Sports Monks

Australian Open 2021: Williams, Barty, Nadal, Djokovic playing, but no Murray & Federer

With most of the world still living under strict coronavirus restrictions, there is some light relief for tennis fans in the form of a very different Australian Open.

The first Grand Slam of the year does take place in Melbourne as planned, although it starts three weeks later than usual on 8 February.

Serbia’s world number one Novak Djokovic and Spain’s Rafael Nadal – who is aiming to win a 21st major title and move clear of Roger Federer – lead the men’s field.

Another all-time great, Serena Williams, headlines the women’s tournament. The American launches another attempt to land that elusive, record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title.

From a British perspective, there is no Andy Murray, with Johanna Konta and Dan Evans leading the nation’s hopes.

With most of the world still living under strict coronavirus restrictions, there is some light relief for tennis fans in the form of a very different Australian Open.

The first Grand Slam of the year does take place in Melbourne as planned, although it starts three weeks later than usual on 8 February.

Serbia’s world number one Novak Djokovic and Spain’s Rafael Nadal – who is aiming to win a 21st major title and move clear of Roger Federer – lead the men’s field.

Another all-time great, Serena Williams, headlines the women’s tournament. The American launches another attempt to land that elusive, record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title.

From a British perspective, there is no Andy Murray, with Johanna Konta and Dan Evans leading the nation’s hopes.

But it is a tournament that has been mired in controversy.

Held in a country imposing some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions in the world, many Australians argued it should not be played at all.

Months of strict border controls have helped Australia limit Covid-19 cases to fewer than 29,000 and deaths to fewer than 1,000.

Australian player Nick Kyrgios said he could understand any sense of uneasiness over 1,200 players and support staff flying in from overseas.

“Whether or not it’s the right time, that’s not for me to say because we are going ahead with it,” the world number 47 said.

“But I think sport is essential for us. Especially with tennis having such a rich culture in Australia, I think we almost need it in a sense.

“I think as long as everyone follows the protocols then it’s OK. We all need to stay the course with everything to make sure it doesn’t take off again, because the reality is it’s killing people and it’s not a game.”

Is it a fair competition?

In order for the tournament to take place, Australian Open bosses had to agree an unbending policy with the Victorian state government over the arrival of the players.

That meant those travelling had to test negative before taking a charter flight to Australia in mid-January, then undertake a 14-day quarantine period where they could only leave their room for five hours each day.

However, stricter restrictions were imposed on 72 players – including British number two Heather Watson – after positive Covid-19 cases were found on three of the charter flights bound for the tournament.

Those players were confined to their rooms for 14 days, unable to go out to practise like their rivals and left having to think of novel ways to keep sharp indoors.

In order to warm up the players for the Grand Slam, six tournaments have taken place simultaneously at Melbourne Park this week – including a specifically arranged event solely for those WTA players in the hard quarantine.

There was further disruption this week when 160 players were told to isolate, pending a negative coronavirus test, after a security guard at the hotel where they were quarantined tested positive.

“Everyone is really playing it by ear. Nobody really knows who is in form and who is not,” added Kyrgios, who competed for the first time in almost a year in one of the warm-up events.

There was further discontent among some players about the star names – including Nadal, Djokovic, Williams and US Open champion Naomi Osaka – spending their quarantine period in Adelaide instead of Melbourne.

While they too were only allowed out of their rooms for five hours as per the quarantine rules, there was bristling at a perceived preferential treatment and accusations they had an unfair advantage.

French doubles player Edouard Roger-Vasselin said there was a feeling those players had “more time to prepare and more time to practise.”

“Over 14 days that could be a big difference between these players and the rest of the group,” he added.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said the top players were sent to Adelaide to ensure organisers did not exceed the limit set by the authorities for people quarantining in Melbourne.

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