As Nearly 50 Players Face Hard Quarantine, There’s Unrest Among Some In Melbourne

Victoria Azarenka (photo: Brigitte Urban)

WASHINGTON, January 16, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The praise and thank you messages to the Australian Open organizers served up by many players and broadcast across social media platforms seem like yesterday’s news – and, for now, they are.

There’s unrest among some of the players – especially vocal among WTA players – who were under the impression that they would only be deemed as a close contact if they were traveling in the same section of the plane as those who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Melbourne. Instead, just being on the same flight as someone who tests positive means banishment for all to their hotel rooms for 14 days without being able to leave their room to train or practice.

Among the unlucky is Great Britain’s Heather Watson, who is among 47 players to be confined to their Melbourne hotel rooms after positive coronavirus cases on their flights to the Australian Open. The 28-year-old British No. 2 was on a flight from Abu Dhabi, site of this week’s WTA Tour tournament in the Emirates capital, that arrived in Melbourne on Friday morning local time.

A total of 1,200 people were given permission by the Australian government to travel to the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, whose start date was pushed back by three weeks and whose qualifying tournaments were staged in Doha (men) and Dubai (women) earlier this week.

Meanwhile, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, who is mourning the passing of both her grandmother and aunt after recently contracting coronavirus, are among those affected that arrived on a Tennis Australia-chartered flight from Los Angeles, which had two reported COVID-19 positives after landing in Melbourne. Like Watson, they will have to undergo a hard, 14-day quarantine period confined to their hotel rooms without benefit of going to the Melbourne Park practice site to train and practice for five hours daily.

Two people – a flight crew member and an undisclosed person in a player’s traveling team – tested positive on the Los Angeles flight. Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi flight contained one positive test, Sylvain Bruneau, the coach of 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu. Bruneau confirmed it was him, writing on social media that he was “extremely sorry for the consequences now on everyone’s shoulders.”

The Abu Dhabi flight included Andreescu, Angelique Kerber, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ons Jabeur, Marta Kostyuk, Belinda Bencic, Barbora Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari. Some had been training in Dubai while others competed in the recent WTA 500-series event in Abu Dhabi.

Those who tested positive will stay in a separate “health hotel.” It has been reported – and various social media videos confirm – that quarantined players will have access to gym equipment in their rooms such as an exercise bike and, just as importantly, access to a 24/7 medical hotline if they become concerned they may have developed COVID-19 symptoms.

Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, who was not on the affected Abu Dhabi flight, described the entire process as “Russian roulette.” According to a BBC Sports report, she claimed that players “were given the impression they would only be considered a close contact if they were in the same section of the plane as an infected person.”

France’s Alizé Cornet arrived on a non-contaminated flight. She stood up for her fellow WTA professionals on social media. She suggested it’s “insane” to allow weeks of hard work to go to “waste for one person positive to Covid in a 3/4 empty plane.”

Krejcikova, who only hours before learning her fate had posted a photo on Twitter saying “words can’t describe how happy I’m to be back in Melbourne …” later wrote that said she’s tested negative four times since January 3. She told Canadian journalist John Horn, “Players got itineraries and couldn’t change them – even we wrote emails and called to the travel team. No help. …

“We were told you have to take this certain flight or you will not be able to enter Australia.” Krejcikova competed in both singles and doubles in Abu Dhabi and said she requested to fly from Dubai to no avail.

On Saturday, Tennis Australia issued statements and Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley responded to criticisms leveled by some players at the tournament.

“We are communicating with everyone on this flight, and particularly the playing group whose conditions have now changed, to ensure their needs are being catered to as much as possible,” Tiley said.

Not being able to properly train for the upcoming Australian Open is a valid point being raised by many players. Among them, Sorana Cirstea of Romania wrote on Twitter: “People are complaining we are entitled. I have no issues to stay 14 days in the room watching Netflix. Believe me, this is a dream come true, holiday even. What we can’t do is compete after we have stayed 14 days on a couch. This is the issue, not the quarantine rule.”

Many, if not most, who will be competing in the Australian Open starting on February 8, are also entered in one of two WTA 500-series events in Melbourne starting the week before. While it remains to be seen how the affected players will perform in tournament conditions with little practice. However, it seems on the surface they will be playing at a competitive disadvantage against those players who will have 14 days practice when the quarantine is lifted.

Meanwhile, Azarenka attempted to strike a positive tone on social media. After arriving in Melbourne, she posted on Twitter: “If you have time to whine then you have time to find a solution.”