Australian Open 2021: Fans empty stadiums once again but not before highlighting they're essential to tennis
Beyond the record attendances, the finances of the tournaments, it is real people spurring real athletes on to places they wouldn't think existed.
"The sport is not the same without the crowd. For me, these matches felt full because, I mean, like the stadium was awesome, energy was awesome."
No one has been able to get the most out of the crowd at the ongoing Australian Open than Nick Kyrgios. First, he came from two match points down to beat Ugo Humbert, and on Day 5 he almost caused an upset by taking out No 3 seed Dominic Thiem. The crowd was central to the comeback on Wednesday and the surge on Friday.
"I definitely enjoyed the crowd. The crowd was awesome tonight. That court is so special. I have had so many good memories of it. The crowd was awesome. Half packed and it felt like it was a full stadium. I got goosebumps towards the end," he said after the match against Humbert.
How pumped are Nick Kyrgios and the Aussie crowd as he breaks Dominic Thiem in the very first game?
️ Australian Open pic.twitter.com/YXZ57oF4xT
— The Field (@thefield_in) February 12, 2021
On Friday, he didn't hesitate in acknowledging the crowd carried him on. "Atmospheres like that are special and not many people get to play like that. I embrace it every time I'm out there. Like, I'm down a break in the fifth set and the crowd's going nuts, I'm smiling, I'm enjoying it. I'm to the point of my career where if I lose, man, I'll just cup it on the chin," the Aussie would say of playing in the evening session on John Cain Arena.
With crowds at the exhibition event in Adelaide and the Australian Open in Melbourne, things were looking up for tennis. All the sacrifices that the Australians had made, the strict laws implemented (and followed) coupled with meticulous planning by the organisers were paying dividends. After long, the crowd sat side by side, without masks, and enjoyed the tennis in Adelaide.
Assurances needed to be given last week over the staging of the Australian Open as a worker in one of the quarantine hotels tested COVID-19 positive. Tournament director Craig Tiley clarified the tournament was going on as scheduled even as day's play was suspended across the warmup events.
On Monday, the tennis began, the crowds walked in and it seemed to be going great. There was a limit of 30,000 fans allowed at Melbourne Park and the numbers were growing steadily. 17922, 17381, 19900, 21010, and 22299 on each day respectively and the confidence was growing. As was the decibel level. As was the energy level. As was the hilarity level.
A lady in the crowd flipped Rafael Nadal off, swore at him, and was eventually chucked out of Rod Laver Arena in unbelievable scenes. Her hindrance aside, that's the character that fans bring in and it needs to be embraced - in both the good times and the bad.
A fan has been BOOTED from the match for unsavoury language and flipping the bird to Rafael Nadal!
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) February 11, 2021
"I think that's a real bonus for us to be able to have that connection with the fans, to be able to share these moments with them as well," said Ashleigh Barty on the return of fans.
"This is the start of something greater in the future. This is a sign that things are going to be okay again and everything will return back to normal. It's a great move. It's a move full of hope, full of aspiration. It's a reminder that things are better, greater when people are around and we can all enjoy it all together as a union," said fifth seed and 2019 semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas on the hope provided by the return of fans.
The crowd, as always, has been stellar at the Australian Open. Not just on Friday but Thursday as Thanasi Kokkinakis, another Aussie, took Tsitsipas to a five setter. "There were a few times where the crowd erupted and I couldn't help but have a smile on my face, having that energy. You have to lap it up and take it in," said Kokkinakis after the loss.
On Day 1, the crowd spurred two youngsters on as Denis Shapovalov beat Jannik Sinner in five gruelling sets. On Wednesday it pushed 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka to come from two sets down to almost defeat Marton Fucsovics. Later in the day, the fans were left gobsmacked with Simona Halep winning five straight games - from the brink - to beat Aussie Alja Tomljanovic. And remained respectful as Venus Williams, 40-years-old, struggled with a twisted ankle and knee trouble.
And then, on Friday, it all came crashing down.
Day 5 began with an early announcement of Victoria going into a five-day lockdown due to a growing COVID-19 cluster in the outer suburbs. For the Australian Open, that meant no fans for at least five days, players going into a COVID-19 bubble, and fans being asked to leave the stadiums by 11.30 PM to abide by the 11.59 PM restrictions.
“This morning (the announcement) was just another sledgehammer blow,” said Adrian Mannarino. “It’s getting hard. We’ve been talking about mental health recently, and a lot of players are on edge,” he added.
— (@Tsitsifam) February 12, 2021
Matches were wrapped up on all but one court as the clock ticked half past 11. Novak Djokovic and Taylor Fritz were in the fourth set and messages to leave the venue were being made over the PA system and on the large screen. With fans unwilling to give up on watching a match on a knife's edge, play was stopped and players walked off the court. People were then forced to vacate the stadium amid loud boos and chants of "I want a refund."
Fritz, who would go on to lose 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, questioned the move. "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."
"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."
Naomi Osaka, who progressed to the fourth round with a win over Ons Jabeur, triumphed at the US Open last year in front of an empty stadium. She provided the mood from a player's perspective. "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."
"With the announcements today about the lockdown, it just felt like the last hurrah," Kyrgios said.
If this is the last we see of the crowds at Melbourne Park, it just emphasises the importance of fans to the sport. Beyond the record attendances, the finances of the tournaments, it is real people spurring real athletes on to places they wouldn't think existed. And for the next five days, at least, everyone would be devoid of it.
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"I'm not the guy that's going to find excuses on that or going to complain about what happened, no. Just accept. I never considered myself an unlucky person at all," Rafael Nadal said after his ouster.
"I wasn't thinking about a lot of things," said Tsitsipas. "How would I describe myself? Nirvana. Just was there... playing, not thinking."
After beating qualifier Aslan Karatsev, Djokovic, showing no ill-effects from an abdomen injury sustained in the third round, said, "This is the best I've felt in the entire tournament. I could swing through the ball. No pain. The best match so far."