Australian Open brings cheer to Melbourne, but lingering fear of coronavirus remains

Memories of harsh lockdowns are still fresh in the mind of Melbourne residents. That's why the thought of 30,000 fans being inside Melbourne Park for Australian Open from Monday still seems surreal.

Rajdeep Puri February 06, 2021 16:07:19 IST
Australian Open brings cheer to Melbourne, but lingering fear of coronavirus remains

File image of spectators watching an 2020 Australian Open match at the Rod Laver Arena. AP Photo

We had almost become accustomed to watching sports without fans and with the noise of fake crowds. However, thanks to Australia’s control over COVID-19 , witnessing almost capacity crowds watching tennis once again has brought about overwhelming joy to sports lovers around the world.

The arrival of the Australian Open has brought about plenty of cheer with things finally going back to normal. However, there is more to this than meets the eye. A case of COVID-19 in a hotel quarantine worker almost threw a wrench in the plans of Tennis Australia. The case led to the Premier of the state of Victoria, Dan Andrews, holding a press conference at 10.30 pm on Wednesday night. A press conference at such an odd hour revived ugly memories of a harsh lockdown for all Melburnians, who endured over 180 days of lockdown in 2020.

Luckily, things turned out to be fine with the government just being cautious as they ensured that all close contacts of the case and the 500 players and support staff of the Australian Open were tested. They all returned negative results. Until they were all tested, the lead-up tournaments to the Australian Open were suspended for an entire day.

Yes, that’s what you can expect to happen if something similar happens during the Australian Open.

“It was a bit of uncertainty,’’ Australian star Nick Kyrgios said to the media on Wednesday night. “I thought Melbourne as a whole did the right thing, postponing it, making sure there was no possible spreading.”

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t even know if I was playing at 2 am (Thursday), to be honest. I had no idea what was going on. Again, it was just about safety of everyone. I’m glad that there were no positive tests. We can just move forward,” he said.

It has been one hell of a ride for Australians, especially Victorians, over the past year. Not one, but two harsh lockdowns took up almost the entire year. Melbourne was locked down for about 2/3rds of 2020, with the second lockdown lasting four months, from late June till October. And it wasn’t easy.

For context, here are some of the rules they had to endure during the lockdown during the second-wave of COVID-19 . Travel was restricted to only 5km outside one’s house, with the only reason to leave being shopping for essential items or essential work. They were allowed to leave our homes for exercise for just one hour, within 5 km of their houses.

Eventually, the harsh rules worked wonders as the virus seems to have been eradicated from the state. The downside of this is that even if there is a single case of community transmission, which there has been on two occasions now, a few of those strict rules are brought back into place.

The memories of this lockdown are still fresh in the mind of Melbourne residents which is why the thought of 30,000 fans being inside Melbourne Park from 8 February still seems surreal.

The Australian Open does come as a breath of fresh air after months of hardship. While players complained about the quarantine they had to endure, residents of Melbourne were praying that the virus does not leak out of the hotels where the players were put up at. While the quarantine rules might have been strict, the government ensured utmost safety for all players and support staff and also ensured that everything goes ahead according to plan.

While fans cannot wait to enjoy the action at Melbourne Park, watching their favourite stars out on the court, a lingering fear continues to creep upon them.

“I cannot wait to go out to Melbourne Park to watch the tournament once again. It’s been a ritual for my family and me to go to the Open every year and enjoy the matches and the atmosphere Melbourne Park has to offer,” said Erin Hallyburton, a fan of the game.

We are a bit worried though that an event of such a large scale with so many fans could potentially lead to another lockdown. After going through two lockdowns last year, we surely don’t want to be in that boat again,” she said.

Social media was of mixed opinions as well. While some were of the opinion that the Australian Open should not have gone ahead, there were a bunch of fans excited for the tennis to be back in Melbourne.

Craig Tilley, the director of Tennis Australia, has ensured that the Australian Open would 100 percent go ahead as planned. However, having been in Australia since the beginning of COVID, the common folk of Melbourne know what would happen even if one player contracts the virus during the tournament. For now, we can definitely expect a lot out of the first Grand Slam of the year.

There are some blockbustre matches scheduled for the first round, including 2018 runner-up Marin Cilic taking on Grigor Dimitrov, and two youngsters Denis Shapovalov and Jannik Sinner taking on each other. All the action begins at Melbourne Park on 8 February.

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