Strict quarantine awaits world's top tennis stars in Australia
MELBOURNE - Tennis' top stars face the threat of sanctions if they breach stringent Covid-19 protocols when they arrive this week for an Australian Open deemed by its top boss as needing a "small miracle" to go off without a hitch.
The calendar's first Grand Slam normally starts in the third week of January but planning for this year's tournament has been a logistical nightmare for beleaguered organisers.
Tennis Australia initially wanted players arriving in Melbourne by mid-December.
But restrictions on international arrivals to the state of Victoria pushed back the tournament start date to Feb 8, with a series of WTA and ATP events being played at Melbourne the week before to ensure players are up to speed.
Melbourne was the epicentre of Australia's largest second wave outbreak of coronavirus, which prompted strict lockdown measures for four months.
This grim backdrop fuelled tense negotiations between government officials, organisers and players to iron out an agreeable health security protocol for the Australian Open.
The sticking point had been over allowing players to practise during the compulsory 14-day quarantine period but eventually authorities gave the green light and granted daily five-hour blocks for training and treatment.
Players, however, face stricter measures compared to last year's US and French Opens held in cities stricken by the virus and will be required to spend 19 hours daily during quarantine confined to their hotel rooms.
Defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin admitted it was "not the most ideal situation". "It is what it is. The rules are quite harsh, but it's for everyone," she said.
There is also the threat of sanctions, including hefty fines, spending additional time in quarantine or deportation, if the rules are broken.
Ukrainian world number five Elina Svitolina hired a mental coach in an effort to cope with the stress and uncertainty.
"I think during the difficult time right now, mentally it's very important to stay strong, to stay fresh," she said.
Six-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer's decision to withdraw -- breaking his record streak of 21 straight singles appearances in Melbourne -- affects the pulling power of the tournament, which was left reeling after suggestions he skipped because of the quarantine rules.
The 39-year-old had two rounds of knee surgery last year and has not played since his semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open 12 months ago.