(Sports focus) Australian Open back on song as spectators return

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MELBOURNE, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) — The Australian Open swung back to life on Thursday as spectators returned after a five day COVID-imposed lockdown affecting the entire state of Victoria.

No community transmissions were attributed to the event; however, a breach at an unrelated hotel quarantine facility last week meant authorities weren’t taking any chances.

While matches continued throughout the lockdown, the absence of crowds created a hollow atmosphere, incomparable to the buzz inside the stadiums on Thursday.

Returning fans told Xinhua they were relieved to see the competition open up again for the final four days of play, and to be able to witness the action in person.

Michael and Rachel are a Chinese couple who now reside in Melbourne. They said initially they were crushed when the day they planned to attend was canceled due to the lockdown.

“Because of the lockdown, the ticket we bought for the 15th (Monday) was refunded. It’s a pity. But I also understand that,” Michael said.

“After they announced that spectators will return to the Australian Open, we booked tickets online for the very first session. We still wanted to soak up the atmosphere.”

Howard and Terry Duchene from the Australian city of Adelaide traveled to Melbourne especially for the event, and despite also losing a day of live tennis to the lockdown, were in high spirits and enjoying their remaining time.

“We were lucky because we were able to come to the first two days. And then when they canceled it, it was kind of disappointing, but we just watched it on television,” Terry said.

“Five days didn’t really faze us much,” Howard added. “It’s a beautiful sunny day, the crowd is smaller today but still vibrant and it’s great to be here.”

With stadiums functioning at half capacity, there was plenty of room for people to social distance, and mandatory masks as well as hand sanitising stations and health app tracking helped ease any virus concerns.

As Howard said, “it feels as safe here as anywhere and on balance it’s worth being here.”

Steve Martin has been coming to the Australian Open for over 20 years and had held tickets for Thursday’s session since they went on sale last October.

“It was a nervous wait to find out whether the lockdown would be lifted in time,” Martin said.

Since he has been coming to the Open, Martin said the event has grown from consisting mostly of diehard tennis fans to also including more casual fans and those simply looking for a good time.

“You can feel a change in the audience since I’ve been coming. In the old days it was very old school, just tennis fans. But now it’s become much more of a widespread event that everybody kind of turns up to,” Martin said.

For a seasoned attendee such as Martin, the smaller crowds at this year’s event came with distinct advantages.

“We were saying we prefer it with fewer crowds because it’s actually more enjoyable when there’s fewer people to queue up for everything,” he said.

Even those with little interest in tennis who have never attended the Australian Open in person were pleased to see the event proving successful amid COVID-19.

Melbourne resident Jeremy Meyn told Xinhua that even though he had only a passing interest in tennis, he was proud to see his city host such a world-renowned event, particularly in the midst of the pandemic.

“I’m happy that Melbourne hosts this event and I wouldn’t want to see it moved,” Meyn said. “For someone who barely watches any tennis, I will find myself watching some Australian Open every now and then just because it’s hosted here in Melbourne.”

Meyn said the event got off to a nervous start, with some athletes voicing issues with the quarantine process. This raised eyebrows among many in Melbourne as a hark back to the quarantine breach which sparked a four-month lockdown of the city late last year.

However, as time moved on, the sense behind Australia’s low-tolerance handling of the pandemic became clear.

“I guess in the countries the people were coming from, some of them might have thousands of cases a day but still be allowed to do normal things,” Meyn said. “But here in Victoria if there’s a couple of cases we’ll go into lockdown and I think some of the athletes didn’t really understand that properly or didn’t realise what it was like here in Melbourne.”

Thanks to crowds being allowed back in, Michael and Rachel were able to record a personal milestone on Thursday: attending their first ever Australian Open, which they would also like to bring their children to one day when they are old enough.

For Michael, the persistence of all involved with the Open and the people of Melbourne is a great sign of the recovery from the pandemic both in Australia and around the world.

“Tennis can reflect a kind of fighting spirit, We should persist even if we are behind. Even if we failed, we have tried our best. Just like life,” Michael said. Enditem

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