No delay to Australian Open despite Covid-19 quarantines

by AFP

MELBOURNE – Australian Open chief Craig Tiley insisted Sunday the Grand Slam tournament would still begin next month, but problems mounted for organisers as another 25 players were quarantined for two weeks.

A total of 72 players are now confined to their hotel rooms in Melbourne for 14 days, and barred from practising, after coming into contact with Covid-19 cases on flights to Australia.

The tournament was thrown into disarray on Saturday when three people tested positive to Covid-19 on two of the 17 charter flights bringing players and their entourages to Melbourne and Adelaide.

A fourth person, a member of a broadcast team on one of the flights, from Los Angeles, tested positive Sunday.

None were players, although one was Sylvain Bruneau, coach of Canada’s 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Another was also a coach.

Everyone on board was considered to be close contacts and ordered not to leave their hotel rooms for the 14-day quarantine period.

On Sunday, a further 25 players were ordered into quarantine after a passenger on their flight from Doha to Melbourne tested positive for coronavirus, having tested negative before boarding.

“The 25 players on the flight will not be able to leave their hotel room for 14 days and until they are medically cleared. They will not be eligible to practise,” the organisers said in a statement on Twitter.

That means the 72 quarantined players will not be allowed out to train for five hours a day as previously agreed in the build-up to the opening Grand Slam of the year, due to start on February 8.

Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Kei Nishikori and Angelique Kerber are reportedly among those affected.

“We always knew there would be significant risk with this pandemic, you can never tell,” Tiley told Channel Nine television, speaking before the additional 25 players were quarantined.

“But the Australian Open is going ahead and we will continue to do the best we possibly can to ensure those players that have what is not a great situation, one that is somewhat acceptable.”

Organisers quashed rumours about a positive case on one of the two flights to Adelaide carrying some of the game’s biggest names.

While most players touched down in Melbourne, superstars including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka instead flew into the South Australian city.

Risks made clear

Several players took to social media to complain about not being able to train, with some claiming they were not told about a hard lockdown if one person tested positive.

“If they would have told us this rule before i would not play Australia,” tweeted Romania’s Sorana Cirstea, and Kazak player Yulia Putintseva agreed, saying: “I would think twice before coming here.”

Tiley admitted it was hard, but said they were made aware of the risks.

“We did make it very clear at the beginning,” he said.

“There was a risk on the plane that you would be a close contact, there was a risk that everyone could be a close contact.”

Some players have already breached the strict lockdown rules by opening their doors.

Victoria state Covid-19 quarantine commissioner Emma Cassar warned they faced fines of up to Aus$20,000 (US$15,300) and persistent offenders risked being sent to another hotel with a police officer stationed outside their door.

She cited one player “who opened his door to try and have a conversation with his training mate down the hallway”.

“It is really low-level but really dangerous acts which we just can’t tolerate,” Cassar said.

Tiley said he was doing what he could to ensure affected players had exercise equipment in their rooms.

But he acknowledged they would struggle to be ready for a week of lead-in tournaments to start in Melbourne from January 31. “They have not been ruled out (of those events). Obviously at this point, they are not going to get on-court preparation,” he said. 

The Australian Open had already been hit by the withdrawal of injured Roger Federer, while world number 16 Madison Keys and three-time major winner Andy Murray both tested positive for Covid-19 before departure so did not board their flights.