The Australian public, with a sterling track record managing the pandemic, doesn’t have much sympathy for the 72 tennis players locked in their rooms 24/7 for two weeks with no exceptions. Australia is hard line when it comes to COVID.
I write this fully understanding that the Australian government almost didn’t allow the Australian Open to take place at all. Tournament director Craig Tiley negotiated for months, and this was the strict agreement they got.
Players were made aware, albeit perhaps in finer print, that this hard lockdown might happen. But the problem for the tournament is not the conditions–it’s the inequity.
Put simply, It’s not fair for some players–like Djokovic, Nadal, Naomi Osaka, and Serena Williams–to have the ability to train leading up to the Australian Open when others cannot.
The tennis elite, many of whom are at an exhibition in Adelaide, will have hours to train and the freedom of fresh air with open space beyond the four walls of their rooms. Those in hard lockdown are concerned about their mental health as well as injury upon return to the court.
Here’s an idea that might make conditions closer to fair.
A Ball Machine in Rod Laver
Rod Laver Arena is a cavernous stadium with a seating capacity of 15,000. The spacious 40m x 20m court area is set off generously from the first row. In addition, the entire arena is ensconced with an indoor ring for entryways and concessions. You can’t get much more “bubble” than this.
Proposal: Empty out the whole thing, and let one human being at a time inside to practice. Put a ball machine in Rod Laver. Players in hard lockdown would get 30 minutes of work, alone and masked, every other day.
All the other courts at Melbourne Park, set off from Laver, could be used for players in soft lockdown.
Truth be told, a player would probably be far more distanced in Rod Laver Arena than in the hotel, where some amount of air is shared through vents. Workouts with the ball machine would allow players to use their large muscle groups and full-court ball striking skills enough to take the edge off potential injury when they come out of quarantine. Some of that time could also be used to practice their serves by themselves.
The question would be how to get the players from the hotel to the arena safely. First of all, like any large arena, Laver has a pull-up area accessible by car.
As to how to get the quarantined players out of the hotel and into a car? Hazmat suits. There’s no other way. It might seem and look ridiculous, but my guess is that the players would readily accept this for a chance at court time. Once alone inside the arena, they could remove the suits, put on a mask, and work out alone.
Using Laver this way would also have an added fairness benefit: It keeps the elites off the show court. In professional tennis, It has been argued for years that the “rich get richer” by allowing stars like Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal to warm up to the show courts over the course of the tournament. Lower-ranked players often never get to play there until the end. That’s a big advantage for the Big Three.
Granted, this idea might take a staff of up to four people to drive the players to the arena and assist with the ball machine. Those staffers could be people who (1) have already had COVID (giving them some immunity), (2) are vaccinated, and/or (3) also wear a hazmat suit.
What tools would it take to make the Australian Open more fair in 2021? A hazmat suit, a ball machine, and Rod Laver Arena.
Isn’t that worth it?
Main Photo from Getty.