Tokyo athletes in limbo as hundreds of Australians struggle to arrange for qualifying tournaments

Australia plans on sending one of its largest ever away team of athletes to the Toyko Games this year, but there is just one problem — there are no competitions available for them to qualify.

The journey to the delayed Olympic and Paralympic games has been full of hurdles for our sporting men and women, many of whom still face that one last barrier to getting on the plane.

With numerous World Championships cancelled across the globe during rolling lockdowns, athletes are struggling to find competitions where they can secure a spot on their respective national teams.

Olympic clay target shooter Penny Smith is one of the lucky ones to have already qualified for Tokyo, and if she wants to train she does not have to go very far.

The distance from her backdoor to the shooting range on her family farm in western Victorian can be counted in steps, rather than metres.

The homebuilt range has been a godsend for the 25-year-old during lockdown and is just one example of the way the nation’s top athletes have been forced to adapt amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“It certainly would be very stressful, and a lot of pressure, not knowing where their matches would be or how they’ll qualify. But I’m very thankful that Shooting Australia got our matches done and qualification was upheld.”

As it stands, just 78 Australians have been selected for a national side that is tipped to be among the largest away squad in Australian history.

The Australian Olympic Committee has confirmed it is hoping to send 480 athletes to Tokyo, meaning with just five months until the opening ceremony Australia’s named about 16 per cent of the athletes heading to Japan.

Smith’s qualification for the Games is something she has not taken for granted.

She missed the chance to don the green and gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games but bounced back with a win at the 2019 ISSF World Cup in Finland.

Smith took out the national and Commonwealth titles last year before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the international shooting calendar.

Ever since, her backyard has been her lone shooting range and she is determined to stay focused.

One of the athletes crossing her fingers for an Olympic berth is table tennis star Milly Tapper.

Tapper rewrote the record books at Rio in 2016, becoming the first Australian athlete to compete at both the Paralympic and Olympic games.

However that was not enough to guarantee her Olympic return.

“I’m aiming to qualify in the team event and then the mixed doubles event,” Tapper said.

The anxiety that comes with the unknown is something she said she was learning to work through.

“I mean, 2020 ended up a bit like a big dumpster truck, it definitely got turned upside down,” Tapper said.

“But with my team around me I took the best approach to make the most of the year, which has turned out in my favour.

“I feel like if I was to have competed in Tokyo when it was to be held I wasn’t going to be as ready as what I wanted to be.

“Now, with everything that we’ve done, I’m really excited and hopefully looking towards Tokyo this year.”

The International Olympic Committee’s grappling with how to make qualifying fair for locked-down nations.

Athletes competing at the Olympics will be required to wear a mask unless they are eating, sleeping, or outdoors, and will need to be tested 72 hours before departing their home country, again on arrival, and every four days afterwards.

Organisers are encouraging people to clap, but not chant or sing when supporting competitors.

The Victorian Institute of Sport’s performance manager Bill Tait thinks the pandemic could work in the team’s favour.

“I would say we should be optimistic in Australia,” Mr Tait said.

“If we have a really good run, as we are at the moment in terms of relative safety from COVID, and the ability to train, we should be at an advantage compared to some of the northern hemisphere competitors.”

Of the 78 Australian athletes selected to date, 32 will be making their Olympic debut.

And the relative quiet of the stadiums could work in their favour, according to Mr Tait.

“One of the challenges of first-time Olympians is they get overawed by the sense of the moment because of the [unfamiliar] crowd,” he said.

The Tokyo Olympic Games are scheduled to commence in July, while the Paralympics are expected to start at the end of August.

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The Gold Coast’s Southport croquet club is expanding to hold international tournaments

Beryl plays gateball — the Japanese version of croquet —at the club that boasts million-dollar views over the ocean.

Gateball is a short, fast, 30-minute game that the 92-year-old plays twice a week.

“I first joined when I retired. I was hassled into it but I thoroughly enjoy it,” she said.

“I love the friendship. I only play gateball because I can’t handle the heavy mallets.”

All four disciplines of mallet sports are played at Southport: traditional croquet, ricochet, golf and, Beryl’s favourite, gateball.

Donna Jones has only been a member for five weeks and deliberately chose croquet over bowls or other sports.

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The difference between the Australian Open COVID plan and rules at other international tournaments

The world’s best tennis players have had an abrupt introduction to the world of hotel quarantine and isolation upon their arrival into Australia.

Of all the players set to compete in the first major of the season, 72 are now in hard quarantine after three of the 17 charter flights were impacted by positive COVID tests.

Some players have criticised the hard quarantine, saying they did not know that everyone on a flight would have to quarantine in the event of a positive test, although that has been contradicted by some other players.

Regardless, the increase in restrictions the players are facing has come as a shock to their collective systems. So why is that?

What have the rules been at other tournaments?

Like most sports around the world in 2020, tennis endured a hiatus of several months, with tournaments, including Wimbledon, cancelled across the world.

However, after that period off, tennis got back underway, with the US and French Opens both taking place, in conjunction with their associated warm-up tournaments.

Those tournaments used very similar protocols to those being used in Australia.

At the US Open, players were placed in a bio-secure bubble, with allocated hotels close to the National Tennis Centre site at Flushing Meadows.

Naomi Osaka wore masks with names of people killed as a result of police brutality in America during the US Open.(AP: Frank Franklin II)

Players were regularly tested, twice within 48 hours of arriving in New York before being accredited, and then re-tested every four days after. At the Australian Open, players will be tested every day.

Heading off site, including visiting Manhattan, was banned and players had to wear masks when not on court.

The US Open even moved a warm-up event, the Cincinnati Open, to Flushing Meadows to reduce the amount of travel for players, much in the same way that the pre-Australian Open tournaments were moved from Perth, Brisbane and Sydney to Melbourne.

Players were told to wear masks at all times apart from playing, as well as subjecting themselves to daily temperature testing and a questionnaire before being allowed access.

The rules around the French Open, which took place two weeks after the conclusion of the US Open, were similar.

Simona Halep holds a trophy and a bunch of flowers while wearing a mask
Simona Halep won the Italian Open, prior to the French Open.(LaPresse via AP: Alfredo Falcone)

Were the players OK with that?

There was some dissent at the conditions imposed on players for the return to tennis.

Novak Djokovic, who has also called for changes in quarantine for players in Australia, criticised the conditions that were imposed for the US Open, saying it would be “impossible” to play tennis.

“The rules that they told us that we would have to respect to be there, to play at all, they are extreme,” Djokovic said in an interview with Serbian TV prior to the tournament.

“We would not have access to Manhattan, we would have to sleep in hotels at the airport, to be tested twice or three times per week … we could bring one person to the club which is really impossible. I mean, you need your coach, then a fitness trainer, then a physiotherapist.”

An image posted to Rafa Nadal’s Facebook account on September 2, 2020.
Rafael Nadal did not travel to the US Open, but won the French Open.(Facebook: Rafa Nadal)

Rafael Nadal also didn’t travel, questioning the safety of travelling during the pandemic.

“The situation is very complicated worldwide, the COVID-19 cases are increasing, it looks like we still don’t have control of it,” Nadal tweeted ahead of the Open.

“This is a decision I never wanted to take but I have decided to follow my heart this time and for the time being I rather not travel.”

He had no such qualms about travelling to France though, where he won a record-extending 13th French Open title.

Lack of quarantine around the world

Normally, the life of a tennis pro involves multiple smash-and-grab raids around the world — players fly in to a city, play and then fly out again once they’re done.

However, that’s not possible in Australia due to the federal requirement to quarantine.

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Australian Open junior tournament, boys and girls tournaments, postponed due to travel restrictions, COVID-19 difficulties

The decision is complex, given players and their support staff would prefer to get into the country well before the tournament.

When asked on Saturday about reports suggesting the Open could be pushed back to March or April, Premier Daniel Andrews said: ‘‘… from the seventh of next month we can have flights returning to Melbourne and a hotel quarantining system will be reset and set up at that point and this is not a simple thing, to have many hundreds or indeed potentially well more than 1000 athletes and others who support them, media, being here for a very important event. It has to be done safely, it has to be done right.

‘‘I am very confident we will have an Australian Open in the early part of next year. The exact timing of it, the exact arrangements we put in place, they are not settled yet.’’

The Open’s junior events have been postponed, with officials telling participants on Saturday that it had been pushed back due to travel restrictions because of coronavirus.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley and Australian Open juniors tournament director Francis Soyer announced the postponement in a letter to players, with an aim to hold a replacement tournament in 2021.

“Australia has had relatively few cases of COVID-19 … and this has been achieved through strict biosecurity measures which include limiting international travellers into Australia, and mandatory 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals,” the letter read.

“These limits along with the increased biosecurity requirements have unfortunately made it extremely difficult for us to run a junior event at the 2021 Australian Open.”

The Australian Open Junior tournament won’t go ahead as ususal. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Tennis Australia declined to comment further on Saturday.

The current timeline has raised doubts about players taking part in any lead-in events, such as the ATP Cup men’s teams event, which remain shrouded in uncertainty

Australian doubles great Todd Woodbridge said on Saturday that moving the two-week event to another spot in the calendar remained possible.

“I don’t think that’s an outcome we would be wanting,” Woodbridge said on the ABC.

“But stranger things have happened in 2020, haven’t they? Roland Garros – being played in September instead of May, even in the golf world the [US] Masters recently just finished a week ago and of course that’s played in April normally.

“These are all things that at some point you would have said ‘no, that’s not possible’.

“[But] financially, to sustain these events, you can’t lose a year. There’s so much at stake.”

Woodbridge said, despite the great uncertainty, it was highly unlikely the Open – a mainstay of Melbourne’s major events strategy – could somehow be shifted to another city.

“I think that would be hard-pressed now given the timeframe to be honest with you,” Woodbridge said.

“The thing we have is that the size of the event in terms of the draws and so forth [and] the facilities required … Melbourne Park is the perfect place to be able to do that.

“The early part of next year, 2021 – all of the tennis calendars are looking shaky.

“All of those discussions are ongoing too, between Tennis Australia, the men’s tour, the women’s tour and the International Tennis Federation about trying to work out what’s best.”


The manager of Alex de Minaur, one of Australia’s best players, has said there was a risk other players could boycott the tournament if preparations were not deemed to be up to scratch.

International sport has been thrown into turmoil since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since 1945, while the US Open was held without spectators and Roland Garros shifted to September.

Wimbledon had the benefit of cancelling this year with pandemic insurance protection to draw upon but, as The Age revealed in July, Tennis Australia had previously taken out similar insurance coverage for the Australian Open but that policy was due to expire. Thus, they would not be able to draw on the policy for the 2021 event.

Tennis Australia had proposed for players to land in Melbourne in early December and exist in biosecure “controlled bubble” environments in which movement is limited to travel between hotels and the practice court. Tiley has previously told The Age that costs for organising quarantine conditions would exceed $30 million.

Central to TA’s negotiations with health officials has been the capacity for players to practice while undergoing quarantine. World No.1 Novak Djokovic this week called for “support and understanding” from Australian authorities while even advocating for players to be allowed to compete in the second week of quarantine.

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Novak Djokovic urges Victorian Government to allow Australian Open lead up tournaments

World number one Novak Djokovic is urging the Victorian Government to allow players to compete before next year’s Australian Open.

The start of the 2021 tennis season remains in limbo, with officials declining to endorse Tennis Australia’s plans to have players arrive in mid-December and be free to compete at the ATP Cup and other events ahead of the year’s first grand slam.

On Monday, Tennis Australia announced all lead-up events to the Australian Open would be played in Melbourne, instead of across most of the country’s capital cities.

Djokovic — who won the Australian Open in 2020 — said he would do whatever was required to play at the Australian Open, but hoped the Victorian Government would also be accommodating.

“I hope that there is going to be support and understanding from the Victorian and Australian Government for the players and for Tennis Australia and that they will allow players to compete in the second week of quarantine,” he told reporters at the ATP Finals on Wednesday.

“You will be able to have at least a tournament or two prior to the Australian Open, which for majority of the players is important.

“Having no official match before the Australian Open, before a grand slam, is a huge thing.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has not made a decision on the upcoming tennis season in Melbourne.(ABC News: Darryl Torpy)

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said this week he was confident the Australian Open would go ahead at Melbourne Park but declined to confirm Tennis Australia’s revamped schedule.

“It has to be done safely, it has to be done properly,” Mr Andrews said on Wednesday.

“We are working very, very closely with Tennis Australia. They are working [with] all of their partners and we’re confident that we’ll finish up with an Australian Open. It’s a very important event.

US Open finalist Alex Zverev said players should at least be able to practice during quarantine.

“Because if we can’t even practice for 14 days and we have to go out to play the Australian Open, it’s a lottery,” the German said.

“You can basically flip a coin who wins.”

The Australian Open is scheduled to be held from January 18-31.


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