As Serena, Nadal eye records at Australian Open, COVID looms


- Data Covid-19 USA — 

Easy as it is to assem­ble a list of sig­nif­i­cant Aus­tralian Open sto­ry lines — from Rafael Nadal’s bid for a men’s‑record 21st Grand Slam sin­gles tro­phy to Ser­e­na Williams’ try for her 24th, from Novak Djokovic’s attempt to win a third con­sec­u­tive title at Mel­bourne Park to Sofia Kenin’s defense of her first major cham­pi­onship, and so on — noth­ing hangs over the upcom­ing two weeks quite like ques­tions involv­ing the coronavirus.

There is, after all, still a pan­dem­ic in progress.

“Dur­ing the tough months of quar­an­tine in Spain,” said Nadal, who equaled Roger Fed­er­er at 20 majors, three ahead of Djokovic, by win­ning the French Open in Octo­ber, “(there) have been too many prob­lems to think about ten­nis, no?”

And no mat­ter how much bet­ter Aus­tralia has con­tained its COVID-19 out­break than coun­tries such as the Unit­ed States, a reminder of the pre­car­i­ous nature of a large, inter­na­tion­al sports event came just a hand­ful of days before the sched­uled begin­ning of the year’s first Grand Slam ten­nis tour­na­ment on Mon­day (Sun­day MT): A full day of com­pe­ti­tion at the half-dozen tune­ups in Mel­bourne was post­poned because of a pos­i­tive test for a work­er at a hotel that housed 160 play­ers in January.

The draw for the Aus­tralian Open was pushed back a day, too.

Before the 24-hour break was announced, Aus­tralian play­er Nick Kyr­gios cap­tured a com­mon sen­ti­ment, tweet­ing: “Am I play­ing tomorrow?”

“It was a bit of uncer­tain­ty,” he said lat­er. “I had no idea what was going on.”

Those sorts of doubt could linger at a major tour­na­ment that already was pushed back three weeks from its orig­i­nal start date to allow for all of the entrants and their entourages to quar­an­tine upon arrival on the continent.

“From a ten­nis point of view, you can­not pre­pare 100%,” 2019 U.S. Open run­ner-up Dani­il Medvedev said. “You try to do what you can.”

Williams, a sev­en-time cham­pi­on in Mel­bourne, said that the Achilles ten­don issue that ham­pered her last year in a loss at the U.S. Open and forced her to with­draw from the French Open might have pre­vent­ed her from com­pet­ing at all in Aus­tralia if not for that extra bit of rest.

Most par­tic­i­pants were lim­it­ed to leav­ing their hotels for five hours of train­ing per day. More than 70 play­ers were banned from leav­ing their rooms at all dur­ing that peri­od because they poten­tial­ly were exposed to the virus dur­ing the char­tered flights that car­ried them from var­i­ous spots in the globe to Melbourne.

“Every­one expe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent chal­lenges when it came to that peri­od,” three-time major semi­fi­nal­ist Johan­na Kon­ta said. “Some had it a lot more dif­fi­cult than oth­ers, that’s for sure.”

The men­tal and phys­i­cal tolls of that kind of lock­down cer­tain­ly would be liable to affect any­one, ath­lete or otherwise.

“The play­ers are just get­ting thrown off-guard a lot. I think it’s going to demand a lot of patience and a lot of flex­i­bil­i­ty and who is going to real­ly adjust and adapt the best,” said Chris Evert, whose 18 major cham­pi­onships include the 1982 and 1984 Aus­tralian Opens.

“Play­ers are so used to rou­tines. They like to be in con­trol. They’re not in con­trol,” said Evert, now an ESPN ana­lyst. “I mean, even Djokovic, who is like a con­trol freak — just, you’ve got to throw every­thing to the wind and wake up every morn­ing and just be ready to go with what­ev­er is going to hap­pen. It’s not easy.”

Because of that one pos­i­tive COVID-19 test, more than 500 peo­ple asso­ci­at­ed with the Aus­tralian Open and its warmup tour­na­ments were told to iso­late until they test­ed negative.

One day lat­er, action resumed.

Aus­tralian Open tour­na­ment direc­tor Craig Tiley chalked it up as “just one of those addi­tion­al chal­lenges” and stat­ed unequiv­o­cal­ly: “We are start­ing on Monday.”

“The play­ers, from the feed­back we’re get­ting from them … have come to accept the fact that now, with their trav­el around the , the environment’s dif­fer­ent. And any­thing can hap­pen,” Tiley said. “Every day you wake up, it can be dif­fer­ent. And I think they have got­ten used to that.”

The plan is to let in 30,000 spec­ta­tors per day, about 50% of the usu­al crowds — and a big depar­ture from the last Grand Slam tour­na­ment of 2020, the French Open, which had about 1,000 fans per day, and the U.S. Open, which did not allow any.

“There’s no such thing as no risk,” Tiley said, offer­ing what he called a para­phras­ing of a gov­ern­ment offi­cial. “There’s always going to be risk. And the objec­tive is to min­i­mize that as best as possible.”

AP Sports Writer John Pye in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, con­tributed to this report.

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