MELBOURNE, Australia – Those in charge of the Australian Open wanted to draw important lessons for the coronavirus pandemic with their complex safety strategy for the sports world: How to hold a major event with large crowds without worsening public health risks.
It has ended its event – a collection of tennis tournaments held over three weeks in a major city in a country that has sacrificed a lot to minimize infections and deaths. However, with the virus inevitably making itself felt, both directly and indirectly, the Australian Open saw unforeseen headaches and complications that became warnings for the next group trying to host a major international sporting event (hello, Tokyo Olympics).
Surprise setbacks are inevitable and don’t expect to make many friends.
When the Australian Open closed on Sunday evening and Novak Djokovic won his ninth individual title for men here, it was clear that the difficulties could last months or even years.
Craig Tiley, the executive director of Tennis Australia, said local Tokyo Games organizers had asked him for advice on how to run the Olympic Games, which are due to start in July. “I just told them, ‘Good luck,'” he said.
The problems started even before participants traveled internationally as tournament organizers struggled to get to Australia after late cancellations of charter flights. Once the players were in Australia, the strict quarantine restrictions tightened on roughly 25 percent of the athletes for two weeks. Just before the marquee event began, there was an unexpected day of isolation and emergency testing. And a nationwide lockdown triggered by non-tournament related infections banned fans from Melbourne Park for five days, costing organizers dearly in ticket revenue.
Amid the changing dynamics, those involved in the tournament had persistent concerns that the event would have to end if even some players tested positive. This was why the organizers of the agreement had worked with government officials to run the tournament without endangering the public. That prospect meant tight safeguards against a reintroduction of the virus into the Melbourne area, which emerged from a 111-day lockdown last year, living life as it was before the pandemic.
Jessica Pegula, who reached the women’s quarter-finals and whose family owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabers, said the challenge and complexity for those who organize and participate in global events is far more complicated than those at home Leagues and the NHL, which has teams in Canada and the United States.
“It’s so hard when an international sport has to travel,” said Pegula. “Do all the logistics to go to another bubble and find out I need to be tested three days before. I need to get my results and make sure I get tested when I land.”
The organizers were somewhat willing to deal with some developments, such as moving to empty stadiums in the middle of the tournament. But they were not at all prepared for other difficulties.
“It was relentless,” said a sleepless Tiley of the daily troubles as he watched the women’s semifinals last week in a bunker under the Rod Laver Arena. “A roller coaster right from the start.”
Government officials imposed a tough ban on 72 players who were on board charter flights carrying 10 passengers who tested positive upon arrival in Australia. The new restrictions meant that even if these athletes consistently tested negative for the virus, they could not leave their hotel rooms at all 14 days before the first tuning tournaments before the Open. Some of these rooms had windows that couldn’t be opened, which became an added irritation if some of the players were not allowed to leave for some reason.
The organizers had also put 11 exercise bikes aside in case some players were isolated, but after getting more bikes for the players who couldn’t leave their rooms, they received similar requests from the rest of the field as their training was limited to two hours the dish and 90 minutes in the gym every day. So Tiley needed several hundred bicycles as well as yoga mats, kettlebells, and medicine balls.
Only one player who tested positive, Paula Badosa from Spain, and the organizers couldn’t do much for her other than take her to a medical hotel and keep her there for 10 days without any exercise equipment.
After the quarantines ended and the warm-up tournaments began, security guards at the main player hotel tested positive. Health officials ordered more than 500 people, including many gamers, to be tested and to stay in their rooms all day. The start of the Australian Open was five days away and no one knew what could produce another positive result. Fortunately there weren’t any.
But five days after the championship began, a small outbreak in the Melbourne area prompted health officials to send the entire state of Victoria into a five-day lockdown. They let the tournament go on but without the crowds.
Tiley said Tennis Australia cost up to $ 25 million in ticket revenue, money badly needed because the amount was already capped at 50 percent of capacity and the tournament is causing so much additional cost this year. Every day without the crowds, more planning with the Australian Open logo appeared on the seats in the Rod Laver Arena. Workers installed them as soon as manufacturers could ship them to make the tournament look better on TV.
Then came the injuries of several top players, especially the men – Djokovic and Alexander Zverev played their quarter-final game with tape on their stomach. Grigor Dimitrov’s back was grabbed during his quarter-finals. Matteo Berrettini from Italy, the number 9, could not play his game in the fourth round against Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece. Some players blamed the quarantine and restricted training for injuries.
“I want to understand how the season continues to Australia because it is definitely not good for the players in terms of their wellbeing,” said Djokovic.
The problem is that what is good for athletes who live on routine, training and normalcy may not be good for anyone, and finding a balance that satisfies everyone is going to be a huge challenge until Covid -19 was more threatened.
An organization with a seemingly airtight plan to keep everyone safe had to mix it up to reach the finish line. Tiley said it was worth it because no one can say for sure that everything will be fine in a year. The challenges and the need to adapt quickly will remain with all athletes for a while.
“You can either play and go through whatever you have to go through, or you can stay home and practice and that’s it,” Dimitrov said in a philosophical moment. “We all know what is going on in the world, we all know what is going on in every single country. It’s tough. It’s very uncomfortable. It makes life difficult for so many, not just us as athletes, but people all over the world. “