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Three planes infected with the coronavirus, 72 players in lockdown: Melbourne’s nerves on edge

The revelation of the presence of four people who tested positive on three planes which transported the players involved in the Australian Open, leaves the first major of the year under unprecedented tension. Seventy-two participants must follow a strict quarantine.

Rod Laver Arena stylized Tennis – Australian Open – Men’s Singles Final – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – February 2, 2020 General view during the match between Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Austria’s Dominic Thiem

Moods have changed dramatically in Melbourne, where the 2021 Australian Open is set to be played from February 8. On Friday, the players and coaches did not have many kind words for Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley for making the event possible, as had been the case in the previous days.

On Saturday and Sunday, the tournament was stunned by three emails, sent to passengers on flights QR 7493 from Abu Dhabi, EY 8004 from Los Angeles and QR 7485 from Doha, telling them that at least one passenger of their plane had tested positive for COVID-19 and that they were therefore considered a contact case. Instant consequence: all players on those flights will be subject to a strict quarantine for fourteen days, which means a total absence of tennis or physical training worthy of the name, apart from what the creativity of each will make possible within the four walls of their hotel.

72 players in quarantine

Among the 72 collateral victims of these strict rules, in a country that has almost eradicated itself of the virus thanks to full winter confinement: former Grand Slam winners (Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Bianca Andreescu) as well as many other top-level players. Among them: Kei Nishikori, Belinda Bencic, Alizé Cornet, Pablo Cuevas, Tennys Sandgren, Vasek Pospisil, but also less exposed athletes, some of whom came to play the doubles.

The Doha flight, in particular, concerns all the qualifiers for the men’s draw and those who hope to gain lucky loser status, twenty people in total. Argentina’s Guido Pella is perhaps the most unfortunate on the list having already had to undergo a strict fortnight at the hotel before the US Open due to the positive test of his fitness coach.

Tiley under double pressure

At this point, these cascading revelations beg more questions than they answer about how things are going to play out between now and when the warm-up tournaments open on January 31st. Social networks are buzzing with hot news – several players have shared the email they received without hiding the contacts offered to them, nor the links to video conferences, which are nevertheless very private – and rumors that are difficult to verify. What these messages have in common: a form of feeling of injustice in the face of colossal inequity in training conditions, and frustration with the level of information shared regarding potential risks to players before the tournament.

Caught between the iron (the political authorities of the state of Victoria) and the anvil (the players he brought to Australia), tournament director Craig Tiley gave an eight-minute interview to the Channel 9 Sunday morning, even before the revelation of the Doha case. Expected as a solemn speech by the players, it allowed him to repeat that the date of the tournament (February 8-21) cannot be called into question and that his priority was to guarantee the health and safety of everyone.

The idea of a boycott even emerged during the Instagram Live of Yulia Putintseva, one of the players affected by the strict quarantine –  even as Tennis Australia seems to be determined to send players physical preparation equipment to the rooms of the players. Tiley, eyes narrowed by a probably sleepless night, could not hide that the Australian Open was playing for a superior cause and that this fight was going to be imposed over all others. It is about not becoming, in the eyes of the country, the agent who will have reintroduced COVID-19 in the territory.

Djokovic’s (eccentric?) Requests?

Under these circumstances, the accommodation requests made by Novak Djokovic on behalf of all the players seem to be science fiction. Transport of contact cases to private residences equipped with courts, transfer of physical trainers at the same stages as the players … All of them carry with them the travel and contact with third parties that the state of Victoria now prohibits, for two weeks, to passengers on flights QR 7493, EY 8004 and QR 7485.

The rest of the players begin this Sunday to enjoy daily five-hour getaways out of their hotel rooms, for physical and tennis training at Melbourne Park. In December, when this plan was first introduced and proposed, it appeared to be unsuitable for the needs of a top tennis player. It now looks like a cruel joke for some.

No information was received as of Sunday noon that all other flights had passed a series of negative tests.

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