As excitement builds, it has been announced that the Australian Open will be allowed to admit up to 30,000 fans a day, around 50% of its usual attendance, when the first Grand Slam of the year finally gets underway on 8 February.
There have been a lot of questions about a fair playing field - some players have had to quarantine, some have not. We've given nine days when coming out of quarantine to when they'll really need to be playing. It's not going to be perfectly ideal, but it's enough time to be as ready as you possibly can be. No different to inclement weather or someone being a bit sick and having to take a few days off. Craig Tiley, Australian Open Tournament Director
The limit will be reduced to 25,000 over the last 5 days of the tournament when there are fewer matches will 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,” Victoria state sports minister Martin Pakula said on Saturday.
“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.”
More than 1,000 people, players and their entourages, were obliged to undergo 14 days of quarantine on their arrival in Australia ahead of AO21 and most were allowed out of their rooms for up to 5 hours a day for training and gym work, but 72 players remained in strict lockdown after fellow passengers on their charter flights to Australia tested positive for the virus.
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 came 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 5 active COVID-19 cases connected to the tennis, one of them a player.
Spain’s Paula Badosa, the World No 67, who was the only player to announce she had tested positive in Melbourne, has another few days of quarantine to complete.
Tiley insists the AO will be fair for all players despite differing preparations for the year’s first major.
Melbourne Park was buzzing on Saturday with all but 22 players out of hotel quarantine and readying themselves for the lead-in tournaments, which get underway on Sunday.
The last batch, including Japanese star Kei Nishikori and French World No 28 Benoit Paire, were allowed to exit their hotels at 11.59pm on Saturday.
Tiley added that the players in hard lockdown had been given ‘priority’ with their schedules and access to training facilities, while all players have at least 9 days between quarantine and the start of the AO.
“There have been a lot of questions about a fair playing field – some players have had to quarantine, some have not,” Mr Tiley told reporters on Saturday. “We’ve given nine days when coming out of quarantine to when they’ll really need to be playing.
“It’s not going to be perfectly ideal, but it’s enough time to be as ready as you possibly can be.
“No different to inclement weather or someone being a bit sick and having to take a few days off.”
Two WTA tournaments, the Yarra Valley Classic and the Grippsland Trophy, kick off official proceedings on Sunday, with both events being held concurrently at Melbourne Park alongside two ATP 250 events that start on Monday.
World No 1 Ash Barty is set to headline a field of more than 250 players competing for $2.37 million in prize money across three WTA 500 and two ATP 250 tournaments, the biggest ever lead-in week to the AO.
The tournaments have been named to showcase six key regions of Victoria to promote the re-invigoration of the state following the challenges of 2020, due to both the devastating bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Gippsland Trophy and Yarra Valley Classic women’s WTA 500 events begin on Sunday, with the Grampians Trophy commences on Wednesday, designed to give more preparation time for the players in hard quarantine.
On the men’s side, two ATP 250 tournaments, the Great Ocean Road Open and Murray River Open, kick off on Monday.
The Phillip Island Trophy, a WTA 250 tournament, will take place during the second week of the Australian Open.
“There’s no doubt this will be an historic week of tennis and is the biggest-ever AO lead-in week we have seen in Australia. It’s an exciting prospect for fans both onsite and watching around the world,” Tennis Australia Head of Major Events Cameron Pearson said.
“While we know the circumstances are unique this year, it is a huge coup to secure such strong playing fields.
“I hope fans, whether onsite or watching at home, will embrace what will be a high-quality week of events.”
Players will compete for trophies inspired by iconic Australian animals and designed and crafted by local Indigenous artists.
Barty faces tough competition in the Yarra Valley Classic from 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams (USA), World No 4 and 2020 AO Champion Sofia Kenin (USA), World No 6 Karolina Pliskova (CZE) and Petra Kvitova (CZE).
The Gippsland Trophy will be headlined by World No 2 Simona Halep (ROU), World No 3 Naomi Osaka (JPN) and World No 5 Elina Svitolina (UKR).
The Grampians Trophy, created for WTA players impacted by the hard quarantine includes former AO champions Victoria Azarenka (BLR) and Angelique Kerber (GER) along with World No 8 Bianca Andreescu (CAN) and World No 12 Belinda Bencic (SUI).
The ATP Cup will be played alongside the Melbourne Summer Series at the Rod Laver Arena Zone and John Cain Arena Zone from 2-6 February at Melbourne Park.
Britain’s Francesca Jones, who qualified for her first AO, will play last year’s French Open semi-finalist Nadia Podoroska in the Yarra Valley Classic, while Johanna Konta and Katie Boulter have been drawn in the Gippsland Trophy draw.
Konta has a first-round bye, while Boulter plays Russian Anna Kalinskaya.
Heather Watson, who has been in hard quarantine, will play in the Grampians Trophy on Wednesday.