Sat. Feb 27th, 2021

Justin Bergman, associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Inside a vacant Rod Laver Arena, a photographer’s camera fluttering suddenly seemed like everyone was too distracted before a player was served.

Other commonly heard sounds are also not felt: the creaking of electronic sunshades, the bitterness of ball children shoes, in a state of change.

Spectacular rallies were welcomed with a lone clap of coaches and physios. The cry of the new electronic line-calling system suddenly felt unnecessarily loud and unpleasant.

The Australian Open was crowded on Saturday due to a five-day hard lockdown imposed by the state government to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 cases. And with the lack of fans, the players were confronted with an all-too-familiar feeling: a distinct lack of discussion.

The first five days of the tournament felt completely different – such as a return to pre-pandemic Grand Slam tennis. For the first time in a year large crowds were allowed, and although attendance was down well from previous years, it did not seem to matter. The grounds felt alive.

John Caine was far more outspoken than Arena during local favorite Nick Kyrgios’ third-round match against Dominic Thiem on Friday night. A raucous crowd may have had one of the last matches with fans in the tournament – they roared for the winners of Kyrgios, groaned with each mistake they had made, and lopped the backs of their chairs unilaterally.

There were some less crowded moments, as well. Rafael Nadal was cornered by a woman who screamed and waved his middle finger as the 20-time major winner, ready to serve in his second-round victory over Michael Mamoh. He said that maybe she was too much gin or tequila, she laughed.

The outbreak of COVID-19 linked to Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system stopped the atmosphere of the festival. The Australian Open was allowed to continue during the lockdown – but without fans.

Fifth seed Elina Svitolina described a dramatic shift from playing in front of the crowd, who was suddenly confronted with the empty arena again as “upset” and “in some ways tragic”.

“I tried to convince myself that this is a grand slam and we are playing an important match,” he said after the third round win over Yuliya Putintseva on Saturday.

In some ways, the grounds were closed for the winter. Shutters were pulled at all food and beverage stands where fans lined up for a top-up on their beer during Nova Djokovic’s thrilling five-set win over Taylor Fritz, just hours earlier.

A television was left on the promo stand for Rafa Nadal Academy, training young players for the soundtrack of rock music by filling an empty corridor at Rod Laver Arena.

Many doors of the arena were locked and the only people to see were police officers and sweepers.

The whole scene was also made stranger by the fact that another women’s tournament had begun on Saturday for players who lost early at the Australian Open. It was difficult to tell if the Grand Slam event was still happening – and who was playing in it.

Although some tournaments have allowed a limited number of fans compared to the previous year, players are more or less accustomed to playing in front of a silent stand.

However this does not make it easy. McKenzie McDonald said that he and his third-round rival, Lloyd Harris, were both confused by a strange beeping sound they played on Court 3.

“It was really people scanning the badges at the front gates for people who were working in the tournament,” he said.

There is very little rush in the way of encouragement. Moving into the second set, Harris kept a steady stream of dialogue with the only person in the stand doing what he could – his coach, Anthony Harris (no relation). It didn’t seem to help – Harris lost in straight sets.

Svitolina said that without the crowds, there are definitely some “fewer moments that can penetrate the mind.”

“When you’re down, I think you feel like you’re almost alone here.” “People give you energy, they are supporting you, they are trying to get you back into the match.”

Playing once again in front of an arrogant house crowd, Kyrgios realized how much he loves this aspect of the game and hinted that he might not play the full schedule this year if he is not a fan.

He struggled without a crowd in the warm-up tournament before the Australian Open.

“It was hard to chat with myself and look around and nobody was trying to produce big tennis against a good player,” he said. “I think the game is entertainment at the end of the day, and I want to be able to play in front of a whole crowd around the world.”

And nothing can change the excitement of playing in front of fans at Rod Laver Arena. After being scheduled in the small courts for her first two matches, Karolina Muchova got a chance on Saturday against her Czech country woman player Karolina Pliskova.

“I was really happy yesterday morning that I’m finally going to play in a big court and there’s going to be a crowd there,” he said after beating Pliskova.

Muchova did not wish her to, but she may have another chance. Fans can return after a snap lockdown in five days. Therefore, all she needs to do is keep winning.

AP tennis writer Howard Fendrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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