On the Australian Open, Sports activities Flirts With Normalcy
MELBOURNE, Australia – “It’s so nice to see people.”
This was Naomi Osaka, the three-time Grand Slam champion, shortly after her victory in the first round at the Australian Open on Monday afternoon. She was standing by a microphone in the square in the Rod Laver Arena, looking up at a crowd that seemed so similar, if not normal.
So it was on Monday across Melbourne Park, where international sport returned, if only temporarily, to something before most people knew the difference between a coronavirus and seasonal flu or used the phrase “social distancing” third Sentence.
The spectators lined up for tickets. Waiting in security lines, they figured out if they wanted to eat burgers or stuffed pitas or fish and chips and decided how many $ 13 beers they could put up with. Despite light gray skies, a stiff breeze, and temperatures in the low 60s, some sat on the grass or on couches. The fancier people were hanging out at the restaurant with a champagne sponsor.
This could only be done safely now, as the Grand Slam tennis season begins in a country where Covid-19 has arguably been better controlled than anywhere else thanks to months of forced lockdowns, closed borders, thorough testing and contact tracing. Only 909 people in Australia of more than 25 million people have died from Covid-19. The country has recorded an average of half a dozen cases a day for the past two weeks, almost all of them international arrivals.
Photographers lined the show courts with the stars and generated a clatter of clicks at selected moments. A video cameraman wandered across the stands and captured fans who wanted to dance and wave on the stadium screens. Music played and a stadium MC encouraged them to act silly during the breaks.
And then there was the roar that has been missing since the games were brought back to life in largely empty stadiums, especially when a winner or perfectly played volleyball came off the racket of an Australian player or one of the stars. There were many in the seats on Monday – both Williams sisters, Osaka, Novak Djokovic and local favorite Nick Kyrgios.
The smaller the venue, the bigger the roar, like on Court 3, a cozy jewel box court where John Millman from Australia played in front of half the crowd of around 1,500 fans.
“This is one of the greatest motivations we have, the source from which we draw our energy, strength and motivation,” said Djokovic, number 1 in the world, in anticipation of the loud welcome he would receive from Rod Laver on the pitch that he was on has won this championship eight times. “Especially at my age and in my career, I want to get that energy out of the crowd.”
Players had to endure varying numbers of quarantines for two weeks after arriving, and 72 of them had to stay in their hotel rooms for 14 days after 10 people tested positive on three charter flights upon arrival. Then they were released, and after a week of preparation, Monday delivered its payout.
“Definitely nice to have some people, a lot of people out there,” said Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam champion, after tearing Laura Siegemund from Germany 6-1, 6-1.
With an attendance of 30,000 a day, about half that would show up in normal times, Day 1 at Melbourne Park was a long way from the summer festival this tournament is supposed to be. Only 17,922 fans came, and many tickets went unsold for a number of reasons – weather, a new schedule that pushed the tournament back three weeks, Australian kids who were no longer on summer break, got anger from tennis players, tournament officials and international media members special exemptions for entry into the country and brought new cases of Covid-19.
The participating fans will notice differences to previous tournaments.
There were QR codes on each gate which were expected to register their seats in order to allow contact tracing if someone tests positive in their section.
There were many masks and rules where and when they were must be worn. Local regulations require that they be used indoors. However, this does not apply to indoor stadiums, unless the retractable roofs are closed. The corridors between the outer shell and the seat shell are considered to be interior space, so masks must be worn there unless a spectator eats or drinks in this area.
The workers had drawn large circles on the grassy hills for viewers to watch the action on large screens to determine where each group of fans who got together should sit.
Ryan Knight, who lives and comes a 40-minute drive away I tried every year to get used to all of the open space.
It was just after noon and Knight was enjoying burgers and fries with his mother Louise and partner Danielle Locke in a picnic area where he had a choice of tables.
When the organizers confirmed the tournament was taking place in December, Knight knew he would not miss the opportunity.
“You can’t live your life in a box,” he said.
How long it will take before everyone who has previously participated in large events like this thinks and acts like the knights is unclear. The players hope it won’t be long.
“A crowd that has that kind of noise, someone behind them can really turn things on for someone,” said Milos Raonic of Canada, who defeated Federico Coria of Argentina in straight sets on Monday.
Even the usual harassment was easier to bear. In the second set of their game, Venus Williams was forced to step back from serving as a mother stepped out of the arena to comfort her excited baby.
Williams was later asked if she appreciated the normality of the crowd more after not seeing fans in so long.
“Yeah, I definitely had to live without it before I could appreciate it, which is often the case in life for us humans,” she said. “I am grateful now.”
Karen Crouse contributed to the coverage.