This weekend, Novak Djokovic victoriously raised the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup over his head for a record-breaking ninth time. Just a day before, promising champion Naomi Osaka added her fourth straight Grand Slam title to her growing list of accomplishments. For a tournament hampered by a Covid-19 outbreak, statewide lockdown, and rat-infested quarantine hotels, perhaps the greatest achievement is that any tennis was played at all.
This year, Melbourne Park was only able to welcome 390,000 people, half its normal capacity, to the much anticipated Australian Open. In the tennis world, the event is the first Slam of the year and kicks off an 11 month season. In the best of times, the Open provides a huge economic and moral boost to Melbourne’s five million residents. One could argue this was a much needed bright spot in an otherwise dismal Covid crisis. Instead, hosting the out of town players kicked off massive international controversy.
Australia had implemented strict border control and entry quotas to combat Covid-19. Local transmissions have dwindled down to just a handful of cases. Incoming travellers must undergo strict fourteen day hotel quarantine before being allowed to travel domestically. However thousands of Aussies remain stranded abroad waiting for permission to come home. Tennis Australia and the Australian Government were accused of prioritising profit over public health. Why did non-citizens skip the queue to come play tennis? Australians weren’t the only ones to complain – the backlash from locals intensified when seventy-two players were forced into strict hotel quarantine following four positive tests upon arrival. All players were to remain in their rooms at all times except for a five-hour window with access to courts and an outdoor gym. According to CNN, chaos and disdain ensued when player Yulia Putinseva complained of a mouse infestation in the hotel and Lisa Neville, an Australian politician, accused her of feeding it. Despite organizational hurdles, it was game on and suit up. Time to fight their battles on a real court.
From the player’s point of view, quarantine was akin to imprisonment. There is little doubt that being confined had it’s physical consequences. Djokovic stated that “the amount of injuries in this tournament has shown how much effect [quarantine] has on players’ bodies.” He was one of the many players who needed medical attention during the Open, after straining an abdominal muscle that almost forced him to withdraw. Many players seem to have suffered a similar fate as Djokovic, several former champions swiftly and unexpectedly defeated in the early rounds. Others found creative ways to train within the four walls of their rooms, showing that mental toughness is just as important as physical training. Of all the twenty-six women’s players who underwent hard quarantine, only finalist Jennifer Brady made it past the third round. Heavy favourite (and national hero) Ash Barty was knocked out in quarterfinals, along with second seed Simona Halep who put up an amazing fight against Serena Williams. Rafael Nadal called on his fellow players to have a “wider perspective” and said that it was a privilege to be able to play even under such harsh circumstances.
Just when the tournament was heating up and the balls got rolling, a new cluster of active Covid cases emerged at another quarantine hotel. Melbourne and the whole of the state of Victoria issued a snap five-day lockdown and stay-at-home order. The Open was halfway through and viewers were at the edge of their seats. The government deemed players and their teams “essential workers” because it was obvious an event like this boosted everyone’s spirits. Tournament organizers decided to continue but closed doors to all live fans. They were eventually allowed to return to the stands just in time to watch several thrilling quarter-final matches. Players and the world got their tennis fix after all.
With vaccines on the horizon, Concord Academy’s own tennis team is scheduled to return to the courts this spring. Let’s hope we can channel the energy and undefeated spirit of professional players and successfully see the season through.