Mailbag: Australian Open's Early COVID-19 Issues, Controversies

Even before the tournament's start, the 2021 Australian Open is already facing challenges amid the pandemic.
Publish date:

Hope everyone is well. Or the 2021 equivalent.

• Deidre S. complained it’s been a while since we’ve had a contest. We concur. Send in your best encounter with a tennis player (250 words or less) and our friends at Dunlop have agreed to kick in prizes for the winners.

• Owing to the guest, the last podcast was excellent. Randy Fernando—whom you might recall from The Social Dilemma—talks about social media, de-platforming and the impact of tech on tennis.

• Next up: Robbie Koenig with a dispatch from Melbourne Quarantine.

Which is where we begin….


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Well Jon, a happy not so new year to you. Let's get to it. Did Novak Djokovic, Alize Cornet, Sorana Cirstea and a host of others not read the whole COVID-19 protocols document, did they not understand what they read, or did they not feel the rules apply to them? Your turn, Jon.
A. Heyward, Queens, N.Y.

• Lots of chatter this week about the thunder Down Under, tennis’s arrival in the Antipodes—and all that has come with it. (Piggy has the conch!) Some scattered thoughts and intel, trying to incorporate your specific questions/comments.

1) The virus doesn’t care. It doesn’t care about your ranking. It doesn’t care about your best-laid plans to stage a major. It doesn’t care about your timetable or your calendar. It doesn’t care if you think you’re undertaking caution. We sometimes forget this. We are not dealing with a rational actor.

2) Australia’s COVID-19 response is the envy of the world—certainly of the U.S. It’s easy to see how a country that has sacrificed (product placement: social trust!) and essentially stopped community spread is now wary of athletes converging from overseas, bringing positive tests and then, as they await six-figure paydays, likening quarantining to incarceration. It’s easy to see how a country with citizens marooned abroad is looking sideways at all the special dispensation given tennis players. As a number of players have pointed out, this is important context. This ain’t New York and Paris. This is a part of the world that has beaten COVID and doesn’t want to let it back in the game.

3) Tennis is the ultimate individual sport. Athletes, necessarily, think in the first person, not second or third. At its best, this fosters independence and self-sufficiency. At its not-best, it fosters self-centeredness and even a sort of pathological narcissism. We have seen examples of both last week.

4) In keeping with a persistent tennis COVID theme, Novak Djokovic again draws high marks for sentiment/intent and low marks for precision/execution. Full stop on this: His desire to use the capital that comes with the top ranking and represent all players’ interests is admirable. It’s hard to condemn a top player who thinks about the collective. He is not a tool, as Nick Kyrgios would have you believe. Djokovic is, however, sloppy. His request that organizers find players homes with backyard tennis courts is not only tone-deaf but betrays a fundamental lack of knowledge/interest in the science or the principles of quarantine.

5) First point in the players’ defense: there’s a difference between abstract and real. “You knew the risk….This is what you signed up for” strikes me as unsympathetic. It’s one thing to sign a form acknowledging worst-case scenarios. It’s something else entirely to endure the scenario.

6) Second point: let’s go easy on what Pete Buttigieg calls the Oppression Olympics. Players don’t forfeit their right to complain simply because others have it worse. You have a migraine. I have a heart attack. Just because I am in worse shape doesn’t mean your head has stopped hurting. Being consigned to a room for 14 days stinks—even with Netflix and Uber Eats. (All the more so when there are mice.) And feelings of isolation or frustration aren’t invalidated just because others have it worse or are paid less….

7) Think before you post. So much of this controversy is about appearance. A little more judgment about perception and room-reading and word choice would have doused a lot of this. I was told that players have since been told—implicitly and explicitly; by Tennis Australia and by their agents—to put their damn phones away. Especially players in Adelaide because….

8) Camp Adelaide was the big unforced error thus far. Giving the top players different treatment (in a different state) may have been necessary to lure the stars. But it’s coming at a huge price. When the top players—already at a structural advantage in so many ways—are posting photos of their entire teams and their balconies and their suite life and their court time—and you are stuck in a windowless hotel room, it’s easy to wonder about the competitive imbalance and how this will play out when the Australian Open begins.

9) If the players have a conventional union, this plays out very differently.

10) A Melbourne source reports that it’s rough going now—every hour brings a new fire to put out—and there’s a realization that the public winds are chilly. But we ought to bank on the fact that the quarantine period will pass, tennis will resume and memories are short. By mid-February we will have long forgotten about Bernie Tomic’s girlfriend and complaints about soggy sushi and demands for backyard tennis…and we will be captivated by tennis. What do we remember about the U.S. Open? Benoit Paire and threats to call the French embassy? Or the triumph of Naomi Osaka and breakthrough of Dominic Thiem? What do we recall about the French Open? The porous bubble and Alexander Zverev playing sick? Or the peerless-ness of Nadal and ascent of Swiatek? Right now, though, that seems far off.

Margaret Court silently thanks Naomi Osaka as she's overshadowed by the Melbourne player unrest and turmoil fueled by Osaka's controversial social media. Here's to a better 2022 when we can all return to the controversies of a more innocent age.
Chris Bennett, Springfield, Va.

• Ah, yes, For the halcyon days when batty Margaret Court and her flagrant, persistent homophobia fertilized the big pre-tournament scandal….

Though—and, yes, this must be a Clijsters-level stretch—you might argue there’s some overlap. With some success, Tennis Australia attempted to thread the needle. Margaret Court, you’ll recall, was “recognized” but not “honored.” Translation: her views are odious and offensive and cause pain; but if we remove her name Confederate-monument style, we risk the wrath of the right and being accused of joining the cancel culture. Perhaps emboldened by this, again TA tried to craft a creative solution or, less charitably, tried to thread an un-threadable needle.

• A few of you have asked to clarify the COVID-era rankings system, when points drop off, etc. Here’s an email the ATP sent out this week:

“Dear Players & Team Members,

Due to the delayed start to the 2021 ATP Tour season, the ATP has extended the "Best Of" ranking logic in the FedEx ATP Rankings through and including the tournament week of 15 March 2021 (Acapulco & Dubai).

The dates and events that fall under the "Best Of" logic extension period are summarised below:

· The ATP will continue to add points to players' breakdowns in the "Best Of" logic through and including the tournament week of 15 March (Acapulco & Dubai).

· Assuming a traditional calendar is resumed as planned, starting with the week of 22 March (Miami) all events added to the rankings will be added on a rolling 52-week basis, as they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

· Doha, Santiago, Marseille, Acapulco, and Dubai will now be treated as events with a "Best Of" ranking logic.


· A player cannot count the same Tour-level tournament twice in his ‘Best 19’ breakdown. For example, a player who played Dubai in 2020 and plays Dubai again in 2021, will count the better of those two results.


· The "Best Of" logic extension does not alter the date of when points will begin to drop from players' breakdowns. The first ranking drop date will remain on 15 March.

· 2019 Indian Wells points will drop from the rankings on 15 March, 104 weeks from when the event was added to the rankings.”

Mike Tyson has been showing up in my tennis media stream lately, first as a guest on Tennis Channel, then in top podcaster’s feed recently (which might not have been related to his tennis podcast), and now an interview with [Patrick] Mouratoglou on Instagram. Tyson is a convicted rapist and an admitted abuser. He served his time and repented beating women, but I don’t think a celebrity racist or child molester would be embraced like this no matter how much they changed. I’m not a fan of cancel culture and I don’t think Tyson should be a pariah in society, and I laughed at his performance in the Hangover as much as anyone, but for what it’s worth, I turn the channel or leave the webpage if I see him being showered with adulation. Unfortunately, I didn’t click away before I heard Tyson tell Patrick, on the subject of pressure, “The thought of being hit is a million times worse than being hit!” OMG! Yeah, I understand the context, but do people understand how clueless this is? And it’s not just about optics. It’s a slap in the face—pun intended since domestic violence is evidently a joke—to female fans. Women are still second-class citizens in this sport. This doesn’t help.
Megan, Indy

• Fair point. At the most basic level this goes to theories of punishment and answering the questions: At what point are we ready to rehabilitate offenders and let them re-enter civil society?When are we satisfied that justice has been applied?

In the case of Tyson…he was convicted of rape (in Indianapolis) in the early ’90s, served his time and released from prison in 1995. Especially over the last decade, he’s burnished his image in a variety of ways. His (deeply confessional) one-man show toured internationally. He’s been contrite. He’s been accessible. (Full disclosure.) He is a fixture at tennis largely because his daughter is a passionate player and he wants to support her interests.

I do take your point. This is a convicted rapist and, for some, this is an irremovable taint. I also take your point that, at a minimum, people ought to be more sensitive to the past and pay more attention to language. Ultimately this is a personal decision as much as it is a societal/institutional one. When are we satisfied a debt has been paid off?

JW, quick question: what’s the best book by a tennis coach since Winning Ugly?
Brian K.

• I’ll happily plug Paul Annacone’s Coaching for Life.

Here’s another question: which coach within tennis would you most like to read? One name at the top of my list, Pierre Paganini.

Thanks for the tip about the TNNS Live app in the Mailbag! So bummed about the ATP/WTA Live app going away.
Matt Schiffman

• Only tennis figures out a way to regress on technology. Sigh. But yes, here’s a re-up for TNNS.

I just realized the U.S. Open hasn't had a successful defending champ since Roger Federer's streak of five from 2004–08. Would you attribute this to chance? Or something about the tournament itself and/or its place in the calendar?

• Interesting. I would start by pointing out that in that time period, Serena Williams won for three straight years, Kim Clijjsters defended her title as well. (For my next impression: Andy Murray.) But as far as men, that’s interesting. Nadal is to the French Open what red is to the color scheme of stoplights. Djokovic is to Australia what sand is to beaches. Federer was to Wimbledon what green is to grass. The U.S. Open hasn’t had a dominant champion.

We have relatively few data points. And as you note, before this streak, Federer won FIVE straight years. But I wonder if the best explanation isn’t simply timing: As the fourth major on the calendar, the players come in banged up—and once every four years dragging after the Olympics—which adds a variable. Note Nadal in 2018 or Djokovic in 2019. It’s easy to think of cases in which the defending champ was beaten more by his own body than by the opposing player.

As an appellate attorney, my favorite redundancy is "prior precedent."
James Stuchell, Savannah, Ga.

• I’ll raise you a “completely annihilate.”

Hello Jon, Favorite frequently recurring redundancy: The hoi polloi
Mark Wood

• Cease and desist.

“Discuss: is global pandemic not redundant?”A pandemic need not be global, so qualification is not redundant. From Chambers: pandemic adj, medicine describing a widespread epidemic of a disease, one that affects a whole country, continent, etc. Interestingly, I see it's an adjective only, not a noun, although Webster’s says it can be a noun as well. QED, case closed. Gavin

• End result.

Shots, Miscellany

• Universal Tennis and Tennis Australia announced the launch of the Australian segment of the 2021 UTR Pro Tennis Tour (PTT), which will feature up to 45 events (men and women) in select venues across the country in 2021. The Australian events of the PTT are a significant element of the three-year global commitment from Universal Tennis and their $20M investment to create 450 new tennis events around the globe. Each tournament will provide a minimum of $25,000 USD in financial commitment and create more opportunities for elite junior, collegiate and aspiring professional players with a UTR in the top 200-2000 in the world.