November 25, 2020

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Herald Sun: No Australian Open until February … or even March?

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Tennis players – and fans – already know that the players will getting down to Australia later than planned to start the 2021 season.

December is out. But, according to Saturday’s Herald Sun newspaper, January and maybe even part of February may be out as well.

The timeline is speculative. And the Herald Sun is a tabloid, so that’s a bit of their stock-in-trade. But the source on this one is the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews.

Andrews told the media in Australia Saturday – the context was a virtual press conference with the Aussie prime minister about a projected rail link to the Melbourne airport – that the exact timing of the event is “not settled yet”.

Which you can easily take to mean “will not happen, as scheduled, from Jan. 18 – 31”. Beyond that, who knows?

Here’s the full quote, from the Melbourne Age.

“From the seventh of next month we can have flights returning to Melbourne and a hotel quarantining system will be reset and set up at that point. And this is not a simple thing, to have many hundreds or indeed potentially well more than 1,000 athletes and others who support them, media, being here for a very important event. It has to be done safely. It has to be done right.

‘‘I am very confident we will have an Australian Open in the early part of next year. The exact timing of it, the exact arrangements we put in place, they are not settled yet.’’

If you take the “early part of the year” to mean “the first three months”, the Herald Sun’s speculation might not be so farfetched.

The reports earlier in the week indicatedTennis Australia needed to come back to the Victorian government with a revised plan by Friday. So these latest statements are no doubt the consequence of that.

Tennis Australia (as is usually the case), had no comment.

Flights to begin – but no players on them

On the plus side, Andrews confirmed flights to Australia will return from Dec. 7.

That dovetails with what Tennis Australia – and the players – had been planning.

The tennis arrival period Down Under was set to be between Dec. 8-14, to allow for the quarantine period before a planned five-week series of events.

Except they won’t be on the flights. The number of people who will be allowed in will be 160 per day.

Andrews also said that the government and Tennis Australia, who are no doubt sick of each other by now, “aim to finalize the timing” of the first Grand Slam of the season within the next 72 hours.

No junior event in ’21

It was confirmed by a letter sent out by Tennis Australia and Craig Tiley Friday that the junior event was not going to happen in 2021.

That was a fairly self-evident piece of news. We spoke to the coach of a highly ranked junior who competed at Melbourne Park in January and learned they had heard nothing – until the formal announcement.

Canadian Leylah Fernandez was the runner up in the 2019 Australian Open juniors. There will be no junior event in 2021. (Stephanie Myles-Opencourt.ca/wordpress)

There had been no communication. At all.

Notably, they had not received the visa exemption form that the pro players (and media who wanted to travel to Australia) had received, filled out and completed a long time ago.

Without it, and a granted exemption, they couldn’t enter the country under any circumstances anyway.

“Clean sporting air in February”

The Herald Sun story is rather Aussie-centric, though. It points out that the Australian Football League season begins only March 18, which is also when the Formula One race weekend is set to begin. So there’s room.

But the tennis world does not revolve around Australia.

If the Australian Open gets pushed back in any meaningful way, it’s curtains for the Middle East events in 2021.

February, on the ATP Tour, means an indoor European swing and some events in the Middle East.

For the WTA, it means Dubai and Doha. For both, it means Acapulco.

There are also the Fed Cup – oops, the “Billie Jean King Cup” qualifiers in early February.

And March means Indian Wells and Miami.

Not the same as Roland Garros

It’s not just a case of Australia deciding to push its event back nilly-willy.

It is a different situation than Roland Garros. The clay-court Grand Slam tournament was the recipient of SO much stick when it co-opted its spot in late September-early October.

The tournament had been postponed from its usual spring slot. And the rest of the clay-court season had been cancelled in the early stages of the pandemic. As well, the fall Asian swing had also been cancelled on both the ATP and WTA Tour.

The French Open went ahead in 2020 – four months late and behind closed doors – but it did happen. (Stephanie Myles-Opencourt.ca/wordpress)

If the French federation hadn’t grabbed it, someone else would have. They just got there first. The number of adjustments that needed to be made, relatively speaking, were few. Somehow, they got it all done.

Holding the Australian Open in February or March is a completely different story.

Will there be a Sunshine Swing?

That’s another question no one has an answer for. Will Indian Wells and Miami happen in 2021?

The U.S. seems destined for a massive increase in coronavirus cases, above and beyond its already deadly, frightening number.

But with the Thanksgiving weekend coming up and then the Christmas holiday season – and so many non virus-believing Americans planning to travel home for family reunions – things might look pretty grim in the new year.

Indian Wells was the first tournament to be cancelled by the pandemic in 2020. Will it happen in 2021? (Stephanie Myles – Opencourt.ca/Wordpress)

Beyond what that might mean for March and the Sunshine Swing, it effectively precludes even the theory of holding them earlier in the year, in a de facto switch with the Aussie summer.

We heard from several people earlier this year that Indian Wells owner Larry Ellison had no interest in holding the event until there was a vaccine.

While several promising candidates seem to be on the way on that end, it will take months and months for them to get to the general public.

Ellison didn’t hesitate to pull the plug on his tournament in March. We’ll remember that back then, the cases had barely begun to appear in the U.S. So many people thought he was being premature. It turned out he was prescient.

It’s not at all out of the realm that they might cede to the Australian Open. And it’s not at all out of the realm that the complete 2021 calender might be rejigged.

Which would require a level of cooperation between tennis stakeholders that would be absolutely unprecedented.

As well, the notion of a 14-day quarantine before changing countries is not going away any time soon.

No news is … no news

It doesn’t appear the players have gotten any updates on this so far.

All they know at this point is that they are not, cannot, head down to Australia in December. They’ve often been the last to know anyway.

Beyond that, it’s all a blank slate.

We do know that they will move heaven and earth to hold the Australian Open – somehow. There is simply too much at stake financially for both the tournament and Tennis Australia, to lose an entire year.

Acapulco men only – or perhaps not at all

There is some buzz that Acapulco (Feb. 22-27, 2021) is – typically a joint ATP and WTA event, is in doubt. And that Indian Wells may be eyeing a fall slot given the current situation in the U.S.

Acapulco is set to reveal a brand-new venue in 2021, too. And Alexander Zverev has already confirmed his presence.

But the event’s new look has been delayed and compromised by the coronavirus. Already, they know that a new stadium will not be done. And as a result, they’ve already announced the WTA portion of the event won’t happen in 2021.

The tournament director says that they could not come to an agreement with Octagon, the player representation agency that owns the WTA event, without that new stadium. Sigh.

Tickets went on sale in September, with a provisional 50 per cent capacity. Which seems quaint and optimistic at this point. And it will happen in the “old” stadium.

All the dominos may yet fall into place. Somehow. But not right now.