The Australian Open traditionally makes headlines weeks before it starts because it’s the first grand slam of the season.
This year, however, the early focus is on charter flights, coronavirus-positive passengers, and frustrated tennis players practising strokes against walls and upturned mattresses in hotel quarantine.
Here’s everything you need to know about how we got here and what to expect from the 2021 Australian Open scheduled to run from 8-21 February.
What are the quarantine arrangements for players?
Tennis Australia organised 15 charter flights to bring about 1,200 players and their teams to Melbourne where they must quarantine in guarded hotels for 14 days.
About a dozen players, including Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, were on two flights to Adelaide where they will quarantine prior to an exhibition match before travelling to Melbourne.
The flights arrived between Thursday evening and Saturday morning. Travellers were tested for Covid-19 before boarding the flights and on landing and will be tested daily throughout their quarantine.
Unlike regular arrivals into Australia, players and coaches are allowed to leave their hotel rooms for five hours of training a day under a “modified quarantine” arrangement, provided they returned a negative test after day-two of their isolation.
However, if a traveller on one of the flights tests positive, they and anyone who travelled on that flight loses their “modified quarantine” privileges and is required to stay in their room, without training, for 14 days.
In Melbourne, overseas players and teams will be accommodated across three hotels and moved to a separate medical hotel if they test positive at any time.
How many coronavirus cases have been detected so far among players and their teams?
There have been nine cases linked to the charter flights as of Monday morning. This includes one player, who has not been named, as well as coaching staff and one media broadcaster.
As a result, there are now 72 tennis players who were on those flights with positive cases – from Abu Dhabi, Doha and Los Angeles – who now face two weeks in their rooms unable to train.
How have players responded?
Many are unhappy at the prospect of not being able to train on a court.
While some have found creative ways to maintain physical activity while in isolation – including rallying against an upturned mattress – others claim they were unaware they would lose their training privilege if a positive case from their flight rendered them a close contact.
Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, who is considered a close contact after her flight, said she would “think twice before coming” had she been aware of the requirement. She said she was unlikely to play in a warm-up event on 31 January and voiced concerns about the risk of injury from being unable to train.
Tennis Australia did not respond to Guardian Australia’s request for clarification about what information players were given about quarantine rules.
World No 1 Djokovic reportedly sent Australian Open director, Craig Tiley, a list of six demands he would like addressed on behalf of locked-down players in Melbourne.
According to Spanish tennis website Punto de Break, Djokovic wanted the isolation period reduced, players to see their coach or trainer, and as many as possible moved to private homes with tennis courts. He also wanted better food and more fitness equipment delivered to players’ rooms.
However, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, on Monday poured cold water on calls for the rules to be loosened further, saying “people are free to provide lists of demands but the answer is no”.
Is the tournament under threat?
Tiley on Sunday was confident the tournament would go ahead.
Organisers had already delayed the two-week tournament from its traditional mid-January start as they worked through logistical hurdles with the Victorian government to allay concerns the event could lead to another significant outbreak of the virus that shuttered Melbourne twice in 2020.
Lead-up events, which are traditionally played in different cities around Australia, have mostly been moved to Melbourne and will begin as soon as players are released from quarantine in late January.
The Victorian government did postpone the Formula One Grand Prix from mid-March to November.
How are organisers going to make sure the Australian Open is Covid-safe?
Organisers have split the Melbourne Park tennis centre into three zones, which will act as bubbles to limit mingling between different groups of fans and aid contact tracing in the event of any positive cases.
Traditionally, the larger arenas were ticketed, but anyone with a ticket into Melbourne Park, including the cheapest “ground pass” ticket, was allowed to wander between more than a dozen outdoor show courts and practice courts.
This year, fans will be able to purchase three different types of tickets. All tickets to one of the three main arenas must be booked in what organisers are calling “fan pods” – physically distanced groups of one to six seats with a buffer of empty seats surrounding them.
Anyone attending centre court, Rod Laver Arena, will only have access to their specific seats, as well as part of the Grand Slam Oval public gathering area, where matches are shown on a big screen.
Margaret Court Arena ticket holders will have access to their specific seats on that court as well as to show court 2 and show court 3 – the two largest outdoor, uncover courts. The Garden Square gathering area will also be included in this precinct.
Those with tickets to John Cain Arena – previously called Melbourne Arena and known for showing Australian players – will be able to access two other outside match courts as well as all of the practice courts where fans can watch players train.
Will all of the different competition categories still be held?
No. The main men’s, women’s and wheelchair singles will be running, as well as the doubles and mixed doubles competitions. But the junior competitions have been postponed.
How many fans can attend?
Final numbers will be determined in line with the Victorian government’s spacing regulations that are in place in February. However, the seat buffering rules will mean attendances will be significantly lower compared with recent years.
In 2020, the Australian Open drew a record 812,174 fans over the two-week period. More than 93,000 attended on the middle Saturday of the tournament.
How will this Australian Open compare with other grand slams held since the pandemic began?
Wimbledon was the only grand slam that was cancelled in 2020 – the first time the historic tournament did not take place since the second world war.
The US Open was from late August to mid-September, with no fans allowed, while the French Open, which traditionally begins in late May, was postponed to late September, with crowds ultimately limited to 1,000 a day.
– with Australian Associated Press