MELBOURNE, Australia – There was a best-case outcome from the intricate and expensive transport network set up by the Australian Open to get all the tennis people Down Under.
That outcome was that 100 per cent of the passengers, all of whom tested negative for COVID-19 within a day or two of taking one of the flights, would again test negative once they arrived in Melbourne and Adelaide.
That … has not happened. Although it definitely hasn’t been because of a lack of attention of care from the organizers.
But the result is that the five-hour daily exemption privilege for training, granted during the mandatory 14-day quarantine, has been revoked for dozens of players and coaches.
Meanwhile, there has been a flurry of retesting the last few days, even for those who weren’t scheduled to have them. And a throat swab has been added to the documented, and typical, nose swab.
Positive tests on at as many as four flights
Some 17 charter flights departing from seven destinations transported over 1,200 people from hubs in Los Angeles, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai.
So far, at least four and possibly five have turned up positive cases upon arrival.
First there was Los Angeles and then Abu Dhabi.
A positive test on the superstars flight to Adelaide has been kept on the down low so far. But it has gotten around, even if unconfirmed.
On Sunday night, word came out of a test on a flight from Doha that arrived early Saturday morning. That one was confirmed very late on Sunday night by Tennis Australia.
Still unconfirmed – and possibly a false alarm – is the flight that left Dubai Friday morning.
This one we can attest to personally, because we were on that flight.
And in each case, according to our information, it has not been a player who came up positive.
But it is the players who are most affected.
Breakfast? No such luck
On Sunday morning around 10:30 a.m. came a knock on the door.
A crew of three medical people fully decked out in PPE, announcing that they were here to conduct a PCR test.
My first test was not scheduled until Day 3. This was Day 1. So the alarm bells went off.
I inquired as to the reason, asking specifically whether there was a positive test on the flight – thus necessitating a retest for everyone.
They confirmed it. But it quickly became apparent that the testing was being ramped up for everyone over that day and the next.
There was a positive test, but it wasn’t nearly as clear that it was on the Dubai flight.
Proud there was no gagging involved.
The test results came via text about 7:30 p.m. Negative. Whew.
There was another test on Monday.
Everything feels very improved. And at the same time, the costs of the program keep rising.
Case No. 4 – Doha – QR 7485
This flight, which contained a lot of the male players who competed in the qualifying in Doha, arrived early Saturday morning.
Also among them? Poor Benoit Paire, who already had his share of dramatic quarantine adventures at the US Open last fall.
The re-tests were conducted Sunday afternoon.
We’re told that those involved participated in a Zoom call, in which chief medical officer Dr. Carolyn Broderick again was on hand to answer questions.
The positive test was not expected to be a false positive. And so another group of players looks now to be relegated to the hard quarantine.
Once the news had come out Tennis Australia made it official really late on Sunday night.
Case No. 3 – Adelaide – the flight of the stars
We have been told that there was a positive case on the flight to Adelaide that contained the top players in the world – Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Dominic Thiem.
Various coaches and practice partners and cohort buddies were also on this flight.
The positive test, we have learned, was produced by a team member of one of the cohort practice partners.
Curiously, though, there has been NO news about this one other than Tennis Australia went out of its way to confirm that there was “no one who has an active COVID-19 infection” in the Adelaide crew.
That is … carefully-selected language, to say the least. If that means the rumoured positive case was a false positive, or a Sandgren-type case of someone who already has had the virus still shedding it, so much the better.
But there are plenty of skeptics.
Given the rest of the players are already resentful of what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the special, more lenient privileges that will be afforded to the star players who headed to Adelaide instead of Melbourne, this one could be the messiest.
Even if it’s true that the initial positive test turned out to be “not active”.
As well, since-deleted video from Naomi Osaka showing her clowning around on the court with her entire (large) team – none of them masked or socially distanced – has not going over well. Probably, especially, the “large team” part.
A maskless Novak Djokovic grinning broadly in the transport van also didn’t go over especially well.
Case No. 2 – Abu Dhabi – Flight EY 8004
Canadian coach Bruneau positive
The positive test on the Abu Dhabi flight, which included a fair few WTA luminaries because their season-opening tournament was held there, was Tennis Canada’s Sylvain Bruneau.
Bruneau, who also is Bianca Andreescu’s full-time coach, wrote an apology message that was posted by Tennis Canada.
Case No. 1 – Los Angeles – QR 7493
The flight, which left Los Angeles Wednesday night, a few hours behind schedule, had already seen its fair share of drama before the wheels even left the tarmac.
American player Tennys Sandgren had tested positive for the virus two days before the flight departed. And, per the rules, he was not to be allowed to board the flight.
But Sandgren disclosed that he had already had the virus. In fact, he had tested positive on Thanksgiving. That type of information – on previous COVID-19 cases – was part of what everyone was required to submit to the Australian COVID-19 authorities.
And it turns out that after reviewing his case, the authorities deemed that the positive test was a result of him still shedding the virus some six weeks later. And that he posed no risk.
(Fact check: the problem was NOT the quality of the PCR test)
And so, with some delay, the flight took off. it arrived in Melbourne in the wee hours of Friday morning.
Once at the hotels, those on board – which included a lot of American and South American players, among then Kei Nishikori, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens – were tested again.
And when the results came back, there were two positives.
And neither of them, apparently, was Sandgren.
Flight attendant and coach test positive
One Qatar Airways flight attendant, and one coach of an American player reportedly came up positive.
The word at the time from Tennis Australia, which Australian Open tournament director told people on the resulting Zoom call, was that the full-on quarantine was made necessary because of the flight attendant, not the coach.
The flight attendant was presumed to have travelled between the restricted zones of the aircraft. And so, they potentially had contact with everyone on the flight. And so the entire plane load would have to do hard quarantine.
Perhaps they were hoping that this would be the only case. And that this explanation would suffice.
But by the time the later flights were compromised, the hard-quarantine decision was made for all of them even with no flight attendant involved.
It was a unilateral call – even if those involved had not budged from their seat the entire flight.
Playing field highly uneven
The result of this is that there are over 100 players now who will have to spend the quarantine in their room. The possibility of training outdoors to prepare for the tuneup events and the Australian Open itself is now gone.
Not that the players don’t have plenty of practice improvising quarantine fitness exercises. They spent months doing this last spring.
But there was no tournament on the immediate horizon then. In fact, they didn’t know when they would play again.
In this case, there certainly were players who passed on the opening-week tournaments thinking the two weeks after their arrival in Melbourne would be plenty of time to make final preparations.
Now, for many, that won’t happen.
For some – including the stars in Adelaide at this point – it will.
The best-case scenario has turned into a bit of a worst-case scenario.
On top of that, players who are allowed to practice have been waiting for pickups on Monday morning – which have never come.
So it’s all getting very complicated.
No one is arguing that the virus mitigation strategies to avoid a recurrence of community transmission in COVID-free Melbourne are more than necessary. But that doesn’t make it easier, or more fair, for the players who are affected.
Because there are many others who won’t be.
The practices have barely even begun. And already the drama quotient is high.