Australian Open 2021: Hard quarantine before season's first Grand Slam 'took a toll' on players

Like Azarenka, both Sandgren and Pospisil were among the more than 70 players forced to stay in their hotel rooms for every minute of at least 14 days after arriving

The Associated Press February 09, 2021 23:57:21 IST
Australian Open 2021: Hard quarantine before season's first Grand Slam 'took a toll' on players

Victoria Azarenka is a two-time winner at Australian Open but crashed out in the first round this year. AP

Melbourne: Being stuck for two weeks in a Melbourne hotel room with windows that wouldn’t open “really took a toll” on Victoria Azarenka in the lead up to the Australian Open, the Grand Slam tournament’s two-time champion explained after she had trouble breathing during a first-round loss.

When Tennys Sandgren resumed practicing after his can’t-go-anywhere hard quarantine ended, the American said on Tuesday, his hands developed blisters from holding a racket. The rest of his body was so sore, Sangren said, he “took two days off because I couldn’t walk.”

Vasek Pospisil’s time in lockdown left him “a little bit resentful” about being “unprepared” and concerned about the lack of a level playing field, the Canadian said in a video interview with The Associated Press. The 2014 Wimbledon doubles champion was critical of Tennis Australia, saying: “They’re not familiar with player needs and how it is to be a professional athlete.”

Like Azarenka, both Sandgren and Pospisil were among the more than 70 players forced to stay in their hotel rooms for every minute of at least 14 days after arriving, at the behest of a government in a country that undertook serious measures to stem coronavirus cases (Australia has reported fewer than 1,000 deaths).

And, like Azarenka, both Sandgren and Pospisil lost their opening matches.

“I’ve never walked on to a court in a Grand Slam knowing that I’m probably not going to be able to win. I’m physically not in shape enough to play with my opponent,” said Sandgren, who was beaten 7-5, 6-1, 6-1 by No 21 seed Alex De Minaur on Day 2 a year after holding match points against Roger Federer in the quarter-finals. “I wouldn’t say the whole tournament is a joke, but for some players, it’s not feasible. It’s just not feasible.”

For some, it's worked out OK so far: 20-year-old American Ann Li, for example, has won five matches in a row since emerging from her hard quarantine, including a 6-2, 6-0 victory over No 31 seed Zhang Shuai on Tuesday. Heather Watson also reached the second round, despite acknowledging she “didn’t feel as fit as usual, which is no surprise.”

Paula Badosa, a 23-year-old Spaniard, said she dealt with physical issues and anxiety during her isolation, which lasted 21 days because she tested positive for COVID-19 after getting to Australia.

Azarenka and others were deemed at risk for exposure to the illness after another passenger on their chartered flight tested positive.

“It was tough for me to recover,” said the 70th-ranked Badosa, who was eliminated 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-5 by Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova.

Badosa served for the win, but she faded as the match stretched past 2½ hours, dropping the last four games.

“I needed fresh air or maybe a bigger room or better conditions to play against the best players,” she said.

Players in the “regular” quarantine were allowed to leave their rooms for five hours per day during the first two weeks after getting to Australia.

That time was parceled out this way: 1½ hours at a practice court, 1½ hours at a gym, an hour to eat, an hour for travelling to and from those activities.

Not ideal, maybe, but it did provide chances to get ready to compete.

“I raised this issue with the event. I said: ‘Hey, this is an extraordinary circumstance. So extraordinary changes to rules (and) exceptions can be made ... right?’ Because at the end of the day, that’s the essence of sport,” Pospisil said. “That’s the beauty of sport: the equality of opportunity.”

He said he made specific suggestions to organisers that were rejected — offering those in the strictest lockdown additional treatment or massage time; shortening men’s matches to best-of-three-sets in early rounds.

“Could it have been better? Yes. Did they do a good job? Yes,” Pospisil said about holding an international sporting event amid a pandemic. “I think they tried, but it wasn’t perfect.”

Three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber, who also lost her opening match, now says she would have thought twice about making the trip at all if she realised a hard quarantine would mean zero opportunities to practice or work out at a gym.

Azarenka was in no mood to ponder those sorts of “what ifs” after being defeated by American Jessica Pegula.

“I’m not going to sit here and (ask): ‘Should I have come? Should I have not come?’ It’s a waste of time,” Azarenka said. “I came here. Whatever happened, happened. I’m here today. I lost my match. Life goes on. That’s it.”

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