Tennis players landing in Melbourne for the Australian Open have expressed frustration after around 70 of them were placed in strict 14-day quarantine, unable to leave their hotel rooms for practice.
On Sunday a charter flight carrying players from a qualifying event in Doha reported a positive Covid test, the third plane to fall foul of Australia’s rules along with flights from Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles. Of around 370 tennis players transported to Australia over the past week in 17 chartered flights, an estimated 72 are now confined entirely to their Melbourne hotel rooms.
The restrictions have divided players. Those who arrived without any positive tests on their flights are allowed five hours of training and fitness each day. Some players say they were not aware that sharing a plane with an infected person would be classed as close contact.
And while most were flown into Melbourne, an exclusive group of top players – including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka – travelled to Adelaide. They have been allowed to travel with more members of staff and, unlike professionals in Melbourne, they will be able to use the hotel gym.
The new case reported on Sunday brought the total of infected travellers up to five, with more awaiting their results. The positive cases include a flight attendant and Sylvain Bruneau, coach of the 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.
In addition to Andreescu, those who must quarantine for 14 days include the former world No 1s Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber, the former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Kei Nishikori and the British No 2 Heather Watson.
As players have settled into their rooms, their restrictions have presented other challenges. In a press conference, the Emma Cassar, commissioner for corrections in Victoria, said one player had already been warned for a minor breaching of the rules.
“One player opened his door to try and have a conversation with his training mates down the hallway,” Cassar said. “The other was another gentleman who shouted Uber Eats to some other people on the floor and was praising himself for his great efforts, and opened his door to do so. It is very low level, but they are dangerous acts that we cannot tolerate.”
The French player Alizé Cornet wrote on Twitter: “We’ve been told that the plane would be separated by a section of 10 people and that if one person of your section was positive, then you had to isolate. Not that the whole plane had to.”
Cornet also predicted that the strictness of the rules meant “half of the players” in the tournament would eventually have to isolate, and said it was “insane” in a now-deleted tweet.
The Romanian player Sorana Cirstea wrote on Twitter: “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.”
But Artem Sitak, a doubles player from New Zealand, noted that Tennis Australia had hosted a call with players last month and he was surprised by how few players were present.
“They told us the risks that we were going to be undertaking and they did mention that if somebody tests positive on the flight, it’s going to be up to the health authorities to decide whether to quarantine all the flight or just isolate compartments of the plane.”
As they uploaded videos of themselves striking tennis balls against mattresses and windows, tennis players continued to argue that they will be risking injury by competing after two weeks of inactivity.
Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, who was moved to a different hotel room at 3am after she discovered a mouse in her room, explained that she was unlikely to compete in the warm-up event due to begin on 31 January.
“I really don’t know, because if I got out of these conditions and have to jump on the court and play a match straight, it’s really, really bad for my health. So I doubt I’m going to play this event.”
The comments from tennis players have provoked a sharp backlash from some Australian citizens. The strict rules are a reflection of how Australia has dealt with coronavirus and the determination to hold off another wave. Victoria state endured a 112-day lockdown last year and have registered no new community cases in recent days. To some, the athletes have presented themselves as entitled.
After a day of mayhem the Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley, spoke on television on Sunday morning, reaffirming the 8 February start date for the tournament with tiredness etched across his face.
“The Australian Open is going ahead and we will continue to do the best we possibly can do to ensure those players have the best opportunity,” he said.