It may not have been the most outré sports story of 2020. But Sam Querrey’s cover-of-darkness departure from Russia after testing positive for COVID-19 ranks up there. It was deemed a “serious breach of protocol” by the ATP, potentially subject to a $100,000 fine and lengthy suspension. Ten weeks later, the ATP wrapped up its investigation, issuing Querrey a suspended $20,000 fine, provided he commits “no further breaches of health and safety protocols related to COVID-19 within a probationary six-month period.”
Still, Querrey is concerned that he is being judged harshly by a tennis community, not armed with all the facts. Consider this a FAQ on his misadventure, as well as a glimpse into what can go wrong on an international circuit during a pandemic. As he puts it, “It's not as simple as, Oh I got COVID, and then I went to my wife and said, ‘Let’s sneak out of here.’ I just want to say what happened and then people can judge me on what happened. If you still hate me after knowing what happened, that's fine.”
SI: So, what did happen?
Sam Querrey: Since tennis started back at the U.S. Open, there’s essentially been one or two people who’ve gotten COVID-19 at every tournament, and those people would just quarantine at the tournament hotel for what seemed like 10-14 days, whatever the local rule was, and then you would go on your merry way.
So for me, when I was playing in St. Petersburg, [my wife, son and I] arrived the Wednesday beforehand, in the evening. We got up Thursday morning, went to go take our COVID tests at the hotel; we got the tests back later that day, we were negative [and were told]: “Come back four days later to take another test.”
So the Sunday before the tournament actually started, my wife and I went down, took another COVID test. I went to practice; she stayed in the room with the baby. Sunday afternoon, I got a call from the woman organizing the COVID tests. “Hey, you and your wife tested positive, can you come downstairs and take another test to make sure that it’s positive.” No problem. We go downstairs and take another test, and we go back to the room.
She calls back a couple hours later. “Hey, you guys tested positive. Please stay in the room. Someone is going to reach out to you.” I know that’s what the risk is, and the rules, and we had no problem with it. An ATP representative reached out. “Hey, make sure you guys stay in the room, order room service. Do you guys need anything?” So it sucks, like I said, but that’s the plan, so we’re doing it. We quarantine for two days, we’re just getting room service, they’re bringing in to-go takeout boxes, putting new sheets outside the door, it doesn’t seem like a big issue. We’re gonna quarantine there for two weeks, and we feel safe, we’re in the tournament hotel, all is good.
Then two days in, around 8 p.m., I got a call from one of the ATP supervisors. “Hey, you guys are no longer welcome to stay at the hotel. And two doctors are gonna come to your room, one for you and your wife, and a pediatric doctor for your baby. And they’re going to determine whether you are symptomatic or not, and if you’re symptomatic, the three of you are going to a hospital for a minimum of two weeks.”
And I had this on speaker, so my wife starts panicking. I'm obviously not happy about that, because we feel safe in the tournament hotel. Now, we have two random doctors coming? Who are the doctors? I have no idea who they’re with, what hospital they’re with, what’s going on. And I couldn't get any answers.
Also, our son is seven months old at the time, and he is teething and has a little fever anyway. And so I didn't know if the doctors would determine he has a fever, he’s symptomatic. “Are they going take just the baby to a separate hospital from the one that we were going to go to?” And no one answered these questions for me. No one could say, “Oh, you guys will for sure stay together,” or anything like that.
So, at that moment, I felt very uncomfortable. And not to mention it was 10 p.m. at night, so I told the tour supervisor, “Hey, I'm not going to allow doctors to come into the room at 10 p.m. on Sunday. The baby is sleeping. We also have essentially no symptoms. We’re all fine.” And so, at that point, I've called [my agent] John Tobias and we’ve reached out to the ATP to hopefully get some answers and get some help. I say, “Hey, we feel very vulnerable, it’s very uncomfortable. It’s in the hands of these Russian doctors, and they are going to determine whether or not we go to a hospital in Russia for two weeks?”
Again, we were very happy at the hotel. We were distancing ourselves. We weren't around anyone, we were staying in the room, and never had a complaint, or a problem. So I said, “Please try to have the doctors come the next morning at 10 a.m., not Sunday night at 10 p.m.” The tour finally agreed to that, and because we were still going to get help from the tour, the embassy. But I kinda had to make a decision between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. the next day. I had my wife there, and I had my baby there, and as a human decision, I was like, “Hey, I don't feel comfortable with this.” So we made the decision to charter a plane and leave.
SI: Let me stop you there. The one thing I see people saying is: This is what you signed up for. You take your family across an ocean during COVID and this is a possibility. What’s your response?
SQ: I say to those people, my plan initially was to play the French Open, then St. Petersburg, then Cologne, then Vienna, then Paris, so it was going to be a seven- to eight-week trip. We have a baby and I didn’t want to be away from my wife and son for that long; they didn’t want to be away from me for that long, and so they came with. And we knew that there was a risk of getting COVID, and that the rule was going to be to quarantine in the hotel, and we were okay with that. It’s not like we were the only people. I wasn’t the only person to bring a wife and a baby. Other players brought their wife and kids, too. That’s how tennis works. We were aware of the risk, but we didn’t think that anything more than quarantining in a hotel room would ever come about.
SI: So how did you get out?
SQ: I contacted a jet broker, and said, “Can I get a plane in, like, nine hours leaving from Saint Petersburg to London? And he came through and got one for me. And we left the hotel early in the morning so we wouldn’t be seen, and went right to the private jet terminal in Saint Petersburg and flew to London.
I will say that on that journey my wife and I wore medical masks, we wore N-95s, we never took the mask off to have a sip of water or a bite of food the entire time. We landed, we went right to an Airbnb that I rented, and we quarantined there for two weeks. I felt as a father and a husband there’s a human element to this, and I had to do what I feel like is right. I wasn’t willing to let our family go to a hospital for a minimum of two weeks where we were at.
Once I landed, then the story broke, as I'm sure you saw. That's where I got frustrated [because] it made it seem like I just got COVID and bounced. I didn't feel how it was portrayed after that was fair. I didn't refuse doctors who were at the door, I simply asked for them to come the next day—and they agreed to that. I read we were offered a luxury apartment; we were never offered a luxury apartment. We were offered an apartment but they wouldn’t tell me where it was, how we were going to get food, and we were offered that apartment if these doctors determined that the three of us were not symptomatic.
In my opinion, we didn’t really put anyone in danger, we kept to ourselves, we had two masks on; we did everything we possibly could in that journey to minimize exposure to anyone, and frankly, I think we did a great job. Talking to doctors [afterwards] they were like, “Look, you guys did a great job of doing that, and I can’t simply see how you would have passed it along to anyone during that trip.”
SI: I'm guessing this was not a financially lucrative week.
SQ: That was a very, very expensive flight. It was about $40,000. And I also had to pay for two weeks of an Airbnb in London.
SI: Where is the ATP Tour in all this?
SQ: There's the fine line. I have a good relationship with the ATP. I don’t to bash them and make them look bad. We were trying to reach out to the ATP and ask for help, and a little bit was they were saying, “Hey, it’s out of our hands now. It’s local authorities, it’s on them now.” From one week to the next, they’re dealing with different health authorities in different parts of the world. And then in this situation, once the player gets sick or tests positive, it reverts right to the health authorities.
SI: What did you think of the press release and the punishment? What do you think of what came out a few days ago?
SQ: Look, at its core, I have no suspension and no fine assuming I have good behavior for six months. I'm happy about it. I do wish the statement could have read something a little more along the lines of “Hey, based on the mitigating circumstances, we felt like Sam made a decision for his family.” Moving forward, I think the tour could do a better job of giving players COVID protocol. Sam regrets what he had to do but he feels like he had to, and together we would kinda move forward and do a better job.
Most people just read a headline and it's like, “Querrey breaks protocol and is suspended in $20,000 fine.” I felt like the wording was a little harsh, but if you do dig deep and see it, there is essentially no punishment.
SI: What else should people know?
SQ: The easiest choice for us was to stay at the hotel in Russia for the 10-14-day quarantine, and then fly home. That's what I wanted to do the whole time. And that option was taken away from me. That's why I had to do what I had to do. At no point did I think, “COVID, let’s get the hell out of here.”
SI: How were your symptoms?
SQ: I describe it like on a scale of 1-10, we had symptoms that were a 1.5-2… sore throat, a runny nose, three days later we were fine. In my opinion, not at all did we need to go to the hospital. I don't know if we would have gone to the hospital, but maybe we would have. So I don't know these doctors, who they were, what they were gonna say….[In London] we just quarantined and we honestly felt fine three days later.
SI: How much of this do you think is lumped in with Adria Tour and [Alexander] Zverev at the French, basically you being lumped in with some predecessors and people not drawing distinctions?
SQ: I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think a ton of it. I think they are all separate situations. There’s a lot of people where you feel strongly about COVID that no events should be going on at all. So, there's a group of people where it doesn’t matter what you did, they’re just pissed that you left your house.…At no point was I taking my mask off or doing anything to potentially spread the virus. I was following the rules the whole time. I did everything right until I was put in this very uncomfortable situation.
SI: Apart from all this, you haven’t played a match in 90 days. What’s been the impact of all this on your tennis?
SQ: The last six weeks I've been practicing like a normal off-season. And I'm not the only one who hasn’t played a lot of matches; there’s a lot of guys who haven't’ played a lot of matches, so I'm excited to go to Delray, I'm excited to go to the Australian Open. I am nervous, in a way, like am I still going to be good? You almost don't know what your level is going to be. So I'm trying to not set expectations too high. I feel like I've worked really hard the last six, seven weeks in the gym and on the court. But that doesn’t always mean you’re going to go to Australia and make a run. Hopefully we put that in the work for the year, but I’m excited to go out and play.
SI: And you’ll go to Delray, you’ll go to Australia.
SI: I guess the family probably won’t join you until the spring…
SQ: They’re not coming, no. I mean even if this all didn’t happen, I don’t think they’d come.