Roar of tennis crowd silenced by Covid once again

·3-min read

Tennis's first sizeable crowds since the pandemic have been a welcome sight -- and sound -- at the Australian Open, but Melbourne's arenas will fall silent once again when fans are barred during a coronavirus lockdown from Saturday.

The Australian Open is the first Covid-era Grand Slam to welcome large numbers of fans after last year's Wimbledon was cancelled, the US Open took place behind closed doors and the French Open was limited to 1,000 spectators a day.

Players expressed their joy at the return of crowds in Australia, which is virtually virus-free due to aggressive containment measures, making it one of the countries where fans can attend live sports.

Thousands of spectators have roared on Australia's Nick Kyrgios at his favoured John Cain Arena, a heartening reminder of the thrill of sport in the days before Covid emptied stadiums around the world.

However, Melbourne Park's venues, including the 15,000-capacity Rod Laver Arena, will be empty for five days from Saturday after authorities ordered a snap lockdown across Victoria state.

"It's rough. It's going to be a rough few days for everyone," said 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams.

"It's not ideal -- it's been really fun now with the crowd back. But at the end of the day we have to do what's best.

"Hopefully we'll be all right."

Victoria state's six million residents were ordered into lockdown after a cluster of the highly contagious UK variant emerged at an airport hotel.

Melbourne, the state capital and Australia's second-biggest city, only emerged from a four-month lockdown in October, since when it has been virtually virus free.

- 'We have to be positive' -

Some players grumbled at their 14-day mandatory quarantine after arriving in Australia -- not ideal preparation for the rigours of a Grand Slam tennis tournament.

But they have since been able to visit shops and restaurants, rare freedoms during the pandemic that will now be curbed again as they retreat to a biosecure "bubble".

Most of all, players have soaked up the energy from the fans after playing in front of empty stands last year.

"It's always wonderful when you have the crowd. You always take everything in, take the most out of this situation," said Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov.

"Hopefully after those days, things can come back to the normality, the same way we've had the past weeks."

Fans in Melbourne, now familiar with lockdowns, were philosophical about the five-day curb as they took the chance to enjoy live tennis on Friday.

"It's very disappointing we get to miss the tennis but we did get a bit of it today," spectator Glenn Schwinghamer told AFP.

"So we have to be positive. We have to be grateful for what we have."

Another fan, Dennis Wright, said: "It's sad no one will get to see if for the next five days. So hopefully some people will be back for the finals."

Fans should be allowed back after the snap lockdown ends next week. And for some players, "bubble" life -- seeing only the hotel and the tournament venue -- is not much different from normal.

"I've been doing that for 20 years, so... I think I've been pretty much quarantining for my whole career," said Williams.