AAn email from Tennis Australia, offering television networks images of defending champion Naomi Osaka’s arrival in Melbourne, arrived midway through Tuesday. Even for a country renowned for celebrating the arrival of any international celebrity with a publicity chorus, the sight of the Japanese superstar on the tarmac was a welcome relief.
The recent spike in Covid-19 has added insult and injury uncertainty that has already ruled legends Serena Williams and Roger Federer from the Australian Open. While this year’s grand slam was unprecedented, next month’s edition is shaping up to be another tournament of great apprehension as the pandemic heats up again.
Former US Open finalist and champion Dominic Thiem retired on Wednesday due to a wrist problem. Three of this year’s female semi-finalists, led by Williams, are injured. Karolína Plíšková, who played a ripper in a Wimbledon final against Ash Barty, will be missed, as will former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, Osaka’s top compatriot.
Rafael Nadal is in Spain recovering from a Covid-19 infection contracted at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi last week which has now seen five bright spots among a small group of players, including Russian competitor Andrey Rublev . It’s not yet clear whether Nadal, the 2009 Australian Open champion, will be at Melbourne Park, but local officials are quietly confident the 20-time major winner will travel.
Five-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray, who attended the UAE Expo, arrived on Wednesday after receiving a wildcard for next month’s grand slam.
As for Novak Djokovic, the undisputed king of Melbourne Park, there is no certainty about his presence at the Australian Open. Late Wednesday he pulled out of the ATP Cup, which was due to start in Sydney on New Years Day. For every breathtaking report on the Serbian, it’s unclear whether the nine-time Australian Open champion is vaccinated or not.
No wonder, then, the excitement and relief surrounding the arrival of the four-time major champion from Osaka, whose return after a mental health break gives a boost to star power.
Tournament organizers pulled off tennis’s version of a miracle in February, with players chartered around the country and quarantined before being unleashed on the courts at Melbourne Park. Successfully negotiating the threat posed by the Omicron variant for the summer of 2022 poses no less complex and stressful challenges.
While questions abound about some big name participation, there is plenty of evidence to say that those who actually hit the baseline have more than enough oomph to ensure another quality edition of the Happy Slam.
The US Open was a clear illustration of this, with the success of Emma Raducanu, and her final against Leylah Fernandez, causing stunning TV audiences in America and abroad.
Daniil Medvedev, US Open champion and finalist in Melbourne in February, is clearly a major threat to the title after dismantling Djokovic in New York. Alexander Zverev peaked in the ATP final by beating Medvedev and looks certain to break his duck in a major tournament sooner rather than later.
The interest and expectations surrounding Barty in his attempt to end a drought at the Australian Open by the locals dating back to Chris O’Neil’s success in 1978 are enough to ensure a high level of patriotic interest. The world No.1 trained at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday with his Billie Jean King Cup teammate Sam Stosur and will travel to Adelaide for a tournament next week. She is the star of a WTA Tour event in Sydney the week before the first major tournament of the year.
Clips of players training against mattresses propped up against the wall of their hotel rooms have heralded an unusual and extremely expensive Australian Open in 2021. Conditions will be less onerous this year, with an extended stay in quarantine reserved only to people who test positive. But it is certain that some will be embarrassed.
The threat posed by Omicron has the potential to wreak havoc in the draws next month in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. Canadian star Denis Shapovalov is already on a 10-day stay in Sydney. Frenchman Benoit Paire announced he was positive again on Wednesday. Others will certainly follow suit.
The authorities are trying to minimize the risks. So, too, the star players.
Some will stay at home, with an agent for a prominent actor telling Guardian Australia that contact with the star will be limited to a small handful over the next month. The majority of players will stay in what Tennis Australia has dubbed a “minimized risk environment” at Crown hotels, although they are free to move around Melbourne.
Unlike last February, entire player planes won’t have to undergo a strict quarantine if someone on a flight to Australia is positive. But it was somewhat surprising to see photos of players on a flight from South America mixing freely and unmasked on a deck of cards given the stakes at stake.
The majority of the 17 flights bringing stars to Australia have now arrived. A few more are expected to arrive at the end of next week for those not taking part in the events offered in suburbs and parts of Australia.
Despite all the optimism, the only certainty about the coming month may be the lack of certainty.