MELBOURNE: The Australian Open tennis tournament will proceed without crowds over the next five days, organisers said, after the state of Victoria was placed under a snap lockdown from Friday (Feb 12) to contain a fresh outbreak of COVID-19.
"Australian Open sessions today and tonight will continue as planned with COVID-19 safe protocols in place," organisers said in a statement.
"We are notifying ticket holders, players and staff that there will be no fans onsite at the AO for five days, commencing from Saturday Feb 13."
Victoria state's six million residents were ordered into lockdown after a cluster of the highly contagious UK variant emerged at an airport hotel.
Melbourne, the state capital and Australia's second-biggest city, only emerged from a four-month lockdown in October, since when it has been virtually virus free.
"It's rough. It's going to be a rough few days for everyone," said 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams.
"It's not ideal - it's been really fun now with the crowd back. But at the end of the day we have to do what's best.
"Hopefully we'll be all right."
PLAYERS, FANS STAYING POSITIVE
As the first tennis tournament with sizeable crowds since the pandemic, the Australian Open has been a welcome sight and sound.
It is the first COVID-19-era Grand Slam to welcome large numbers of fans after last year's Wimbledon was cancelled, the US Open took place behind closed doors and the French Open was limited to 1,000 spectators a day.
Players expressed their joy at the return of crowds in Australia, which is virtually virus-free due to aggressive containment measures, making it one of the countries where fans can attend live sports.
Thousands of spectators have roared on Australia's Nick Kyrgios at his favoured John Cain Arena, a heartening reminder of the thrill of sport in the days before Covid emptied stadiums around the world.
Some players grumbled at their 14-day mandatory quarantine after arriving in Australia - not ideal preparation for the rigours of a Grand Slam tennis tournament. But they have since been able to visit shops and restaurants, rare freedoms during the pandemic that will now be curbed again as they retreat to a biosecure "bubble".
Most of all, players have soaked up the energy from the fans after playing in front of empty stands last year.
"It's always wonderful when you have the crowd. You always take everything in, take the most out of this situation," said Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov.
"Hopefully after those days, things can come back to the normality, the same way we've had the past weeks."
Fans in Melbourne, now familiar with lockdowns, were philosophical about the five-day curb as they took the chance to enjoy live tennis on Friday.
"It's very disappointing we get to miss the tennis but we did get a bit of it today," spectator Glenn Schwinghamer told AFP.
"So we have to be positive. We have to be grateful for what we have."
Another fan, Dennis Wright, said: "It's sad no one will get to see it for the next five days. So hopefully some people will be back for the finals."
Fans should be allowed back after the snap lockdown ends next week. And for some players, "bubble" life - seeing only the hotel and the tournament venue - is not much different from normal.
"I've been doing that for 20 years, so ... I think I've been pretty much quarantining for my whole career," said Williams.