.
“A February 1 start date would not have allowed any matches (health authorities rule out matches in the bubble) and also would have been unfair to players who may get infected during quarantine – as it would’ve ruled them out of the AO,” Tiley said in the letter.
What are the new restrictions in place?
In Tiley’s letter to the players, he listed the restrictions set out by the Department of Health and Human Services, Victoria (DHHS). Players will arrive in chartered flights arranged by the tournament between January 15 and 17 and will enter self-isolation in their hotel rooms, but the 14-day quarantine period will not start till the last player arrives. Essentially, the quarantine period for all players will end on January 31.
Tests will be conducted on days one, three, seven, 10 and 14 of quarantine. Once players clear the first test, they will be allowed to train on a court with just one other player, and both can bring along with them to court just one member of their entourage (four people maximum on court at one time). On day eight onwards, up to four players can practice on a court at the same time.
For the entire duration of the quarantine, players will be allowed to leave their hotel rooms for just five hours a day for training, physiotherapy and or gym-work – movement, however, will be restricted from the hotels to the tennis courts at Melbourne Park and the Albert Reserve Tennis Centre.
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Who will pay for the ‘bubble’?
Tennis Australia— the governing body of the sport in the country and the organiser of the event— will fund the entire bubble process. This includes the expense for the chartered flights that will bring players and entourages to Melbourne, the food, and accommodation. In all, it’s expected to cost around AUD 40 million (INR 219 crore).
Additionally, Tennis Australia will not be reducing the total prize money from the original AUD 71 million (around INR 390 crore).
These expenses, coupled with the fact that only a smaller crowd will be permitted in the stands, will mean that Tennis Australia will exhaust most of their AUD 80 million (INR 439 crore) reserves, and may seek a loan to help organise the event. Tiley told The Australian newspaper: “We believe that recovery from the pandemic will take up to five years.”
Is it confirmed?
Though Tennis Australia has announced the dates and plans for the Open, the Victorian government still hasn’t given the final nod. Discussions, reportedly, are still taking place to fine-tune the quarantine procedures for players.
Given that the number of active coronavirus cases in the country has started to decrease— 1403 active cases in the country with 11 new cases as of December 2— the government hopes the measures will not lead to another spike.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told SMH that the Australian Open was the only tennis tournament, where an existing sanitised city could be imperilled by players bringing the virus into it. “Just think about that for a moment – every other grand slam (is happening where) cases are running wild. So we are unique in that we’ve built something that no one else has built… and on that basis, we have to safeguard that.”
Will the calendar be affected because of the new schedule?
Yes. The Tata Open Maharashtra, which is India’s only ATP-tour event, is scheduled to take place in Pune from February 1 – immediately after the Australian Open. The organisers of the Pune-based event now have reportedly written to the ATP requesting for a change in schedule to ensure players are free to travel and compete at the event.
Will there be a qualification round?
There has been no confirmation yet, but Spanish sports newspaper reported that Australian Open qualifiers may take place outside the country in the first week of January. Venues such as Singapore, Dubai and Doha are listed as possible options. This will mean that only the eight men and eight women singles players who win the qualification round will be required to travel to Australia, where they will enter quarantine with the remaining main draw field.
Since the pandemic hit, the US Open, which was the first Grand Slam to take place, did not have a qualification round while the French Open organised it as usual on the Paris clay.
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