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Tennis Update In A Nutshell From The Australian Open 2021 • Is This Any Way To Run A Tournament? The Happy Slam Is Making The U.S. Open Look Good

Novak Djokovic arrives at Adelaide Airport ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament, Adelaide, Australia, 14 January 2021.

By Alix Ramsay

Let’s see: 72 players in hard lockdown, nine positive tests (so far) and a sports-mad nation eyeing the world’s best players with a mixture of distrust and disdain. The Australian Open is going well so far, then.

The great Australian Open airlift to bring 1,200 accredited people into the country aboard specially chartered planes was a logistical nightmare. Trying to get everyone to the seven departure points on time for their trip to Melbourne, getting each one of them on to the Australian government’s “approved” list to get them through immigration once they landed and ensuring that everyone had a recent negative Covid test was hard enough – but that was only the half of it. As soon as they arrived, the players and their entourages had to be moved seamlessly into the bio-secure bubble that the government demanded and on into their quarantine hotels – that was another monumental task. And then the positive tests started to appear.

Six people on three different planes were flagged up as having Covid so everybody on board those planes had to go into “hard quarantine” for a fortnight. All the promises of five hours freedom a day to practice, train and eat on site went out of the hermetically sealed window; the 72 were locked in their rooms for 14 days. No questions, no arguments. They can only open their doors to put out rubbish, take in food and have their next Covid test.

Being young, now extremely bored and far more used to being pampered, the players started to complain: the food on offer was not very good and there was not much of it; there was almost no way to exercise, there was – obviously – nothing to do but watch TV and read (not a regular pastime for the average athlete) and, worst of all, there was not a breath of fresh air to be had.

As they moaned and whinged, the local community looked on. Australia has cut itself off from the rest of the world in an attempt to rid the land of the dreaded virus while the lockdown endured by those in the state of Victoria was long and it was brutal. But it worked. Yet now these young, rich players were complaining about spending two weeks in a hotel and dining on room service. Australia was unimpressed.

While the players took to social media to tell the world of their woes, the people of Melbourne pointed to the fact that there are more than 36,000 Australians currently stranded overseas, unable to come home until the government opens the borders again.

The stranded thousands are Australian citizens, Australian passport holders; they have family and friends back home but they are not allowed into their own country to see them. Had they been tennis players, though, they would have been given a free plane ticket to Melbourne and ushered through the airport upon arrival. It is no wonder the players are getting little sympathy from the Aussies.

As is his wont, Novak Djokovic tried to help and, as usual, only made things worse. The organiser of the ill-fated (and highly infectious) Adria Tour last summer, Djokovic was probably not the best person to be telling Craig Tiley, the tournament director of the AO, how to run his event, but he did it anyway. He sent Tiley a list of six demands ranging from moving quarantining players into private houses with access to a tennis court (and we would all like to sign up for one of them) to reducing the length of the hard quarantine for the 72 stuck in their rooms. Just for good measure, he also demanded decent food. Although, it has to be said, he missed a trick there.

Cast your minds back to the first global lockdown and Djokovic’s musings on the power of positive energy. In May, he suggested that through the use of positive thought, it was possible to purify water and turn rotten food into a nutritious meal.

“Scientists have proven that in experiment, that molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what has been said.”

“Through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, [some people] managed to turn the most toxic food, or maybe most polluted water into the most healing water, because water reacts,” he said then. “Scientists have proven that in experiment, that molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what has been said.”

So, by Djokovic’s way of thinking, it should have been possible for his friends and rivals to use a bit of imagination and positive thinking to turn their meagre bowl of room service noodle salad into a 14-course banquet. But he clearly wasn’t in the mood to force the point.

Anyway, Djoko’s six requests fell on deaf ears. Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria was clear and concise in his response: “The answer is no,” he said. Tiley, ever the players’ friend, defended the world No.1 saying that he had made six suggestions rather than demands but it was too late: the damage had been done.

Australian players past and present basically told Djokovic to “pull your head in” (although Nick Kyrgios was a little more blunt, calling the world No.1 “a tool”) while most people thought the Serb had lost his already weak grasp of reality, the global pandemic and what the average Australian had been though these past 10 months.

As for the average player holed up in Melbourne, he or she was pretty underwhelmed, too. Djokovic is currently enjoying a far more relaxed quarantine in a very nice hotel in Adelaide. He has been allowed to bring 10 people with him, any number of whom can come with him to the practice courts, he has a gym in his hotel and – best of all – he has a balcony. He can open his window; he can breathe fresh air and he can feel the sun on his face. This just did not seem to fair.

Amid all this moaning and groaning, there was one voice of reason: Vika Azarenka. She was one of the unlucky ones and having been on a contaminated flight, she is now in hard quarantine. Every day she sits in her room, she knows that the results of all the hard work done in the off-season are fading away. But she is not complaining and, via Twitter, she sent out a plea to everyone concerned with the Open, from the players to the coaches, from the media to the people of Melbourne: calm down and get a sense of perspective.

The gist of her statement was that quarantine is lousy, preparing for a grand slam from your hotel room is not great but there are far worse things that have happened over the past 10 months. Calling for everyone to pull together and support the common cause, she thought it was perfectly possible to have a successful Australian Open.

“I would like for us please to try to support each other as much as someone can or is willing to,” she wrote. “Things are always easier when you have a compassionate environment and work together.”

The most surprising result of all of this is the effect on the U.S. Open. Usually coming fourth out of four in the grand slam popularity stakes, the organisers in New York must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves at the moment. Back in September, their bio-bubble seemed to work, the players seemed to be happy and they all got through three weeks of competition with barely a hitch.

Almost four months later, the event once known as the “Happy Slam” has caused the politicians to argue about the logic of holding the Open at all, the players to argue about what they are being asked to do and why only some of them are being asked to do the hard stuff and the Melburnians to argue about why a bunch of germ-laded players are allowed in Australia while their sons and daughters, wives and husbands, friends and family are still stuck thousands of miles away with no hope of getting home for months and months.

Compared to that, the U.S. Open is suddenly smelling of roses.