USA's Serena Williams hitting a forehand in her round one match on Rod Laver Arena in 2020. Picture: Rob Keating.

With players in lockdown and a record amount of prize money on the line, the Australian Open will be going ahead come hell or high water.

With the Australian Open just around the corner, there has been plenty of speculation about whether or not the event will go ahead.

With the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the tournament and a COVID scare just days before the tournament is due to start, there have been calls from the public for the Grand Slam to be cancelled or postponed further into the year.

However, with the tournament just days away and a large contingent of players exiting quarantine as they head into the WTA and ATP tournaments, it has now reached the stage where it is too late to not allow for the tournament to go ahead.

Players have had to find creative ways to practice during their 14 days mandatory quarantine to keep fit

The Inner Sanctum spoke with Brett Phillips from The First Serve on how vital it is that the Australian Open to go ahead both for Tennis Australia and the players. 

“Their [Tennis Australia’s] insurance ran out in 2020 which really helped Wimbledon have the year off last year, and the fact the Australian Open funds around 90 percent of the sport filtered all the way down to the grassroots,” he told The Inner Sanctum

“From that point of view, I’ve got no doubt that money is a big driver here of needing to hold the Australian Open.

“Because of the lack of earning opportunities last year for the players, it’s been so integral of the Grand Slam to remain intact as much as possible. So, I think there’s not an obligation but a collective [goal] because they’re all independently run. 

“The Grand Slams will at least try and maintain those and obviously Wimbledon couldn’t go ahead last year but were able to compensate the players so it’s pretty important for it to certainly be held.”

Following Wimbledon’s cancellation last year, £10 million was distributed between the 620 players with rankings high enough that they would have qualified for the tournament had it taken place.

This was only realistic due to the insurance claimed by the All England Club to compensate for the cancellation of the tournament.

Because the Australian Open has been postponed for three weeks, the on the ground team will look a little different this year.

Phillips noted that with the tournament being held during the school term they’ll be relying on previous staff this year, whilst also facing reduced capacity.

“There’s a lot of people involved although they’ve had to change just how they schedule from their normal day,” he said.

“For example, a lot of the ball kids are going back to school. My understanding is they’ve had to go to their reserves of years gone by where people were ball kids who are a lot older now and drag a few of those out of ‘retirement’.

“Then there’s a lot of the drivers who are school teachers.  So they’ve had to rejig some of their army behind the scenes to operationally run the tournament.

“In terms of the economy obviously, it’s huge every year but the interesting part will be the amount of people officially allowed to go.

“You obviously haven’t got the interstate or international fans coming in so that probably puts a bit of a dint in the economy for Melbourne to previous years and Tennis Australia is running this at a significant loss having to dip into their own cash reserves particularly with all the quarantine costs that they’re footing the bill for.

“So, they’re taking a bit of a hit but this is bigger than TA this is about providing opportunities for the players to make sure they get out and earn some money and play.”

As of January 30, spectator capacity has been increased to 50 percent or 30,000 daily spectators.

This will be reduced to 25,000 spectators for the final five days of the tournament due to there being fewer matches.

The former world number one encouraged her fellow athletes to support one another and accept the difficulties so that the tournament can go on.

When comparing this tournament to the US and French Opens and the impact upon the players, Phillips spoke on the difference in protocols for the players, in particular the 14 days quarantine that players have undergone.

“The bulk of the players have been pretty good but we’ve seen the ones on social media who have almost been in protest of being in lockdown for 14 days,” he said.

“So, that is the big difference when the players went to the US Open and the French Open. Yes, they were put into these quarantine bubbles but once they tested negative on arrival they could go out and play and really get into it it wasn’t as tight.

“They didn’t have to quarantine for 14 days prior to the French Open or the US they just had to have a negative test to go and practice. They’re still confined going from the hotel to the courts and back and forth so the measures this time around are pretty full-on.”

“They’ve boosted the first-round prize money, they’ve paid for the player’s expenses their flights, accommodation, transport, food, and guaranteed that 100,000 dollars for first-round prize money.

“Which is a significant jump from last year, to compensate for having to be in a hotel for 14 days prior to the tournament.

“Whether it was spending 19 hours out of a day in the hotel so it’s very different to what the French and US was”

Despite the Australian Open going ahead, unfortunately, the Juniors Championship will be postponed later into 2021. A date is yet to be set as to when the tournament will go ahead. 

Catch Brett Phillips on The First Serve on SEN.

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