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The Rally: if you wanna play a major, you must play by the local rules
The staging of the Australian Open can’t contribute to a rise in cases among the public in Melbourne. Australians have come too far to expect anything less.
Published Jan 18, 2021
In our first Rally of 2021, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor discuss the early chaos that's unfolded Down Under since players begin arriving in Melbourne this past Friday.
Well, the 2021 tennis season is underway. The jingle-jangle qualities of uncertain scheduling, frequent testing and hovering dread that marked 2020 are still in play and will likely continue for much of the year. As Bette Davis said in the movie, All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
The focus now is on Australia, where players will be quarantined for two weeks. That means 19 hours a day in a hotel room and five hours for time outdoors for practice, fitness and not much else. It will be interesting to learn how players have dealt with this vivid contrast between confinement and freedom.
A couple of American men have taken their own approach. John Isner has opted to stay home. More controversially, Tennys Sandgren flew to Australia last week, just a few days after testing positive for COVID-19. Apparently, Sandgren also tested positive in November and has now been judged to be no longer infectious. But now, due to two unidentified people testing positive on the flight from Los Angeles, Sandgren must self-quarantine for two weeks.
Another American, Madison Keys, withdrew from Australia when she tested positive. Andy Murray is also positive, but at this point he hasn’t officially withdrawn from the tournament.
Meanwhile, such notable Australians as Ashleigh Barty and Nick Kyrgios, completely off the tour for the last 12 months, will return to competition—and no doubt will be excited to do so on native grounds.
So here we are in yet another installment of what I’ve called The Year of Playing Dangerously. There’s a good chance this one will last all of 2021, the calendar chugging along in various fits and starts. The range and depth of player fields will vary. We’ll likely see many surprising results, be it upsets, breakouts, perhaps also some jarring injuries. Stylistically, I’d say it’s a good year to be a sturdy, fit and steady baseliner.
And yet, as physically fit as the players are, as experienced as they are when it comes to travel, surely the ongoing stress of circling the globe and competing amid a pandemic will leave many persistently on at least mild edge, akin to a form of yellow alert. Airports and airplanes, customarily a source of banal transaction for these extensive travelers, are stressful venues. And what about the endless stream of hotels and tournament venues? My heart goes out to all the players and their support networks, inching their way across the globe for the chance to compete yet again. To be sure, how lucky they are to be earning an excellent living playing a sport—quite a contrast to many others who have been hit deeply by COVID-19. Still, to be a pro tennis player these days is to occupy a global floating bubble. Might that concept be an oxymoron?
What are your thoughts as ’21 begins, Steve?
I’m afraid the global floating bubble already looks like it may be about to burst.
As of Sunday, 72 players had potentially been exposed to someone with the virus on their flights to Australia, and now must spend two weeks in a “hard quarantine”—i.e., no practice, no outdoor training, no leaving their rooms. These players have expressed their annoyance, which has subsequently annoyed many Australians, who have been in lockdown for months and may be wondering why the tournament needs to happen in the first place. Novak Djokovic is being pilloried again for making quarantine requests of tennis officials and local government officials. The players are spending their time hitting balls against their hotel-room windows and trying not to go stir crazy. I don’t think they have any real cause for complaint, though. As tournament officials have said, this is what they signed up for. The state of Victoria takes its COVID restrictions seriously, and rightfully so; the area was hit by a second wave late last year, and the people there have worked hard to re-flatten the curve.
Bernard Tomic, who came through AO qualifying in Doha, is spotted in his hotel room. (Getty Images)
It seems that, in the pandemic age, this is what all performers in all sports sign up for. Bad luck and an un-level playing field are part of the deal right now. In the U.S., we just staggered through a college football season in which hundreds of young athletes contracted the virus, vast numbers of games were cancelled, and the title contest pitted one team that had played 11 games against another that had only been able to play seven. And yet, from a competition standpoint, it worked: When the season was over, the team that was clearly the best was crowned the champion. I’m hoping something similar happens in Australia—without all of the COVID cases, obviously—and that once everyone has quarantined and tested negative, the tournament can proceed semi-normally. The US Open and Roland Garros have showed us that it can be done.
It would be a disaster if the Australian Open started a new outbreak Down Under, so all of the host-country’s rules need to be followed. Tennis-wise, the biggest problem I can see are the conditions: Will the players who are in a hard quarantine be ready to compete in the heat after two weeks of little physical activity? It isn’t quite as boiling in February as it is in January in Melbourne, fortunately, but it’s still summer there.
What do you think, Joel: Is this all worth it?
The most important factor here is the collective safety of Australia. No one wants to see an incoming pro tennis player inadvertently trigger a COVID-19 spread. And of course, no player wants to get sick, or infect someone on his or her team, or endanger anyone else involved with the tournament or elsewhere in the city. It’s an incredibly stressful, nerve-wracking situation.
As so much unfolds in Australia—both these next two weeks and once the tournament gets underway—it will be interesting to hear from the players about how they handled the entire process. As a start, there are the various ways players are undergoing the current quarantine. Those select few in Adelaide can exercise in the hotel gym as part of their 19-hour quarantine day. Many of the ones now in Melbourne will have those five hours outside of their hotel room. And others must stay in their rooms for 24 hours.
Pondering the quarantine, I’m reminded of the tale—perhaps fictitious—of a man who during the Vietnam War was imprisoned in a POW camp. How would he pass his time? He was a golfer, so decided he would play golf in his head every day, deeply visualizing everything from the greens to the first tee, various shots, the sounds, and so on. The story goes that when he returned to the US, he shot the best round of his life.
Once the tournament starts, will the players think it’s worth it? I suspect they’ll say yes, as they are young, healthy and eager to continue earning a living. Still, I can’t help but worry about the persistent hangover of it all – the mental and physical toll, including the constant testing, reports of infection, and all the ways the situation can affect the nervous system, body and mind. There promises to be some fascinating reports about coping strategies.
Steve, how do you think this pre-event quarantine will impact the tournament?
As fantastical as your POW story may sound, I found myself nodding along to it. I can see where a player could come out after two weeks of isolation and play loose, winning tennis. I’m not sure how much a lack of practice will affect pros who have grooved their strokes over a lifetime. If they can get on court for two days before the competition starts, I’m thinking their shots will be fine. Like I said, the bigger issue will be conditioning. There’s a reason why, in normal years, the players get to Australia a good month before the Aussie Open begins. Your body needs to adjust to what it’s going to go through.
Let me finish by trying to answer the question I asked you earlier: Is all of this worth it? Maybe it’s because playing sports during a pandemic is so unprecedented, but I’ve been unable to come up with a satisfying answer even after nearly a year. At the start of any event—the U.S. Open, the NBA season, the NFL season, Roland Garros, etc.—I’m typically skeptical about the necessity for staging it, and worried that bringing people together for a competition will only cause COVID case rates to rise. But by the end of the event or season, when disaster has largely failed to strike, I’m happy to have been able to watch it, and grateful for the people who made it happen. I went through that evolution over the course of last year’s US Open, and all I can do is hope that the same process plays out with the Australian Open. Right now, I am wondering whether it should have just been canceled; hopefully, by the time it’s over, I’m glad it wasn’t.
For that evolution to happen again, the tournament can’t contribute to a rise in cases among the public in Melbourne. And for that to happen, the players, and everyone involved in the event, need to play by the local health rules.
If you’re going to do it, it has to be done perfectly. The Aussies have come too far to expect anything less.