Australian Open 2021 -- How players are adapting to training in quarantine
Victoria Azarenka cried when she heard the news.
Having traveled halfway around the world to Melbourne for only the second time since 2016, the two-time Australian Open champion was excited to make her return to the tournament and build on the momentum from her 2020 season, in which she reached the US Open final.
She had been there about 24 hours and received yet another negative COVID-19 test result that morning when her agent told her someone on her charter flight from Los Angeles tested positive upon arrival. All passengers on the flight, including 23 players, would have to self-isolate in their hotel rooms for the next 14 days.
Next, there was an urgent and chaotic meeting over Zoom, and when it was over, Azarenka sat on the couch in her room and the tears came. She was frustrated and upset, but mostly just sad. The 31-year-old spent much of the rest of the day in the same spot, watching television, meditating and writing down some of her racing thoughts.
"It took me a day because, and this was the most difficult part about it, there's nothing you can do about it," she recently told ESPN over a Zoom call on what she said was her eighth day of quarantine. "I think that's where the emotions kind of get really high and frustrating, because even if you try to do something, there's really nothing you can do about it. And honestly, I didn't fight it. I gave myself one day to feel bad for myself and be emotional.
"But after that, I felt there's just no point of continuing this way. I think having those feelings was normal, but it's just the matter of managing it and handling it, and figuring out how can you go past those initial emotions and keep going. I thankfully had brought a lot of my equipment with me, so the next day I started getting creative -- putting some sofa cushions against the wall, I started to just see what I can do, what I can get myself busy with."
After two more charter flights had the same issue, Azarenka is now one of 72 players who are currently in the hard quarantine protocol, stuck exclusively in their rooms. Their peers, meanwhile, are under the regular mandated two-week quarantine for anyone traveling into the country, and are allowed to leave for five hours a day to train on the tournament grounds.
It has forced tournament and local government officials to balance public safety with the needs of players, who are now preparing for the year's first major from a 355-square foot room.
Tennis Australia has not publicly identified which players were impacted with the new restrictions, likely due to the country's strict medical privacy laws, but its email to those affected was leaked by a player via his social media account. Others have shared the news themselves, filling their social feeds with videos and photos of how they have converted their hotel rooms into makeshift courts and gyms. Most were provided with a stationary bike, and many have pushed their mattresses up to hit into or started volleying directly into the wall, seemingly to the delight of those in adjoining rooms. Belinda Bencic, the World No. 12 who is currently in isolation, taped up her window like a net on court.
Like Azarenka, Bencic is trying to make the best of the situation, but she too was initially upset and felt like all the hard work she put in during the offseason was for naught.
"I'm trying to remain positive for my mental state," Bencic said from her hotel room on Friday. "Of course, the first few days, it was very bad. I felt like my chances of playing, and playing well, at the Australian Open are really low right now, and it's hard to accept. Especially when you see all the other players are practicing and are able to improve and prepare for the Australian Open and we cannot.
"When we have a 14-day vacation, after the vacation, we feel like we've never played tennis before, so it's a very long process to get the level back again, and we definitely need more time than we have. But then, of course, on the other side, you see all the people that are not with their families [due to the borders being shut] and they don't have the opportunity to come home, so the least we can do is to try to keep Australia safe from the virus. So we have perspective on this, but of course, we are frustrated for our own tennis."
With three weeklong warmup tournaments scheduled to begin almost immediately after her quarantine ends, Azarenka is concerned about the risk of injury and is doing her best to stay as match-ready as she can. Bencic, 23, says she has been provided weights, resistance bands and an exercise ball, among other equipment. She might also have a slight edge over some of her cohorts -- her boyfriend is her fitness coach, so she is able to train with him since they are sharing a room.
Players we spoke with say the days are monotonous and blend into one another, but daily updates are provided to the quarantined players via Zoom calls and frequent emails in which they can ask questions or make requests, like for more exercise equipment. All players are tested daily in the hallway outside of their rooms, and they only interact with medical staff. Paula Badosa is believed to be the only player who returned a positive test after being exposed on one of the flights so far. She posted the result on Twitter last week and has since been moved to a separate hotel for those with the virus.
Azarenka says she has stayed remarkably busy. Having made the difficult decision to leave her 4-year-old son, Leo, at home with family in the U.S. so he can continue to go to school, she FaceTimes with him whenever possible and has been completing work on an upcoming video and podcast series with the Tennis Channel.
"I've kept a structure," she said. "I try to prioritize as much as I can. And I think that's important to prioritize and also keep, not necessarily maybe as strict time, but the same kind of regime as before. I try to space it out like training, and then doing something else, and just keeping myself engaged."
Once the 14-day restrictions are over, players will be allowed to move into housing of their choosing and can do whatever they want in their free time.
Even players who are able to leave their rooms for five hours a day have rigid protocols they must follow. After self-isolating for their first four days in Melbourne while awaiting multiple test results, players find out their daily schedule via an app the night before. Time on the grounds is also meticulously planned: 30 minutes to get to and from the site, two hours on the practice court, an hour and a half in the gym, one hour to eat. Each are assigned a fellow player as a training partner and expected to limit their interactions with anyone else outside of their team. Seats and locations in the gym and dining area are assigned, and escorts guide them to their next destination.
"I've been trying to take advantage of all the time to get outside the room in the fresh air because it goes by pretty quick, not going to lie," 2020 doubles quarterfinalist Caty McNally said from her hotel room Saturday. "Being back on court has been great, even if everything else is a little weird, but I guess that's just how it works. I mean, at least we have the opportunity to be there, so I'm not really complaining too much."
McNally, 19, worked out in her room during the first few days, but mostly does it on site now. She passes the time in her room by completing her online college coursework, playing her Nintendo Switch she bought and had delivered on her first day in Melbourne, and re-watching all of "Grey's Anatomy" on Netflix. She has already made it through Season 3.
The WTA and ATP both had their seasons effectively shut down following the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, last March, and like in most professional sports leagues around the world, nothing has been the same since. There were months of uncertainty and questions about when the season would resume, and how.
Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II. The French Open moved its dates to the fall, and the US Open scrambled to create a bubble atmosphere and move the preceding Western & Southern Open from its Cincinnati home to New York. The French and US Opens, held with many restrictions and strict protocols, were largely successful.
Australian Open tournament officials were in touch with US Open organizers, including tournament director Stacey Allaster, to see what worked and didn't almost immediately following its conclusion. But while the two Slams share hard courts and summer vibes, the containment of the virus has been radically different in the two host countries. The United States has tallied more than 400,000 deaths and continues to reach daily record numbers with vaccination efforts in the early stages. Due to strict quarantine procedures early on, Australia's death total is less than 1,000, and there are just 31 active cases in Victoria as of Sunday.
But getting to that place with the virus didn't come without sacrifice. Hardest-hit Victoria, where Melbourne is located, went into a months-long Stage 4 lockdown -- mandating residents stay within five kilometers of their homes, shutting down many businesses and instituting a nightly curfew. International travel has been largely banned, and many of the state borders have been closed during the pandemic, stranding some Australians and separating families. Some refugees seeking asylum have been confined in hotel rooms, likely smaller and far less luxurious than those of professional tennis players, for more than a year.
When some players, like Alize Cornet and Roberto Bautista Agut, started to complain about their conditions on social media, many in the country expressed how they were appalled by the players' lack of awareness. Novak Djokovic, who is currently in Adelaide ahead of an exhibition event, provided Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley a list of suggestions, or "demands" depending on whom you ask, that was also met with criticism by the public, including Australian pro Nick Kyrgios. All three players issued prompt apologies.
Azarenka consulted with several of her peers before releasing a statement of her own, calling for sensitivity and compassion for all involved. "We have a global pandemic, nobody has a clear playbook of how to operate at full capacity and without a glitch, we all have it seen it last year," she wrote. "Sometimes things happen and we need to accept, adapt and keep moving!"
"Australia has a pretty strong leg to stand on when implementing these policies, because it has actually been very successful at controlling COVID using these types of methods," said Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University. "And if it works, then that's what you need to do to go to their country, because they don't need to have an undetected outbreak of COVID when they've been able to, thanks to the people of Australia buying in to all of the restrictions and doing what they needed to do, get back to normal.
"Maybe the level of play won't be as high as it is in other years when people can prepare in a way that's ideal for them, but the Australian government is not wrong for insisting on [these policies]. And the benefit to undergoing such a strict quarantine is once it's over, you can go out, you can go to a bar, you can go to a restaurant, you can go to the theater, you can go hang out on the beach, you can play a tennis tournament in front of fans, you can go basically live a normal life, or at least what we all used to think of as normal."
Despite some pleas from players for the Australian Open to be delayed a few days in order to provide additional training time to players in isolation, Tiley has insisted it will start on its scheduled date of Feb. 8. He has also refused to entertain conversation about using a best-of-three-sets format for the men, which has been proposed due to the increased risk of injury for players following such an extended absence from the court.
The scheduled warm-up events, however, have been altered. On Sunday, an extra women's tournament was added specifically for isolated players, who are expected to be done with their quarantine period by Jan. 31. All three of the WTA events will now begin four days later, moving from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, and the draw size of the original two tournaments will be slightly reduced. The ATP has delayed all three of its already-scheduled events by 24 hours - with the two traditional events beginning Feb. 1 and the ATP Cup, a team event, getting underway Feb. 2.
Speaking before the modifications had been announced, Azarenka and Bencic were uncertain if they would play in either WTA event, no matter the start, because they were unable to predict how they will physically feel. For players like McNally, there were still many questions to be answered. As she was unable to get through singles qualifying for the Australian Open, she was uncertain if she would have a chance to qualify for either event and was waiting for clarification, but does plan on playing doubles with longtime partner Coco Gauff.
One thing most players agree on is how exciting it will be to have fans back in the stands in large numbers for the first time in almost a year.
"Once this part is over, it's going to be great and I'm really looking forward to challenging myself and getting back out on the practice court and training," Azarenka said. "This hiccup is not going to change my perspective, and it's just one more [obstacle] to jump over. We take so much for granted, and I think this past year has shown everybody what matters -- what health is, the importance of it and how many, many things aren't as important as we think they are in a bigger picture."