First in doubt and then delayed, the Australian Open is set to begin. But can the drama of coronavirus-positive international arrivals, hotel quarantine fears and social media volleys be eclipsed by actual action on the courts? By Linda Pearce.

Stage set for Australian Open

World No .  1 Ash Barty at a practice session at Melbourne Park this week.
World No .  1 Ash Barty at a practice session at Melbourne Park this week.
Credit: Daniel Pockett / Getty Images

By this time each non-pandemic February, when the kids have returned to school, the new season TV shows are in prime time and footy is on every back page, tennis typically reverts to being that sport played somewhere else. We might take a brief look in late May at Roland Garros – it helps if Ash Barty is winning on clay – but we are mostly looking towards Wimbledon, when visions of lush lawns and all-white traditions fill our cold winter lounge rooms.

For everyone too young to recall the then modest Australian Open’s momentous move to Melbourne Park in 1988, Australian tennis equals January, when the international caravan comes to town. A slightly ostentatious vehicle carrying a few annoying and entitled passengers, admittedly, but still, for that month proudly, chest-thumpingly ours. This is one of just four grand slams, a status often used to justify the mountains of government infrastructure cash needed to ward off Asian raiders. Or so we’re told. This year, it was also a key reason an immensely risky and ambitious undertaking – branded everything from miraculous to audacious to outrageous in the context of its Covid-19 backdrop – is, three weeks after its originally scheduled start date, about to begin. And this despite an AO hotel quarantine worker testing positive for the virus midweek. No doubt there will be plenty of fingernails bitten to the quick at Tennis Australia headquarters this weekend.

A quibble first, though, with the idea there is a major threat to the Australian Open’s standing – an idea that has percolated since Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, recently parroted the official Tennis Australia line. On the ABC’s Offsiders program last Sunday, TA chief executive Craig Tiley was asked again about the extent of the danger if the 2021 tournament was shelved. “Absolutely we could lose the Australian Open,” Tiley said, nominating Shanghai and Singapore as cities which, with “multimillion-dollar” investments in facilities and prizemoney, could suddenly become “an easier place for the players to go”.

There was also a reference to the B-grade ’70s, when many top players stayed away. “They didn’t come down to Melbourne, so it’s not too difficult to get back to that position,” Tiley continued. “So maintaining that level, and maintaining it with Wimbledon and the French Open and the US Open, is critical. So it’s a momentum thing as well.”

Yeah, nah. Given the status quo has been maintained for almost a century – and with the savvily insured Wimbledon willing to cancel for 2020 – any threat would seem more theoretical than likely. Yet none of that is meant to undersell the magnitude of effort and financial resources required to make this grand slam happen. What Venus Williams has described as “a thing of courage” is summed up by one onsite wifi password – noplaceforimpossible!. Given the 2020 tournament contributed an estimated $387.7 million to the Victorian economy – and $2.7 billion over the past decade – the Australian Open is, in corporate speak, “too big to fail”.

For Tennis Australia, though, staging a 2021 AO will drain its financial reserves and then some. Tiley has confirmed that although sponsorship revenue will be higher than originally predicted, astronomical charter flight and quarantine costs, combined with crowds capped at 30,000 a day and 390,000 for the fortnight – or less than 50 per cent of last year’s total – will make for a brutal bottom line. The delay from the original January 18 start forced by state government quarantine requirements has pushed the tournament out of peak holiday time and up against stiffer TV ratings competition in its now-discounted deal with Nine. And for an event that most Victorians have tended to regard with either keen enthusiasm or, at worst, ambivalence, the hostility that had barely subsided before erupting again late on Wednesday has represented challenging new territory in terms of public sentiment. Anecdotally, it seems many people who usually attend will this year not, despite some ticket prices being reduced.

South Australian Roger Rasheed, a commentator and former coach of players such as Lleyton Hewitt, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov, has been enjoying a freer life across the border and understands the trepidation. “Absolutely,” he says. “I feel for the Victorians because they had to live in a really tough environment, so mentally to get their head around ‘Let’s just open the doors and get shoulder to shoulder, virtually’, it’s hard.”

The big local hope this year is again Barty, the top seed and 2020 semi-finalist, in the 43rd year since Chris O’Neil was the last homegrown champion. The Queenslander has clearly benefited from greater preparatory privileges than her rivals, but did have some ground to recover after not playing a tournament between late February and last Tuesday, when she resumed at the Yarra Valley Classic. How level the playing field actually is, however, is still Yarra River murky.

There are legitimate grievances about the advantages enjoyed by those permitted five hours of “day release” while in quarantine, compared with the 72 stuck in hard lockdown for at least 14 days after having the misfortune of being transported on one of three flights with a coronavirus-positive passenger aboard. That was unavoidable. German Alexander Zverev also summed up the feelings of many when he branded the decision to divert top players to Adelaide, with its greater quarantine comforts and freedoms, as “the only real mistake” made by Tiley and his overworked team.

Which is an exceptional result, all things considered, and means the sporting world will also be monitoring closely what happens in Melbourne. The Middle East is set to host the next stretch of notable tournaments and Indian Wells – the site of the original tennis shutdown last March – has already been postponed in a still terribly uncertain 2021. Will Roland Garros go ahead in its usual May–June dates, having paid a huge financial price for a delayed, minimal-crowd event last year? Will Wimbledon follow, in a country brutalised by the virus but hoping a speedy vaccine rollout can turn things around?

The situation has been vastly different in Australia, of course, and precautions mean Melbourne Park has been split into three digitally ticketed zones for spectators, booked in family pods of one to six members. Each precinct has a stadium among its group of courts, plus separate entertainment and food outlets, with the John Cain (formerly Hisense) Arena zone having replaced the popular ground pass at the same capped price. A daily health check must be completed before entry is granted to accredited personnel, including media. Covid-19 signs and sanitiser are everywhere and, as at every other tournament since the sport resumed, ballkids will be spared from handling sweaty towels. Never have there been fewer people on court, with improved technology introduced to replace line judges.

So much looks and feels different. Ask Tennis Australia women’s coach Nicole Pratt whether we will reflect one day and wonder if we had imagined how weird the 2021 Australian Open was, and the former world No. 35 suggests that what should be remembered is the extraordinary measures instigated to ensure the first slam of 2021 proceeded amid a global pandemic. That includes the momentous task of staging six lead-in tournaments at Melbourne Park this past week.

“There’s no precedent for where the world’s at right now, and especially in modern-day sport, so I guess we’re all trying to do the best job that we can, given the circumstances,” she said. “So I hope at the end of the day, whilst there’s been frustrations from many different sides, and all valid and reasonable, hopefully we get past it and everyone’s celebrating that we’ve got world-class tennis, and sport, on display in Australia. Once we get past the hurdles, let’s try and embrace the now.”

Rafael Nadal, the senior statesman in the absence of Roger Federer, voiced similar thoughts last Sunday, when yet more questions were being asked about quarantine and how unusual his preparation had been. “[Now] is the moment to start talking about tennis,” the Spaniard told reporters in the socially distanced interview room, with video screens to allow the international reporters banned from attending to ask questions remotely. “That’s why we came here: to play tennis, to try to give to the fans around the world, and to the fans here in Australia, a good show.”

And so on Monday a unique Australian Open begins. Lacking a few of the usual flourishes but with a backstory so wildly unlikely when the tournament wrapped last January it could not possibly have been scripted.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Time to rally".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.

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