Melbourne loves to self-identify as the capital of Australian sport, but after its season in pandemic hell Victorians are weighing up just how much the tennis means to them.
Which is more important, the reopening of the international sporting year with a delayed and scaled-down Australian Open tournament, or the hard-fought elimination of coronavirus?
Tennis brings with it players from some of the world’s biggest COVID hotspots – along with some of sport’s largest egos – so it’s no surprise that the negotiations around the Australian Open have been long, tortuous and not yet done.
The Victorian government’s well-documented missteps with hotel quarantine has no doubt made it wary of embracing the whims of a sport that hardly covered itself in glory through the early stages of the pandemic.
Novak Djokovic’s tone-deaf Adria Tour charity tournament in June was the most egregious example, with the world No.1 and other top players testing positive – forcing its abandonment after a week of calamity in Serbia.
A compromised US Open also went ahead in September, with key Australians Nick Kyrgios and Ash Barty deciding not to risk travelling to the then hotspot of New York.
Their call was vindicated soon after with criticism about tournament protocols around Frenchman Benoit Paire testing positive and the fact the US is now one of the worst-affected nations.
The WTA and ATP certainly loved the exposure and television revenue generated by ‘business as usual’ but the success of completing the event must also be weighed against the abrogation of community leadership in a country with more than 271,000 deaths.
Pandemic best practice is now a major factor weighing heavily on the bruised Victorian government as it seeks to balance the economic benefits of the Australian Open and the rewards on offer for opening up again.
French newspaper L’Equipe on Wednesday reported that February 8 to 21 are the new working dates for Melbourne, claiming players would be confined to a Melbourne Park bubble and subject to five COVID tests in 14 days.
The paper foreshadowed players arriving in Australia between January 15 and 17 and being required to quarantine in the bubble until the end of the month with no more than five hours allowed outside their hotel room to train.
None of that is a surprise, but Victorian health officials will also be casting one eye towards Bahrain, where Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton tested positive on Monday despite some of the strictest ‘bubble’ protocols in sport.
Was any more evidence required that being a rich, famous and COVID-savvy athlete is no guarantee of not catching the virus?
In March the Australian Grand Prix was the first sporting domino to fall in the crisis, but its organisers have until March 18 to plan their 2021 event and will now get to see how tennis deals with the arrival of international competitors.
Cricket will also have to step up and put its plans on show in coming weeks, with the MCG already conducting COVID-safe drills to safely allow a crowd of 25 per cent of usual capacity at the Boxing Day Test between Australia and India.
The MCC informed members on Wednesday that it will conduct rolling ballots for reserved seats for days one to four, with the first to be held via the MCC website link next Monday.
But it is tennis, with its retinue of individual players, coaches and supporters from varied parts of the world, that will pose the biggest test of Victoria’s quarantine protocols.
Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said in a tweet on Tuesday that he was confident of finalising all arrangements with the government soon.
“Understandably there has been public speculation on the various plans under consideration as well as the many confidential conversations that have taken place and our position remains clear – everything will require approval and agreement from the Victorian government before it can be confirmed,” Tiley wrote.
The protection and safety of the community remains paramount in the discussions.
“Our team continues to work on delivering a fantastic – and safe – AO 2021 for the players, the fans, our partners and our staff. We look forward to announcing more details, including when tickets will go on sale, very soon.”
On Wednesday Victoria recorded 33 days without a virus case, a situation that has allowed a gradual easing of Australia’s strictest COVID restrictions.
Premier Daniel Andrews plans to make further announcements on Sunday, tipping that there’d be “good news for many people right across Victoria”.
“It will mark a really important phase as we lock in a set of rules for a few months, for that COVID-safe summer,” he said.
Given the tough times endured by Victorians during the winter and spring lockdowns, that news will be welcomed, but there’ll also be a healthy dose of scepticism should any highly paid sports stars be seen to be compromising the victories won by the community.
Victoria needs to ace its COVID plan for tennis.