MELBOURNE: Fans of Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov cheer him on against Australia’s Alex Bolt during their men’s singles match on day three of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne yesterday. – AFP

MELBOURNE: The usual Australian Open experience, with tens of thousands of excited fans streaming into Melbourne Park, is just a memory this year as the coronavirus puts a dampener on the tennis season’s opening Grand Slam. Normally the complex on the banks of the Yarra River is abuzz for the ‘Happy Slam’, which is known for its relaxed atmosphere, perfect weather and ever-growing numbers of spectators.

But after months of effort and negotiations to get the Australian Open up and running in Melbourne, which is fiercely protective of its virtually virus-free status, the atmosphere so far has been low-key. While 64,387 fans crammed into the grounds on day one last year, only 17,922 turned up this time despite major drawcards such as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic.

Some blamed the lacklustre turnout, which was well below the 30,000 maximum allowed under COVID restrictions, to unusually cool and cloudy weather. But even when the sun came out on day two, the numbers were much the same — although still considerably more than at any other Grand Slam since the pandemic took hold.

Last year, Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II, the US Open was held behind closed doors and only tiny numbers of fans were allowed at the delayed French Open. “I’m just glad it’s on,” said Jane Alexander, who was enjoying the tennis but disappointed at the atmosphere, with throngs of empty blue seats on the outside courts. “I just wish there were more people here.”

Masks and sanitizer
Even diminished crowds are an accomplishment. Helped by aggressive travel restrictions and lockdowns, Australia has virtually eradicated the virus, making it one of the few countries where spectators can attend live sport. But the travel rules have also kept international fans away, and after the tournament was pushed back three weeks to allow for quarantine, it no longer falls in school holidays.

Fans who make the effort are faced with a precinct divided into three separate zones around Rod Laver, Margaret Court and John Cain arenas, curbing the usual free flow of spectators around the precinct. Social distancing measures are in place and sanitizing stations dotted around Melbourne Park. While patrons can go mask-free in the major stadiums if the roof is open, face-coverings must be worn if it is closed.

Garden Square, which has a giant screen and food outlets, is normally teeming with fans, but only a smattering were on-site yesterday, although those there were grateful the event was on at all. “Yeah it’s exciting to be at the Australian Open. We’ve (Melbourne) worked really hard to keep (coronavirus) case numbers down. So it feels like a good reward,” said Melbourne resident Elizabeth Little.

Kristen O’Brien said the tough measures were necessary to keep people safe in a city that only emerged from a four-month lockdown in October. “We don’t want to go back into lockdown so it’s worked out okay,” she said. “We don’t want to lose major events and we need tourism,” she added, of the balancing act faced by organizers and the Victoria state government to ensure the event takes place.

‘Heart full’
Some were even enjoying having a more intimate experience, with Patrick Rehm saying it was like the tournament used to be years ago. “Back in the day, you could actually move around. Lately, it’s been too much. It felt like they were cramming in people to make profits. It wasn’t the same,” he said. “Now for once, you feel relaxed.”

For players, having any fans was a welcome sight after last year’s Wimbledon was cancelled, the US Open took place behind closed doors and spectator numbers were severely restricted at the delayed French Open. “Obviously it’s not a full crowd like I’m used to,” said Williams, after winning her opening match on an eerily quiet Rod Laver Arena. “But just to have any sort of crowd… it’s definitely nice to have some people.”

World number one Novak Djokovic said it made his “heart full” to see people in stadiums again, even if they were not packed, while Naomi Osaka said it “felt normal”. “I haven’t walked around the grounds or anything so I don’t know what it feels like to be a person in the stands like a spectator,” Osaka said. “For me as a player, it felt pretty normal.” – AFP