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The Australian Open is shaping up to be a very different tournament in 2021, with dozens of competitors forced into strict hotel quarantine. While some players have taken to social media to vent their frustration, others say the move has only widened a gulf that has always existed between tennis’s stars and the rank and file. By Ben Rothenberg.

The inequalities of grand slam tennis

With automated line calling replacing human officials during the Covid-19 pandemic at many professional tennis events, there’s likely less chance than ever of an incorrect call sullying a match. But at this year’s Australian Open, a whole new set of baggage threatens to tip the scales in a sport that prides itself on fairness.

Many players headed to the Open now face a situation where their chances of success or failure could be determined by what might be described as luck: Were you picked as practice partner by a top player and whisked to Adelaide for increased access to training resources? Did a flight attendant on your plane test positive for coronavirus, causing you to lose your practice privileges for 14 days?

“I think fairness is always something that’s important when it comes to tennis,” defending Australian Open men’s doubles champion Rajeev Ram told interviewer Blair Henley this week, speaking on one of the first days of his two-week hard quarantine. “And it’s becoming incredibly challenging, given this situation.”

For many players living on the day-to-day of the tour, fairness has been considered a lost cause long before the Australian Open. Star players routinely get more practice time, particularly on the major stadium courts. They often also get bigger hotel suites, nicer transportation and more guest passes. At smaller and mid-level pro tournaments, the biggest stars are offered six- and seven-digit fees just for showing up at the event, before they’ve even hit a ball.

“Tennis in my opinion is one of the most competitively unfair sports,” said Billy Heiser, the coach of the American player Alison Riske and the German player Dominik Koepfer. “I can’t think of another sport, and I’ve done research on it, where the better you are means the better the preparation you get …

“It’s not new that the top players are getting better treatment than the lower-ranked players: that happens every single week. That’s not new, that’s not going to change, and that’s the nature of this business. It’s just hitting people a little bit differently now.”

The gap between the stars and the rest is more noticeable in this moment of crisis largely because it’s about 700 kilometres wide: a handful of star players – including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka – were put on a completely different itinerary from the rest of their Australian Open competitors, sent to Adelaide instead of Melbourne, and given more comfortable housing, the ability to bring more guests and greater and more immediate access to practice courts.

The two-track system rankled the rank-and-file players considerably, even before positive tests sidelined 72 players in Melbourne.

Taro Daniel, the 117th-ranked player from Japan who was forced into a 14-day hard quarantine after a positive test on his flight, said seeing the on-court advantages that top players are receiving was “pretty difficult to accept”. “I don’t think anybody cares if they get to travel on a private jet and get free champagne service and stuff like that,” he said.

“But I think when they get more practice time and get more balls to practise with and they can actually bring the whole team onto the court versus us where we can only bring one, stuff like that does make a lot of difference, especially when the situation is even more difficult.”

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told Nine’s Wide World of Sports he’s been given “the feeling it is perceived as preferential treatment”, and then more or less confirmed it was.

“But they’re the top players in the world,” he explained. “My general rule is if you’re at the top of the game, a grand slam champion, it’s just the nature of the business. You are going to get a better deal.”

Both Daniel and Heiser said they don’t begrudge any player for accepting better treatment.

“That’s just how the sport is: you have to be selfish, and you have to fight for what you can get,” Heiser said. “That line has been crossed long ago: the better you are and the more you fight for better conditions, the likelier you are to get them, because you have more pull. One individual top player has more pull than 99 lower-ranked players; that’s just how the sport is.”

Top-ranked Djokovic told the players’ group chat that he’d tried to opt out of the Adelaide plan in order to join them in Melbourne, but had been thwarted. To bolster his proto-populism Djokovic, along with the Canadian player Vasek Pospisil, last year launched the “Professional Tennis Players Association”, an amorphous organisation. The ATP Tour sensed it was a nascent union and recoiled against the new association, despite the fact it still lacks any bylaws, making its existence or purpose vague.

And while Djokovic has forged ahead in styling himself as something of a resistance leader, a voice for the unheard and unhappy, it’s not clear his work is resonating much beyond the locker room.

 

When they arrived in Melbourne, a city that has eradicated coronavirus through sheer force of collective will, some players quickly rendered themselves soft targets for criticism with tone-deaf social media posts. While players forced into hard quarantine were understandably frustrated to see months of hard work in the off-season negated, many social media replies pilloried the players as ungrateful millionaires whose concerns paled in comparison to the risk.

When Djokovic asked the Australian Open to provide more amenities, laxer quarantine restrictions, and perhaps even private houses with tennis courts, he was roundly ridiculed in the media.

“My good intentions for my fellow competitors have been misconstrued as being selfish, difficult, and ungrateful,” Djokovic said on Wednesday, attempting to spin the letter as merely a brainstorm. “… At times when I see the aftermath of things, I do tend to ask myself if I should just sit back and enjoy my benefits instead of paying attention to other people’s struggles.”

Once the complaints of influencer Vanessa Sierra, who is quarantining with her player boyfriend, Bernard Tomic – “this is the worst part of quarantine: I don’t wash my own hair; it’s just not something that I do” – were lumped in with player grievances, the tennis community was guaranteed days of trolling.

“Are we dealing with a bunch of entitled princesses?” asked ABC Radio host Nicole Chvastek as she opened the phones for her drivetime show in Melbourne.

Many of the players I contacted for interviews for this article were reluctant to comment, saying there was too much anger towards the players right now to risk speaking up.

Most tennis players hadn’t lodged any public complaints, but nor did most offer up messages to counter those who had – on the hyper-individualistic tennis tours, holding one another accountable is rarely a priority. Most, however, were quietly going about things the right way.

Billy Heiser said that while the lockdown they faced was “a bitter pill to swallow”, he and his players had tried to keep everything in perspective. “Yes, this is a terrible situation we’re in, but we also have to be thankful that we were given this opportunity to be here amid a global pandemic,” he said.

“We have the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to compete, and the opportunity to earn a really good living, and this isn’t the worst thing that could happen; the worst thing that could happen is if Australia welcomed these 1200 people in here for this event and we didn’t do this hard quarantine and the virus broke out in the community.”

The criticism levelled at players was also driven by some things far beyond their control, including the thousands of Australian citizens who remain stranded overseas because of the pandemic.

Stan Wawrinka’s coach, Dani Vallverdu, said that while players needed to better appreciate the Australian experience, they also deserved to be understood.

“Negative comments from the player side made the backlash worse; the players made a mistake not to have a broader view of the situation, of Australia and what they’ve been through,” he said. “But one thing where we have to be fair with the players is that the players came here to perform as athletes. The players were invited to perform as athletes and hopefully entertain the public.

“We didn’t come here as normal citizens that just chose to come to Australia and do the hard quarantine; we came with certain expectations, and maybe that’s what the problem was: maybe the expectations were wrong and that’s where the issue begins. They came here as athletes, looking to perform at one of the biggest events of the whole season.”

Vallverdu said the bigger question, of whether the event should have happened at all, is valid. “But the government approved it under certain rules, and we’re all here.”

Yet many in the sport still wonder why the Australian Open, which should have had full coffers after successfully staging its 2020 event just before the pandemic paralysed the sporting world, didn’t wait to stage its 2021 event until after a vaccine had been made available.

For his part, Vallverdu said he expects things to calm down as the players get used to Australia, and Australia gets used to the players’ constant social media updates.

“The first few days were like when a bee stings you: it hits you pretty hard at the beginning, and things just kind of slow down afterwards,” he said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "The other side of the net".

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Ben Rothenberg is a journalist from Washington, DC. He hosts the No Challenges Remaining podcast and is a senior editor for Racquet magazine.