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Australian Open plan includes three-week delay, strict COVID measure and fans

After lengthy deliberation and close consultation with health authorities, Australian Open officials are circulating a plan for holding the tennis season's first Grand Slam on Feb. 8 — three weeks later than its planned Jan. 18 start — under strict safety protocols to guard against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The plan is outlined in a letter that Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia and director of the Australian Open, transmitted this week to players for their consideration and feedback. Follow-up discussions have been held with player representatives and relevant stakeholders.

The tone of the letter, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, is positive.

Assuming the feedback is equally positive from the top 100 players and their agents — meaning, they agree to strict conditions to guard against spread of the novel coronavirus — the tournament will proceed as proposed, according to a stakeholder who took part in the discussions.

Under the protocols proposed for the 2021 Australian Open, competitors must arrive in the host city of Melbourne Jan 15-17 via chartered flights arranged by Tennis Australia. Players must be tested for the coronavirus within 48 hours before boarding the flight and remain quarantined in a designated hotel upon arrival in Melbourne for two weeks, during which they will be tested five times.

During the quarantine, they will be subject to limits on the location and duration of their training and practices, as well as the number of coaches (initially one) and players they may practice with. Those limits gradually increase with subsequent negative tests.

After the quarantine period, players would be free to stay and go where they like.

Australia has among the strictest quarantine procedures in the world, having gone into a lockdown and curfew, with strict limits on travel from home, after a second wave of the virus in June. The result was success. Community transmission has been virtually eliminated. Melbourne, once the nation's coronavirus hotspot, has not reported a case in more than 30 days. Though restrictions are being eased gradually, the Victorian government would have to approve the tournament bringing international players to the country.

The proposal represents a considerable financial investment by Tennis Australia, which will cover the cost of the chartered flights to Melbourne for players and their entourages and all meals and accommodations, according to the letter.

Tennis Australia is pledging to pay the full prize money (roughly $52 million) while bankrolling the additional costs and absorbing an anticipated loss in revenue as a result of the safety measures.

Though details about the number of spectators permitted have not been disclosed, the letter refers to the opportunity for players to compete "in front of significant crowds." The celebratory atmosphere of the Australian Open, which takes place during the country's summer, is among the defining qualities of what is widely referred to as "The Happy Slam."

For the sport's elite, eager to burnish their legacies as retirement nears, much is at stake with each Grand Slam.

During the shortened 2020 season, Rafael Nadal moved into a tie with Roger Federer for a men's record 20 career Grand Slam titles with his victory at the French Open. Novak Djokovic claimed his 17th major by winning a record eighth Australian Open.

On the women's side, Serena Williams is without peer in the modern era, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Yet at 39, she is chasing the one goal to elude her: tying and surpassing Margaret Court's record 24 majors. Williams came close in 2019, reaching the finals of two of the four majors but falling to Simona Halep at Wimbledon and Bianca Andreescu at the U.S. Open.

Much is at stake for the rising stars, as well.

For American Sofia Kenin and Austria's Dominic Thiem, 2020 was a breakout season, and they are among the 20-somethings hoping for more in 2021.

Kenin, then 21, claimed her first Grand Slam title in winning the 2020 Australian Open.

In September, Thiem became the first to man other than Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a Grand Slam title since 2016 with his U.S. Open triumph. World No. 1 Djokovic was the only member of the Big Three to compete at the U.S. Open and appeared to have a relatively clear path to his 18th major but was defaulted after inadvertently striking a line judge with a ball.

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