Rather than gripe about the penal-style treatment in the run-up to the Feb. 8-21 Australian Open as some players have, Cuevas, 35, has transformed his four walls into a virtual ecosystem replete with everything a touring pro could want — practice court, tanning beach, roaring surf and dance floor.
In posting his daily exercises and antics for a growing Instagram following (@pablocuevas86), Cuevas is single-handedly putting the “happy” back in what has long been known as the sport’s Happy Slam.
On Day 4 of “Cuarentena,” as he labeled a recent post, Cuevas went “surfing,” hopping aboard his spare twin bed in swim trunks and scooting it around the room on its wheeled base by gyrating his hips and flapping his arms while making sounds of a roaring surf.
Other days, he played with a giant stability ball and “sunbathed” in his room’s windowsill wearing only a hotel towel, sunscreen and eyeshades.
On Day 6 he welcomed fans to his dance party, Corona in one hand, as music blared from his laptop and the word “PARTY” and a strobe-light effect flickered on the video. And it wasn’t even noon yet.
In between, Cuevas gets in his hitting sessions, blasting shot after shot at a sound-muffling backboard — his spare mattress turned on one end and set against a wall.
It’s a tactic that other quarantined pros are employing, too.
Denis Shapovalov, the 12th-ranked Canadian, has adorned his hotel-room floor with orange cones and lines to keep his footwork and groundstrokes sharp.
Though Cuevas is winning new fans with his irrepressible spirit, former touring pro and coach Brad Gilbert sees a method to his mirth.
“First and foremost, you can’t be bitter,” said Gilbert, now an ESPN tennis analyst. “That will mentally crush you. It’s about trying to stay sane, figuring out how to make do, how to hit some balls. But more than anything, it’s all about the positive attitude.”
Tennis managed to stage two Grand Slams amid the pandemic in 2020: After Wimbledon was canceled, the U.S. Open was held without spectators and the French Open was delayed five months before being staged before a limited crowd. But the 2021 Australian Open is proving a herculean logistical challenge.
Australia has been largely successful in managing the pandemic because of strict regulations dictated by national and local governments, including mandatory mask-wearing and extended lockdowns. Nonetheless, the country tightly restricts travel from overseas, deeming the public-health risk extremely high.
But the Australian Open occupies a special spot on the sports-mad country’s calendar, representing two weeks of revelry at the height of summer. So with painstaking attention to detail, government officials developed strict, nonnegotiable protocols to allow players and limited entourages to take part.
All had to arrive via tournament-arranged, direct charter flights from either Los Angeles; Doha, Qatar; or Abu Dhabi and be tested immediately upon landing.
Anyone aboard a flight on which someone tested positive is required to serve a 14-day “hard quarantine,” which means they can’t leave their hotel room, not even to wander down the hall. That’s the category Cuevas fell into. He shared on Twitter the official notice he received, which began:
“Unfortunately we have been informed by the health authorities that two people on your flight QR7493 from LAX that arrived at 5:15 a.m. on Friday 15 January have returned positive Covid-19 PCR tests on arrival in Melbourne.
“The Chief Health Officer has reviewed the flight and has determined that everyone on board needs to isolate and will be confined to their rooms for the 14 days quarantine period.
“We know this is not how you imagined your preparations for the AO would start but our entire team is here to support you and will do everything that we can to get you through this.”
Those who arrived on flights without a positive test also must quarantine for 14 days but are allowed five hours outside each day to practice.
The different circumstances, with so much at stake in the first Grand Slam of the 2020 season, have spawned resentment and outright anger among some players. Others are chafing at the superior accommodations of higher-ranked players such as world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who were flown to Adelaide (rather than Melbourne), where they’re ensconced in a boutique hotel with their own balcony.
Gilbert believes that such griping isn’t just pointless; it’s self-defeating: “Yes, you’re in a tougher situation than you normally are. It’s easy to say: ‘This isn’t fair. These guys are getting out there to practice today, and they’re getting ahead of me,” or, ‘He’s got this, and she’s got that.’ But that won’t help you.”
No doubt, being stuck in a hotel room for two weeks in the run-up to a Grand Slam represents a competitive disadvantage. It’s just a matter of losing timing, conditioning and stamina. It’s also something as basic as going 14 days without fresh air and not getting a chance to acclimatize to Melbourne’s summer heat for those coming from the Northern Hemisphere.
The solution, Gilbert believes, starts with following Cuevas’s example of staying positive.
It’s equally important for player and coach to map out a plan — not just the two-week quarantine to alleviate boredom, but also for the roughly seven days between players’ release and the Feb. 8 start of the Australian Open.
As the calendar now stands, Melbourne will host two pre-Slam tuneup events starting Jan. 31. As eager as quarantined players might be to start playing matches, Gilbert doubts it’s wise for those who have been confined to hotel rooms 24/7.
Human bodies aren’t built like Porsches, engineered to go from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Trying to play matches after two weeks of indoor drills, however rigorous the drills, runs the risk of injury or, failing that, a blow to a player’s confidence.
“Mentally, you have to be able to be strong,” Gilbert said. “It’s so easy to go down that path of being bitter. And once you do that, you’re not going to make it.”