Australian Open players are adjusting to contesting matches without crowds, as the tournament continues amid Victoria’s snap five-day coronavirus lockdown.
- Spectators are not allowed to attend the Australian Open during Victoria’s lockdown
- Elina Svitolina says it was a “completely different” atmosphere playing without crowds on Saturday
- Taylor Fritz slammed the decision to send spectators home early on Friday night
The Victorian Government announced the state would enter a “short, sharp circuit-breaker” lockdown on Friday to respond to fears the highly infectious UK strain of coronavirus had spread in the community.
Australian Open organisers were given the green light to proceed with the season-opening major, but no spectators will be allowed at Melbourne Park for the duration of the lockdown.
The first Saturday of the Australian Open is traditionally among the most popular days in terms of crowd numbers.
Melbourne Park’s Garden Square is normally bustling with spectators, but on Saturday it was deserted, creating an eerily quiet atmosphere.
Reduced crowd numbers, as part of the Australian Open’s COVID-safe plans, were already in place before the lockdown was announced, and the presence of spectators was widely appreciated by the players.
But the first day with no crowds on Saturday meant there was a vastly different atmosphere for players.
“I played a night match … with a good crowd,” Elina Svitolina said.
The fifth-seeded Svitolina, who beat Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 6-0 on Margaret Court Arena, said the absence of spectators made the third-round encounter feel like a practice match.
“It feels like that,” she said.
“I actually had few thoughts about it today. It feels like this. I tried to convince myself that it’s a grand slam tournament and that we are playing an important match.”
Svitolina did not play the US Open last year when the tournament was played without crowds at Flushing Meadows in New York.
She admitted to feeling lonely on court at times during Saturday’s match against Putintseva.
“When you are down, I think you feel like you’re almost alone here,” Svitolina said.
“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, your coach, your physio is there. In this way, that’s why I think it’s a bit tougher.”
Rod Laver Arena has the largest crowd capacity of Melbourne Park’s courts, with seating for almost 15,000 spectators.
But the empty stadium provided for an odd backdrop during Karolina Muchova’s upset 7-5, 7-5 victory over fellow Czech and sixth seed, Karolína Plíšková.
The Victorian lockdown meant spectators at Melbourne Park during Friday night’s session had to leave in time to make it home by 11:59pm.
This created a farcical scene during Novak Djokovic’s third-round match against Taylor Fritz on Rod Laver Arena.
Chair umpire John Blom paused play at 11:30pm and asked spectators to leave the venue, while the players briefly left the court.
Djokovic, who was forced to come from behind to beat the 31st-ranked Fritz 7-6 (7/1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, described it as “one of the strangest” matches he had played.
Fritz, speaking to the media in the early hours of Saturday morning, slammed tournament organisers, saying they should not have held the match if they knew spectators would have to leave before it finished.
“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.
“That shouldn’t be a thing at a grand slam [tournament]. 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.”