Ever since the pandemic hit 10 months ago, the majors in tennis – the sport’s four pillars – have taken slightly differing approaches to delivering their events.
Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since 1945, the US Open in New York went ahead without spectators and the rescheduled French Open had a smattering of fans, held in the Parisian autumn instead of spring. Now, after months of planning and a delay caused by the recommencement of Victoria’s hotel quarantine plan in December, Australia’s Open is closer to realisation.
The details of exactly how the Open – held in February this year after being rescheduled – will work for players and spectators alike was closely guarded information after painstaking, back-and-forth negotiations between authorities and Tennis Australia.
Not your average quarantine
The grand plans are being revealed, however, as the centrepiece of planning – the strict hotel quarantine arrangements – begin when players start arriving in Melbourne on Thursday on the first of the sparsely populated chartered planes.
They are not the same quarantine arrangements that your average Joe Citizen is being subject to, however, with only players and a “support person” allowed to leave their rooms. Crucially, the world’s star players secured the right for a daily five-hour window for practice. It was the crucial bargaining chip in negotiations that meant the prized tennis major would go ahead.
Thus, the manner in which players can safely make their way back and forth to designated training facilities – at Melbourne Park, the National Tennis Centre and Albert Reserve – will be watched intensely for any slip-ups.
A ‘social distant’ gymnasium set up in one of the car parks at Melbourne Park.Credit:Jason South
Victoria’s Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville told 3AW the about 390 players coming to Melbourne must strictly abide by the requirements, even with the nominated daily slot for practice.
“They’re there for five hours,” Neville said of the daily period allocated for practice.
“If they decide they’ve had enough well, sorry, you’re there for five hours – there’s no unnecessary movement.
“They get so long on the court to practise, they then get take a gym area which is a fully open and ventilated area. If you’re on court one, you go to gym one. Following that they have the chance to have some nutrition, so the same four people together in tent one for nutrition. They are then returned to the hotel. They are then tested. Anyone leaving the hotel for training is tested every single day.”
PLAYERS IN QUARANTINE: MAIN POINTS
- All players and officials must test negative before departing their country on chartered flights
- Players and officials will be subject to daily testing in Australia
- Emergency exits at hotels have been fitted with alarms to ensure players and officials do not leave their rooms
- COVID-safe training bubbles have been set up at Melbourne Park, the National Tennis Centre and Albert Reserve
- Only players and one ‘support person’ can leave their rooms for training
- Other members of a player’s entourage can’t leave their room during the 14-day quarantine
- Any breaches have severe repercussions, including maximum $20,000 fines and criminal sanctions
The other side of the coin to TA’s planning will happen once the quarantine phase ends – when tennis players are considered part of the community like anyone else – and actual competition begins at Melbourne Park from the start of February.
Spectators, choose your zone
There’s a similarity here to the quarantine arrangements: the large footprint that the Melbourne Park precinct makes on the inner-city allows for it to be split three ways. Melbourne Park has three main courts with closeable roofs, so each of the three zones has access to one of those. Spectators can choose between the Rod Laver Arena Zone, the Margaret Court Arena Zone and the John Cain Arena Zone. As organisers say: “Each zone offers its own unique combination of live experiences, food and beverage and tennis action.”
How the Melbourne Park precinct has been split into three different ‘zones’.Credit:Tennis Australia
Organisers insist public health has been foremost in their thinking. “A robust and thorough COVID-safe plan will be implemented for Australian Open 2021 in accordance with the Victorian government’s public events framework. We will work with DHHS and other agencies to ensure that all aspects of your event experience are consistent with public health expectations.”
Melburnians had a taste of the “zone approach” (and what it means for contact tracing) at the Boxing Day Test when the MCG held an event with reduced capacity. When it was determined a COVID-19 positive case may have been exposed to the virus during the Test, all those in “zone five” at the venue were notified.
“You buy a ticket to each zone for the session. In that way if there was an unfortunate outbreak or a close contact or if someone tested positive, we could do contact tracing just for that zone because there’s no crossover of the zones,” said Australian Open boss Craig Tiley.
“It gives us an opportunity to protect the majority of our fans regardless.”
“Ours is a bit different in the sense that we have 14 straight days (of competition), 25 sessions of it, you’ve got to get people in and out and you’ve got to go again, and again.
“You’ve got to do it 25 times. It is challenging.”
A different experience
Fans heading to the tennis will also experience differences in 2021 in other ways: all tickets will be digital to reduce handling and assist contact tracing, there will be physical distancing within arenas and in queues, sanitiser stations will be available on-site and transactions will be cashless.
Organisers are trying to placate fans with so-called “Family Pods” – physically distant groupings of 1-6 seats. “Select your fan pod from the interactive seating chart but note that you must purchase all the tickets in the pod to ensure no fans outside your party are seated with you,” they say.
There will be some conjecture about the contact tracing protocols. Most crucially, all patrons must “check-in” to what they are describing as “dwell spaces”.
AUS OPEN 2021: THE FAN EXPERIENCE
- Melbourne Park is being split into three distinct zones: the Rod Laver Arena Zone, the Margaret Court Arena Zone and the John Cain Arena Zone
- The RLA zone does not include any access to outside courts
- Tickets are being sold towards a capacity of about 35 per cent, subject to change
- Seating plans feature ‘fan pods’ – physically distanced groupings of 1-6 seats
- Ground passes are currently unavailable but organisers continue to work with health authorities on crowd sizes and physical distancing protocols
- All transactions at Melbourne Park will be cashless
“Contact tracing details of patrons will be collected, and stored via the secure Ticketmaster digital ticket database in satisfaction of DHHS guidelines and in accordance with privacy laws and obligations,” Tennis Australia says.
“Patrons will also be required to ‘check-in’ at various locations on-site upon entry (e.g. private spaces, restaurants, premium experience venues etc).”
One of the most recognisable aspects of an Australian Open experience is buying one of the popular ground passes to wander freely between courts at Melbourne Park. Due to this year’s restrictions, however, they are currently unavailable, but TA is hoping that circumstances might change and current crowd limits could increase. “Any availability of AO 2021 ground pass tickets will be communicated on our website and will be subject to applicable zoning requirements.”
Take it to the next level
While the precinct now has three equal zones, organisers have also found a way to cater for “high-end” clientele with various packages and options again available: premium experiences, on-court seating, “walk-on” experiences on Rod Laver Arena and designated “private spaces” available for hire such as super-boxes on centre court.
This year’s Open will have a sharply different feel but, for a vast array of people who’ve been planning its different complexion, one thing is foremost: it’s going ahead.
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Scott Spits is a sports reporter for The Age
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