It has been five days since the last chartered plane load of players and officials flew into the country and headed into quarantine before the start of the Australian Open on February 8.
Tournament director Craig Tiley said those five days have felt like a year.
“There’s been a lot going on,” he said, as he opened a briefing session with the Australian media.
The players in quarantine are counting down; they are into single digits with nine days of the mandatory 14 remaining.
The controversy and debate surrounding the event has been dealt with elsewhere but burying into the numbers of what has already happened without a single ball being served provides a unique perspective on what’s required to run an event in the COVID-19 era.
These past five days alone have been a “massive, massive logistical exercise” according to Tiley.
Players from 100 countries were flown in on 17 charter flights, departing from seven different cities and arriving in the space of 48 hours to be checked into three different hotels.
Three of those flights had passengers who tested positive to COVID-19 and were taken to medi-hotels.
Others on board those flights were considered close contacts and put into hard lockdown, including 72 players who have shared their training sessions, opinions, complaints and suggestions with the world via various social media platforms.
There have been around 2,500 COVID tests conducted on the arrivals so far.
In the first round of testing those who didn’t initially test positive were cleared of having the virus, although there have been some cases showing viral shedding where the individual is not contagious but shows results of having had COVID sometime in the preceding months.
“Our objective all along was to ensure that we were going to have an environment that was safe for the community,” Tiley said.
“Melburnians, Victorians, Australians have paid a massive price for the situation we are in today and that’s to have no community spread.
“And that price as you all know was a hard lockdown for many of us for a long time.
“So we paid the price and now we are in a position where we have the players and all of our international guests, 1,270 of them, doing the same thing — 14 days in quarantine, where you get tested every day.”
There are still another 5,000 to 6,000 tests to be conducted over the remaining days of quarantine.
There are two types of quarantine for players
On top of that was the logistics of co-ordinating the movements of those players who were not in hard lockdown but in a modified quarantine plan where they could leave their rooms for five hours a day to train.
“That’s for two hours of practice, 90 minutes of gym and then half an hour for nutrition,” Tiley said.
Those hours are carefully monitored and coordinated including travel arrangements with door-to-door military precision.
“Each room gets a knock on the door within five minutes of each other,” Tiley explained.
During the time players are moving around no other activity can take place on that floor, including food deliveries to other rooms.
Once the players leave their rooms they are escorted by the police or COVID marshalls to their training venues where they are dropped off at specific areas — there is no interaction or crossing over with anybody else in the environment.
After they leave their rooms the whole area is sprayed with disinfectant.
When their time is up, they are escorted back to their rooms individually and the common areas the players have walked through are sprayed again to kill any possible traces of the virus.
Tennis Australia has 650 staff but usually not all are required for the Australian Open.
This time they have been.
Nobody is working less than 18 hours a day and some have “pulled all-nighters” according to Tiley who admits it’s “not sustainable”.
“If we look back at these five days, I don’t think any of us had grasped the difficulty that you have in managing such a mammoth task,” he said.
“The contingencies we put in place were around if a flight was taken out, in the unlikely event that was to happen, and it did happen three times.”
Australia’s strict health regulations no barrier to tournament
In explaining why some players seemed shocked by the hard lockdown they found themselves in, Tiley points to the fact players have been competing around the world since last October.
Each country has a different approach to COVID safety and Australia’s regulations are possibly the strictest in the world, along with New Zealand.
Tiley says it’s “been a shock” to some of the players and they “needed to adapt”.
The tournament director has been asked many times why he would put the event on given the expense, the exhaustion of financial reserves and the risks of bringing so many people in.
He said if all the risks could be mitigated there was no reason to cancel.
“If we can guarantee the safety of the community, that’s step one; work closely with the health office, with the government and they approve a proposal to run an event a certain way, step two; convince a playing group to come to Australia under these conditions which would be tough, step three; have an event planned and in place that we can fund and pay prize money, in fact over $83 million for the whole summer, have an event plan in place that can be sustainable, that can have crowds and that the players could complete freely in, that’s step four; and then have the resources and the team and the bravery to put something like this together when it hasn’t been done anywhere yet in the world globally to this extent since the pandemic started, step five; we should go for it.
“There’s still a long way to go and it’s going to have it’s ups and downs… but as it stands right now it’s pretty good.”