At a time when some Australian players are normally preparing for cut-throat qualifying in an attempt to secure prized main draw spots, a swag of them will leave Australian shores next week for men’s events in Doha and women’s events in Dubai.
Tennis officials got creative with the complex moves needed this summer and TA performance director Wally Masur welcomed the Middle East decision.
“It’s certainly a unique situation having to travel overseas to compete,” Masur said. “It’s been an unusual year for all players, and the best results will come to players who can quickly adapt.”
Sixteen successful qualifiers – as well as those Australians who’ve flown over but don’t make the cut, and six “alternate” players – will be part of a cohort of up to 1100 people jet-setting into Melbourne in mid-January, before undergoing a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine under special conditions.
After months of intricate negotiations between tennis officials and the government, players secured the right to leave their hotel rooms for a daily five-hour training block. The opportunity to practise while in quarantine – an arrangement bank-rolled by Tennis Australia – ensured the Australian Open would not be cancelled, like Wimbledon was last year.
For some players accustomed to the grind of playing different tiers of the sport across the globe all year, they are taking the circumstances in their stride.
Storm Sanders, who recently completed a “hard” quarantine in Perth after a stint in Europe, has one of the qualifying wildcards. Partnered with Arina Rodionova for the Open doubles, Sanders said she had no hesitation in accepting the need to again quarantine upon flying back to Melbourne.
“It’s a grand slam, it’s not just any tournament,” Sanders said. “Those opportunities don’t come around very often. [I’m] very grateful to have the chance to play.
“I had no doubt in my mind that if I got the wildcard to go to Dubai I was going to go. I never really thought twice about it.”
However, the Australian quarantine conditions might seem onerous to more travelled players accustomed to “softer” arrangements that were available in other cities last year.
“I know that TA is putting in such a huge effort to even host the quarantine – and being allowed out to practise and be able use the gym,” Sanders said. “Obviously they’re going to be very strict – you’re not going to be socialising with anyone, you’re just going to go and do your workout, or your practise on the tennis court, and then back to your hotel room.
“I’ve done the two weeks of hard quarantine … that was pretty tough but this is going to be a lot easier. I’m allowed to go out and play tennis, have some fresh air and the sun.”
Inevitably, and unsurprisingly, some players from abroad sought reassurance, or further information, from Australian players about what to expect.
“I’ve had quite a few players message and just ask how’s it going to look because they haven’t really had to do a hard quarantine as such,” Sanders said.
SUMMER TENNIS FEAST
- January 10-13: AO men’s qualifying (Doha)
- January 10-13: AO women’s qualifying (Dubai)
- January 31 – February 6: 2 x WTA 500 events (Melbourne Park)
- January 31 – February 6: 2 x ATP 250 events (Melbourne Park)
- February 1-5: ATP Cup men’s teams event (Melbourne Park)
- February 8-21: Australian Open 2021 (Melbourne Park)
- February 13-19: WTA 250 event (Melbourne Park)
“All the tournaments last year that we played were all kind of in a bubble – you [weren’t] only allowed [to] stay in the hotel or [be] at the tennis court. You were allowed out of your room to go to dinner with your team or your friends downstairs.
“A lot of them have asked, ‘Is it really going to be that strict? Are we not allowed to leave the room?’ I had to explain, ‘Yes, it’s a government direction. You’re not allowed to leave your room.’
“Everyone seems pretty OK with it, to be honest. They’re like, ‘I’m still allowed to practise. I get my five hours out a day.’
“Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to is pretty keen to come over. Everyone is really grateful that TA is putting the slam on, basically.”
Fellow qualifying wildcard recipient, Queenslander Jason Kubler, admitted to some initial reservations when weighing up his trip to Qatar.
“I was a bit worried because I wasn’t sure what the situation was going to be – just, you know, if potentially if you were to lose quallies you’d have to go back and do the hard two-week quarantine where you can’t leave the room,” said Kubler, who has played three Australian Opens.
“I’ll come back to Melbourne regardless of how I go.
“I’m sort of hoping that this is the start of a better year for everyone, and for me, and [we] can play a bit more normally.”
Scott Spits is a sports reporter for The Age