By George Ramsay – With the end of the warm-up tournaments, attention now turns to the main draw of Australian Open, the build-up to which was dominated by coronavirus precautions.
A positive test for a hotel quarantine worker earlier this week resulted in the game being suspended and forced between 500 and 600 players, officials and support staff in isolation. Every player has since tested negative for the virus.
When the Australian Open begins on Monday, two players will have a chance on history: Serena Williams will continue her pursuit to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, while Rafael Nadal could surpass the total of 20 of Federer.
Neither got off to a good start to the first Grand Slam of the year.
Nadal retired from the ATP Cup earlier this week with a stiff lower back, while Williams was forced out of her Yarra Valley Classic semi-final with a right shoulder injury. She also admitted that the later start date in Melbourne allowed her to recover from an Achilles problem.
Last year was the first time since 2006 that Williams had gone an entire year without reaching a Grand Slam final. Since her last major victory at the 2017 Australian Open, she has finished second on four occasions.
“Four years without a Grand Slam is a long time, even more for Serena than for many players, and we are certainly not happy with the situation,” Williams coach Patrick Mouratoglou told CNN’s Christina Macfarlane. at the end of last year.
“We expected better results but also the situation was new and I am talking here about becoming a mother and the consequences of it.
“Physically it was difficult to come back. It took a while, longer than we probably expected, mentally too. It’s a new balance that you have to find.”
Williams was pregnant with her daughter Olympia when she won her 23rd and final Grand Slam title in Melbourne. Motherhood, according to Mouratoglou, has allowed Williams to reassess her priorities and he notes that while she struggles with injuries, her desire to win is burning more than ever.
“Serena’s dream since she was a child has been to win the Grand Slam,” he says.
“She’s dedicated her whole life to winning Grand Slam tournaments. She has come to a training ground every day of her life, giving her all for it. And it is probably the project of his life. And it still is. She still thinks she can win.
“Of course, there are still things missing. Otherwise, she would have won … But when you’re in the final, you touch her, you’re so close to her, you want to get there. That’s what drives her. “
Williams will face World 51st Laura Siegemund in the first round after being placed in the same half of the draw as multiple Grand Slam champions Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka.
World No.1 and home favorite Ashleigh Barty leads the draw, while Sofia Kenin will look to defend her first Grand Slam title.
In the men’s draw, Novak Djokovic enters as the firm favorite, hoping to extend his record to eight Australian Open titles.
The 17-time Grand Slam winner has emerged victorious in five of his last nine Grand Slam tournaments and successfully returns to 2020.
Other contenders include Dominic Thiem, who won his first major title at last year’s US Open, ATP Finals winner Daniil Medvedev and, of course, Nadal, whose only Melbourne victory came. in 2009.
Djokovic is in the same half of the draw as Thiem and US Open runner-up Alexander Zverev, while Nadal could face tough challenges from Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas or Andrey Rublev.
Asked about the prospect of breaking Federer’s record, the Spaniard remained measured.
“I have done a lot more than I dreamed of in my tennis career,” Nadal told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last week.
“It would be amazing for me to win one more. But I know that will not be the key to my happiness in the future. It is not additional pressure and it is not an obsession.
“I’m going on, I’m doing it my way. If it happens, fantastic, but if not, I’m more than happy with everything that’s happened to me.”
Up to 30,000 fans will be allowed into Melbourne Park each day, as Australia has managed to control the virus with strict border controls and tight lockdowns.
The sight of faceless crowds crowded into the Australian Open warm-up matches was startling for sports fans accustomed to seeing few – if any – spectators at major events.
The Victoria State Department of Health announced on Friday that it had not recorded any local cases of COVID-19 from 14,612 tests.
The positive test for a hotel worker broke a 28-day streak without community transmission in Victoria.
Strict quarantine measures sparked controversy when the players arrived in Melbourne; some were placed under two-week lockdown in their hotel rooms following positive tests on their flights and others were allowed out of their rooms for five hours a day to train in bio-bubbles. secure.
Organizers then changed the warm-up schedule to support the 72 players placed in strict quarantine – some of whom headed straight for training as soon as their quarantine period was over. “12:54 pm – FINALLY FREE from 15 days in strict quarantine and of course my first stop is Rod Laver Arena for midnight practice!” British player Heather Watson wrote on social media.
“I don’t feel like spending another night in a hotel room, so I think I could sleep here tonight,” she wrote in another post.
After a long ramp-up, the sight of the main draw matches finally starting will be no doubt a relief for players and organizers.