MELBOURNE • Forty-seven tennis players were barred from practising for a fortnight yesterday, 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.
While the three people who failed the tests were not athletes, everyone on board has been considered a close contact. They have been ordered to stay in their hotel rooms for the entire 14-day mandatory quarantine period.
It means none of them will now be allowed out to practise and train for the five hours each day agreed to as part of their build-up to the opening Grand Slam of the year, Tennis Australia said.
Twenty-four players were on a plane from Los Angeles, where a crew member and one other passenger, reportedly a coach, tested positive.
According to local media, former Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens and Japanese star Kei Nishikori were among those on board.
A positive case also emerged from a flight from Abu Dhabi, with 23 players affected, reportedly including Major winners Bianca Andreescu, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
"We are communicating with everyone on this flight, and particularly the playing group, whose conditions have now changed, to ensure their needs are being catered to as much as possible, and that they are fully appraised of the situation," tournament organiser Craig Tiley said of the Los Angeles flight.
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," the world No. 53 tweeted. "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."
The world's top players began arriving in Australia on Thursday for the delayed Grand Slam, which is due to start on Feb 8.
Most touched down in Melbourne, although the biggest names in the game, including world No. 1 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 to the hard-court event.
According to the Melbourne 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 the virus 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 allowed to board only with proof of a negative test before departure, or with approval as a recovered case at the discretion of the Australian government, as with Sandgren.
The plane positives are the biggest setback yet for tournament organisers, who have spent months working through the logistical nightmares of hosting a Slam during a pandemic.
The Open has already lost some key players, including Roger Federer who is injured and world No. 25 John Isner, who opted not to travel due to the coronavirus restrictions.