Sad and disturbing: Aus Open’s haunting silence

 

Elina Svitolina has come through some tough matches so far this tournament but Saturday saw her battle against the toughest challenge yet - silent stadiums.

The Ukrainian beat Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 6-0 to reach the fourth round but could not help but feel the impact of no crowds.

With Melbourne entering stage 4 lockdown at 11:59pm Friday night, Melbourne Park is abandoned on what is traditionally the busiest day of the tournament.

"It was very different conditions," Svitolina said. "I played a night match at 7pm with a good crowd. Now it was completely different. It was for sure a bit disturbing, I would say, in some ways sad.

"But it is what it is. I had to accept. I had to have a good mindset, not thinking too much about that. I just tried to focus on my game.

"People give you energy, they are supporting you, they are trying to get you back into the match. Here,when you are down, it's like almost only one person, yourcoach, your physio is there.

"In this way, that's why I think it's a bit tougher. "

On Friday night, play was suspended at Rod Laver Arena as frustrated fans were ejected midway through a tense fourth set to comply with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

All fans at Melbourne Park were ordered to go home at 11.30pm.

The chair umpire announced the news at Rod Laver Arena during top seed Novak Djokovic's match with American Taylor Fritz, which was delicately placed at 7-6 (7-1) 6-4 3-6 2-3.

"All patrons are required to leave the arena now," the chair umpire said.

"Play will be suspended while the arena is cleared. Out of respect to both players, please do this as quickly as possible. Thank you."

 

The move was met by a sea of "boos" from the crowd, with about 500 people left in the venue when the announcement was made.

Fritz slammed the move as "ridiculous" saying organisers should have made better contingency plans knowing the curfew was in place.

"I mean, to be completely honest, it's absolutely ridiculous that at a Grand Slam match we're asked to leave the court for 10 minutes in the middle of the match," he said.

"I understand the fact that Victoria is going back into lockdown and people have to go. If that's the case, then we shouldn't have played tonight if we weren't going to finish the match on time.

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Fans exit Rod Laver Arena. Picture: Michael Klein
Fans exit Rod Laver Arena. Picture: Michael Klein

 

Players returned to an empty stadium. Picture: Michael Klein
Players returned to an empty stadium. Picture: Michael Klein

"I guess not having fans there did I feel like hurt me because they were kind of pushing for me. But, you know, we still came back and I won the set.

"It's not like it made that big of a deal. I just think it's not really proper conditions to be playing a third round of a slam."

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said the change in atmosphere was noticeable in a split second and said a few attempts had to be made to convince patrons to leave.

"The clock went to 11:30 and it went from an unbelievable atmosphere to complete dead," Tiley said. "Some didn't want to go. It took us seven minutes.

"We first tried with the normal PA system at 11 and that didn't work and you could hear the booing. Just before 11:30 the umpire said that they had to leave the stadium. That was the condition of everyone needing to go into lockdown from 12:00. We started at 11:30 and it takes that long it get everyone out and cabs."

Asked about the impact a lack of crowds will have on the players, Tiley said this was the norm all the stars had endured for 12 months and that he had been well supported by the group.

"They have been playing in this bubble for the last 12 months. (There was) Excitement about coming to Australia for the first time fans in the stadium and they have loved the last five days with so many positive comments.

"When I told the playing group on Zoom call yesterday there was no negative reaction. It was normal for them because they have been doing it all year."

 

FANS WERE TOLD

Pre-match tennis fans were told they must exit Melbourne Park by the deadline to make sure they were home for the start of lockdown.

"We continue to work closely with the Victorian Government to provide a COVIDSafe environment for all fans, players and staff through physical distancing, advance hygiene, contract tracing and digital ticketing," a Tennis Australia text message said.

"The Government have advised that fans can safely enjoy tonight's match-ups from Melbourne Park however, you must ensure you are home before 11:59pm.

"To help facilitate this we will be messaging last call for patrons to exit at 11:30pm."

Crowds leave Melbourne Park. Picture: David Geraghty
Crowds leave Melbourne Park. Picture: David Geraghty

 

Crowds leave Melbourne Park. Picture: David Geraghty
Crowds leave Melbourne Park. Picture: David Geraghty

 

It will be a long wait to get home for these fans. Picture: David Geraghty
It will be a long wait to get home for these fans. Picture: David Geraghty

It means the Australian Open's worst nightmares have officially been realised, with fans shut-out of the tournament and players forced back into a COVID bubble to ensure the first grand slam of the year can be completed.

 

 

 

Organisers expect to take a hefty financial hit following confirmation that fans will be banned from site for the full five days while Victoria is in stage four lockdown, as announced by Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday in response to the growing COVID-19 infections in the state.

 

Australian Open boss Craig Tiley outlined the new restrictions, which will force players back into a tighter lifestyle, whereby they can come to Melbourne Park to play and practice, before being whisked away to their hotels where they'll spend the rest of their days.

It's a tough scenario for players, will internationals having already endured two weeks of quarantine upon arriving in Australia - some doing hard lockdown, unable to leave their hotels to even practice, which prompted outbursts from several stars, including Spain's Paula Badosa and American bad boy Tennys Sandgren, over the harsh treatment.

The tennis can continue with permission from the Victorian Government, because players and staff on site cannot complete their work from home.

"They will function essentially as a workplace. But they will not function as an entertainment event, because there will be no crowds," Andrews said.

"And the workforce will be the minimum that is needed in order for that to be COVID-safe and safe in lots of other contexts."

 

But they'll be doing so in front of empty stands. Tiley confirmed that fans who have purchased tickets for the next five days will be given refunds, leading to a significant financial blow to the tournament.

Fans were allowed inside Melbourne Park for both the day and night sessions on Friday, with state-enforced restrictions not coming into effect until 11.59pm - though Tiley again offered refunds for those who weren't comfortable attending.

Since the first case of the Holiday Inn cluster, which now since grown to 13 positive tests, Tiley and his team have worked tirelessly to ensure the Open continues without pause - and on Friday he insisted there was no consideration given to halting the tournament.

 

"Play will continue. The players will compete in a bubble form," he said.

"Those who will be allowed on site will be the players only and their support teams, as well as staff members who will be unable to do their work from home.

"The players have all been very good about it. They understand. They have been through a rigorous program already.

"I imagine most of them (the players) will spend all their time here. One thing they cannot do is go around the city, they won't be able to do that, but that's expected in the next five days, all of us will be adhering to that.

"The most important thing is the safety of everyone. We're going to have to work through it. We've got an event to deliver. The team have done a good job handling these challenges."

Players were briefed in a 90-minute session on Friday afternoon, with Tiley revealing that the only concerns raised related to whether they would be able to fly out of Melbourne once their tournament was ended.

 

 

 

 

"One thing the players have asked for is when they have lost, to have the comfort and be assured they will be able to fly home.

"The feedback we've had from all the players is they just want to get on and play. They've been playing in a bubble for a year now."

Serena Williams, who advanced to the third round with a straight sets win over Russia's Anastasia Potapova, was unaware of the firestorm that was brewing during her match.

"I didn't know (about lockdown) at all until the match was over. it will be a rough few days for everyone and we will hopefully get through," Williams said.

"It's not ideal (not having crowd) it's been fun having them here but at the end of the day we have to do what's best and hopefully it will be all right."

Originally published as Sad and disturbing: Aus Open's haunting silence

Fans exit Rod Laver Arena. Picture: Michael Klein
Fans exit Rod Laver Arena. Picture: Michael Klein
Fans exit Rod Laver Arena. Picture: Michael Klein
Fans exit Rod Laver Arena. Picture: Michael Klein

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