Is hard quarantine at the Australian Open responsible for string of upsets?
- Over the course of the first two rounds, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2019 US open winner Bianca Andreescu, thrice Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber, 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, have all been sent packing.
Upsets in the early rounds of a Grand Slam, especially in the women’s draw, aren’t an uncommon sight. What is common at this Australian Open, however, is a bunch of players biting the dust while feeling weary after being in a fortnight-long strict quarantine in Melbourne.
Over the course of the first two rounds, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2019 US open winner Bianca Andreescu, thrice Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber, 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, 17th seed Elena Rybakina, 20th seed Maria Sakkari and 24th seed Alison Riske have all been sent packing after staying in their rooms for 14 days and being allowed freedom only a week prior to the start of the Grand Slam.
Among the men, 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, along with experienced pros Benoit Paire, Vasek Pospisil and Tennys Sandgren were defeated in the opening round after being in hard quarantine. And while their results can’t quite be termed “upsets”, they did put their sluggish show down to the hard quarantine.
India’s No. 1 Rohan Bopanna was part of the 72 players forced into complete isolation for two weeks after a few passengers in three chartered flights tested positive for Covid-19 upon landing in Melbourne last month. The 38th-ranked Indian, who paired up with world No. 48 Ben McLachlan of Japan, also lost in the first round of the men’s doubles. The experienced doubles pros were defeated in straight sets by Korean wild cards Nam Ji-sung and Min-Kyu Song on Wednesday.
The 72 players in isolation were not allowed to leave their rooms for two weeks, while other players were allowed five hours of training a day during the same fortnight.
Bopanna had to be in his room from the night of January 14 to the midnight of January 30, before playing in the ATP warm-up tournament on February 2. After one competitive match that followed the isolation period, a “rusty” Bopanna entered into the season-opening Grand Slam.
“After about 15-16 days of not even hitting a tennis ball to then suddenly coming to one of the biggest events, it’s not easy,” Bopanna said over the phone from Melbourne after his men’s doubles loss. “It’s not ideal preparation, especially after having a good off-season and then flying in and just sitting in a room. You lose a lot of strength, a lot of muscle.”
The other exiting players have spoken on similar lines about the after-effects of the hard quarantine. Azarenka, the 2020 US Open finalist who appeared to have breathing issues during her straight-sets first round defeat against Australian Open debutant Jessica Pegula, said the lack of "fresh air" during the period was most challenging.
Kerber said had she been aware of the possibility of going two weeks without hitting a ball in quarantine, she would've thought twice about coming to Melbourne. "You feel it, especially if you play a real match where it counts and you play the first match in a Grand Slam against an opponent who doesn't stay in the hard lockdown," the 2016 Australian Open winner said in a press conference after her loss to Bernarda Pera in the opening round.
America’s Sandgren—who lost to Aussie Alex de Minaur in the first round after taking Roger Federer to five sets in the quarter-finals last year—revealed blisters on his hands after resuming training post quarantine, adding that he had to take a couple of days off after his first hit because of a sore body. Spaniard Paula Badosa, who had her quarantine period extended after she tested Covid positive herself, said her body was "hurting" during her three-set defeat in the first round.
Bopanna compared their quarantine situation to an off-season. Except, while after an off-season players gradually build into the new season physically as well as with their game, in Melbourne they needed to be at their optimum immediately.
“You had to straightaway go in and play at a 100 per cent. That’s not easy. You can’t really say, ‘OK I have a Grand Slam in one week, let me go all out’. You can’t try to do that, because then your body will be at risk too,” the 40-year-old Bopanna said.
“And then when you play a match, your mind might still be tuned in but your strokes are not tuned to tennis as yet. The timing, hand-eye coordination—all that takes some match practice and training to get into the groove. That sometimes makes a difference on a big point or a big moment in the match, having not played much and then suddenly playing at that level,” he added.
A few players though made a smoother transition from hitting balls against walls and windows to hitting them on court. American Ann Li, 20, reached the final of the WTA warm-up Grampians Trophy last week as well as the third round of the Australian Open, going down to the in-form Aryna Sabalenka on Friday. Romania's Sorana Cirstea stunned ninth seed Petra Kvitova in the second round before losing in the third on Friday, but admitted she didn’t expect her body to respond as well as it did. “I was one of the few in hard quarantine. So right now playing (for) two hours in 30 degrees, it takes a bit more out of me than normal,” Cirstea said on court after beating Kvitova.