Tennis Grand Slam Opens to Australian Crowds With Covid Rules
General view in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Feb. 8. (Photographer: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Tennis Grand Slam Opens to Australian Crowds With Covid Rules

With the U.S. and Europe still roiled by infections or lockdowns, Australia is showing the world that a major international sporting event can be held with spectators thanks to its success in all but containing the coronavirus.

As many as 30,000 fans will be allowed to descend upon Melbourne Park on Monday where women’s world No. 3 Naomi Osaka will take to center court on day one of the Australian Open. Mandatory mask-wearing indoors for fans, digital instead of paper tickets, and social distancing are among measures to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.

The journey to the first Grand Slam tournament of the year has been fraught with challenges, from compulsory 14-day stays in hotel quarantine for all 1,200 members of the international tennis entourage, and grumbles from players about sub-optimal training conditions.

But Tennis Australia Chief Executive Craig Tiley is optimistic the event will be a hit and health precautions will be sufficient.

“We’ve had players tested 14, 15 and 16 times,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television on Monday. “So I think that the safety of the site is going to be assured, and our objective is to provide a great experience for our fans.”

The pandemic has smashed sporting fixtures around the world, with events such as Wimbledon canceled or, like the U.S. Open, played to empty stadiums. Melbourne’s other major international sporting drawcard, the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, has been delayed to November from March.

Virus Response

Australia has largely suppressed community transmission of Covid-19 through rigorous testing and contact tracing and by shuttering the international border -- with all returned overseas travelers made to isolate for 14 days in quarantine hotels. The system has been pivotal to Australia’s success in curbing the virus -- but has also proved to be a chink in its armor, with several instances of the virus escaping into the community via cleaners or security guards at such facilities.

The city of Melbourne, which is hosting the Australian Open, was the epicenter of Australia’s largest virus outbreak last year and saw its 5 million residents thrust into lockdown for 112 days -- one of the longest and toughest in the world.

Some residents are still on edge and avoiding this year’s tournament.

“The uncertainty due to Covid has taken the fun out of buying tickets and going this year,” said Melbourne resident James Hayes.

Another local, Ned Cheston, plans to attend next week, but said he is “monitoring the news every day and hoping the Covid-19 situation doesn’t deteriorate.”

Event organizers are used to dealing with challenges. Last year, toxic smoke drifting into the city from wildfires raised serious questions about the health impact on players. And then there’s the soaring temperatures of the Southern Hemisphere summer that can impact play.

Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University in Melbourne, said a strong public health response, including rigorous contact tracing, had helped contain the risk to the wider community.

“It has been hard work to get here, but the very low background risk of exposure to safe enough levels to offer a tournament that includes spectators is the prize for the effort,” Bennett said. “There is never zero risk, but this is as close as you can get currently.”

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