Can a Country Control the Virus and Host a Grand Slam? Australia Is Trying

For fourteen days, some of the world’s best tennis players prepared for the Australian Open inside hotel rooms. A few of them thwacked balls against glass windows. Some pulled mattresses off bed frames and flipped them up on their sides to make backboards. Others rallied against empty stretches of wall, or swung aggressively against the air. They recorded TikToks of agility workouts, and Instagrammed their ingenious feats. Heather Watson tweeted a sped-up video of herself running five kilometres—one length of her hotel room at a time.

Many of the videos were funny, but they appeared alongside other, less amusing posts. There were complaints about the food. About unequal access to practice. About new protocols. Most players, of course, kept quiet, and a few were even gracious, but there was enough griping that a dark cloud hung over the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne, where many of the players were quarantining shortly before the Australian Open.

They had reasons to complain: in a few weeks’ time, the players would be competing for two, three, even four hours at a time, potentially in extreme heat—not an easy task even for athletes in peak form, let alone ones who have been trying to simulate hundred-and-fifteen-mile-an-hour serves by volleying with a window. And some of them, including a few players with legitimate title hopes, were facing serious bad luck: seventy-two players had flown to Melbourne aboard planes on which people had tested positive for COVID-19 upon landing. Health officials ruled all the planes’ passengers as close contacts, ordering them to isolate for fourteen days, while other players were allowed outside their rooms for up to five hours, split between training on court and in a gym. And a handful of the top players—including Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic, and Serena Williams—were flown to Adelaide, where they reportedly were quartered in nicer accommodations, were allowed to bring larger teams, and trained under better conditions. A few pictures on social media of their setup in Adelaide had spurred so much envy among those in Melbourne that, reportedly, the Adelaide players were quietly encouraged not to post anything else. And one player, Yulia Putintseva, had a truly legitimate concern: a mouse. No one wants to be trapped in a room with a rodent.

But whatever good will Putintseva garnered from the Australian public disappeared when she posted a picture of herself holding up a sign that read “We need fresh air to breathe,” perhaps not the most sympathy-inducing message during a pandemic in which people are literally dying because they cannot breathe. Editorials jeered Djokovic after the contents of a letter in which he made requests on behalf of the seventy-two players in hard lockdown—including looser quarantine restrictions, better food, and, when possible, the use of private houses with tennis courts—were leaked. Nor did the public take it well when a video of the Spanish player Roberto Bautista Agut calling quarantine a prison “but with Wi-Fi” was aired on television. (Bautista Agut later claimed that he believed he was speaking privately.) “These people have no idea about tennis and about practice courts, and it’s a complete disaster,” Bautista Agut said. “The control of everything isn’t Tennis Australia,” he added, referring to the organization that hosts the Australian Open. “It’s with the government.”

What Bautista Agut and several of his fellow-players seemed to have little idea about was what constituted an actual disaster. (Note: nothing to do with practice courts.) But the Victorian government, and people living in Melbourne, did know, and too well. After a second wave of the virus took hundreds of lives in the state, Melbourne residents endured a lockdown that lasted for a hundred and eleven days; they were allowed to leave their houses only under strictly defined circumstances. Everyone arriving in Australia was required to quarantine for fourteen days, at his or her own expense. Interstate travel was restricted. Opportunities to fly in were limited. Tens of thousands of residents were stranded abroad, missing weddings and births and funerals. (That last fact, in particular, made the decision to allow more than a thousand tennis players and their teams into the country controversial.) After lapses in the hotel-quarantine program led to deaths, the restrictions were tightened further. For most people around the world, the stringency of the rules was hard to imagine. But they had worked: only nine hundred and nine people had died in Australia since the start of the pandemic, fewer than the number of dead in New Hampshire alone. And, as of the morning of Wednesday, February 3rd, there had not been a single case of local transmission in twenty-eight days. In the hotel quarantine, meanwhile, a player who had been on one of the flights whose passengers had been put in hard lockdown tested positive on the seventh day.

It’s easy to pick on tennis players for putting tennis first, but it’s also easy to understand why they’re surprised. Players have been back on tour for about six months, and, in that time, they have been flown from bubble to bubble. They have been granted exemptions from typical travel restrictions. They have been assured that protocols are for their safety. The focus has been on protecting them (and, by extension, insuring that the various tournaments go smoothly). In this, they were hardly alone: in many countries, professional sports have been prioritized.

Sport and government officials have typically justified going to great lengths to hold professional sporting events during a pandemic by characterizing sports as a public good. We need distractions. And, to be fair, a number of leagues and organizations have been scrupulous about protocols. Many teams have played without fans. In the N.B.A., W.N.B.A., N.H.L., and N.W.S.L. bubbles, there was no transmission at all after the initial isolation period. But you cannot view the success or failure of a league’s protocols in isolation; they are part of a social ecosystem. The N.B.A. bubble may have been a success, but public-health officials have cited celebrations of the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship as a potential factor in seeding the deepening coronavirus crisis in Southern California last fall.

Unlike the N.B.A. or N.F.L., Tennis Australia could not argue that positive coronavirus tests were lamentable but inevitable. Life in Melbourne was returning to normal. People were going to the movies, meeting friends at restaurants for lunch. Australia is a sport-loving nation, but even many avid tennis fans were ambivalent about the compromises that the government was making in its quarantine system in order to allow the Australian Open to happen. The tournament was allowed to welcome thirty thousand paying spectators a day, but sales were sluggish.

Tennis Australia went to enormous lengths to reassure the Victorian government that flying more than a thousand people into the country from places where the pandemic was raging would be safe, and also to persuade players that travelling around the world would be worth the effort. And seventeen planes were chartered from seven international destinations. Players were put up in good hotels, some of them in what looked like luxury suites. Their rooms were furnished with exercise equipment. They were reportedly given daily vouchers for delivery services, in addition to regular meals. And all players were guaranteed a hundred thousand Australian dollars for participating in the first round of the Open, even if they lost. Craig Tiley, the head of Tennis Australia, conducted a months-long public-relations blitz. “We will send a signal to the world that Melbourne is the events capital of the world,” he crowed.

Quarantine ended, the players were released, and the tennis began. In Adelaide, during an exhibition put on by top players, fans packed the stands. In Melbourne, a glut of Grand Slam tune-up tournaments began. The courts were packed, with a dizzying number of star matchups.

Then, on Wednesday, a hotel quarantine worker at the Grand Hyatt tested positive, breaking the long string of days that the state had gone without a locally contracted positive case. It is not publicly known who infected the hotel worker, or how. “We have to assume that this person has infected others,” Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, said. Some five hundred people connected with the tournament who had stayed in the hotel—including a hundred and sixty players—were deemed casual contacts, and told to isolate until they returned a negative test. This time no one complained.

New mask restrictions were put in place; the restrictions on gatherings were tightened; the return-to-work schedule was paused. Contact tracing went into overdrive. All the players’ and event staff’s tests came back negative, and the tennis resumed. The tournament is set to begin on Monday, as scheduled. In another two weeks, we will, one hopes, be crowning Grand Slam champions. It may be a great tournament. But success should be defined differently right now.

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