The lead-in to the Australian Open was dominated by quarantine. The domestic debate concerned the appropriateness of importing hundreds of players and officials, each at risk of bringing with them Covid-19 into a country that had gone to great pains to all-but eliminate the virus from its shores. But within the tennis community the focus was on the competitive imbalance brought about by the tiers of quarantine.
A handful of stars were treated to a fortnight of quarantine lite in South Australia, where they were able to work on their games and reacclimatise to the presence of crowds courtside. “It’s a privilege to be here in Adelaide. But it’s not that huge an advantage,” last year’s beaten finalist Dominic Thiem said.
The majority of the draw went through a standardised quarantine in hotels in Victoria, which allowed for some practice opportunities at Melbourne Park. “It’s not easy but we have to keep reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to be here,” remarked Katie Boulter at the end of a day that featured five hours outside her room, including two on a practice court.
But 72 competitors were on flights containing a confirmed active case of Covid-19, and so were forced to endure quarantine max, unable to leave their rooms for over a fortnight.
Unsurprisingly, some of the players in question were upset by their circumstances, foreseeing disadvantages when they returned to competition. “Some of the players are frustrated and it’s a frustrating situation,” Tennys Sandgren told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Guys and girls have been training for a month, a month and a half in the off-season and it’s no small thing to be stuck in your room, unable to train and you lose that.”
But has it compromised the draws? With the caveat that anything can happen in professional sport, on the men’s side, it probably hasn’t proven significant. A good chunk of the men in hard quarantine were long shots who found themselves on the contaminated flight because it was ferrying low ranked qualifiers to Australia from Doha, the makeshift venue for the preliminary rounds.
Some higher profile names are hard to account for because of their draws. Kei Nishikori had the misfortune of drawing 15th seed Pablo Carreño Busta in round one, Guido Pella drew 22nd seed Borna Ćorić, and Vasek Pospisil fourth seed Daniil Medvedev. Even with a change of circumstance the results were likely to fall the same way. But that’s cold comfort to the individuals involved.
The women’s draw offers more grounds for contention with a much greater number of title challengers on affected flights. But again this is undercut by the sheer volatility of the women’s game.
Ten of the top 24 seeds failed to reach the third round, six of whom suffered the poorest lead-ins. But drill further down and is it really that big a shock that Bianca Andreescu succumbed to giant-killing maverick Hsieh Su-wei in her first match since October 2019 and a litany of injuries? Alison Riske reached the round of 16 here last year but has since won just one of eight matches on tour. Former champion Angelique Kerber also arrived with no form.
“Of course, you feel it if you are not the hitting ball for two weeks and you are not in the rhythm,” Kerber said. “I was really trying to stay positive and make the best out of the situation but you feel it, especially if you play one of the first matches in a grand slam against an opponent who didn’t stay in the hard lockdown.”
But even if the hotel quarantine situation failed to have a substantial impact on this year’s championship, it still feeds into the perception tennis has significant structural issues with fairness. On the men’s circuit, for example, a sound argument has been made that the concentration of wealth and resources at the top of the game has long been to the detriment of the rest.
As Sandgren explained: “Top players always get preferential treatment. They get more court time, they get more time on bigger courts, match courts, whatever. Nicer hotel rooms and that’s whatever, it’s part of the game. We all get that. We all understand that.”
Novak Djokovic gets it. Despite being on the top of the pile, he has used this reasoning to agitate for change to the circuit. “I’ve been hearing over the past 10, 15 years on the Tour a lot of discontent of players, especially outside the top 100,” he said last August.
Discontent like players stewing in their hotel rooms while former champions enjoy exhibition jollies in another state. “I get the feeling it is perceived as preferential treatment,” Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said. “But they’re the top players in the world. 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.”