The notion of the Australian Open as “The Happy Slam” will take an unprecedented and stressful twist this year. Certainly, there is gratitude at the chance to compete at a Grand Slam event amid a pandemic. But there are also many challenges—emotional, physical, mental—that will profoundly affect how players prepare and eventually compete.
How it’s usually gone is that the pros trek Down Under with delight, as they transition from winter in the north to summer in a highly friendly country. Jarring as it is to be thrust into Grand Slam pressure so early in the year, much about Australia offsets those demands. Melbourne is a beautiful city, at once urban, but also spacious, charming and relaxed. Players enjoy beaches, gardens, museums, shops, and a wide range of tasty meal options. All of these assets create what’s arguably the most relaxed atmosphere of all four majors.
It’s very different this year. All players need to be in Melbourne by January 17 to commence a two-week quarantine period inside a tournament-approved hotel (some will do this 450 miles west in Adelaide). During that time, players will be restricted to five hours a day outside—two on the court, two for fitness, one for eating. During the first week, players may only practice with one other player. Two more practice partners are permitted the second week. There will also be frequent COVID testing.
No sauntering to one of Novak Djokovic’s favorite spots, the Melbourne Botanical Garden. No visits to the city’s vast array of Greek, Thai, or Chinese restaurants. No random strolls through the streets of Melbourne. According to Kevin O’Neill, coach of WTA player Caty McNally, “You can get a little stir-crazy. You’re spending lots of time reading and watching Netflix.” O’Neill made these comments recently from a hotel room in Dubai, where McNally was playing the Australian Open qualifying event. “So when you have those five hours, you’ll want to both practice and be normal,” says O’Neill, “to have time to practice all shots for playing the match, but also things like going to the pool, or getting a massage.”
“It’s not normal,” says Jeff Greenwald, a sports psychologist and author of the book, The Best Tennis of Your Life. “It’s stressful. Players will be on edge. There’ll be lots of time to kill, more than usual.”
Perhaps one upside may be that, compared to many other athletes, professional tennis players have extensive experience managing the clock. After all, unlike team sports, when the time of the game is determined months in advance, this is rarely the case in tennis. If a player is scheduled to be the third match on, that can mean any time from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. or even later. In other words, as athletes who play an individual sport, tennis players are used to creating their own personal quarantine process and harnessing their energy accordingly, both on-site and away from the tournament site.
But of course the current situation is far more enveloping than merely waiting out a long four-setter that suddenly goes to a fifth. “It’s definitely a test,” says Greenwald. “It’s important to develop other interests away from tennis, whether you like to read, or write, or play cards, or anything else, a distraction that’s unrelated to the game can be really important now.”
Bill Norris, who spent 35 years as an ATP trainer, echoes Greenwald. Citing the need to create the best possible environment for body and mind, Norris says, “We’re all influenced by social media these days. One way to start would be to quarantine yourself from social media and instead focus on yourself and your fitness.” Amid so much time in a hotel room, Norris also believes strongly in extensive floor exercises and a deep commitment to hydration. “It’s very challenging,” he says, “and nobody really has the answer about what’s going to work here. So players have to be inventive.” Both Norris and Greenwald also see great value in meditation. “Focus is a muscle,” says Greenwald. “There’s a benefit to training it.”
Australian Open CEO Craig Tiley gives an update on the tournament's protocols:
Strategist Craig O’Shannessy, who’s worked with a great many pros, including Novak Djokovic, believes the quarantine period represents a tremendous opportunity: the chance to become an even greater student of the game. “This is the time to study your matches and those of potential opponents,” says O’Shannessy. “Players have lots of time to study patterns and figure out winning strategies.”
O’Shannessy also believes it’s vital to make the most of those limited practice sessions. “You see these players who go out on the court and say, ‘I need to feel the ball,’’ he says. “So they just groove, which is basically useless.” Instead, O’Shannessy urges players to devote significant time to the two most important shots in the game – serves and returns. “It might be a repetitive drill for 30 minutes, but then, play practice sets. Let the practice sets become the way to find the groove.” O’Shannessy also believes it’s helpful to tape a practice session.
Serious business aside, players will be aided when they take time to relax. “Laughing is good for cortisol and anxiety,” says Greenwald. “It relaxes the nervous system.” So the quarantine mix might go like this: by day, five precious hours of smart and smarter. By night, there’s nothing wrong with a few helpings of Dumb & Dumber.