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Australian Open, a test of coronavirus-era sports, set to begin in Melbourne


It was a flubbed system of hotel quarantines last year that loosed the coronavirus and wreaked a second lockdown in the Australian state of Victoria and its gleaming metropolis of Melbourne. Those clobbering 111 days ranged clear into late October and piled atop the initial national lockdown from March, which led to a hotel quarantine for inbound travelers, which led to the virus’s escape through feckless security in Victoria, which led to the second lockdown, which led to a 96-witness inquiry released in December, which led to nothing much in the way of pinpointing blame.

“Victorians are very conscious of hotel quarantines,” said Georgie Crozier, a member of Victoria’s parliament and the shadow minister for health in a state that has suffered 820 of the 909 coronavirus deaths in a country of rarefied competence at the global combat.

Now here comes an oh-my phase of hotel quarantines in Melbourne. It involves one of the most important experiments in international sports in the coronavirus era, this particular Australian Open, and it involves some of the most oblivious divas to walk the Earth: top-rung tennis players.

They arrived among 1,200-some fellow travelers who include limited numbers from their customary ecosystem. They arrived well in advance of an event postponed from January to Feb. 8 to Feb. 21, some from virus-howling countries such as the United States. Ten of the throng had tested positive as of this weekend. Seventy-two, after riding three charter flights that yielded one or two positive tests each, entered the “hard lockdown” of “hotel quarantine,” unable even to practice outdoors. A few stated both inanities and apologies. Go beyond their non-openable windows into the recovering city, and they’re the gist of a coronavirus debate familiar to Americans: sports vs. public health vs. economics vs. public mental health vs. the yearning for “covid-normal,” a phrase Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews has deployed.

Only this time, the backdrop differs from the Grand Slam coronavirus-era experiments of 2020, the U.S. Open and French Open. “What the overseas players need to understand,” reader Kirsty Page of Ivanhoe wrote in a letter to the Age newspaper, “is that the Australian Open bubble is different from the other ones, like the U.S. Open. [The U.S. Open and French Open] were done to protect the players from everyone else. Our bubble is to protect all of us from the players and their entourages. I’m sure they cannot comprehend how hard we worked for zero cases.”

It can read like hieroglyphics to those in virus-besieged countries and states, but Victoria recently has had 61-day and 19-day streaks without locally transmitted cases, the latter sustained as of Monday morning.

“They’re so nervous about the virus escaping,” Crozier said of her constituents, “and after the government mismanaging [the security for previous hotel quarantines]. … It’s not about the tennis. I adore the tennis. I love it. But we cannot, we cannot, allow this virus to escape because of what we’ve been through. There’s a lot of people that have said to me: ‘We shouldn’t be having the tennis. It’s not worth it. Wimbledon was canceled. Why not this?’ ”

Big matters abound. Victoria grapples with state-border questions. Melburnians stranded elsewhere struggle to get home from Sydney and Thailand and beyond. Victoria’s schools have been preparing to reopen. Tucked somewhere amid all of that, sports have reappeared alongside the familiar signs and sighs of covid times: fractional attendance. A cricket saga between Australia and India recently toured the country in four cities, including Melbourne, with under 30,000 in attendance at a ground capable of 100,000. That late December event cordoned fans into zones, for ease in case of any need for contact tracing (which did prove necessary).

With two solid weeks of tennis matches presenting a harder mission, the Australian Open aims to mimic that approach with three separate fan zones as it attempts to avoid a cancellation that might dent its Grand Slam brand. Its leader, Craig Tiley, a native South African, Australian citizen and former tennis coach at the University of Illinois, has tried to steer through a grand barrage of issues and confusion. He told reporters the players have given him both understanding and blowback.

Within those players, the situation has upheld the age-old divide between superstars and semi-stars. That divide normally comes up in court assignments at Grand Slams; now it comes up in housing assignments at Grand Slams.

The former group spends its quarantine 400 miles northwest of Melbourne in Adelaide, in the less-stricken, less-restricted state of South Australia. From there came a now-infamous arrangement of words from eight-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, a list of suggestions for relaxations for players over in Melbourne. It got lambasted and lampooned such that he wrote a “Dear Australia” letter, saying it stemmed from concern for “fellow players” and calling it a “brainstorm” rather than a list of demands. No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut mind-numbingly echoed an Israeli news host’s question about whether the hard lockdown felt like “prison.” (He apologized.) Some players have bemoaned the food brought to rooms. The girlfriend of No. 229 Bernard Tomic explained on video her frustration born of her entrenched incapacity to wash her hair.

Those constitute exceptions, as Tiley has said, with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who has endured turmoil in her personal life, leading the brigade of upstanding sorts preaching perspective. With Azarenka and 27 other female players in mind, Tennis Australia introduced a fresh tournament and Australian Open tuneup, to begin Feb. 3 and include only those making the hard trek through hard quarantine.

Within tennis lie long-lamented issues about stars getting better treatment and the questions of competitive imbalance because of practice privileges, nowadays trifling. Outside tennis lie larger issues such as, you know, politics.

A commotion brewed lately when Tiley went on the radio on the subject of the bills ringing up in three quarantine hotels, saying the state government would be helping out, which spawned some backtracking. That included Andrews, the premier since 2014, saying, “The tennis world is paying for that.”

That led Neil Mitchell, a longtime pillar of a morning radio host, to call that “a contender for con job of the year.” He told his audience: “Yesterday, on-air, about half past 9, I established that you and I, as taxpayers, are subsidizing hotel quarantine for the tennis players, all those whiners sitting in five-star hotels hitting the ball against the wall. The head of Tennis Australia told me so. He confirmed it. And the government immediately started to cover it up.”

Then: “They expect you to believe that the man who runs the Australian Open didn’t know who and how they were paying for the quarantine.”

Then: “Now, come on.”

And as sports doesn’t stick to sports these days, state political reporter Richard Willingham wrote for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “A successful tournament will show that Melbourne is truly open again, but if the virus leaks into the community and forces a lockdown, Andrews’s time as Premier will almost certainly be over.”

As Crozier told it: “One hundred and eleven days to be locked down is a long, long time. We were locked in our homes 23 hours a day. We had a curfew. We were allowed to go literally around the block.” She spoke of people presenting at hospitals with increases in cases of self-harm and businesses closing sometimes for good, and she said, “We can’t go into a third lockdown.”

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