COVID cases on player flights leave Australian Open buildup in disarray

The build-up to next month’s Australian Open was thrown into disarray on Saturday when 47 players were forced into two weeks of strict hotel quarantine after coronavirus infections were reported on two chartered flights carrying them to Melbourne.

Two dozen players and their staff landed from Los Angeles to go into quarantine after an aircrew member and a passenger, who was not a player, tested positive for COVID-19.

A further 23 players arriving by a chartered flight from Abu Dhabi met a similar fate after another non-player passenger was found positive, the organisers of the year’s first grand slam said in a statement.

The players will “not be able to leave their hotel rooms for 14 days and until they are medically cleared,” they said.

“They will not be eligible to practise.”

Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas, Mexico’s Santiago Gonzalez and New Zealander Artemis Sitak confirmed via social media that they were on the flight from Los Angeles.

According to local media, two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, American former US Open winner Sloane Stephens and Japan’s Kei Nishikori were also on the flight.

Another player reportedly on the same plane was Tennys Sandgren, who was granted special permission to travel from Los Angeles late last week after testing positive for the new coronavirus, which he had previously had.

Tennis Australia said in a statement the decision to allow Sandgren to fly had been made after a review by medical officials. A spokesperson for COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria said it was common among people who previously tested positive to “shed viral fragments for some time — which can trigger another positive result”.

Tournament director Craig Tiley said: “We are communicating with everyone on this flight, and particularly the playing group whose conditions have now changed, to ensure their needs are being catered to as much as possible.”

Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk said that she was on the flight from Abu Dhabi.

Several players took to social media to vent their frustration and resentment at being denied training.

“Weeks and weeks of practice and hard work going to waste for one person positive to Covid in a 3/4 empty plane. Sorry but this is insane,” tweeted France’s Alize Cornet.

Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens criticised the decision to quarantine all the players on the flight, calling it “Russian roulette”.

New Zealand’s Sitak said it was “obviously not great” but he was aware of the risks ahead, and he appeared relaxed about being grounded in his hotel room.

“I asked for a bike, so hopefully I’ll get one and stay in shape, and we’ll probably be out on the 29th of January,” the 34-year-old said in a video on his Instagram page.

He later posted a photo of his exercise bike saying “got this beauty”.

After the organisers found themselves on the receiving end of many players’ wrath, Azarenka sounded a different note.

“If you have time to whine then you have time to find solution,” the Belarusian tweeted.

Australia has agreed to accept about 1,200 players, officials and staff on 15 flights for the major sporting event beginning on February 8.

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