Thousands of tennis fans descended on Melbourne Park to watch stars including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams kick off the Australian Open on Monday, after a three-week postponement and high drama over the quarantine of players.
Spectators came out in force on an unusually overcast and chilly summer morning, relishing in the fact that they are some of the few people on the planet able to attend live sports during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is only mandatory to wear a mask indoors at the event, but many milling around outside were also seen with face coverings.
Many sporting events around the world have been forced to either postpone or suspend competitions due to the virus and enact strict limits on attendance or ban fans altogether.
The Australian Open organizers expect up to 400,000 fans to attend the tournament this year in a socially distanced manner, around half the number that were at last year’s competition.
“It’s quite phenomenal it’s actually happening” said Australia’s Pat Cash, a two-time runner-up in the Australian Open men’s singles, who now coaches China’s Qiang Wang.
The presence of fans at Melbourne Park wouldn’t have been possible if Australia hadn’t brought its local coronavirus epidemic under control in 2020 with strict public health measures. Australia’s government quickly closed its borders in March at the start of the pandemic, banning non-residents from entering the country, and put in place mandatory hotel quarantine of 14 days for incoming travelers.
From July, most people returning to the country had to pay for their quarantine – at a cost of around 3,000 Australian dollars ($2,300) each or 5,000 Australian dollars ($3,800) for couples.
When Melbourne, where the Open is being held, had a coronavirus outbreak in mid-2020, Victoria’s government put the entire state into mandatory lockdown for almost four months, one of the longest measures of its kind in the world.
Australia combined its contact tracing with widespread, free testing. The country now has one of the lowest test positivity rates in the world, with 0.2% of samples testing positive in the past week, according to the Australian health department.
While other Western nations including the United States and United Kingdom have reported tens of thousands of new infections every day in recent months, Australia has gone weeks at a time without a single locally-transmitted coronavirus case. However, a quarantine hotel worker in Melbourne tested positive for the virus Sunday, Victoria State’s Health Department said in a statement. The individual worked at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport, but the department did not indicate whether the quarantine hotel was connected to any of the Australian Open players or staff.
Australia has seen fewer than 29,000 cases of Covid-19 and 909 virus-related deaths, according to the country’s health department.
Experts says that Australia’s success in containing the pandemic is partly a product of its geography – an island nation that can easily close its borders – but also the result of strong government action that was followed by most citizens.
Brendan Crabb, director and CEO of the Burnet Institute medical research group, said Australia has a population that’s more receptive to following health advice than other countries, partly due to a long history of publicly funded health care. While Americans in a number of states protested stay-at-home orders as a breach of their civil liberties, Australians by-and-large followed the advice of the authorities.
Crabb said that while he originally wouldn’t have supported holding the Australian Open in the middle of the pandemic, it was possible that the event could now be a “signal to the world” of what was possible when you achieve close to zero coronavirus infections.
“This is huge, I don’t mean for Australia, I mean for the philosophy of Covid zero. This is a very sound way to live, it’s sound for health, it’s sound for your economy and it’s also sound to limit the number of mutant viruses (developing),” he said.
“So you’ve got this showcase event demonstrating to the world how valuable Covid zero is. I think it’s mind blowing it’s potential.”
Photos of packed stands at an exhibition match in Adelaide on January 29, where tennis stars including Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played, provoked joy online from lovers of the sport.
“It makes my heart full seeing fans in the stands. Well done Australia!” former world No.1 men’s player Andy Roddick said on his Twitter account.
But despite Melbourne’s success in containing the pandemic the organizers of the Australian Open 2021 aren’t taking any chances – and the event has narrowly managed to avoid disaster on a couple of occasions.
Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia, described his team’s efforts to put on the event as “Herculean.”
“We had to bring in 1,000 people from over 100 countries around the world on 17 charter flights from different cities into Melbourne, and quarantine that number of people for 14 days and then every single day, the athletes, enabling them to get outside of the room for five hours,” he said.
Tiley said that to assist in contact tracing, the Melbourne Park site would be divided into three sections, meaning that in the event that a coronavirus case is detected it will be easier to know who has been in which area.
All event tickets are digital and no cash payments are accepted – all designed to reduce the risk of transmission.
There have been a few close calls. In January, as players were beginning to arrive in Australia, several people linked to the Open tested positive for the virus while in quarantine. The initial plan had been to allow players in quarantine five hours a day to practice. However, as a result of the positive tests, 72 players were told they were unable to leave their rooms for the full 14 days.
The news provoked outrage among some competitors, who complained that if they’d known about the tough restrictions they may not have come.
“The players certainly felt unsettled,” said Cash, the tennis coach. “It’s not a normal preparation, probably far from what they would normally like to have.”
Australian authorities, however, were unapologetic.
“That was the condition on which they came,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said at the time. “So there’s no special treatment here … because the virus doesn’t treat you specially so neither do we.”
Then, with just days to go before the start of the tournament, a security guard in one of Melbourne’s quarantine hotels tested positive for the virus – forcing his close contacts back into isolation until they were cleared of infection.
That included more than 500 Australian Open players and staff, all of whom tested negative on Friday, allowing the tournament to continue as planned.
Tiley that it was the role of his organization to make sure that the health protocols are very clear and that everyone adheres to them.
“One thing we know about the pandemic is the uncertainty. And you never know what’s around the corner,” he said.