Roberto Bautista Agut has apologised after a video was released in which the tennis player likened Australian Open quarantine in Melbourne to being in prison and laid sole blame with the Victorian government.
Frustration and confusion continues unabated in the buildup to the season’s first major, starting on 8 February, with some 72 players and staffers in lockdown in Melbourne.
Two more players tested positive on Tuesday, bringing the total number of Covid-19 cases associated with the tournament to seven. A third case on Tuesyesterday involved a “non-playing participant”, according to Victoria’s health authorities. While many players have transformed their hotel rooms into makeshift training centres, the overall sentiment has been one of disquiet and apprehension about potential injury and form ramifications of two weeks with no court practice.
In a broadcast on Israeli news channel Sport 5, Bautista Agut became the latest to voice concern, drawing parallels between hotel quarantine and being behind bars.
“It’s the same, but with wifi,” the world No 13, a semi-finalist and quarter-finalist at the 2019 Wimbledon and Australian Open tournaments respectively, said. “These people have no idea about tennis and about practice courts, and it’s a complete disaster. The control of everything isn’t Tennis Australia, it’s with the government.
“You can work in the room but it’s not the same. I feel very, very tight and I cannot imagine staying two weeks like this. It’s really, really tough. I will have to work a lot mentally.”
In a later statement, Bautista Agut said: “I want to apologise to everyone who has been offended by the video that was posted about me recently. It is a private conversation taken out of context that has unfortunately been released to the media without my knowledge or consent.
“Both my coach and I are following the protocols designed by the Australian government and Tennis Australia to avoid any risk and guarantee to compete again in a safe way. These are hard times for athletes and society in general.
“I thank all the people who are making playing tennis again possible. As well as all those who are fighting Covid-19 everyday. The management that has been made in Australia to prevent the spread of the virus is admirable.”
Earlier the two-times Australia Open champion Victoria Azarenka had implored her fellow players to empathise with the ordeal endured by Victorians as a result of the pandemic.
“I would like to ask my colleagues 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 wrote in a lengthy open letter posted on Twitter.
The situation has sparked suggestions organisers should consider shortening men’s matches to best of three sets, instead of the traditional five, to offset the disadvantage to players in hard quarantine.
Tournament director, Craig Tiley, rejected that notion out of hand, despite acknowledging the lockdown meant preparation was “not an even playing field”.
“We are a grand slam at the end of the day,” Tiley told the Nine Network. “Right now, three out of five sets for the men and two out of three sets for the women is the position we plan on sticking to.
“In order for us to pull this off, we’ve had to do it with great partnership with Quarantine Victoria, with the Victorian government and that is working really well. The two weeks with the players and 72 of them being in a hard lockdown, we are providing them with all sorts of exercise equipment in their rooms.
“They can be creative on how they use the dressers, the beds for exercise, and we have seen on social media some really interesting ideas. And then they are going to come out after 14 days in their room and we will give them some time to prepare and that is why we had that buffer week, in the event that this was going to happen.”
Tiley said tournament organisers were considering other avenues “to try to even it up as much as possible”.
Kevin Roberts, professor of exercise science at the University of South Australia, said that would be difficult, citing the “physiological and biochemical decay” induced by significant changes to training schedules and environments. This, he said, presents in the form of reduced cardiovascular capacity, decision-making speed and accuracy, and an underpreparedness to adjust to the extreme temperatures commonly seen in Melbourne grand slam.
“Perhaps most critical is the fact that players are now in controlled, air-conditioned rooms, 24 hours a day,” Roberts said. “Exposure to hot environments is essential for players to maintain enhanced capacity to regulate their bodies under very hot court conditions.”
Two positive Covid-19 cases that sparked a hard lockdown of some players in quarantine have been reclassified as cases of viral shedding. On Tuesday morning Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said that may be cause to grant some players a reprieve. However, an afternoon update from the state’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said no changes to the strictest quarantine conditions would be made just yet.
Nevertheless, Tiley said quarantine “is the contribution” affected players must make “to get the privilege of, when they do come out, to compete for $80m in prize money”.
He labelled the six Covid cases as a low figure given 1,200 coronavirus tests have been carried out in Melbourne over the past five days.
“There was going to be an expectation to have several positive cases,” he said. “But now we’re in a position where they’re in lockdown, designed to protect the community.”
Tiley also defended Djokovic’s reported appeal, via a wishlist, for organisers to ease restrictions, a move that prompted Nick Kyrgios to call the world No 1 “a tool” on Twitter.