ONEAn email from Tennis Australia, which offers TV network footage of defending champion Naomi Osaka’s arrival in Melbourne, arrived midway through Tuesday. Even for a country known for celebrating the arrival of any international celebrity with a chorus of publicity, the sight of the Japanese superstar on the tarmac was a welcome relief.
The recent Covid-19 rise has added insult and uncertainty to the injuries that have already ruled legends Serena Williams and Roger Federer out of the Australian Open. If this year’s grand slam was unprecedented, next month’s edition will take the form of another tournament of great concern as the pandemic is heating up again.
Former finalist and US Open champion Dominic Thiem withdrew on Wednesday with a wrist problem. Three of this year’s women’s semifinalists, led by Williams, are out injured. Karolína Plíšková, who played a ripper of a Wimbledon final against Ash Barty, will miss, as will former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, the high-profile compatriot from Osaka.
Rafael Nadal is in Spain recovering from a Covid-19 infection that was contracted at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi last week, which has now seen five positive results among a small group of players, including Russian challenger Andrey Rublev. It is not yet clear whether Nadal, the 2009 Australian Open champion, will be in Melbourne Park, but local officials are quietly convinced the 20-time major winner will travel.
Five-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray, who participated in the UAE show, arrived on Wednesday after receiving a wildcard in next month’s grand slam.
As for Novak Djokovic, the undisputed king of Melbourne Park, there is no certainty at all about his presence at the Australian Open. Late Wednesday, he withdrew from the ATP Cup, which was to begin in Sydney on New Year’s Day. For every breathless report on the Serb, there is no clarity on whether the nine-time Australian Open champion has been vaccinated or not.
No wonder over the excitement and relief surrounding the arrival of four-time major-champion Osaka, whose return after a break in mental health provides a boost of star power.
The tournament organizers performed the tennis version of a miracle in February, in which players were chartered into the country and quarantined before being released onto the pitch in Melbourne Park. Successful negotiation of the threat from the Omicron variant by the summer of 2022 presents challenges that are no less complex and stressful.
While questions abound about the participation of some big names, there is plenty of evidence that those who actually get to the baseline have more than enough punch to ensure yet another quality edition of Happy Slam.
The US Open proved to be a clear illustration, with Emma Raducanus’ success and her finale against Leylah Fernandez, leading to fantastic TV viewership in America and abroad.
Daniil Medvedev, the US Open champion and finalist in Melbourne in February, is clearly a leading title threat after dismantling Djokovic in New York. Alexander Zverev topped the ATP final when he defeated Medvedev and appears to be breaking his duck by a major sooner rather than later.
The interest and anticipation surrounding Barty in her attempt to break an Australian Open drought by the locals, dating back to Chris O’Neil’s success in 1978, is enough to secure a high level of patriotic interest. World No. 1 trained at Rod Laver Arena with Billie Jean King Cup team-mate Sam Stosur on Wednesday and is heading to Adelaide for a tournament next week. She carries star bill for a WTA Tour event in Sydney the week before this year’s first major.
Clips of players practicing against mattresses laid up on the wall of their hotel rooms heralded an unusually and hugely expensive Australia Open in 2021. Conditions will be less difficult this year, with an extended stay in quarantine reserved for those testing positive. But it is certain that some will be prevented.
The Omicron threat has the potential to wreak havoc over the next month in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. Canadian star Denis Shapovalov is already serving a 10-day stay in Sydney. Frenchman Benoit Paire announced he is positive again on Wednesday. Others will certainly follow suit.
Officials are trying to minimize the risk. So did star players.
Some will stay at home, with an agent from a leading player telling Guardian Australia that contact with the star will be limited to a small handful of people over the next month. Most players will stay in what Tennis Australia has called a “minimized risk environment” at Crown Hotels, although they will be free to move around Melbourne.
Unlike in February last year, entire flight crews of players will not have to serve strict quarantine if a person on board a flight to Australia tests positive. But it was somewhat surprising to see pictures of players on a flight from South America mingling freely and mask-free over a card game given what is at stake.
The majority of the 17 planes bringing stars to Australia have now arrived. Another couple are scheduled to arrive from the end of next week for those not playing in the events offered in suburban and regional Australia.
Despite all the optimism, perhaps the only sure thing about the coming month is the lack of security.