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"It wasn’t worth it": Paula Badosa vs. The Quarantine
The only player to contract coronavirus after arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open, the Spaniard describes how 21 days in isolation affected her physically and mentally.
Published Feb 08, 2021
A young woman sits by a window she can’t open, watching old videos on her phone. The videos feature that same woman, 23-year-old Paula Badosa, playing a sport she hasn’t practiced since a positive COVID-19 test sent her into indefinite isolation almost a month ago.
Police officers are posted round the clock to guard her hotel door. The Spaniard, who has openly discussed past struggles with anxiety and depression, takes cold showers to ward off panic attacks.
A negative test finally grants her freedom after 21 days, and she flees to Melbourne Park with coach Javier Martí, arriving on Margaret Court Arena just after 1 a.m.
Out in time to play the first round of her favorite Grand Slam tournament on Tuesday, the world No. 67 is able to laugh off some of the worst moments of her epidemiological odyssey, but is firm when asked whether she would do it all again.
“No,” she tells TENNIS.com over Zoom.
It had been such a productive off-season for Badosa, her first since hiring Martí, a former ATP pro, after the US Open. The partnership yielded immediate results when she reached her first Grand Slam fourth round at Roland Garros, the major tournament she had won as a junior.
“I really worked hard this pre-season, and I was honestly feeling very good in Abu Dhabi. Even though I lost in the third round, it was against [Veronika Kudermetova], an amazing player who will very soon be ranked in the top. It was a very good match, and I was feeling very good, confident.”
Badosa planned to spend what she thought would be a hybrid quarantine with Marta Kostyuk, who had also enjoyed an impressive run in Abu Dhabi. The two posted Instagram stories documenting their adventure across the Indian Ocean, only to learn that positive tests from others on the flight meant a mandatory two weeks of isolation at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
“Honestly, I don’t think I could ever go to the Hyatt again, not because it was a bad hotel. It was very good, but because of the memories. I may have a little bit of trauma.”
She talked through the initial disappointment with Kostyuk over Instagram Live, but soon took isolation in stride, showing off yoga stretches and shadow swings on social media.
“I remember the first day when I heard the news, there were so many emotions. I was so angry about everything because we didn’t know the rules, exactly, and we felt like they’d changed it. I wasn’t OK at first, but I accepted it and started to do things in the room. I was exercising and feeling good.”
The fever, chills, and cough began seven days into the initial quarantine. Feeling weak, Badosa called for a COVID-19 test—despite turning up negative in three prior swabs.
“They told me it could have been from the plane,” she said after it was discovered to be the highly contagious UK strain of coronavirus, “but I don’t think it could have been because it seems impossible that only one player would test positive on the plane. I was with Marta, playing cards and we were touching all of the same things. It had to have been in Abu Dhabi. It’s the only thing that makes sense for me.”
From believing she would be allowed outside five hours a day when she first flew to Melbourne, Badosa and Martí—who also tested positive—were moved to the city’s health hotel and its spartan conditions.
“I’m coming from a long way from home, and we didn’t necessarily expect this situation where we’d be quarantined so strictly. I was feeling like a delinquent. I know I tested positive, but the reaction was so crazy, and, for me, it was a shock.
“The thing I missed the most was that they didn’t have windows," she added, echoing many European players who longed for fresh air. "That was complicated for me, because I think if you have a virus, you have to open the windows and keep it from circulating around the room. It was a tough experience, and so was the communication. You couldn’t talk to anyone; there was a telephone in the room and I had to wait for their calls, constantly hoping to hear from them. I was starting to suffer from anxiety, and typically when you get that, the first thing you think to is go for a walk, and I had no such option. That trapped feeling made me even more nervous."
Martí eventually moved into Badosa's room as the two worked to combat her anxiety, and she adapted once again. She did bodyweight workouts when requested exercise equipment never arrived, spent hours binge-watching episodes of America’s Got Talent, and even used an Instagram filter to fool friends into thinking she had dyed her hair to match the purple Nike dress she planned to wear on the court.
“I was talking with my family and the people close to me every day. I received quite a few messages from players, which was quite nice. They were checking in on me, to see if I was OK, and then I was lucky when tennis started so it felt like I was spending 15 hours watching tennis, because I really like to watch. I was trying to do what I could in the face of few options.”
A final emotional hurdle came during that first practice upon her release, when the realization that just four days stood between her and the Australian Open set in.
“I was already stressed, thinking, ‘Come on, Paula, you have to get back into shape. You’re playing Monday!’ My head was like that, and Javi was like, ‘Paula, you’re outside after three very tough weeks. You have to enjoy, take things step by step, and go slowly.’ I stopped for a second and realized that he’s right, and I had to calm down.
Physically below her best, Badosa can certainly take the court against qualifier Liudmilla Samsonova having conquered what may well be the biggest mental test of her career, one that might ultimately make her even stronger than the woman she was in the videos she watched so wistfully.
“I feel amazing. I’m so happy; you can’t even imagine. At the same time, I’m feeling so weird. I don’t even want to sleep; after so many days in one room, I want to be outside all the time. I went to go practice today at 7 a.m., and I’m already thinking of where we can go to have dinner. I want to do everything I couldn’t.”
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).