Australian Open third-round comebacks take back seat to new COVID lockdowns

The scene at John Cain Arena was electric until the final moments Friday night. As the clock counted down on fans’ final seconds of freedom before a mandatory minimum five-day lockdown, as well as on Nick Kyrgios’ run in the 2021 Australian Open, those in attendance only grew louder with every point.

There were “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chants and “Come on, Nick!” yells that turned increasingly into pleas, as fans waved Australian flags and sipped beer in plastic cups. After Dominic Thiem rallied back from two sets down to defeat Australia’s favorite son in a highly engaging thriller, he signed autographs and posed for selfies with those courtside. It was easy to forget, briefly anyway, the world was in the midst of a pandemic.

Kyrgios later called it “the last hurrah.”

The Victorian Premier had announced a five-day lockdown amid an outbreak of positive cases at the quarantine hotel near the Melbourne airport. A massive contact tracing effort was underway. Athletes were deemed “essential workers” and would be able to continue play, but no spectators would be permitted effective at midnight.

“It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here. It’s been really cool. But, you know what, at the end of the day we have to do what’s best,” Serena Williams said after winning her third-round match over Anastasia Potapova in the second match of the day on Rod Laver Arena. “Hopefully it will be alright.”

Less than an hour after Thiem’s victory, the grounds at Melbourne Park couldn’t have looked more different. As an injured Novak Djokovic struggled with American Taylor Fritz at Rod Laver in the last remaining match of the day, spectators were told in the fourth set they would have to leave immediately and play would be suspended as they exited the arena.

While it wasn’t a surprise, as there had been frequent reminders over the loudspeakers and on video boards, the announcement was met with a smattering of boos and a handful of stragglers who simply didn’t want to leave yet.

But after nine minutes, they were gone and only Djokovic, Fritz, tournament officials and a handful of entourage members remained. The 15,000-seat stadium was eerily quiet and appeared desolate in the images shot from above. Fans made their way to their homes before the Victorian government-mandated midnight curfew, and for them and all those watching around the globe, it was back to our new reality after a year full of empty sporting venues. The return to normalcy had been fleeting.

Djokovic, the world No. 1 and eight-time Australian Open champion, could barely walk without grimacing after apparently tearing a muscle in the third set, but battled with everything he had to hold off Fritz, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2. After the final point, he released a scream that echoed around the vacant stadium.

It was a gutsy comeback win from one of the sport’s greatest players, fit for a sold-out crowd to shower him in adoration. Instead, it was witnessed mostly on television screens. He was unable to carry his bags off the court due to the pain and later said he was unsure if he would be able to continue playing in the tournament.

It was a disappointing, if not fitting, end to one of the strangest days for the sport in recent memory.

After undergoing intense 14-day quarantines upon arrival, many in complete isolation, players had been buoyed by the opportunity to eat at restaurants and enjoy all Melbourne had to offer. But now, like everyone else in the area, they are allowed only at their place of work and at their hotel — much like they had been at the US Open and the French Open in the fall.

Players, who had been asked all week about what it was like to play in front of fans again after nearly a year, were suddenly being asked Friday what it would be like to be without them again. The disappointment was palpable.

“It’s rough,” Williams said. “It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone. But we’ll hopefully get through it.”

Australia has been heralded for its containment of the coronavirus. Recording just 909 deaths, it stands in a stark contrast to many other countries, including the United States, in which the virus continues to run rampant. But it hasn’t come without sacrifice.

For those in Victoria in particular, it has involved months of strict lockdowns that mandated where citizens could go and when, which is why Tennis Australia and the local and national government believed the Australian Open could be held safely, despite severe international travel restrictions.

The 22,299 in attendance on Friday — the biggest crowd all week — seemed to soak in every minute they had with the full knowledge of what was to come. Throughout the day, fans were spotted in large numbers lounging in sunny Garden Square and sampling the concessions.

Spectators will be allowed to return on Thursday at the earliest — if at all. The lockdown is scheduled to end Wednesday evening but could be extended if the situation has not improved. Tournament director Craig Tiley was optimistic that fans would be back in the stands for the quarterfinals and beyond.

Rafael Nadal, Ashleigh Barty, Daniil Medvedev and Elina Svitolina are among the big names set to play on Saturday in the third round. While the matches will continue to provide the same high-quality tennis, despite the lack of crowd, it will undoubtedly be a different experience for the tournament and, sadly, a familiar site to tennis fans. But several players, including reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka, were quick to put the lockdown in perspective.

“The thing is, we’re guests here, so whatever works for the safety of everyone,” Osaka said. “I know there were quite a few people that weren’t really happy with us being here in the first place, so I think we’re all just really happy to be playing anyways, and for me, I’ve played New York without fans, and it went really well for me.

“I’m sad, but I know what the priority is.”

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