MELBOURNE, Australia (AFP) — The world’s top tennis stars are set to emerge from a gruelling two weeks stuck in their hotel rooms over coming days as they race to get match fit before their coronavirus-disrupted season resumes in Australia.
Seventeen charter flights jetted the cream of the sport into Melbourne and Adelaide this month ahead of the delayed Australian Open, with everyone on board whisked into 14 days of mandatory quarantine.
The plan was to allow them five hours a day to practice outside, and many have enjoyed the privilege.
But eight positive Covid-19 cases from the more than 1,000 players, coaches and officials who arrived in largely virus-free Australia threw preparations for others into disarray.
Seventy-two players have been confined to their Melbourne rooms 24 hours a day, forced to strike balls against mattresses and exercise as best they can, sparking complaints about the tough conditions.
But the ordeal is ending, with the first players expected to taste freedom on Thursday evening, and others let out gradually depending on when their flights touched down.
A bumper six ATP and WTA tournaments await them beginning on Sunday, all at Melbourne Park and squeezed into a week to make up for lost time in the lead-up the season-opening Grand Slam on 8 February.
Spanish great Rafael Nadal, who is gunning to win a 21st Slam title, moving him past the injured Roger Federer, said he felt “privileged” to play at all given the devastation wrought by the pandemic globally.
“It’s a different situation than usual, it’s much more sad for everyone,” he told CNN this week.
“But at least we’re here, we’re going to have a chance to play here. The world is suffering in general, so we can’t complain.”
“I feel that we are privileged people today, having the chance to keep doing our jobs,” he added.
Serena Williams, who is still searching for one more Slam title to equal Margaret Court’s record 24, echoed those sentiments, calling the bio-security rules “super, super strict”, but adding: “They’re doing it right.”
While most players flew into Melbourne, Nadal, Williams and other superstars including Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka arrived in Adelaide, where they will play an exhibition on Friday.