Covid-19 serves a big blow to Australian Open

Australian Open will be delayed by three weeks. It is the latest disruption in a sport that has dealt with plenty of it since March
Last Updated : 17 December 2020, 05:48 IST

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The start of the Australian Open will be delayed by three weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, a schedule released by the men’s tennis tour revealed Wednesday night.

The year’s first Grand Slam tournament, which usually takes place during the last two weeks of January, has been rescheduled to the middle two weeks of February. It will start February 8, according to the ATP schedule.

A person familiar with the ongoing discussions between government officials and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer, said the tennis organization was awaiting final approval from the government before formally announcing the plan. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was not authorized to publicly discuss the status of preparations.

The move came after months of negotiations as organizers tried to balance the players’ needs with government rules on international travel and the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is the tennis calendar.

The delay of the Australian Open was the latest disruption in a sport that has dealt with plenty of it since March, when professional tennis essentially shut down for five months.

Getting professional tennis back on its feet has been especially challenging because the sport has no central governing body. Instead, a hodgepodge of international, national, and local organizations runs the sport. The uncertainty is likely to continue through the first quarter of the year or longer, until coronavirus vaccines are widely distributed in places where major tennis events occur and the danger ebbs.

After the 2020 Australian Open was held as usual, the three other Grand Slam events were upended. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II. The US Open started in New York in late August, as scheduled, but without spectators, and most players remained cloistered in a pair of Long Island hotels when they were not competing at the tournament in Queens. The start of the French Open was moved to late September from late May. It took place in front of just a smattering of spectators in cool, blustery conditions.

There was hope that Australia would be able to hold something resembling a normal Grand Slam at the start of 2021. Since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic in March, Australia has put into place some of the world’s strictest measures to prevent outbreaks, and the country has been one of the few coronavirus success stories. Australia has averaged fewer than 10 new cases per day over the past week.

Despite those figures — or perhaps because of them — the government was resistant to bending its rules on overseas travellers to accommodate tennis players, scores of whom would be arriving from virus hot spots, including many communities in the United States and Europe.

An initial plan involved allowing players to arrive in mid-December, which would have given them two weeks to quarantine and then another two weeks to practice and play in tuneup tournaments before the Australian Open.

Tennis Australia had even floated the idea of having all the players quarantining together at a resort, so they could practice during their period of confinement.

But the government firmly resisted changing its tight limits on international arrivals in December. Also, it was not clear whether the plan would have allowed athletes out of their rooms during quarantine. Given that, players had argued that starting a Grand Slam event just four days after leaving quarantine would be unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

That led to the current plan, which calls for all players and their support staff to arrive on chartered flights in mid-January, stay in designated hotels in Melbourne and not mix with the public. Players will be able to train at Melbourne Park and another tennis centre during the quarantine, but they will otherwise have to follow a strict protocol and undergo multiple tests for their first 14 days in the country.

That change should come as a relief to players, many of whom would probably have skipped the tournament instead of taking the risk of playing an intense event after two weeks without training.

Johanna Konta of Britain, who is No. 14 in the women’s world rankings, told the BBC in November that her body “wouldn’t be able to handle two weeks of deconditioning and then pushing me into the deep end.”

Novak Djokovic, the reigning men’s singles champion in Melbourne and an eight-time winner of the Australian Open, said after a recent match in London that he hoped for a certain level of understanding and support from the state and federal government that would allow athletes to play during their second week of quarantine.

Djokovic and his wife contracted the virus in June, after the start of a series of tennis exhibitions he had organized in Serbia and Croatia. The remainder of the series was called off after several other players tested positive.

Published 17 December 2020, 05:36 IST

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