By Giri Nathan
Australia’s pandemic response has been an admirable success, thanks to extensive contact tracing, widespread compliance with guidelines, and natural advantages—low population density, that whole island thing where you’re surrounded by water on all sides. As of mid-December, Melbourne had gone four weeks without a new COVID-19 case. Hosting its usual Grand Slam could only endanger its slow move toward normalcy. Just last week, the Australian federal government nearly halved the number of Australian citizens allowed back into the country each week, as a precaution against more infectious strains of the disease. Caps on hotel quarantine have left tens of thousands of Australians stuck abroad. Meanwhile, Tennis Australia prepared to charter 15 flights containing 1,200 players and officials into the country so that the tennis could happen. Execution aside, the optics were already tricky.
But Tennis Australia’s plan appeared to take every possible precaution for an undertaking as inherently risky as an international sports event. The Open was pushed back a few weeks to Feb. 8 to accommodate the necessities of both health protocols and tennis training. All players would have to return a negative test before flying to Australia, then enter a 14-day hotel quarantine upon arrival. Tested daily, permitted just five hours a day outside the hotel room for training purposes. After that fortnight, they would move on to the warm-up events, and then the Open.
The plan looked clean on paper. Now that this process is underway, we’re seeing bits of the messy reality. Andy Murray stayed put in the U.K. after a positive test result, apparently still hopeful that he will eventually make it to Australia somehow; who knows how many of these he has left in the tank? Madison Keys said she skipped her flight out of the U.S. after a positive test result, and it’s unclear if she still intends to travel there by other means. And, most curiously, Tennys Sandgren live-tweeted his own saga. He wrote that he recovered from a spell of COVID-19 in November, but tested positive again ahead of his flight, and cast doubt on the value of PCR testing. (American men’s tennis players always stay on brand! Sometimes even at great personal expense, as Christian Harrison proved this week in Delray Beach by refusing a mandatory on-court interview that required him to wear a mask, and getting fined $3,000.)
Sandgren’s next dispatch offered a glimmer of hope that he could board the flight, before disclosing that he could hold his breath for three minutes and 31 seconds, which is genuinely cool. By the next tweet, he was boarding the flight, 15 minutes after it was supposed to depart, before his bags had even been checked. And then he was off, with praises to “wizard” Craig Tiley, who is the CEO of Tennis Australia.
Because it is tough for me to assess a situation based on the real-time commentary of a Pizzagater in the process of frantically boarding an airplane, I had to wait until this helpful story in The Guardian to grasp what had transpired. Authorities in Victoria, the state Melbourne is in, reviewed Sandgren’s medical history and approved Sandgren’s air travel despite his positive test. Per a spokesperson for the state’s COVID unit, someone who is no longer infectious can nevertheless continue to “shed” the virus for months after the fact, which could have accounted for Sandgren’s positive test result. So: less to do with Tiley specifically and more to do with the virology. With the first and most logistically complex hurdle now cleared—transporting people to Australia—we will see how players and their staff handle the most extreme quarantining procedures they’ve experienced on tour to date. Should that all go smoothly, two-time quarterfinalist Sandgren will be back on court at the Australian Open, so prepare for the annual ritual where Tennys lasts two rounds longer than one might expect, the mainstream press realizes that there’s a tennis player named Tennys and revels in this fact, and then Tennys loses and is forgotten to time until his next trip Down Under.
Above: Despite a positive COVID-19 test, the Pizzagater was ruled non-infectious and allowed into Australia. (Getty)