The build-up to the Australian Open has simply been like nothing we have ever seen or experienced before. The extraordinary circumstances surrounding Covid-19 have presented us with a tournament that nobody can predict. And as precedents for future events go, it doesn’t bode well right now.
The most recent twist to this ever-changing tale saw 507 Australian Open players and staff forced to quarantine after a staff member at the hotel they are staying at tested positive with the coronavirus. This happened just four days ahead of the tournament’s start date on Monday, and even though the draw is still yet to take place organisers are hopeful of the tournament going ahead on schedule.
The whole thing has been a shambles in terms of organisation from the moment players flew Down Under. Some 72 players were told to self-isolate after positive tests on the chartered flights that took them to Australia, which led to some creative and inventive ways of players training in their hotel rooms. Belinda Bencic rallied against her glass window, Marta Kostyuk did shuttle runs between tennis balls and Heather Watson just ran back and forth.
Novak Djokovic wasn’t having any of it, and submitted a list of demands to Tennis Australia which requested players be transferred to private villas with tennis courts, provided with proper food, and for the 14-day quarantine period to be removed for players. Unsurprisingly, Tennis Australia didn’t budge on their protocols.
With the Australian Open being one of the first litmus tests on how sport will look in 2021 after the disaster that was 2020, the sporting world has been keeping a close eye on developments Down Under. The hope is that with vaccinations being rolled out and crowds now likely to be absent, events will take place without any hiccups. However, there will be a sense of worry that the outbreaks which we have experienced in the build-up to this one will be repeated elsewhere later in the year.
This isn’t just restricted to tennis events either. With the state of the world now, and countries being vaccinated at different rates, it seems crazier than ever to continue with the plans to host Euro 2020 across 12 countries given the trepidation around unnecessary travel. A more sensible, achievable and safe plan might be to pick a country with all of the facilities already in place, and keep squads in isolated hotels for the duration of the tournament.
The Olympic and Paralympic Games will also see thousands of athletes gather in one place, and the organisers are still hopeful of welcoming capacity crowds to the biggest sporting show on earth. But as we have seen at the Australian Open, one positive test of a hotel staff member can cause hundreds of people to quarantine and could seriously disrupt their event. In a worst case scenario, the validity of the entire Games could be in doubt.
With any luck, the sporting landscape of 2021 is looking brighter. The vaccinations on offer are proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are not in the clear just yet. Still months or perhaps even a year away from sport returning as we used to know it, lessons must be learnt from the situation that has unfolded at the Australian Open.
Athletes who travel to these events must be treated with the utmost care and respect, while also being given every opportunity to perform at their absolute maximum. The safety of all staff, players and coaches must come first, even if it means cancelling events, or moving them to locations that have little or no cases of Covid-19. Tough decisions will have to be taken this year, but we are closer than ever before to a return to sporting normality. In the meantime, it’s all eyes on Melbourne Park.