(Sports Focus) From groundbreaking to ghost town: Australian Open loses spectators

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SYDNEY, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) — From Saturday the Australian Open (AO) became a spectator-free event, after host state Victoria implemented a five-day lockdown to curb rising COVID-19 cases in the community.

Matches continued to be played as scheduled, however, the groundbreaking decision to allow spectators to attend was temporarily put on hold, disappointing thousands of fans, players, and staff at Melbourne Park.

The new rules took effect from day six of the AO, which as the first Saturday is generally one of the busiest. However, this year the spectator gates were silent, as were the stadiums, outdoor seating areas, and vast range of food, beverage, and merchandise stores within.

Giving crowds a “last hurrah” on Friday night was controversial Aussie fan-favorite Nick Kyrgios who forced world No. 3 Dominic Thiem into a five-set blockbuster in front of a mostly full 10,500 seat John Cain Arena.

Kyrgios told Xinhua in a post-match interview that playing without an audience was a completely different experience and that the atmosphere fans bring to matches would be sorely missed by players.

“The sport is not the same without the crowd. For me, these matches felt full. The stadium was awesome, the energy was awesome,” Kyrgios said.

“But that’s just the way it is. We can’t complain. We’re blessed to just be playing at the moment.”

Later in the evening in a bizarre turn of events, a contest between world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and American Taylor Fritz was stopped mid-match while fans were ejected from the stadium half an hour before the lockdown came into effect at midnight local time.

“Definitely one of the strangest matches that I was ever part of,” Djokovic said afterward. “Obviously the crowd leaving the stadium midway through the match (is) something I have not experienced before.”

Since the AO kicked off on Monday, crowds have been allowed into Melbourne Park at around 50 percent capacity, or roughly 30,000 people per day.

Thanks to Australia’s successful containment of the virus, most services both within the tournament and beyond were able to function as close to normal, albeit with measures such as mandatory face masks and health tracking apps.

Players expressed how happy they were to be able to perform in front of fans again, and the atmosphere that crowds bring to matches, particularly in the larger arenas.

Throughout 2020 most major tournaments were played in front of empty stadiums, making this year’s AO a refreshing change.

“It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here. It’s been really cool,” 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams said.

Addressing the five-day lockdown, Williams said, “it’s going to be a rough few days for, I think, everyone. But, you know what, at the end of the day we have to do what’s best. Hopefully, it will be all right.”

Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley explained that players will compete in a bubble, traveling between their hotels and the event, and will still be able to train and prepare as normal.

“The players have all been very good about it. They understand. They have been through a rigorous program already, 14 days, 15 days, some 18 days of quarantining, testing every day.”

Tiley explained that the temporary barring of spectators was one of five contingency plans organizers had in place to deal with the lingering pandemic.

“We had to have a series of contingency plans in place, all the way from the cancellation of the event to what we’ve been experiencing,” Tiley said.

“All along in this process, we’ve said that the number one priority was going to be the safety of the community, the health of the community, as well as all of our guests, the thousands of guests from around the world.”

While most Australians were happy to see the event go ahead, actual attendance numbers over the first five days were even lower than what was allowed, with many in Melbourne still wary of the unpredictable virus.

Late last year the city endured one of the most prolonged lockdowns in the world, lasting several months, after which a second wave of community transmissions was effectively contained.

This time officials are hoping to avoid a third wave by curbing people’s movements before the virus has time to spread, and anticipate they will be able to lift the new restrictions at the end of the five-day period.

That would allow crowds to return to the Australian Open in time for the men’s and women’s semifinals, as well as the all-important finals weekend.

Until then, with nowhere else to go, people in Melbourne will no doubt be tuning into the tennis from home as they wait to see the fate of their city and of its pinnacle sporting event. Enditem

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