The Skupskis make it to the practice courts
British doubles players Ken and Neal Skupski have described the uncompromising reality of life in Melbourne’s quarantine hotels, where police patrols and checkpoints are part of the fight against Covid-19 transmission.
The brothers, from Liverpool, emphasise that they are grateful to be in Melbourne at all, and speak highly of Tennis Australia’s efforts. Happily, their charter flight was not affected by any positive tests, so they can – in theory – leave the hotel for five hours a day to train. But Ken admits that it was “very deflating” when a computer glitch meant that his summons to Monday’s practice never came.
“It has been a bizarre feeling waiting for the knock to allow you out,” Ken said. “I never got the 7am knock on the door [on Monday] so I missed my slot.” Neal was thus left to practise his serves for two hours on the Albert Park courts. Even more frustratingly, another Briton – Jonny O’Mara – was training on the next court, but the supervisor ruled that the two could not hit together.
Back at the hotel, the first thing the brothers tried to do on arrival was to exchange rackets. Ken always stows a couple of frames in Neal’s bag when they fly, and vice versa, in case luggage should go missing. But their attempts to return the rackets were stymied. “We are in rooms next door to each other,” Ken said, “so when they [the bags] finally arrived we tried to open the doors to do a racket swap but we were told to go back inside. There are people patrolling the corridors all the time.”
Neal added: “There’s police outside the hotel making sure that nobody leaves and there are checkpoints on the way to the courts. There are two people allowed in the lift and when you get out there is someone there waiting for you who has a notebook to write down any misdemeanours about what people might be doing.
“They are in full PPE gear when they deliver the food to you and they don’t like it if you open the door and you don’t have a mask on. I don’t know what the people in full quarantine will be feeling like. It must be pretty tough.”
Both brothers admit that they would be concerned for any singles player who comes out of hard quarantine and faces Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal over the best of five sets the following week. But doubles is far less demanding on the body and, despite the monotony of quarantine life, they cannot fault their accommodation.
“There’s nothing wrong with the hotels we’re in,” Ken said. “I think an issue at the Grand Hyatt is fresh air because there aren’t windows that open. The government are in charge, we are very limited in what we can have. Our Fila gear is not allowed to be delivered until the quarantine has finished.”
To get through the days, the Britons in Melbourne have formed a WhatsApp group. Who would have guessed that reformed scoundrel Dan Evans – whose position as the world No 33 should earn him a seeding at the Australian Open – would emerge as an unlikely exercise guru?
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“Dan has become our yoga teacher,” Ken said. “It’s great [because] it’s another hour of time that has passed. There’s him, his girlfriend, O’Mara, [Luke] Bambridge, [Joe] Salisbury and [Dom] Inglot. There’s probably 1,000 messages a day on the group.” The Skupskis’ measured assessment contrasted with the strong words of Roberto Bautista Agut, the world No 13 from Spain, who was filmed on Monday night comparing his quarantine to “jail” and calling his trip “a complete disaster.” It later emerged, however, that Bautista Agut thought he was involved in a private video call with an agent rather than an interview. He apologised for any offence.
Sources have not always agreed about the number of positive tests within the quarantine hotels, perhaps because some positives later turn out to be safe instances of “viral shedding”. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said yesterday that six cases were considered to be active, none of which involved players. He has been briefing players regularly on Zoom.
The scale of the project continues to throw up unexpected issues. At the weekend, a shortage of government cleaning staff – who were supposed to deep-clean the shuttle buses taking the players to and from training – led to the cancellation of numerous practice sessions.
On Tuesday night, a more serious concern was raised by neighbours of one of the three quarantine hotels, who said that discarded face-masks and other PPE had been overflowing from waste bins into their street, causing a public-health hazard.