With quarantine over for almost all of the tennis players who have travelled to Melbourne for the Australian Open, the preparations begin in earnest when a packed week of warm-up events gets underway on Sunday.
Serena Williams and Ash Barty headline two WTA tournaments – the Yarra Valley Classic and the Gippsland Trophy – which start on the Melbourne Park courts normally reserved for the Grand Slam.
Tennis Australia have arranged six events before the start of the Australian Open to allow players a chance of some match action after two weeks in quarantine hotels.
Most of the players were able to train for up to five hours per day during their isolation but 72 were confined to their hotel rooms after fellow passengers on their flights to Australia tested positive for COVID-19.
Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley said those players would be given priority treatment over the next few days and he was confident they would be ready to go for the first day of the Australian Open on Feb. 8.
“We’ve given nine days between them coming out of quarantine to when they really need to play at the Australian Open,” he told reporters at Melbourne Park on Saturday.
“While in an athletes’ mind that might not be perfectly ideal, it is enough time to be as ready as you possibly can.”
Fans of men’s tennis will have to wait until Monday to get their first fix of the action when the Murray River Open and Great Ocean Road Open ATP warm-ups will get underway, also at the Grand Slam venue.
The men’s draws at the warm-ups are weaker because top players like Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Dominic Thiem will be representing their countries in the ATP Cup team tournament, which was pushed back until Tuesday to allow the athletes more time to prepare.
Australian Nick Kyrgios leads the field at the Murray River Open after his 11-month absence from action resulted in him missing the ATP Cup because of a rankings slump.
“I feel like I am playing well and am ready to go,” he said on Saturday.
“Everyone is really playing it by ear. Nobody really knows who is in form and who is not. I’m going to take it day-by-day and try to enjoy myself as much as I can.”
The Australian Open will be allowed to admit up to 30,000 fans a day, around 50% of the usual attendance, when the Grand Slam gets underway on Feb. 8, Victoria state sports minister Martin Pakula said on Saturday.
The limit will be reduced to 25,000 over the last five days of the tournament when there are fewer matches, but Pakula said the announcement would ensure some of the biggest crowds for a sporting event since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’ll mean that over the 14 days, we will have up to 390,000 people here at Melbourne Park and that’s about 50% of the average over the last three years,” he told reporters at the venue for the tournament.
“It will not be the same as the last few years but it will be the most significant international event with crowds that the world has seen in many, many months.”
Pakula said the decision was a testament to the job the people of Victoria had done in containing the new coronavirus after enduring one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world.
It has been 24 days since Victoria reported a locally acquired COVID-19 infection, while Australia as a whole posted a 13th straight day without a community case on Saturday.
The Australian government said the country remained on track to start its vaccine rollout from late February despite reports of supply problems in Europe.
More than 1,000 people, players and their entourages, were obliged to undergo 14 days of quarantine on their arrival in Australia ahead of the year’s first Grand Slam.
Most were allowed out of their rooms for up to five hours a day for training and gym work, but 72 players remained in strict lockdown after fellow passengers on their flights to Australia tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Despite gripes from some at the start of quarantine, tournament chief Craig Tiley said he was “particularly proud” of the “playing group”, most of whom will be out of quarantine by the end of Saturday.”I’ve seen a few of them this morning and contrary to what some players said 10 days ago, the majority of them – 99.9% – are absolutely happy to be out and very appreciative of our efforts to protect them,” he said.
Local health authorities said on Saturday they were still managing five active COVID-19 cases connected to the tennis, one of them a player.
Spain’s Paula Badosa, the world number 67, was the only player to announce she had tested positive in Melbourne. She has another few days of quarantine to complete.