Forty-seven players were barred from practising for a fortnight in a major setback to their Australian Open preparations after passengers on two charter flights that brought them to Melbourne tested positive to COVID-19.
One of the positive tests was returned by Sylvain Bruneau, the coach of Canada’s 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu.
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He said he was “saddened and sorry for the consequences” after arriving on a flight from Abu Dhabi.
Everyone on board the two flights, considered as close contacts, has been ordered to stay in their hotel rooms for the entire 14-day mandatory quarantine period.
It means none of them will be allowed out to practise and train for the five hours each day agreed to as part of their build-up to the opening major of the year, Tennis Australia said.
That included 24 players on a plane from Los Angeles, where a crew member and one other passenger, reportedly a coach, tested positive.
Former Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens and Japan’s Kei Nishikori were among those on board.
Twenty-three players, including grand slam winners Andreescu, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova were on the flight from Abu Dhabi.
Bruneau said that he had tested negative within 72 hours of his flight’s departure from the Gulf and “felt perfectly fine when I boarded”. He insisted he had followed all the protocols while in the Middle East.
“I have no idea how I might have contracted this virus,” he said. “I am extremely saddened and sorry for the consequences now on everyone’s shoulders sharing my flight.
“The rest of my team is negative and I sincerely hope that any further disruption is kept to a minimum.”
FURIOUS BACKLASH TO STRICT LOCKDOWN
French player Alize Cornet, who is in Melbourne but was not on either plane, called the situation “insane”.
“Soon, half of the players from the AO will actually have to isolate,” she wrote in a since-deleted tweet.
“Weeks and weeks of practice and hard work going to waste for one person positive to COVID in a 3/4 empty plane. Sorry but this is insane.
“We’ve been told that the plane would be separated by section of 10 people and that if one person of your section was positive, then you had to isolate. Not that the whole plane had to.
“This seems to be a very sensitive subject and I understand it. We are privileged, indeed, but please try to get our point of view too. And btw, I was not in this plane.
“But we are not asking the Victorian residents to play a professional sport afterward. The risks of injury after a two-week break is huge. Maybe I’m too focused on my side of the story, but that’s also why we are here for.”
Ukrainian star Marta Kostyuk added “being alone is such a torture” while other players claimed that the rules governing confinement have been changed. They said they were told they would need to undergo a hard quarantine only if someone in their section of the plane tested positive.
“We are not complaining to be in quarantine,” tweeted Swiss world No. 12 Belinda Bencic.
“We are complaining because of unequal practice/playing conditions before quite important tournaments.
“We made our decision to come here from rules that were sent to us. Then we arrived and received an information/rule book with more/new rules that we did not know about.”
Romania’s Sorana Cirstea, ranked 71, tweeted: “I was planning to play the tournament because they promised daily 5 h quarantine exemption where we could go practice, do a gym session and rehab. This was the deal before signing up to this … but the rules changed ‘overnight’!
“I have no issues to stay 14 days in the room watching netflix. Believe me this is a dream come true, holiday even. What we can’t do is COMPETE after we have stayed 14 days on a couch. This is the issue, not the quarantine rule.
“If they would have told us this rule before I would not play Australia … I would have stayed home. They told us we would fly at 20 per cent capacity, in sections and we would be a close contact ONLY if my team or cohort tests positive.”
Cirstea also vented her frustration by tweeting out highlighted paragraphs from an earlier AAP story of tournament director Craig Tiley saying players would definitely not be asked to quarantine for two weeks without leaving their hotel before the Australian Open.
In a tweet that has since been deleted, Paula Badosa wrote: “At the beginning the rule was the positive section of the plane who was with that person had to quarantine. Not the whole plane. Not fair to change the rules at the last moment. And to have to stay in a room with no windows and no air.”
Yulia Putintseva fumed, tweeting: “What I don’t understand is that, why no one ever told us, if one person on board is positive the whole plane needs to be isolated. I would think twice before coming here.
“They said, you have to only if you or one of your team members is positive! Not a random person on the plane.”
Austrian doubles specialist Philipp Oswald was another to weigh in, calling the situation “crazy”.
“I didn’t think everyone would have to be put into a hard quarantine if one of the passengers is positive. That was never communicated to us,” he told tennisnet.com.
The world’s top players began arriving in Australia on Thursday for the delayed grand slam, which is due to start on February 8.
Most touched down in Melbourne, although the biggest names in the game, including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, flew into Adelaide.
All must undergo a 14-day quarantine, but are allowed out for five hours daily to train in strict bio-secure bubbles ahead of a host of warm-up tournaments, all in Melbourne, in the week leading up the grand slam.
According to the Herald Sun, the Los Angeles flight was the same one that sparked controversy on Thursday when American player Tennys Sandgren tweeted he had been allowed to board despite returning a positive test.
It was his second positive result, having been diagnosed with COVID-19 in November, but Victorian state health chiefs insisted his infection was historical and he had “met the rigorous health criteria that has been set”.
Players were only allowed to board with proof of a negative test prior to departure, or with approval as a recovered case at the discretion of the Australian government, as with Sandgren.
It was the latest setback for a tournament that has spent months working through the logistical nightmares of hosting a grand slam during a pandemic, with Melbourne only emerging from months of lockdown in October.
The tournament has already lost some key players, with Roger Federer out injured and world No. 25 John Isner opting not to travel due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Three-time major winner Andy Murray tested positive for the virus and is isolating at home in London, casting doubt on whether he will be able to play.
American world No. 16 Madison Keys also tested positive, and pulled out. Meanwhile, world number No. 3 Dominic Thiem arrived without coach Nicolas Massu, another to test positive, and Nadal is missing his coach Carlos Moya who has decided not to make the trip.