Rajeev Ram, the top American in the world doubles rankings and one half of the men’s team that won last year’s Australian Open, got off a socially distanced charter plane from Los Angeles to Melbourne early in the morning on Jan. 15.
Along with a group of other players and coaches, he made it through the arrival procedures in Australia, boarded a bus and checked into a hotel where he and everyone else on the flight was tested for COVID-19.
When tennis players committed to play in this year’s Australian Open, they were well aware they were entering a country that has had among the most strict lockdowns and protocols anywhere in the world, including limiting the number of people flying in from overseas and then quarantining them for two weeks upon arrival. It’s been a huge part of Australia’s success against COVID-19, with just 30,000 total cases since the pandemic began.
Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open, was able to negotiate a narrow exception for players that would allow them five hours out of their hotel rooms each day with significant supervision for practice, conditioning and nutrition.
Only a small number of players, like top American John Isner, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. But with the Australian Open’s reputation for being among the tour’s most player-friendly events, and huge prize money at stake, most of the tennis world bought in. For Ram and his doubles partner Joe Salisbury, skipping the year’s first Grand Slam was not even a consideration.
“We were willing to deal with whatever it was we had to do,” Ram told USA TODAY Sports via a Zoom call Sunday night.
What he hadn’t considered, though, came in an e-mail several hours after he had gotten to his hotel: A flight attendant on the plane tested positive for the coronavirus, and thus, local health authorities ordered everyone on the plane to stay in their hotel rooms for all two weeks. No practice, no conditioning — no opening the door for anything but food delivery.
“If I’m being honest, I totally understand that,” Ram said. “Who knows what interaction you may or may not have had with that flight attendant. I was like, yeah I am at risk. I might have seen this person. So that was that. So once we heard that was one of the positive cases I think everyone I spoke to on my flight at least understood the reasoning.”
Not every player feels the same way. All told, 72 players who came to Australia on three different flights were subjected to hard quarantines and a handful of them complained about the decision, suggesting via social media posts that they never knew one positive test on a flight could keep them locked in their rooms for two weeks. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic sent a letter with some suggestions to improve the accommodations for those players, only to have it blow up into a big story and torrent of criticism (he later apologized).
In a sense, you can understand where those players are coming from. Ever since the ATP and WTA tours restarted last summer before the U.S. Open, all the focus was on how to protect the players traveling to the tournaments. In this case, you’re protecting the citizens from the players, and the result is that some of them are losing valuable practice time and fitness before one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
Regardless, the backlash in Australia has been fairly severe.
Perhaps more than anywhere in the world, Australians have been able to return to some semblance of normalcy in daily life but only after months of fairly draconian measures including a 111-day lockdown in Melbourne last fall that included more restrictions on activity than anything that has taken place in the U.S.
The result? According to the Australian government, there are only 122 active cases in the country and no local transmission. In Victoria, the state where the Australian Open will take place, there haven’t been more than 20 new cases recorded on a single day since last Sept. 21.
Understandably, not everyone locally is thrilled with the idea of hosting a major international tennis event at this particular time and risking even a thought of another outbreak.
“I totally get it,” Ram said. “Look, if they feel like they’ve gone through this difficult situation for however many months and now all the sudden you’re flying in tons of players from around the world and putting to risk all the hard work they’ve put in? I get that side of it completely.
“My response is we’re taking and being made to take the appropriate measures to make sure we don’t put people at risk and you can see that from how conservative they were with the flights. But we’re all here and everyone is going to be pumped to play when it comes time for the Australian Open, and I hope we get to do our jobs but also provide a bit of entertainment and something to look forward to for the people here because it’s such a sports loving country, especially for tennis. We are entertainers at the end of the day.”
For his part, Ram isn’t fretting too much about the two weeks of hard quarantine. He’s got an exercise bike in his hotel room, a kettle bell and some resistance bands to keep in shape. He’s been able to keep busy enough, and he’s been communicating with Salisbury and his coach via Zoom on things they want to work on once they get out to the practice court.
His only real concern is ramping up too quickly and risking injury, so they’ll have to make a decision about whether to play one of the warm-up events next week or train up to the Australian Open, starting Feb. 8, where they’re defending a title.
“It’s obviously not ideal. It’s challenging,” Ram said. “Making a daily schedule for myself hasn’t been that tough because as tennis players we have quite a lot of downtime anyway. It’s just more like the fact you can’t go outside.”
Over nearly two weeks, Ram has gotten a sense of what life has been like for Australians during the pandemic. When we spoke Sunday night, he was four days away from being out of quarantine — close enough to understand it was all going to be worth it, even with the unexpected turn of events when he got off the plane.
“I’m kind of getting a sense of how their country has approached it,” he said. “It’s much different from other places, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing what it’s like on the other end of it where their society and how they live is different from everywhere else too.”