Australian Open chief executive Craig Tiley is not the first tournament director to be presented with a list of demands by a tennis player.
As Tiley’s predecessor Paul McNamee explains, tennis is one of the few sports where star players seek to negotiate matters as fundamental as the time and court on which their next match will be played.
If it seems that Novak Djokovic, the author of extensive demanded changes to quarantine arrangements presented to Tiley, is acting like he runs the sport, it is only because he does.
Novak Djokovic, an eight-time Australian Open champion, is used to getting his way in Melbourne. Credit:Getty
As Djokovic sees it, why should tennis players have to spend two weeks cooped up in a hotel when Hollywood actor Matt Damon can arrange his own luxury lockdown getaway in Byron Bay?
"I liken it more to show business,’’ McNamee says. “You can’t tell me that when Kylie Minogue comes here she hasn’t got green room demands. It’s an entertainment industry."
The demands of the world’s best player, including his suggestion that Tennis Australia shift players out of hard quarantine into private houses with a tennis court, landed well wide. As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews put it: "People are free to provide a list of demands but the answer is no."
Daniel Andrews says players are free to make demands about changes to quarantine — and the answer is no.Credit:Joe Armao
The Victorian position, one shared by the government, its public health advisers and Tennis Australia, is that all players competing at next month’s Open came here forewarned about what might happen if the virus boarded their plane.
Artem Sitak, a pragmatic Russian-turned-New Zealand doubles specialist, has emerged as a spokesperson for the game’s normally silent majority. "We were aware of the risks before coming in so that is how it is," he said.
Yet no one should expect Djokovic to retreat quietly to a practice court.
Players have 50 per cent control over the affairs of the ATP Tour, the governing body of men’s tennis. Djokovic, until recently the president of the ATP players’ council, has launched a breakaway union to give players, particularly those outside the top 100 ranked, greater sway.
His actions in co-founding the Professional Tennis Players Association have split the sport.
The ATP moved a resolution late last year forcing him to relinquish his position on the players' council. Djokovic’s most celebrated peers – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – are backing the status quo. So far, the nascent association has made no serious appeal to women players.
Roger Federer is not backing the breakaway Professional Tennis Players Association.Credit:Getty Images
The issue he is now pushing – for all players to be given the opportunity to train and prepare properly for the year’s first major tournament while in quarantine – is consistent with this political play.
Djokovic and fellow superstars Nadal, Serena Williams, Dominic Thiem and Naomi Osaka are all safely quarantining in Adelaide, with daily access to practice courts, ahead of a one-off exhibition tournament at Memorial Drive. Their preparations for the Australian Open haven’t been compromised.
Many of the names in hard quarantine, like Artem Sitak, are those only tennis aficionados would know. One of them is Canadian Vasek Pospisil, Djokovic’s co-founder of the rival players' union.
These are the people Djokovic is campaigning to get a better deal for, along with the legion of players who haven’t qualified for the Australian Open and, due to COVID-19 shutdowns around the world, have had no lower-tier tournaments to play and no tennis income for the best part of a year.
"The basis of starting the association was to give a voice and better conditions for lower-ranked players,’’ McNamee says. “You can’t say he is just wheeling it out now because it suits that agenda; that was the agenda from the beginning."
Djokovic’s problem is that, on matters COVID-19, he doesn’t bring a strong game to the table. At the height of the European summer last year, he organised a series of tournaments across the former Yugoslav republics that became super-spreader events.
Djokovic, who has declared himself opposed to mandatory vaccines, confirmed he was among the players infected with COVID-19 and that he in turn infected his wife. Footage of him dancing shirtless in a crowded Belgrade nightclub went suitably viral.
Nick Kyrgios doffed his cap to Djokovic for scaling heights of stupidity beyond his own considerable reach. "This takes the cake," he tweeted after seeing the nightclub. Djokovic apologised for promoting the tournaments, which he conceded were a mistake.
Although Djokovic’s latest intervention will be similarly ridiculed, McNamee says many players arriving in Australia, whether to a hard or soft quarantine, will experience a form of COVID culture shock.
No European country would contemplate locking down a city the size of Brisbane in response to a single COVID case, and internal border travel restrictions between jurisdictions each with low numbers of active cases would be perplexing to anyone arriving from the US.
McNamee, a consultant to Tennis Australia and the coach of world No.1 doubles player Su-wei Hsieh, has just emerged from two weeks of quarantine in an Adelaide hotel after returning to Australia from Bulgaria, a Balkans country that couldn’t afford to shut its economy against COVID-19 even if it wanted to.
"It is a shock to many players that we are so pedantic about it,’’ he says. “They are not used to that."
Not for the first time, some visiting players may struggle to adjust to local conditions.
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