Of all the curveballs thrown at tennis players because of the pandemic, contesting the qualifying rounds of the Australian Open in Dubai and Doha this week, instead of in Melbourne next month, is definitely the most unusual one.
"It's kind of strange because I still don't understand, do I have to download the application for Australian Open on my phone or how will it work? It's tough to realise it," joked Russian world No 145 Natalia Vikhlyantseva, who was speaking to The National from the secure bio bubble set up for the players at the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel and the adjacent Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.
The qualifying tournament of a Grand Slam is typically staged in the week prior to the event. At three of the four majors, qualifying matches take place at the same venue. Wimbledon takes a slightly different approach and holds its qualifiers at Roehampton, which is just a 10-minute car ride away from the All England Club.
This is the first time in history a qualifying tournament of a Slam is held at a location outside the host city.
With a mandatory two-week quarantine enforced on all international arrivals into Melbourne, Tennis Australia came up with the creative idea of staging the women’s qualifying matches in Dubai, and the men’s in Doha, nearly a month ahead of the February 8 start date of the Australian Open. Players who make it through and book their spots in the main draw will then board chartered flights and head Down Under.
The decision was made relatively last minute, and players had to rush to readjust their plans for the start of the 2021 season.
Quick change of plans
Vikhlyantseva says plane ticket prices from Russia to Dubai surged ahead of the holiday season, with the emirate being a popular destination for Russians, and she almost missed her flight because the PCR test certificate she had with her was not stamped by the medical clinic that issued it. She ran through the Moscow airport to take another test and boarded the plane as they were announcing final call.
Organisers barely had a month to get everything ready in Dubai and Doha, including onsite testing, sanitisation and other safety measures, alongside the actual operation of the tournaments. Tennis Australia sent their live-scoring and live-streaming suppliers into town but onsite operations are all done by local teams.
Up for the task
“Oh wow, where to start?” said AO qualifying Dubai tournament representative Kay Godkhindi when asked about the most challenging part of organising the event.
“Having one month to plan an event is never ideal but we have a good set-up over here, using the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, the suppliers, the hotel … so in that way, those elements were a little bit easier because we just approached the people that are involved in the annual Dubai event.
“I have to say the testing has been challenging, with the current situation in Dubai, with cases going up and it only happening so recently, it’s put a lot of pressure on our medical provider and in turn, there have been situations where it’s taken longer for testing results to come through.
“But we’re working diligently on that and making sure that we can get the results out in time because it’s so crucial that the health and safety of this event is at the level that is required.”
Securing the bubble
Those familiar with the Dubai venue will know that the main stadium is surrounded by bars and restaurants, open to the public year-round, and that some of the facilities, like the gym and pool, at the onsite hotel are used by hotel guests and members.
To maintain a secure bubble, the access from the courts and the hotel to the Irish Village has been closed off, and a special gym has been set up for the players outdoors in the garden warm-up area so they wouldn’t cross paths with anyone who is not subjected to regular PCR testing. The players also have their own designated dining area, with glass shields placed between the tables.
“It’s very, very well-controlled in terms of Covid. There is always someone sanitising the equipment in the gym the second you finish working out, same goes for the restaurant; anything you touch gets sprayed immediately. I feel like it’s a very safe environment,” said Egyptian Mayar Sherif, who advanced to the second round of qualifying in Dubai on Monday.
A taste of Melbourne
The backboards of the courts in both Dubai and Doha are emblazoned with Australian Open branding, which is a welcome reminder for the players about what’s at stake while competing.
The courts in Doha were resurfaced in Australian Open blue, but the ones in Dubai have remained their regular green and blue. Ball kids are used in Dubai but not in Doha. Organisers were obviously racing against time and it was a matter of working with what they have.
Egyptian Mohamed Safwat, who made the second round in Doha on Sunday, was impressed by how quickly arrangements were made for the men – who were originally also going to play in Dubai – to get visas and special entry permits into Qatar, which is currently not open to non-citizens and non-residents.
The players are staying at the Ritz Carlton in Doha, where they also have designated areas separate from the other guests at the hotel. Safwat says players and their coaches can only use the service elevator and must shower at the hotel and not onsite. There are shuttles available every 15 minutes between the hotel and the tennis club, which allows players to leave immediately after their matches.
“It’s a different experience, of course, than when you play at the Australian Open, but the courts are the same colour. For me, I have good memories from this place, it’s nice to play in this venue always,” said Safwat, whose very first ATP main draw win came at the Qatar Open.
“The problem is that what usually makes the difference is the fans. When you play at the Australian Open, a lot of people showed up to watch qualifying. There were a lot of emotions. It feels different without the fans, you’re walking around site completely on your own. Qualifying for a Slam is the same everywhere, but it’s the fans that give excitement and suspense to the occasion, they give a different taste.”
Missing the crowd
Both Middle East events are played behind closed doors as fans and media are barred from site. Sherif and Safwat would have benefitted from the presence of fans as the only two Arabs in either qualifying draw.
“For me, I feel like it is exactly what it is: Australian Open qualifying,” Sherif said. “Actually, I feel like it’s even more than just Australian Open qualifying, because qualifying doesn’t just get you to the Australian Open, it allows you to play all the other tournaments in Australia. If you don’t qualify, you’re not going to get to travel.
“It would have been so nice if fans would have been allowed to attend, because I’m sure I would get a bunch of crowds coming, but there is no crowd so I don’t really feel I’m in Dubai, since I only see the hotel and the courts. I wish they had crowds.”
The players are mostly grateful that the Australian Open did not axe the qualifying tournaments altogether, as was the case with the US Open last summer.
‘Not easy to have confidence or momentum’
It’s tricky starting a season by immediately playing a Grand Slam qualifying event without any warm-up tournaments, but players, especially in the 100-200 ranking bracket, are just happy to take what they can get.
“It’s not easy, it’s been a tough year in 2020, we didn’t get too much rhythm, we didn’t have too many tournaments back-to-back, so I think we’re adapting to this also,” said Turkey’s Cagla Buyukakcay, who came through her first round in Dubai on Sunday.
“So these tournaments are of course for us a big chance to compete, a big opportunity to fight again for what we want. I would love to have some preparation before, that’s true, but we got used to it also. There’s nothing to do, you focus on your first game and hopefully I can play better than today for the next match.
“For sure it’s not easy to have confidence or have momentum to be in the rhythm but 2020 was like this and I think we’re adapting on this also.”
Buyukakcay is pleased with the conditions and says even the heat and humidity in Dubai is similar to what the players usually experience in Melbourne.
“I didn’t feel it’s another organisation, the players are similar, the draw is big, everything looks good, so this gave me a grand slam feeling to be honest,” she added.
For Vikhlyantseva, getting that 'Grand Slam feeling’ has not been as easy.
“I think that it’s totally different because when you’re in Australia playing qualies – for sure it’s a different tournament and you need to win three matches to be qualified… but when you are already onsite and you don’t have that big time between the tournaments to just change your mindset, so it feels like one tournament,” said the Russian.
“And here it’s completely different, it feels like a different tournament. I think it’s like a $100k [ITF event] or something, when you need to get points to get last direct acceptance for the main draw, I think it feels like this.”