Aryna Sabalenka, the World No 2, has had to withdraw from Indian Wells next week because she has tested positive for COVID-19.
Whatever needs to be done to be able to play the Australian Open, I’ll do. To me it’s not even a thought or like a battle in my mind. I just want to be at the Australian Open, and I want to compete there, so, whatever it takes to do, I’ll go. Emma Raducanu
The Belarusian, who would have headed the field in the absence of World No 1 Ash Barty, announced on Instagram on Saturday: “Unfortunately I’ve tested positive at Indian Wells and won’t be able to compete.
“I’ve started my isolation and I’ll be staying here until I’m cleared by the doctors and health officials.
“So far I’m looking OK but really sad to not be able to play this year.”
It is not clear whether Sabalenka has received a COVID-19 vaccination yet, after having said at the Miami Open earlier this year that she did not really trust the vaccine and would really think twice before deciding on whether to get the shot.
Sabalenka’s absence is another blow to the BNP Paribas Open, which features both women’s and men’s draws and is a WTA 1000 event held near Los Angeles, California.
Officials gave no reason for Barty’s decision to pull out of the women’s draw, which was already suffering from the absence of several top players, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, but it has since been revealed that the Aussie has returned home to Queensland.
Aside from Barty’s withdrawal, men’s World No 1 Novak Djokovic is also not competing.
Sabalenka has already qualified for the season-ending championships in Guadalajara, Mexico, contested by the top 8 singles players and 8 doubles pairs on the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals, which will be held next month in Guadalajara, Mexico.
It is unclear whether Barty, who is the defending WTA Finals champion, will return to compete at altitude in Mexico in November.
The Belarusian reached her career-high world ranking of 2 in August and, until Ons Jabeur advanced to the final in Chicago on Saturday, was joint leader with the Tunisian with 43 match wins apiece this season. Jabeur now heads the list at 44.
Sabalenka lost to Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez in the US Open semi-finals last month and has won two tournaments this year, courtesy of victories in Abu Dhabi and Madrid.
Meanwhile, the Victoria government, the state where the Australian Open is held, is set to implement a vaccination requirement for approximately 1.25 million authorised workers in an effort to reduce the number of cases in the region prior to emerging from its lockdown.
The government’s stance on mandatory jabs was made clear on Friday when it instituted a public-health direction to force authorised workers to get a vaccine by 15 October to continue working on-site.
It also announced that all athletes in the state must be fully vaccinated by the end of November, which could prove a stumbling block for unvaccinated tennis players competing at the Australian Open.
Melbourne-based newspaper The Age, however, reported this would not apply to visiting tennis players, or to those travelling to Australia for the Ashes cricket series, but said a separate mandate could be enforced for January’s AO.
Citing an unnamed source, The Age added that Tennis Australia had reluctantly accepted the decision in talks with the Government.
Djokovic, a 9-time AO champion and 20-time Grand Slam champion, has declined to answer questions regarding his own vaccination status but is believed still to be unvaccinated, which could prevent his pursuit of a record-breaking 21st major title in January.
Greece’s World No 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas said in August that he would only get vaccinated for COVID-19 if it became mandatory to compete in tennis, but has since said he now plans to get the jab at the end of the season.
Australian coach Craig O’Shannessy, a former member of Djokovic’s coaching team, told The Age that a mandate was ‘the right move on many layers’.
“It’s Novak’s decision if he wants to get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s his choice to participate in the Open if there is a mandate.”
Australia has some of the strictest COVID-19 rules across the entire world, which has sparked concern over the Ashes and Australian Open going ahead as planned.
Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley has been trying to negotiate special arrangements for players in order to avoid turning away players who are resisting vaccination, but is reported to now being resigned to the mandate from the government.
The ATP or WTA both strongly encourage players to be inoculated but have stopped short of insisting on mandatory vaccines as players are individual contractors and not part of team or union-based structures.
Last month, the ATP estimated 50 percent of male players were vaccinated, while the WTA estimated its figure was about 60 percent, although other reports support the numbers are nearer 30 percent.
A spokesperson for the ATP has said the science was settled and being jabbed would help reduce the risk of missing a tournament due to being deemed a close contact.
“While we respect everyone’s right to free choice, we also believe that each player has a role to play in helping the wider group achieve a safe level of immunity,” the spokesperson said recently.
Many players, of course, have embraced the protection that vaccination affords them, which could well prove to be the means for them to avoid any stricter quarantine arrangements in Australia.
US Open champion Emma Raducanu has said she will do whatever it takes to play the Australian Open.
“Whatever needs to be done to be able to play the Australian Open, I’ll do,” Raducanu explained at the recent ‘Homecoming’ celebrating the UK’s US Open champions.
“To me it’s not even a thought or like a battle in my mind.
“I just want to be at the Australian Open, and I want to compete there, so, whatever it takes to do, I’ll go.”
According to The Age, more than 70 per cent of golfers on the US tour are vaccinated and more than 90 per cent of players in the US-based leagues, including the NFL and WNBA, have been jabbed.
There is no data on the overall vaccination coverage of AFL players, but North Melbourne announced their rate was 92 per cent last month.
The AFL on Friday wrote to clubs informing them about their obligations under the new authorised worker mandate.
The opening Grand Slam of 2022 is due to take place in Melbourne from 17-30 January.