With Positive Tests, Australia’s Summer of Pro Tennis Has a Rocky Start – The New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — A seemingly airtight plan to stage the first major tennis tournament of 2021 without compromising players’ health or the success of Australia’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic fell apart over the weekend.

By Monday afternoon, six passengers from three chartered flights had tested positive after arriving in Australia, prompting orders for everyone aboard to go into quarantine for two weeks. The planes — which arrived from Los Angeles; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Doha, Qatar — carried 72 players, including multiple expected contenders at this year’s Australian Open and former Grand Slam champions. They will now not be able to leave their hotel rooms to practice for 14 days. There were also journalists, coaches and others on the planes.

The organizer of the Australian Open, Tennis Australia, which spent months formulating the plan, faced a rebellion from players, especially a number of extremely frustrated women who had just played the first event of the women’s tour last week in Abu Dhabi. The Doha flight carried players who participated in the men’s qualifying event for the Australian Open.

Passengers were asked to have negative test results for the virus within 72 hours of the flights’ departures. They were tested again after landing in Melbourne, and six people on the flights were found to have the virus as of Monday afternoon, prompting health officials in the Australian state of Victoria to order that all passengers remain in their hotel rooms for 14 days.

For the players on the flights, that means stricter restrictions than they had anticipated before the Australian Open, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 8. Three tuneup events are supposed to begin on Feb. 1.

Entrants in the tournament had agreed to stay in their rooms for 19 hours a day and were allowed five hours daily at the tennis center to practice, train and eat.

Those rules got even tighter on Saturday for the 72 players on the three charter flights, who were told they could not leave their hotel rooms at all.

Tennis officials appealed for more leniency for players who repeatedly test negative in their first days in Australia. For weeks ahead of the December announcement that Australia would stage its traditional summer of tennis, players, including the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, had said being forced to remain in a hotel room for two weeks and then have to compete immediately afterward would pose a serious injury risk. Many said they would not come to Australia under those conditions.

Still, over the weekend, government officials declined to soften the rules or allow Tennis Australia to come up with an alternative practice plan. Many players and tennis officials said they were not aware when they moved ahead with plans to stage the tournament that the government might impose such restrictions, though others said they assumed that would be a consequence.

“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, and that they are fully appraised of the situation,” said Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia.

Tiley held a series of difficult videoconferencing sessions with players to explain the changes.

In a livestream on Instagram on Saturday night, Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine told her fellow player Paula Badosa of Spain that she had been blindsided by the ruling and would have to compete on an uneven playing field.

“It’s about the idea of staying in a room for two weeks and being able to compete,” said Kostyuk, who could not remember the last time she did not pick up a racket for two weeks. “We have to stay in quarantine, but we have to fulfill expectations.”

Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan posted a video on Twitter of herself rallying against the wall of her hotel room. Tiley said officials were scrambling to get exercise equipment into the players’ rooms.

The fast-changing situation and the escalating frustration among the players illustrated just how complicated holding major sports events amid a pandemic can be. Even — or perhaps especially — in Australia, which has had fewer than 30,000 cases since the pandemic began because it imposes some of the strictest rules of any democratic nation, including severe curtailing of domestic travel.

Tennis Australia is spending tens of millions of dollars on special arrangements to meet government health regulations, but the virus has found ways to hobble even the most expensive plans that sports organizations have come up with to remain in operation.

Tennis Australia chartered 17 flights from seven countries to bring players and support personnel to the tournament, limiting capacity to 25 percent on each plane. Tiley said Sunday that players were warned that coming to Australia involved the risk of being considered in close contact with someone who had tested positive, resulting in a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The flight from Abu Dhabi caused the most consternation because it carried players who had competed in the first event of the year on the women’s tour, among them Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, who played in the final on Wednesday.

Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, participated in one of the videoconferences Saturday, but the organization, which represents players and tournaments, has so far deferred to Tennis Australia on the consequences of the new cases.

A spokesman for the organization said the WTA was “working with Tennis Australia on the challenges currently being faced with a focus on finding appropriate solutions that support the significant efforts and investment that are being made surrounding the Australian Summer of Tennis.”

The players on the Los Angeles flight included Victoria Azarenka, the 2020 United States Open finalist and a two-time Australian Open champion.

Officials said a flight attendant and two others had tested positive on the Los Angeles flight as of Sunday. Sylvain Bruneau, the coach of the Canadian player Bianca Andreescu, said he had tested positive after arriving on the flight from Abu Dhabi.

“I have followed all of the safety protocols and procedures, including testing negative within 72 hours before the flight departure and felt perfectly fine when I boarded the plane,” Bruneau said in a statement. “I also respected and followed all Covid protocols and guidelines while in the Middle East. I have no idea how I might have contracted this virus. I am extremely saddened and sorry for the consequences now on everyone’s shoulders sharing my flight.”

Another player, Tennys Sandgren of the United States, received special clearance to travel on the Los Angeles flight despite a recent positive test. Health officials determined he was not infectious because he had showed no symptoms and had previously contracted the virus in November. “Some people who have recovered from Covid-19 and who are noninfectious can continue to shed the virus for several months,” the tournament said.

Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium expressed empathy for the players who faced a stricter quarantine because of the new infections. “Everyone should quarantine for two weeks or the Aus Open should be pushed back by a week,” Flipkens wrote on Twitter.

Tiley said on Sunday that the date of the tournament could not change. A delay would require a significant reshuffling of a schedule that had been carefully redesigned, and it would cost Tennis Australia significantly more money to keep more than 1,000 people who have come to Australia for the competition in Melbourne for an additional week. Tiley and his medical adviser said they were waiting to learn more details about the infections.

Matthew Futterman reported from Melbourne, and Ben Rothenberg from Washington.

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