COVID-19 at the Australian Open: Azarenka calls for quarantined players to calm down

In an open letter on social media, Victoria Azarenka called for her fellow players to check their privilege, and acknowledged that Australia's eradication of COVID-19 among their population was due to strict measures and heavy sacrifices - and that complaining about quarantine was not winning tennis any fans.

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Extraordinary times have led to extraordinary speeches. Four days after the announcement of the first COVID positive cases that led seventy-two participants in the Australian Open to be placed in strict quarantine, the usually reserved Roberto Bautista Agut had very strong words to say during a live broadcast with the Israeli channel Sport 5 on Monday:

“These people have no idea about tennis, about practice courts, has no idea about anything, so it’s a complete disaster because of that, because the control of everything. It’s not Tennis Australia, it’s the people from the government…I cannot imagine staying two weeks like this. It’s like being in prison.”

Ings hits back at Bautista Agut and Djokovic

Bautista Agut’s somewhat reckless remarks were made despite plenty of Australians taking to social media, radio, newspapers and television to tell the players that they have no idea what the country went through to get rid of COVID-19. Former Australian international official Richard Ings has clapped back on Twitter in a direct response to the world No 13: “You will be earning $100,000 guaranteed mate. The Australian public will be kept safe. I call that a win-win.”

Ings had been more direct a few minutes earlier with Novak Djokovic, who had put forward some special requests for the players in quarantine that were promptly rejected:

“I am not sure Mr Djokovic is in touch with the public mood. Australians have sucked it up big time to suppress COVID in this country. We are a little impatient with unsuccessful public health wannabees telling our health officials what to do.”

Azarenka: ‘Dear players, coaches, entourage…’

It is in this context of complete mismatch between players’ wishes and reality that Belarus’s Victoria Azarenka, winner of the tournament in 2013, posted Tuesday a post encouraging her colleagues to come down to earth and, as advised by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “respect the rules, follow the quarantine and after that, play tennis.” Across two pages from her phone’s notes app, the 2020 US Open runner-up encourages players, coaches, entourage, Australians and the media ” to “accept, adapt and keep moving.”

The world No 13 calls for “cooperation, understanding and empathy for the local community that has been going through a lot of very demanding restrictions that they did not choose but were forced to follow.” Azarenka refers to the almost absolute general confinement practised by the state of Victoria between the beginning of June and the end of October 2020.

CEO of Tennis Australia Craig Tiley responded with appreciation: “Your words are much appreciated, thank you for your support, Vika, it means a lot to us.”

For the past four days, the Australian Open tournament director has had to walk a very fine line between Australia’s national interests, which he refrains from undermining, and the sporting expectations of the hundreds of players he has fought to bring into the country. In his latest Channel 9 interview, Tiley explained that in his view a minority of players were making a lot of noise and that the majority understood the situation.

Bautista Agut’s outspokenness shows that Tiley is probably having to reassess his previous standpoint. Impatient to get on to the court and afraid that the benefits of their winter preparations will be lost, the players have shown since this weekend that they are not collectively aware of what Australia expects of them: that they have been welcomed into a country that its people have protected by their sacrifice, that they have not been asked to pay a penny for their quarantine unlike their own citizens, and that they understand and acknowledge these immense privileges. Azarenka’s message pinpoints the problem neatly.

Local health authorities in charge

The organisation of the first Grand Slam of the year was only made possible by the establishment of an exceptional agreement between Tennis Australia and the public authorities, which remain sovereign and could just as easily cancel the tournament from one day to the next. On the ground, it is a major political issue. This weekend, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud regretted that tennis was seen as more important than bringing in seasonal workers or the repatriation of the 40,000 Australians who are outside the country’s borders.

This weekend, the world’s 78th-ranked doubles player, New Zealand’s Artem Sitak, said something similar to Azarenka when players such as Tennys Sandgren, Sorana Cirstea and Yulia Putintseva said they were not prepared for the option of strict quarantine in the event of a positive test on a plane.

“A lot of Australians at the moment cannot get home, because of the restrictions and all that, and we as foreigners, over 1000 people, we’re here in Australia, we’re going to be competing in a Grand Slam, earning a lot of money,” he said in a social media video. “And the amount of work that Tennis Australia has put in to organise all this, is absolutely insane. I can’t even imagine how much work and how many hours they’ve put in to make this happen.

“So I just wanted to give a little perspective – we’re still lucky to be here. It’s unfortunate, the circumstances with the quarantine, but that’s how it is.”

Sitak’s post had little effect, but Azarenka’s might – and if the players want to enjoy their Slam in a fortnight’s time and shrug off the label of spoilt, thoughtless children, it’s probably necessary. The former Melbourne champion’s post went viral, with thousands of engagements in a handful of hours – and she is one of the most decorated stars among the 72 sportsmen and women who have to wait eleven days before leaving their hotel to play tennis in the open air and enjoy a life of total freedom, which much of the rest of the world will envy.

Yulia Putintseva is one who remains unconvinced, keeping a hard line and dismissing the lure of the prize money on offer at the tournament: “I wouldn’t come [to Australia] for your $100,000 if we have to lose all our fitness and tennis shape to sit in the room for 14 days with mouses inside!”

Translation from French by Carrie Dunn

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