As the most improbable of improbable tournaments kicks off, thirty-thousand fans will descend onto Melbourne Park. A miracle in logistical planning, the organizers, Tennis Australia, have had to charter flights, impose ultra-strict quarantines and schedule six different ATP and WTA tournaments in one single week for the tournament to be able to go ahead. After being delayed for three weeks, finally, the Australian Open is ready to begin.
Or is it? After the initial Covid-19 chaos, everything had been going to plan: the players had been released from their quarantine ‘jails’ and tennis matches were actually being played. Then, on Wednesday, it was announced that a Covid-19 case had been detected in a quarantine worker at a hotel where some of the players were staying at.
As it stands, this has forced approximately five hundred tennis personnel (including 160 players) into self-isolation where they will have to stay until they return a negative test. Although this is an ongoing situation, it has already caused a delay to this weeks’ warm-up tournaments and the draw for the Australian Open. Most importantly, perhaps, it has raised further questions about whether the tournament will – or should – even be going ahead.
But if the tournament does go ahead, which it most probably will, I am envisaging that this year’s Australian Open will be some kind of utopian vision of the past. Writing this now, I am looking outside my window at cold, wet, dark Durham and imagining the sunny, hot, summery Australia that will be on my TV in the coming days: the contrast could not be starker. Currently living through a lockdown, as we are here in Britain, will only make the swarms of crowds, the fans squashed next to each other in the stadiums, look even more jarring. As I saw someone said on Twitter, Australia has never felt further away.
So, what about some predictions? Is Novak Djokovic going to defend his title and win a record ninth Australian Open? Probably. Will there be a new first-time out-of-nowhere women’s Grand Slam champion? Probably. But if that all sounds a bit predictable, or at least predictably unpredictable, I thought I’d offer a few names that might stand out if you happened to have some spare time in the next few weeks and felt like watching some tennis in the sun.
The first name I would suggest looking out for is seventeen-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz who has already, (perhaps) solely based on his nationality, drawn comparisons with Rafael Nadal. The first player to play a Grand Slam who was born in 2003 (yes, I know, 2003), I am looking forward to seeing whether the comparisons to Nadal are even remotely justified.
Another name, which you might have heard of given the recent media coverage, is Francesca Jones. The twenty-year-old British player has a rare condition called Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia which means that she was born with only a thumb and three fingers on each hand and only seven toes. Given that I have never watched her play before, I am certainly looking forward to seeing how she gets on against the best of the best.
Of course, many other players could make a stir at this year’s Australian Open, but as has recently been the case in professional tennis, one might presume that the off-court drama might once again take centre stage. But I, for one, hope that it will be the tennis that does the talking over the next two weeks.