What do you remember about the 2021 Australian Open? The quarantine chaos? Mice invading hotel rooms? Nick Kyrgios calling Novak Djokovic a “tool”?
How about the names of the four women’s semi-finalists?
Naomi Osaka, tick. Serena Williams, tick. And…
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Karolina Muchova and Jennifer Brady.
In a sign of the times that we are living in, three of those four won’t be playing in Melbourne next month. And the fourth – Osaka – isn’t guaranteed to be there either as she returns from a tennis hiatus.
Williams and Brady both confirmed their absence earlier this month due to injuries and Muchova, who beat home favourite Ashleigh Barty in the quarter-finals earlier this year, is also out. “I’m doing all I can to get back on the court as soon as I’m able,” wrote the Czech on Twitter, having previously said that she is hoping to start the 2022 season “pain-free”.
The withdrawals add to the growing air of uncertainty over the 2022 Australian Open. With less than a month to go until the tournament starts, it’s not 100 per cent clear who will definitely be on the start line.
The uncertainty appeared to be almost isolated to Novak Djokovic over the last few months due to questions over his vaccination status. With back-and-forths between the Victoria Premier and the Australian Prime Minister, and Djokovic remaining firmly non-committal, the presence of the world No 1 in Melbourne looked anything but assured. Even now, with his name on the entry list for the ATP Cup and the Australian Open, there are still some doubts over whether Djokovic will actually play.
Reports that he is trying to seek a medical exemption from vaccination have been firmly shot down by Tennis Australia and seems unlikely to happen given the expected fierce backlash. However, much will be learned when/if Djokovic actually arrives in Australia.
There is perhaps even more doubt surrounding Rafael Nadal. The 2009 Australian Open champion returned to the court in Abu Dhabi last week following a four-month injury lay-off but then tested positive for Covid-19. He sounds far from sure that he will play in Melbourne. “The idea is to go there and try my best there in Australia... Being 100 per cent honest, I can't guarantee it. I need to speak with my team. It's more than six months since the last real official match. Things are difficult and I accept that.”
Emma Raducanu looks set to play after testing positive for Covid-19 before the Mubadala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, while Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic and Ons Jabeur have seen their preparations disrupted after testing positive on return from Abu Dhabi.
Add Dominic Thiem to the ‘doubtful’ list too as he continues his comeback from a wrist injury. Thiem was set to return alongside Nadal in Abu Dhabi but withdrew from the tournament and then pulled out of two Australian Open warm-up events.
As well as injury issues, the vaccine mandate has also proved a stumbling block for some players.
After much speculation it has been confirmed that players, staff and spectators must be fully vaccinated to attend the Australian Open. The lead-in events in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide will also require players to have been jabbed. Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in November that the stance had seen vaccination rates soar from 50 per cent to 85 per cent on tour. However, 2019 men’s double champion Pierre-Hugues Herbert will not be attending as he has not been vaccinated – “it is a personal choice not to get the vaccine” – and nor will promising Queenslander Olivia Gadecki, who has also declined to get the vaccine.
Gadecki, 19, was likely to get a wildcard into the tournament and has not only missed out on the opportunity to play in the main draw for the first time but has also passed up the prize money, with £48,407 on offer for a first-round loss. Even though the introduction of a vaccine mandate means it could become increasingly difficult to be a professional player for those opting not to be vaccinated, women’s world No 1 Ashleigh Barty has come to the defence of her fellow Australian. “It’s the decision that she’s made. I continue to chat to her and my opinion of her changes not at all. I’m proud that she’s made her decision for her reasons – for her right reasons – and that’s all you can do – is make the right decision for you.”
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Former world No 54 Natalia Vikhlyantseva has been vaccinated but will still not be allowed to attend the tournament. That’s because her vaccine of choice – Sputnik V – is not on the government’s approved list. Whether that affects any more Russian players remains to be seen.
More withdrawals and disrupted preparations can be expected when players start arriving in Australia next week.
For Andy Murray the main concern seems to be getting on the plane, having missed the tournament this year due to a positive test result shortly before he was due to fly to Melbourne.
“Obviously I want to try and stay safe,” said the former world No 1 after playing at the Mubadala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.
“When I get home I will do all my physical training and stuff at home in my house. I am probably not going to go to the National Tennis Centre. There have been a number of cases there in the last week or 10 days.
“So, I will try to find a quiet court and go in there, do my practice, leave essentially and just be at home. Do all my treatment and training at home in the gym I have there until I am able to fly.”
Many players will likely share Murray’s sentiments. Emma Raducanu has been in quarantine after testing positive in Abu Dhabi, where she received the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, and even those who don’t test positive in Australia could still be forced to isolate when in the country due to close-contact protocols. With around 3,000 players, coaches, officials and staff arriving in Australia it seems unlikely that everyone will be unaffected.
For now it’s a case of wait and see and hoping for the best.
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