Date of Australian Open Yet to be Settled as Covid-19 Confusion Continues

Tennis fans are likely to find out when the Australian Open will be held at some stage in the next two weeks, with the tournament likely to be postponed until February or even April.

Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley released a statement on Sunday that asserted the governing body was doing all it could to ensure that a “summer of tennis” for Australia would be finalised “as soon as possible.”

Tennis Australia is working closely with the government of the state of Victoria to formulate a plan for the tournament that takes the needs of players, spectators, sponsors and broadcasters into account, while also ensuring the event complies fully with health regulations.

Quarantining and biosecurity issues remain top of the list of priorities, with players’ participation placed in doubt by some of the stricter measures in place. Asking players to remain in quarantine without being able to train or play in warm-up events will have a deleterious effect on the quality and integrity of the Australian Open.

There is also still doubt about the amount of spectators that may be allowed into the event. Victorian premier Dan Andrews has stated that the traditional first Grand Slam tournament of the tennis season will be held in the “early part of next year”, though he has not been able to be any more specific than that.

The disruption is not just to the Australian Open, however. Moving the main event from its proposed start date of January 18 would have significant knock-on effects on up to 40 ATP and WTA tournaments, as well as Davis Fed Cup fixtures. Ironing out those issues would take an unprecedented amount of cooperation between interested parties.

Those parties include event sponsors, broadcasters, health authorities, national and regional governments and event organisers, as well as players and their representatives. The organisational challenges of Covid-19 are proving to be immense for tennis.

Postponement could bring economic benefits

Meanwhile, a leading Australian sports economist has suggested that the later the tournament is staged the better, as far it boosting economic growth is concerned.

Dr Ross Booth, senior lecturer in sports economics at Monash University, has asserted that the possibility of larger crowds being allowed to attend the event as the result of a longer postponement would provide the state of Victoria with a significant economic boost.

“I think they could fit it in,” Booth told Guardian Australia.

“Even if they began at the start of March, all that would be over by the time the AFL and Formula One started [both 18 March]. I don’t know whether by 18 March there’ll be any overseas visitors allowed into Australia past New Zealand, but if they were, that would help both the Australian Open and the Formula One. They kind of complement one another – you could have them back to back.

“Yes, school holidays are over, but the later it is in the year, the bigger crowds you’d expect to be able to come.”

Having a later start would also allow time for warm-up tournaments to take place properly. Some warm-up events are set to be moved from Victoria to other Australian states, but some may not take place at all as things stand.

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The key issue as regards the economic benefits has been identified as the Open taking place during school holidays. Reports in Australia have suggested that the three-round qualification event for the tournament proper might be scrapped.

This would be done to ensure that the main event is only postponed by one week. If that happened, some of the Open would definitely take place during school holidays – something that would certainly make broadcaster Nine much happier.

But there is still confusion about how biosecurity regulations would be applied in the lead-up to the tournament. Quarantine arrangements need to be finalised, and there is currently no guarantee in place that players could play in warm-up events or even train if they were required to quarantine.

Players such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have urged fellow professionals to remain patient, but there remain issues with how to prepare properly for the tournament. John Millman, an Australian who was last month elected to the ATP Tour Player Council, has asserted that playing in such a high-profile tournament without being able to train properly beforehand is impossible.

With such a range of issues to consider, ranging from health and safety during a global pandemic, to players’ professional needs and the integrity of the tournament as well as economic issues, this is a knotty problem for the sport of tennis to unravel.

Vaccines for Covid-19 may well be on the horizon, but the issues that it raises for professional sport are likely to last for many more months, if not years. As an individual, rather than a team, sport, tennis has its own unique challenges to face.

Reports earlier this week have suggested that players will be able to practice during quarantine but will not be able to compete. Those same reports also suggested that the tournament’s start date will be moved from January 18 to January 25 or February 1.

Andrews and his hard line

The state of Victoria is set to ease its quarantine policy for arrivals into the state from December 7. Players have reportedly been informed that they will not be allowed into Victoria until January, however, so that the hotel quarantine system does not become over-burdened.

If players are allowed to practice during quarantine then they may be subject to police supervision in order to ensure compliance with health protocols. Victoria premier Daniel Andrews has taken a typically hard line when it comes to players’ quarantining arrangements.

As a reaction to reports that players might be able to quarantine for 10 rather than 14 days, Andrews said: “As important as a tennis tournament is, we’re not going to jeopardise our coronavirus status by anything other than the highest standards.”

Victoria has now gone 26 days without a new incident of coronavirus, so hopefully tennis fans will see a date set soon for the year’s first Grand Slam event.

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