The start of the Australian Open will be delayed Three weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, a schedule for the men’s tennis tour was published on Wednesday evening.
The first Grand Slam tournament of the year, which usually takes place in the last two weeks of January, has been postponed to the middle two weeks of February. It will start on February 8th according to the ATP schedule.
A person familiar with the ongoing discussions between government officials and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer, said the tennis organization was awaiting final government approval before officially announcing the plan. The person who spoke on condition of anonymity was not authorized to publicly discuss the state of the preparations.
The move came after months of negotiation as the organizers tried to reconcile players’ needs with government rules for international travel and the intricate puzzle that the tennis calendar represents.
The Australian Open delay was the latest disruption in a sport that has seen much of it since March when professional tennis was essentially closed for five months.
It was particularly difficult to get professional tennis back on its feet as the sport does not have a central governing body. Instead, the sport is operated by a wide variety of international, national and local organizations. Uncertainty is likely to continue into the first quarter of the year or longer until coronavirus vaccines become widespread in places where major tennis events are happening and the threat subsides.
After the Australian Open 2020 took place as usual, the three other Grand Slam events were turned upside down. Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II. The United States Open started as planned in New York in late August, but with no spectators, and most players stayed at two Long Island hotels at the monastery when they were out of the tournament in Queens. The start of the French Open was postponed from the end of May to the end of September. It took place in front of just a few spectators in cool, stormy conditions.
There was hope that Australia could hold something resembling a normal Grand Slam in early 2021. Since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic in March, Australia has put in place some of the toughest measures in the world to prevent outbreaks and the country has been one of the few coronavirus success stories. Australia has had fewer than 10 new cases a day on average over the past week.
Despite these numbers – or perhaps because of them – the government was unwilling to change its rules for overseas travelers to accommodate tennis players, who would come from dozens of virus hotspots, including many communities in the US and Europe.
An initial plan was for the players to arrive in mid-December, which would have given them two weeks to quarantine and then another two weeks to practice and play in tuning tournaments before the Australian Open.
Apr. 16, 2020, 7:32 am ET
Tennis Australia even put the idea into practice of quarantining all players at a resort so they could practice while they were in prison.
The government, however, strongly opposed changing its narrow limits for international arrivals in December. It was also not clear whether the plan would have allowed athletes out of their rooms during the quarantine. In light of this, the players had argued that starting a Grand Slam event just four days after leaving quarantine would be unrealistic and potentially dangerous.
This led to the current plan that all players and their support staff should arrive on charter flights in mid-January, stay in designated Melbourne hotels, and avoid mingling with the public. During the quarantine, players can train at Melbourne Park and another tennis center. Otherwise, they will have to adhere to a strict protocol and undergo multiple tests for their first 14 days in the country.
This change should be a relief for the players, many of whom would have likely skipped the tournament instead of taking the risk of playing an intense event after two weeks of no training.
The UK’s Johanna Konta, who is ranked 14th in the world for women, told the BBC in November that her body “would not be able to decondition for two weeks and then drive me in”.
Novak Djokovic, the reigning men’s individual champion in Melbourne and eight-time Australian Open winner, said after a recent game in London he hoped for some level of understanding and support from the state and federal government that would allow athletes to play while her second week of quarantine.
Djokovic and his wife contracted the virus in June after a series of tennis exhibitions he organized in Serbia and Croatia began. The rest of the series was canceled after several other players tested positive.