Why the tennis world's best players are hitting balls against hotel walls
“You’re not allowed to leave the room or open the door unless you hear a knock.” Sumit Nagal could be describing a scene out of a thriller; instead, he is simply talking about a regular day in quarantine in Melbourne. For a group of 72 players, a knock on the door usually means either a RT-PCR test or a delivery of food or some other essential.
The days leading up to the 2021 Australian Open, starting February 8, has presented a unique situation for the world’s tennis pros, a 14-day hard quarantine period that had quite a few players expressing their displeasure. The two Grand Slams held amid the pandemic prior to this in New York (US Open) and Paris (French Open) had bio bubbles, one where after a negative test and certain hours of isolation, players could step out of their rooms and head to the courts to train.
“Those were bubbles, this is a proper quarantine,” Nagal, India's second-highest ranked men's singles player, said.
“Here, you have 14 days of testing. But if you test negative 14 times, what is the point of still being in the room? I don’t get it,” Rohan Bopanna, India’s most experienced and top-ranked doubles pro at world No 38, said. “I understand that the rules of this country and government are different and the way they’re doing it is different. There's nothing much we can do about it.”
A new formula
These are the rules for the 2021 Australian Open: each player flying into Melbourne aboard one of the 15 chartered flights bringing in all the people involved in the slam would have to be in quarantine for 14 days despite having a negative test before boarding. Players are allowed five hours of freedom per day for training.
Despite those meticulous arrangements, at least 10 people (including players, coaches, staff etc), spread across three flights, tested positive once they landed in Melbourne. As a consequence, all 72 people aboard those three flights were put into a full quarantine, with even those five training hours taken away.
Bopanna is part of that list of 72, Nagal isn’t.
“Some of us are lucky enough to have five hours to train. But it’s very, very strict,” Nagal, the world No 137 who was handed a wild card entry into the season’s first Slam, said.
Nagal, like every other player who is permitted fresh air, gets his daily outdoor schedule sent by the organisers only the previous night. He has to train with the same hitting partner for a week—for the first week it’s Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev. In that five-hour window, Nagal spends two hours on the court, puts in 90 minutes of gym and fitness work, takes one hour to eat and warm down and half hour to travel. It's also the only time he can interact in person with his coach Sascha Nensel.
“You have your timings given the night before. You have to wait in your room till they come get you. Then you practice on the court and eat with your partner. There’s a gym area around every court, and you can’t go from one area to another. You have to stick to your zone,” Nagal says.
“It’s a very new formula for us, because we were used to the bubble life—check in, get a negative test, practice, play, do anything you want inside the hotel. Here you have to look at the bigger picture. After 14 days, you can head out of the hotel and do whatever you want. That’s a very different scenario from all the tournaments that we have played in the last few months.”
Jail, but with wifi
Bopanna accepts the post-quarantine, no-bubble scenario as a big plus too; but at the moment, the 40-year-old is struggling to sit around all day in his hotel room for two weeks.
“I can very well tell you that I know what to do and how to plan this, but actually none of us do!” Bopanna said. “It’s nowhere close to what a normal routine looks like. There’s no point waking up and saying, ‘OK let me do my exercises’, after which I’m just lazing around in the room. And there’s literally nowhere to go—only up and down, left and right of the room. It’s just very lazy to sit in the room for 14 days, right? I mean, what can you do? Nothing. Your body just becomes lethargic.”
And with that body the doubles pro is scheduled to play an ATP 250 tournament a day after his quarantine ends on January 30, to fine-tune ahead of the Slam.
The anxieties of playing a Grand Slam merely days after the strict quarantine, coupled with the fact that not every player is going through the same experience has caused resentment among some players.
Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut termed the experience a “jail but with Wifi” before apologising for his comments. His compatriot Paula Badosa, who expressed frustration on social media on being part of the 72-player group, was “sorry” after revealing on Thursday that she had tested positive. The Spanish tennis federation has also jumped in, saying players had not been informed about the strict confinement possibility. World No 1 Novak Djokovic, who controversially formed a rebel players’ council during the US Open last year, presented a list of “suggestions”—as the Serb called it—to the tournament director that reportedly included reduced isolation days of the 72 players and moving as many players as possible to private houses with a court. They were all shot down.
Amid all this, players have found a way to get the best out of whatever they have in the room—be it hitting against the wall, mattresses or curtains. Bopanna’s isolation experiments include posting at least a video per day on Instagram, making his own bed, cleaning the outside of his window with water for a brighter view of a giant white wall and promptly responding to work emails from his academy. “My whole team is a little bit more on their toes now because I’m following up much quicker,” he said with a laugh.
It also helps that Bopanna’s wife, Supriya Annaiah, is a psychologist. “I’ve been speaking to her daily. Mentally you need to find a way to enjoy whatever you’re doing. There is no point in getting frustrated. It can be tough and that’s where you need to find a way,” he says.
For Bopanna that includes watching stand-up comic Russell Peters's videos, TED Talks, Netflix, yoga and online courses. “I’ve been doing some part-time courses; the last one was on international entertainment and sports marketing. There’s also one on social media and business, which is interesting,” he said.
Nagal has his own challenges; the 23-year-old will begin his year with a Slam straight from the off-season and squeezing his entire training routine in those five hours has been hard.
“Normally you play 2-3 hours of tennis, an hour of fitness, physio, massage, ice packs etc. You can change hitting partners, you can train depending on your time and plan things. Now you can’t do that. I understand we’re here early, but once we finish our quarantine, we only have a day to play a tournament,” Nagal said.
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