With quarantines almost over, tennis set to start Down Under

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With a coronavirus-enforced quarantine coming to an end, the world’s elite tennis players will go from two of the quietest weeks of their lives in Australia to three of the busiest.

The government-mandated quarantine ahead of the Feb. 8-21 Australian Open had a controversial start.

Some players complained bitterly after being forced into hard lockdown because passengers on their charter flights to Melbourne tested positive for COVID-19, and a letter from top-ranked Novak Djokovic to tournament officials offering his suggested rule changes sparked public backlash. The 14-day period of isolation for most players was scheduled to end from late Thursday and early Friday local time.

And with it came some plaudits from Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

“It’s super, super strict . . . insane and super intense, but they are doing it right,” Williams said of the quarantine in an interview with The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert. “It’s definitely hard with a three-year old (her daughter Olympia), but it’s worth it because you want everyone to be safe.”

The No. 2-ranked Nadal told CNN that international tennis players needed to maintain a “wider perspective on what’s going on in the world,” although he sympathized with the 72 players who were deemed to be close contacts of positive coronavirus cases from three charter flights and who had to stay in their rooms for 24 hours a day and could not practice.

“When we came here we knew the measures were going to be strict,” Nadal said. “We knew the country is doing great with the pandemic. Australia is probably one of the best examples in the world … how they react through very challenging times.”

Indeed, Australia has done well. Due to strict incoming traveler quarantines, limited movement between states and a previous hard lockdown of more than 4 million people in Melbourne when a second wave got out of control in Victoria state, Australia has had only 909 deaths attributed to COVID-19. And 820 of them were in Victoria — most during that second deadly wave when overnight curfews were put in place and use of masks made compulsory outside of home.

There was some considerable doubt during that second wave whether the Australian Open would even be remotely possible in Melbourne.

It was the only Grand Slam tournament not affected by coronavirus shutdowns last year, but only because it was held in January before the virus was declared a global pandemic in March. Among the other Grand Slam events, the French Open was delayed until late September, Wimbledon wasn’t held at all and the U.S. Open instituted a bio-secure bubble for all players.

This year’s Australian Open was delayed by three weeks to allow arriving players to spend those 14 days in quarantine. Players, coaches and officials were flown in on 17 jets chartered by Tennis Australia and met by biosecurity officials and placed immediately into hotel quarantine. Most players — those not on the three virus-affected charters — were allowed outside for five hours of practice daily.

And instead of having two or three weeks of warmup events, those tournaments have all been compressed into one week beginning Sunday — the ATP Cup men’s team event, two other ATP tournaments and three WTA events.

One of the WTA events is only open to players who were among those 72 forced into hard lockdown and who couldn’t take advantage of the daily practice allocation. They include 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, whose coach was among those who tested positive, and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.

Before the official tournaments begin, eight of the world’s top players will take part in an Adelaide exhibition on Friday. Djokovic will play Jannik Sinner and Williams will take on Naomi Osaka in the day session. Nadal will play U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem and No. 1-ranked Ash Barty plays Simona Halep in the night session.

It will be Barty’s first tournament in 11 months. She decided not to defend her 2019 French Open title at the delayed event in Paris, and travel restrictions for Australian citizens attempting to leave the country made it difficult to travel anyway.

“Obviously I haven’t played competition tennis for a year now so it’s going to be a challenge,” the 24-year-old Barty said. “So there’s no stresses, no concerns for me. I know it’s going to be a little bit rusty and that’s OK.”

Paul, McDonald give U.S. 2-0 lead over Uzbekistan in Davis Cup

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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LONDON – Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and Mackenzie McDonald, who beat Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, gave the United States a 2-0 lead over host Uzbekistan in Davis Cup qualifying.

Paul beat Khumoyun Sultanov 6-1, 7-6 (6) after McDonald’s Davis Cup debut produced a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Sergey Fomin on an indoor hard court in Tashkent.

The best-of-five-match series finishes with one match in doubles followed by two in singles. The Americans can clinch a spot in the group stage of the Davis Cup Finals if Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek defeat Fomin and Sanjar Fayziev in doubles.

“A sweep would be nice,” Paul said. “Bring out the broomsticks.”

Paul moved into the top 20 in the ATP rankings for the first time this week by reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal in Australia, where he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. McDonald eliminated 22-time Grand Slam champion Nadal in the second round at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament.

David Nainkin is serving as interim captain for the United States, replacing Mardy Fish.

There are 12 qualifiers being held this weekend with the winners of each advancing to the Davis Cup Finals group stage in September, along with reigning champion Canada, 2022 runner-up Australia and wild-card recipients Italy and Spain.

Eight teams will then advance to the closing matches of the Davis Cup Finals scheduled for Nov. 21-26 in Malaga, Spain.

Nick Kyrgios pleads guilty to assault, has no conviction recorded

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios apologized for shoving a former girlfriend to the ground two years ago after he escaped conviction on a charge of common assault.

The 2022 Wimbledon runner-up pleaded guilty in the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court to assaulting Chiara Passari during an argument in his hometown of Canberra in January 2021.

Magistrate Beth Campbell did not record a conviction against Kyrgios for reasons including that the offense was at the low end of seriousness for a common assault, was not premeditated and he had no criminal record.

Kyrgios, who was using crutches following recent surgery on his left knee, ignored reporters’ questions as he left court but issued a statement through a management company.

“I respect today’s ruling and am grateful to the court for dismissing the charges without conviction,” Kyrgios said. “I was not in a good place when this took place and I reacted to a difficult situation in a way I deeply regret. I know it wasn’t OK and I’m sincerely sorry for the hurt I caused.

“Mental health is tough. Life can seem overwhelming. But I’ve found that getting help and working on myself has helped me to feel better and to be better,” he added.

The only media question he responded to as he was about to be driven away from the court was: “what’s next for Nick Kyrgios?”

“Just recovery and get back on court,” Kyrgios replied.

Campbell described the shove as an act of “stupidity” and “frustration.”

She assured him his celebrity was not a factor in him avoiding a criminal record.

“You’re a young man who happens to hit the tennis ball particularly well and your name is widely recognised outside this court room,” Campbell told Kyrgrios.

“I deal with you exactly the same way as any young man in this court.”

Kyrgios’ psychologist, Sam Borenstein, said in a written report and testimony by phone that Kyrgios had suffered major depressive episodes around the time of the assault and had used alcohol and drugs to cope. Kyrgios’ mental health led to impulsive and reckless behavior.

His recent knee injury had resulted in mild to moderate symptoms of depression, but his mental health was improving, Borenstein said.

“He’s doing very well,” Borenstein said. “His mental health has improved significantly.”

“Given the history, he is still vulnerable to recurrent episodes of depression depending on life circumstances,” Borenstein added.

Lawyers for Kyrgios had sought to have charge dismissed on mental health grounds but the application was unsuccessful.

In arguing against a conviction being recorded, defense lawyer Michael Kukulies-Smith cited the opinion of Kyrgios’s manager of a “strong likelihood of sanctions and impact upon sponsorship” from a conviction. Kyrgios had faced a potential maximum 2-year prison sentence if convicted.

The assault occurred when Kyrgios had been attempting to leave Passari during an argument late Jan. 10, 2021, outside her apartment in the inner-Canberra suburb of Kingston.

He called an Uber but Passari stood in the way of him closing the front passenger door. The driver wouldn’t leave with the door open.

Kyrgios eventually pushed Passari’s shoulders backward with open palms, causing her to fall to the pavement and graze her knee, according to agreed facts read to the court.

Passari signed a police statement alleging the assault 11 months later, after her relationship with Kyrgios had ended.

His current partner, Costeen Hatzi, wrote in a character reference that she had no concerns of such violence in her relationship. Hatzi was among Kyrgios’ supporters who sat behind him in court.

Kyrgios, wearing a dark suit and using the crutches for support, first spoke in court when the magistrate asked him if he could stand to enter a plea.

Kyrgios replied: “Yep, no worries, Your Honor,” as he rose to plead guilty.

In February last year, Kyrgios opened up about his performance at the 2019 Australian Open, saying what appeared to be a positive time in his life had been “one of my darkest periods.”

“I was lonely, depressed, negative, abusing alcohol, drugs, pushed away family and friends,” he wrote on Instagram. “I felt as if I couldn’t talk or trust anyone. This was a result of not opening up and refusing to lean on my loved ones and simply just push myself little by little to be positive.”

Kyrgios made further references to his mental health struggles during his runs last year to the final at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open.

After ending Daniil Medvedev’s U.S. Open title defense last September to reach the quarterfinals, Kyrgios expressed pride at lifting himself out of “some really tough situations, mentally” and “some really scary places” off the court.

The 27-year-old Kyrgios had a career setback last month when he withdrew from the Australian Open because the knee injury which later required arthroscopic surgery.