EXCLUSIVE: What Is It Really Like Being A Coach Working Inside The US Open Bubble - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: What Is It Really Like Being A Coach Working Inside The US Open Bubble

UbiTennis speaks to two tennis professionals in New York about their experiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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You must isolate in your room immediately following a test, agree to stay within a certain location or risk expulsion and pay for 24-hour security if you wish to rent private housing. These are just some of the extreme measures that have been implemented at the US Open.

 

The New York Grand Slam is taking place during unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. America knows all too well the severity of the disease with the country recording more than 5 million cases and a record death toll of over 174,000. The fact the US Open and its lead-up tournaments are taking place at all is an achievement in itself. Although for some players such as Ash Barty, Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep they have opted not to play amid health-related concerns.

Those who have travelled to New York find themselves in unfamiliar territory at an event they attend each year. Although it is not just the players who have been affected.

In Adam Lownsbrough, the coach of world No.72 doubles player Miyu Kato, and Garry Cahill, mentor to Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko, UbiTennis  spoke to two tennis coaches about what life is really like currently on Tour amid the COVID-19 restrictions.

 “Flying for the first time for six months everyone would be slightly nervous, especially long distance, but we also know the risks,” Lownsbrough told UbiTennis about his decision to go to New York.
“Upon arrival at the hotel and the (US Open) site everything was very smooth and the rules clear. You can tell the staff want the event to go smoothly so they have done their best to make everyone feel comfortable and have clarity on the rules.
“On site it’s different, but there is plenty of space to walk around so social distancing is easy. In the restaurant they are using QR codes to order so once you’ve sat down you only stand up again to leave.”


Cahill, who is also known for his collaboration with former player and compatriot Connor Niland, admits that he too was apprehensive upon arrival. Unlike other areas of America, New York has managed to maintain their infection rate and prevent a sudden spike in recent weeks.

I guess nobody knew what to expect but in some ways it’s easier! Less people, easier to get around and no cues in restaurants,” he said.
“I have not seen anyone breaking these rules, it seems to be really well adhered to. Guess people all want the same thing, safe competition,” Cahill added. 

Due to the pandemic, the Western and Southern Open is also being held at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. Upon arrival, everybody undergoes a test and is told to self-isolate until they learn their result which usually takes 24 hours. Even if their result is negative, they will still be tested throughout their stay. So far the only positive result concerned a worker at the event. Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien are in quarantine after being exposed to somebody who has the virus.

Cahill’s experience of his first test saw him waiting slightly longer than usual. After undergoing the procedure last Sunday, his team wasn’t given the all-clear until Tuesday morning. It is unclear what the delay was but officials have already conducted more than 13,000 tests. For Lownsbrough, his impression of the process was positive.  

“The testing process is well organised and quick. The nose swabs are performed by each individual under clear instructions. From the medical staff we receive the results sent by email/text. Again, it’s very clear and the staff have been excellent.”

‘If people can’t do that then it’s a bit of a joke’

The USTA, who runs the US Open, has put a lot of emphasis on the rules in the year of a global pandemic but how well are they being followed?

Even in recent days at least one of these policies has been adjusted. The insistence of wearing a mask on site has been relaxed due to the humid conditions but social distancing remains a must. This year the USTA have even hired a group of `social distance ambassadors‘ to ensure everyone is keeping a distance from others.  

It seems like protocols are being followed but there were always going to be incidents like any other tournament no matter how minor.

For Lownsbrough, one of his practice sessions started with him seeing litter left on the court from the team prior. Something that is not a new issue for the sport with a debate over plastic bottles erupting during the 2018 Wimbledon Championships following a similar situation.

“The bubble, it is strict but the stricter it is the safer it is in theory. From what I have seen, everyone is respecting it. Some players before our practice left rubbish on the court (used towels, grips, bottles) that could contaminate and can be avoided but sometimes that’s too much to ask of people….” He said.
At the end of the day we are in the middle of a pandemic so we need to protect ourselves and the people around. There are harder things to do in life than wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance etc. If people can’t do that then it’s a bit of a joke.”

Lownsbrough, 36, and Cahill, 47, are no newcomers when it comes to life on the Tour. They have previously travelled to an array of Grand Slam tournaments but like their fellow colleagues this is the first time during the pandemic. Undoubtedly the ‘bubble’ will be a new experience for all but are there also some advantages?  

“The obvious on-site benefits are more space to walk around so it feels more relaxed and less intense but it seems pretty much the same as previous events from that side,” Lownsbrough commented.
“Practice courts will have exactly the same access as no fans won’t make any difference to this. It’s easier to move around, less waiting in general, more available seats, and a crazy one but you can charge your phone easily!” Cahill added.

https://twitter.com/usopen/status/1296916103264952320

The final verdict

Now both have experienced life inside the bubble, has it lived up to all the hype?  The USTA will be under close scrutiny over the coming weeks by many, including rival Grand Slams who are currently working on their own plans related to COVID-19. The French Open starts two weeks after the tournament concludes.

In the view of Lownsbrough, expectations have been met with him saying the responsibility now lies on those attending and not those organising the events.

“I think the USTA so far is doing a good job. They have everything in place from what I have seen. It’s down to us as coaches, players, physios to follow the rules,” he said.

Although his fellow coach on the Tour points out some minor improvements he would have liked to see.

Maybe have one or two more hotels as the Marriott is completely full of tennis players. I also feel that it would make it easier if players had access to one or two outside restaurants just to get out of hotels but I understand this would be difficult to police,” Cahill says.

As for the impact on the players themselves, some are wondering if the absence of fans could create a more level-playing ground in the draws? The likes of Serena Williams thrive on the adrenaline created by a packed New York crowd. When that is taken away, what may happen?

“I don’t think so, I think the lack of matches may help lower ranked players,” Cahill commented on this theory.

“To be honest, at most WTA  events, there aren’t that many with big crowds so we are used to it. Obviously, if it was busy it would be nice and more fun. The players are all professional regardless of ranking and number of spectators so will focus on the job in hand.” Lownsbrough weighed in.

Whatever happens over the coming weeks the US Open will be one that will forever be installed in the history of tennis for an array of reasons. Some have gone as far as suggesting that the event will have an asterisk next to it due to the absence of some top names. Drawing parallels to Wimbledon 1973 when a series of top male players boycotted the event in support of another player after their national federation banned them from playing.  

Perhaps the best way to sum up the 2020 US Open is through Cahill’s one-sentence observation.

“It doesn’t feel like New York, it just feels like a tennis club that happens to be in New York.”

ATP

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal To Quarantine In Adelaide Ahead Of Australian Open

The world’s best players are set to face off against each other in a new exhibition tournament at the end of this month.

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The highest ranked players in the world of tennis will travel to Adelaide instead of Melbourne to quarantine under a new deal announced by Tennis Australia.

 

Under the terms agreed with the Southern Australian Government, the three highest ranked players on both the ATP and WTA Tour’s will travel to the region. The decision has been made to help ease the pressure on Melbourne who are close to their capacity of holding 1000 players and their teams. Adelaide is set to quarantine around 50 people ahead of the first Grand Slam of 2021.

Under part of the deal, an exhibition tournament will take place in the region as part of an incentive for them agreeing to help. Should all of the top three players take part, the event would feature Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the women’s field will feature home favourite Ash Barty, Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka. The event will be played on January 29 and 30.

“We’re right up to the edge of people that can quarantine in Melbourne so we needed some relief,” Australian Open chief Craig Tiley told the Tennis Channel.
“We approached the South Australian government about the possibility of them quarantining at least 50 people, but they wouldn’t have any interest in doing it because there’s no benefit for them to do it to put their community at risk if the players then go straight to Melbourne.
“But it would be a benefit if they played an exhibition tournament just before they came to Melbourne, so the premier (Steven Marshall) has agreed to host 50 people in a quarantine bubble and then have those players play an exhibition event.”

The conditions of the Quarantine will be the same as it will be in Melbourne with players only allowed to leave their room in order to train during the 14-day period. Should anybody break protocol, they could face up to a AUS$20,000 fine, possible risk of criminal sanction and even deportation from the country.

“We think this is a great opportunity to launch before we go into the season. This a state and city who have just invested $44 million in building a new stadium. So this is a nice way to say thank you,” Tiley added.

Melbourne will still remain the primary location for tennis with the region hosting a series of events both before and after the Australian Open. On the men’s tour, the plan is to hold two 250 tournaments and the ATP Cup during the first week of February. Meanwhile, the WTA is set to stage two 500 events during the week starting January 31st and then a 250 tournament immediately after the Australian Open.

Speaking about Melbourne Park, Tiley is hopeful that between 50% and 75% of its usual capacity will be used by fans. To put that into perspective, last year the US Open was played behind closed doors and the French Open significantly reduced their capacity due to the pandemic.

The Australian Open will start on February 8th.

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Australian Open Axes Hotel Quarantine Contract Following Legal Threat

The decision comes after residents voiced concern that international tennis players pose a potential health risk to them.

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Tennis Australia has been forced to relocate one of their player accommodation venues after residents threatened to take the government to court.

 

Earlier this week a group of penthouse owners at the Westin Hotel in Melbourne confirmed that they were contemplating legal action, arguing that international players posed a health risk to them. The group also claims that they have been given insufficient information about the arrangements which has been disputed by the local government.

Despite assurances by officials that the residents would not be interacting with the players due to part of the hotel being sealed off, it has been decided to no longer use the Westin. It is unclear as to how many players would have been staying at the venue.

“The Australian Open team has been working closely with COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) on suitable quarantine hotel options in Melbourne. Several hotels in Melbourne have already been secured, including a replacement for the Westin, to safely accommodate the international playing group and their team members as well as allow for them to properly prepare for the first Grand Slam of the year. The health and safety of everyone is our top priority,” a statement from Tennis Australia reads.

Lisa Neville, who is the country’s minister of police, said the decision to change venue has been taken in order to prevent the risk of the Melbourne major being delayed once again. Ms Neville said she was first made aware of the concerns on Sunday.

We became aware on Sunday that there were some concerns that had been expressed by the residents in the apartments,” she said.
“We were also concerned this may delay the standing up of the Australian Open so we’ve gone through a process of securing a new site.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players arriving in the country must quarantine for 14 days before they are allowed to play professional events. Although they are allowed to train during this period. As a result, the Australian Open will be taking place during February for the first time in more than 100 years.

According to abc.net.au, the government will publish a list of hotels that will be used for quarantine next week. Players are set to start arriving in Australia from January 14th.

The Australian Open will start on February 8th.

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Australian Open Facing Legal Action Over Quarantine Plans

Less than two weeks before players are set to enter a mandatory quarantine, residents at one hotel are considering taking Tennis Australia to court.

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The Australian Open is facing a new crisis with a group of apartment owners launching a legal case to not allow players to stay at their premises.

 

Residents at the Westin Melbourne says they were given insufficient information about plans for players to stay at the Westin ahead of the Grand Slam and argue they pose a health risk to them. The venue has been chosen as one of the premises when players from around the globe will stay during a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in the country. During the quarantine, they are not allowed to play professional tournaments but will be permitted to train. Players are set to start arriving in Melbourne from January 14th.

“At 84, I’m in the vulnerable group and it’s shocking the way they tried to ram this through without any attempt to consult with us,” owner Digby Lewis told Fairfax.
“I’m more than happy to toss in $10,000 or $20,000 to help the legal fight, it’s bloody shocking.”

According to The Age newspaper, the legal action is being considered by the 36 owners of penthouse apartments in the hotel, including many who live there on a permanent basis. One of their plans of action could include trying to obtain a last-minute injection which would prevent players from arriving if the court agrees to issue one.

The Victorian government formally approved the quarantine plan on December 18th and apartment owners were then notified on December 23rd. Although they insist that they never agreed to the terms.

“It’s incredibly arrogant to ambush us this way as if it’s a done deal. There are substantive public health and legal issues that have not even been examined,” apartment owner Mark Nicholson told The Age and the SMH.

In a statement issued to Reuters news agency, a representative from The Westin hotel has insisted that residents will not be in contact with players throughout their stay. They will be using separate entrances and lifts into the venue in accordance with their ‘COVID safe’ guidelines.

Their floor will remain exclusive while there will be no reticulation of ventilation between the floors,” the statement outlines.

Jacinta Allan, who is the acting Premier of Melbourne state, has also tried to ease any concerns the residents have. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Allan said a ‘rigorous assessment’ was conducted before the hotel was approved to host international athletes.

“The Westin, like every venue, went through a rigorous assessment, very strict infection prevention measures have been put in place in all of the venues,” she said.
“The very clear advice is that arrangements have been put in place so there is no contact between the existing residents and the people staying associated with the Australian Open.
“There are separate entrances, there are separate floors, there are floor monitors on every floor, there is 24/7 Victoria Police presence associated with every venue.”

The development is the latest setback for Tennis Australia and their plans for the Grand Slam. Due to the pandemic the Australian Open has had to be delayed until February for the first time in more than 100 years. Officials originally hoped for players to arrive in the country from December before the government ruled against it.

The Australian Open will get underway on February 8th.

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