Australian Open runs out of audience due to COVID-19

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Inside an empty Rod Laver Arena, the sound of a photographer’s camera seemed like a major distraction before a player served.

Other sounds that generally go unnoticed were also amplified: the screeching of electronic umbrellas shifting position in gears, the tapping of ball boy shoes.

Incredible comebacks were celebrated by applause from a coach and a doctor. The cries of a new system suddenly felt unnecessarily loud and annoying.

Crowds were unable to attend Australian Open matches on Saturday as the state government imposed a five-day lockdown to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases. And with the fans absent, the players faced a very familiar feeling: a particular lack of bustle.

The first five days of the tournament felt completely different, like a return to pre-pandemic Grand Slam tennis. Sizable crowds were allowed for the first time in a year, and although attendance was much lower than in years past, it didn’t seem to matter. The compound felt alive.

Nowhere was it more apparent than at John Cain Arena during hometown favorite Nick Kyrgios’ third-round match against Dominic Thiem on Friday night. A raucous crowd made the most of what could be one of the last fan games of the tournament – roaring for Kyrgios’ winning shots, yelling with each of their mistakes and slamming the backs of their chairs in unison.

There were also some less decorous moments with the audience. Rafael Nadal was booed by a woman who yelled at him and showed him the middle finger as the 20-time major winner prepared to serve in his second-round win against Michael Mmoh. He laughed, saying that maybe she had “too much gin or tequila.”

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The COVID-19 outbreak linked to Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system crippled this festive atmosphere. The Australian Open was allowed to continue during lockdown, but without an audience.

Fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina described the drastic change from playing in front of crowds to suddenly playing in empty stadiums as “unsettling” and “sad in some way.”

Australia’s Alex de Miñaur (right) plays Italy’s Fabio Fognini during their Australian Open third-round match on Saturday, February 13, 2021, in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo / Hamish Blair)Hamish Blair / AP

“I tried to convince myself that it is a Grand Slam and that we are playing an important match,” he commented after his victory in the third round against Yulia Putintseva.

In a way, the enclosures felt like they were closed for winter. The blinds at all the food and beverage stalls were closed, and just hours earlier fans had lined up to refill their beers during Novak Djokovic’s thrilling victory over Taylor Fritz in five sets.

Many doors to the arena were locked and the only people in sight were police and cleaning personnel, all of whom were wearing masks.

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Associated Press journalist Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.

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