There’s usually a buzz around the tennis world at this time of the year. The new season is underway, players are back on courts and the Australian Open is all set to kick off.
That buzz is lacking in 2021, replaced by frustration, anger, and confusion. There’s also questions about whether this year’s preparations for the opening Grand Slam are unfair.
The issue of fairness was raised several weeks ago when it was revealed that six players would be travelling to, and quarantining in, Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open rather than Melbourne.
The six players are the men’s top three – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem – along with two of the women’s top three – Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka – and Serena Williams, along with their hitting partners.
They have arrived in Adelaide to compete in 'A Day at the Drive', which is a one-day exhibition event held on January 29.
The problem? It seems that the quarantine conditions for these six are very different to the quarantine conditions for the rest of the ATP and WTA players in Melbourne, where the rules are apparently the “strongest and strictest” in the world. One example is that players in Melbourne have a five-hour training window when they are allowed out of their hotel room whereas in Adelaide they have access to a 24-hour gym they can use in the hotel.
World No 66 Jeremy Chardy criticised the decision, saying:
They will almost be able to live normally. Already they have a lot of privileges. If they can do everything more than you, it will not be the same preparation. And that’s weird for a sport where we’re all supposed to be on the same footing. If I was world number four I would be distraught.
Naomi Osaka is in Adelaide rather than Melbourne
Image credit: Getty Images
World No 1 Djokovic is also reportedly not entirely satisfied with the arrangement, although that might be expected given he is the head of the Professional Tennis Players Association, which was formed last year with a particular goal of helping lower-ranked players.
It also seems like an avoidable issue – why not have the players in Adelaide adhere to the same quarantine rules and protocols as those in Melbourne? Mirroring the exact same conditions might be impossible, but it seems fair to attempt it given the situation. It would at least avoid the issue of making it look like six of the world’s best players are getting preferential treatment.
If any players – which there must be a few - were miffed about the differing bubbles then their mood probably wouldn’t have improved if they were one of the 72 who now have to self-isolate in their hotel room for two weeks after positive Covid-19 test results on flights into Melbourne.
Several players were vocal on social media about the development, saying they were unaware the entire plane would have to isolate if there was a positive test and also questioned whether they could compete at a Grand Slam after two weeks stuck in their hotel room.
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World No 77 Sorana Cirstea said she thinks it would take at least three weeks “to be in decent form again and compete at a high level” following a two-week quarantine.
Is it fair?
So 72 players locked in their hotel rooms, the rest of the players allowed out for five hours a day, two hours of which is allocated to time on the practice courts. Is that fair?
Should the players not impacted by the positive tests stay in their rooms and not train like the 72 are required to do so everyone is on a level playing field? But then what about the six in Adelaide?
Having everyone prepare under the same conditions would be ideal – and was the plan - but that would now mean enforcing new regulations on the players not impacted by the positive results. That is unlikely to be met with much support.
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There is the idea that the fairness could be tilted back a little to the 72 quarantined players by giving them preferential treatment when they are allowed out. World No 99 Marta Kostyuk suggested they could get preferences regarding training sessions and also have matches scheduled as late as possible.
The idea of pushing the Australian Open back by a week has also been floated, although tournament director Craig Tiley has said that won’t be happening. The only thing that can be changed is the schedule around the lead-up tournaments.
Perhaps the most unfair aspect is that the Australian Open is even taking place while thousands of Australian citizens are not being allowed to move between states or visit family members due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly tennis players who have complained on social media about the situation have been met with some angry responses.
On the court, Austrian Philipp Oswald has acknowledged that preferential treatment for the top players is nothing new, but this is different.
“When it comes to equal opportunities, it has to be said that the truth is that there is not 100 per cent equal opportunities throughout the season,” he told Tennisnet.
The top stars are always treated better. But they earned it somewhere because they bring the money and the whole tour lives off of them. Normally the players have no problem with this hierarchy, because it is about Rafa [Rafael Nadal] or Domi [Dominic Thiem] practising at the best time on Centre Court.
“Now they are allowed to practice more. It's really unfair if you look at it objectively.”