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Friday, February 26, 2021

Australian Open: After bumpy build-up under Covid shadow, ‘Lucky Slam’ underway

The mask will be as important a piece of equipment as a racquet at the Australian Open. There’s an element of luck that the Australian Open is even taking place.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: February 7, 2021 10:01:09 pm
India's Tennis Player Ankita Raina. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Ankita Raina had just about woken up on Wednesday morning when she heard the constant buzz of her mobile phone. Through a sleepy-gaze, she browsed through the steadily building list of incoming messages till she sat in her hotel room, wide-eyed.

“The messages were from my coach, Australian Open officials, some players and some of my friends from around here asking me if I was alright and which hotel I was in,” she says. “There was a positive case, and it was something that really shook us all up. It was a way of telling us that not everything is safe just yet.”

A security official at one of the player hotels had tested positive for COVID-19, just days before the Australian Open was to start. The Victorian government made the decision to put all 507 players, their support staff and officials staying at that hotel in a day-long strict quarantine until they cleared another test (which they all eventually did). All matches on Thursday were cancelled, and there was the need for Tennis Australia’s CEO to reiterate strongly that the Australian Open will still be “starting on Monday.”

For years, the Australian Open has been dubbed the ‘Happy Slam’ but the build-up to the year’s first Grand Slam has been anything but. And just when the players had started to enjoy the freedom of the post-quarantine spell, there came the stern reminder.

“The mood feels a bit different now,” adds Raina, who will play in the women’s doubles event, becoming only the fourth Indian woman to play in a Grand Slam main draw.

Rolling back a few months, when the word ‘vaccine’ was still just an idea and not a reality, Tennis Australia had begun the long process of trying to secure permission from the state government to allow the event to take place — in pre-pandemic times, the Australian Open was one of the highlights on the tennis calendar.

Quarantine protocols were discussed, schedules were changed, player requirements were considered, and it was decided to limit crowds to 50 per cent capacity (30,000 per day). And when things went smoothly in the transportation of the 1200-plus players, support staff and officials to Melbourne on 15 chartered flights, four from the incoming crowd tested positive upon arrival.

Protocols were in place to isolate the infected, but when 72 players on board the infected flights were informed that they would have to give up the luxury of the five-hour training time per day during the quarantine, and instead enter a hard 14-day quarantine, the feeling of being in Australia was seemingly no longer ‘happy.’

Players complained that they weren’t informed, or else they wouldn’t have come (though New Zealand’s doubles specialist Artem Sitak claimed most players skipped the meeting when the protocols were discussed). The quality of food was berated, a mouse seemed to follow Kazakh-player Yulia Putintseva from one hotel room to another, players ranted about some getting preferential treatment, and World No 1 Novak Djokovic’s six “demands/recommendations” were categorically shot down by the Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews.

It was just a handful of players who made the most noise, but it was enough to irk the locals. Especially since the arrival of the players meant that the 37 thousand odd Australians stranded abroad would have to wait a further week before they could travel back home – the government had implemented a weekly travel cap on incoming passengers.

But as January 29 approached, the mood changed. Quarantine ended and players were allowed the freedom that had highlighted their previous sojourns down under. Serena Williams took her daughter to the zoo in Adelaide before she took to the court for an exhibition match against Naomi Osaka. Kazakh player Elena Rybakina went to court to practice well past the midnight hour. Raina meanwhile went out to indulge in a plate of masala dosa at a local Indian restaurant.

A few rescheduled and relocated warm-up tournaments, designed to get players used to competitive matches before the year’s first major, started to deliver a semblance of normalcy in what had been a rocky stay in Australia so far.

Then the mood was brought down again on Wednesday morning.

The mask will be as important a piece of equipment as a racquet at the Australian Open. And while there have been several tournaments that were called off because of the pandemic – Wimbledon, the Canadian Masters and the Indian Wells event that was scheduled originally for March – there’s an element of luck that the Australian Open is even taking place.

The Happy Slam is now perhaps, the Lucky Slam.

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