Photos of hooded, headphone-dangling, baggy-trouser-wearing tennis players arriving in Australia has provoked anger from Australians stranded around the globe. Given that the ultra-strict quota for daily arrivals in Australia has prevented Australians from returning home to see their families, to attend funerals, to be at weddings, the arrival of over a thousand tennis players and coaches was understandably a kick in the teeth.
The ensuing chaos had already been foreshadowed before take-off when Andy Murray announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and therefore would be unable to travel on one of the chartered flights to Australia. He nevertheless has signalled his intent to travel to Melbourne outside the designated travel window, which suggests that he will embark on a Tom Cruise-in-Mission Impossible-style attempt to make his way to Australia in time for the tournament.
Meanwhile, a potentially troubling precedent was set when the American player Tennys Sandgren was cleared to travel despite testing positive because health officials deemed that the positive test was the result of residue from a previous infection. Arriving in Australia, several people on the various flights tested positive for Covid-19, which has meant that a total of seventy-two players (as it stands) have been restricted to a hotel quarantine without practice for fourteen days.
Just to put that into context, the rest of the players also have to quarantine for fourteen days but they have been allowed to practice during this time. The quarantining players include the likes of three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber, the two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, the defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, US Open runner-up Kei Nishikori and US Open champion Sloane Stephens, – that is, some seriously high-profile players.
Soon after, social media was awash with photos of bowls of school-canteen-looking rice pudding; various fauna making themselves at home in hotel rooms, including mice and spiders; players practising by hitting balls against mattresses. On Twitter, criticisms were hurled about: that the players were not aware of the rules, that the quality of the food is not adequate. Criticisms were returned, mainly along the lines of you’re privileged! Counter-responses were thrown back: it is not the rules that the players are complaining about, it is that you cannot possibly play tennis, let alone a Grand Slam, after two weeks of quarantine in a hotel room.
Regardless of how justified these arguments are, I think that the real danger here for tennis is that it risks alienating itself from its fans. Many have questioned why tennis professionals should be allowed into a country which is not even letting its citizens return home. To make certain demands (as Novak Djokovic has done) smacks of an attitude of superiority as well as a lack of awareness of the hardships that the population of Victoria specifically, and the Australian population generally, have put themselves through in order to keep Covid-19 under control. While all this whining over food packages, hotel rooms, etc., clearly has the potential of coming across as privileged and entitled.
But there is also a wider issue at stake: I think that this whole fiasco calls into question the importance of sport in a global pandemic. Of course, we are all aware that professional sport is hugely important economically as well as for morale. And, since its return, I think that, by and large, professional tennis has managed extremely well given the circumstances. Apart from the occasional burst bubbles (including the bubble-within-a-bubble nonsense at the US Open), professional tennis has managed to co-exist with the pandemic.
But this Australian Open Covid-19 chaos threatens to turn off both hard-core fans as well as the occasional viewer. There surely must come a point when the interests of the sporting elite are not put above the interests of the general population.
Having said all this (and please, call me a hypocrite), I’ll still be watching when the Australian Open kicks off in just under three weeks.
Image: cameroonjb via Flickr