Volley with a view: Why (and how) do you hold a grand slam in a pandemic?

What are the rules for Open players? What has the controversy been about? And what’s next?

If you're wondering why politicians are accusing tennis players of feeding mice in hotel rooms, why social media is awash with videos of tennis balls getting whacked into upturned mattresses and why Bernard Tomic's girlfriend is complaining about having to wash her hair, you're probably not alone.

It's all because 1200 tennis players, coaches and Australian Open staff are in hotel quarantine in Melbourne for two weeks so they can play the tournament from February 8.

The Australian Open – the first of four grand slams every year – has been held in Melbourne since 1972 and, since its move from Kooyong to Melbourne Park in 1988, has grown in prestige and become an essential destination for the world's top players. It's loved by Melburnians and interstate and overseas travellers not only for the tennis but for the entertainment and food sideshow. This year it very nearly didn't happen because of the pandemic – but the state government did not want to risk losing the prestigious event to another city so it and Tennis Australia moved heaven and earth to put it on.

With international borders closed, some Victorians abroad and interstate struggling to get home and Australia's low infection rate on a knife's edge, what were the reasons this tournament went ahead? What are the rules for players? And what happened when Novak Djokovic weighed in?

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka practises volleying with a view at the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne. Credit:Instagram

How was the decision made to go ahead with the Open?

Soon after last January's Australian Open, the pandemic changed the world – and sport. Coronavirus pushed the following grand slam, the French Open, from its usual slot in May to September while Wimbledon's famous lawn courts languished, with the 2020 edition extraordinarily cancelled.

The NBA and the English Premier League were shut down and the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, too. The Australian Formula One Grand Prix was called off and the AFL grand final left Victoria for the first time, migrating to Brisbane's Gabba. The Boxing Day Test between Australia and India went ahead amid fears it could be lost to Adelaide, with reduced crowds and strict social-distancing measures. At the US and French opens, players could move freely – within bio-secure bubbles – between hotels and practice courts but could not travel out of those areas.

In the end, months of negotiations involving the Victorian government, Tennis Australia, the women's tour (WTA) and the men's tour (ATP) resulted in the Australian Open being pushed back from its traditional January date to a February 8 start. Lead-up tournaments traditionally held in Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and New Zealand have been moved to Melbourne Park, including the ATP Cup, and will be held before the Open.

Tennis Australia was caught in the middle of balancing the government's judgment that players must complete a relatively strict 14-day quarantine, and the ATP and WTA's expectations that players be afforded certain privileges that regular people are not.

"We've got, obviously, a huge amount of complexity in negotiating," Victoria's Sports Minister, Martin Pakula, said at the time. "So it's a very complicated set of conversations. I'm still confident we'll have an Australian Open and we'll have one in the early part of the year."

The Open was more complicated to organise than, say, the Boxing Day Test, because a lot more competitors and their entourages had to enter the country (a total of 1200 people as opposed to about 50). Indian cricketers had already completed quarantine before coming to Melbourne, too.

In the end, tennis players secured a key condition (see below) in these negotiations, meaning the tournament would go ahead.

New Zealand's Artem Sitak documents his running repairs to an exercise bike in his hotel room on social media. Credit:Instagram

What are the rules for tennis players?

The government granted tennis players five hours outside per day for practise and for the gym, accompanied by one "support person".

They can train on court with one other player and their support person (their coach) and it has to be the same crew for the entire 14 days, to reduce mingling. This means at any given time you'll only have four people on a practice court. Competitors Diego Schwartzman and Stan Wawrinka are practice partners, for example, and would be practising with each of their coaches.

The practice provision was the crucial factor in whether the tournament would take place or not. Players would have refused to play otherwise. They also agreed to be tested for COVID-19 every day in quarantine.

The 15 charter flights of players to Melbourne – paid for by Tennis Australia – was another condition of entry, and they came from Europe, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Doha (where qualifying was held).

The flights and quarantine at the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne, the View on St Kilda Road and the Pullman in Albert Park will cost Tennis Australia more than $40 million.

Quarantine rules were much tougher than the 2020 US Open and French Open, with players tested every day in quarantine as opposed to every four days in the other grand slam bubbles. They could also all mix together inside those bubbles. But, unlike with the US and French opens, players will be able to live freely among the Victorian community once their two weeks of quarantine is complete.

The plan is for 50 per cent capacity crowds through the tournament, with fans allowed to buy tickets only to certain zones at Melbourne Park, as opposed to moving freely around courts – so you can buy a ticket to a match in a stadium but there's no wandering around practice courts in a way that spectators traditionally could, hoping to chance on, say, Serena Williams or some other star working on their game.

"In that way, if there was an unfortunate outbreak or a close contact or if someone tested positive, we could do contact tracing just for that zone because there's no crossover," Australian Open boss Craig Tiley said.

British player Johanna Konta works out in this Instagram post.Credit:

What's at stake?

People's lives. Australia has fought hard to maintain relatively low levels of coronavirus infection and death through strict hotel quarantine, tight international borders and hard lockdowns. But most of these players come from countries where the coronavirus is running rampant, and strict hotel quarantine is not the norm when entering new countries.

Tennis Australia and the Victorian government argue the economic benefit and jobs provided by the Australian Open are vital to the state. A Neilsen Sports report estimated the Australian Open brought $387 million into the Victorian economy in 2020.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews claimed the state was likely to have lost the tournament if it did not go ahead in 2021. "If the Australian Open does not happen in Melbourne, it will happen somewhere else," Andrews said. "It will happen in Japan, it will happen in China, it will happen in Singapore. The real risk then is, it doesn't come back."

From the players' perspectives, at the top end, the better ones would have left millions of dollars on the table by missing Wimbledon 2020 and other, smaller tournaments during last year. Less successful players would have left anything from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars behind because of the pandemic; much more significant to them because they're not multi-millionaires like Djokovic, Williams and Roger Federer.

Players are competing for $80 million in prizemoney at the 2021 Australian Open. A round-one exit gets you $100,000, bowing out in the fourth round means $320,000 and winning is worth $2.75 million.

Tennis players who are not in hard quarantine leave the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne for training on January 20.Credit:Eddie Jim

What's gone wrong and how have the players taken it?

Kazakh world No.28 Yulia Putintseva has been finding mice in her hotel room at the Pullman in bayside Albert Park.

However, Police Minister Lisa Neville reckons "there might have been some feeding going on", when asked about the videos that Putintseva has been uploading to social media.

Some 72 players are in strict hotel quarantine with no outside training because people on their charter flights tested positive. So far, 10 people linked to the tournament, including one player, have tested positive plus a flight attendant from a charter flight. Positive cases are moved to a "hot hotel" away from the main quarantine sites. Their identities will only be known if they announce their diagnosis on social media, such as Bianca Andreescu's coach, Sylvain Bruneau.

"I am deeply sorry to share that I have just tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival after travelling from Abu Dhabi," Bruneau wrote in a statement.

"I am extremely saddened and sorry for the consequences now on everyone's shoulders sharing my flight."

Some players say they did not know they would have to do hard quarantine if someone on their flight was positive, which led to some complaints, including from Putintseva and Romanian world No.71, Sorana Cirstea. Other players, Tennis Australia and the government dispute this.

Some players have tried to bend the rules, caught talking to each other in hotel hallways in Melbourne. And the patience of some players who were not in hard quarantine was tested after transport problems meant their first training sessions were cancelled or delayed by hours.

A player who can train because no one on his flight tested positive, Spain's world No.13 Roberto Bautista Agut, likened quarantine to prison but has since apologised.

Tomic is in quarantine with his girlfriend, Vanessa Sierra, who bemoaned the fact she would have to wash her own hair. She usually gets that done at a hairdresser, she said.

But most of the players have not complained and are happy to do what is required to play the tournament.

New Zealand doubles player Artem Sitak is one of them.

"I will do racquet swing imitations with two racquets so it makes it heavier, so the muscles remember the swing. It's the best I can do in these circumstances," he said.

Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas is hitting balls into a mattress. Luckily, these professionals are extremely accurate with their placement.

What was the controversy involving Novak Djokovic?

World No. 1 Djokovic, who is the head of a new rebel players' union that split from the ATP Player Council in August, made a list of demands on behalf of those in strict quarantine. This included cutting time in isolation, better food and being moved to bigger houses with tennis courts so they could train.

"People are free to provide lists of demands but the answer is no," Victoria's premier said when asked about Djokovic's requests.

In response to the Serbian's list, Australia's Nick Kyrgios said, “Djokovic is a tool.”

After days of criticism in the press and on social media, Djokovic wrote a letter to the Australian people saying, “my good intentions have been misconstrued”.

"Not every act is taken at its face value and 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," he wrote.

"However, I always choose to do something and be of service despite the challenging consequences and misunderstandings.

"I genuinely care about my fellow players and I also understand very well how the world is run and who gets bigger and better and why."

Djokovic's track record on the pandemic isn't great. "Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn't want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine," he said in April. He hosted a tournament called the Adria Tour in Europe in June that lacked social distancing and at which players partied together. Djokovic and his wife eventually tested positive for COVID-19, as did fellow competitors Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki.

Djokovic made his requests from quarantine in Adelaide, where he is staying with top players such as Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Dominic Thiem.

Players in Melbourne – where most are – have reportedly been unhappy that players in Adelaide get bigger entourages and bigger accommodation in quarantine.

"I get the feeling it is perceived as preferential treatment," 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."

US player Tennys Sandgren responded on Twitter, "Perceived as? F— man don't contradict yourself in the same paragraph. Call a spade a spade."

What happens now?

Players will begin exiting quarantine on January 28.

They then begin lead-up tournaments, which are currently set to begin on January 31. The ATP Cup, a men's teams event won by Djokovic's Serbia last year, is scheduled to begin on February 1 but Tiley has hinted lead-up tournaments could be pushed back slightly to give those in hard quarantine extra time to prepare.

Who are the Open favourites?

Djokovic is favourite to win a ninth title, and his third in a row.

His challengers are Spain's Nadal, Austria's Thiem, Russia's Daniil Medvedev and German Alexander Zverev.

Swiss legend Federer isn't competing due to injury.

Japan's Osaka is favourite to win the women's draw. Australian world No.1 Ash Barty – who has not had to quarantine – should be primed to match or go better than her 2020 semi-final finish.

America's Williams is still trying to equal Margaret Court's grand slam record of 24 wins while Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, Romanian Simona Halep and America's defending champion Sofia Kenin are all in contention.

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