The Australian Open is known as the “Happy Slam” for its convivial atmosphere but the coronavirus has cast dark clouds over this year’s build-up and could cause more chaos during the next fortnight.
The on-court focus is familiar: Novak Djokovic is going for a record-extending ninth title and Serena Williams will attempt to match Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24 Grand Slam singles trophies when the action starts tomorrow.
But in other respects it will be an Australian Open like no other, with attendances reduced by half and social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and sanitising stations around Melbourne Park.
Even diminished crowds will be a welcome sight for Grand Slam tennis fans, 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.
Aggressive travel restrictions and lockdowns have made Australia virtually virus-free, allowing it to be one of the few countries around the world where fans can attend live sporting events.
However, officials will be wary of further problems from Covid-19, which ruined the tournament’s run-up and caused grumbling from players and Melbourne residents alike.
The year’s first Grand Slam is starting three weeks late, which has allowed players to complete Australia’s 14-day quarantine and take part in a hectic week of warm-up tournaments at Melbourne Park.
Preparations were thrown into fresh chaos on Wednesday, when a coronavirus case — the city’s first locally acquired infection in 28 days — forced a suspension of play as hundreds of players and officials were tested. All results came back negative.
Tournament director Craig Tiley, who has faced complaints from players over quarantine, and public anger over the Covid risk of flying in competitors and officials from abroad, said he was prepared to order a further halt if necessary.
“If we have to go through this again, we’ll go through this again,” he warned.
The helter-skelter lead-in took another twist when today’s final of the WTA Grampians Trophy, one of six warm-up tournaments this week at Melbourne Park, was cancelled due to lack of time.