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Australian Open gets underway with tennis fans courtside, as sporting world adjusts to Covid

Spectators are told to bring face masks, but only have to wear them if stadium roofs close because of poor weather.
Image: Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova in action during her first round match against Belgium's Greet Minnen, Australian Open, Melbourne Park,
Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova in action during her first round match against Belgium's Greet Minnen, at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Monday.Asanka Brendon Ratnayake / Reuters

MELBOURNE — Safety took center court on the first day of the Australian Open Monday, as host city Melbourne served up a Covid-19-conscious Grand Slam event despite the pandemic.

Thousands of spectators watched stars including women’s tennis legend Serena Williams and men’s No. 1 seed Novak Djokavic — both of whom won their first round games in straight sets — at a time when fans are still banned from sports events in much of the world.

To attend, tennis fans must clear checkpoints and complete a health declaration on the tournament’s smartphone app. Spectators are told to bring masks, but only have to wear them if stadium roofs close because of poor weather.

Emily Huang, a 28-year-old Melbourne pharmacist, came to watch Djokavic on Monday night.

“It definitely does feel like a celebration. We’re so lucky to be able to go and do this. I don’t know how many places in the world would be able to host the Open right now, safely,” she said.

The tournament’s organizers have divided the sprawling Melbourne Park complex into three zones to enhance safety and facilitate contact tracing in the event of a positive Covid-19 case. Hand sanitizer stations are dotted across the grounds, including one by the statue of Aussie tennis legend Rod Laver, near the stadium that bears his name.

It’s quite a turnaround for a country that last year had some of the strictest pandemic measures in the world. Melbourne is the biggest city in the state of Victoria, which last Aug. 2 declared a state of emergency after a rise in cases. Police and the military monitored strictly controlled checkpoints.

Covid-19 safety measures in place at the Rod Laver Arena at the 2021 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Monday.Sara Butcher

To take part in the Open, almost 50 players had to quarantine in a hotel — to the dismay of some. Almost all travelers to Australia have to quarantine for 14 days, although workers in some industries are exempt. Such tough measures have seen Australia keep its Covid-19 death toll to 909, equivalent to 35 per million people, compared with 1,405 per million in the United States.

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley told local news outlets Monday that such measures make the Australian Open “one of the safest places” in this city of nearly 5 million people.

But not everyone is convinced.

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“We are in a global pandemic and I think it’s a bit of an issue that they are allowing the tennis to go ahead,” said 47-year-old Apsara Sabaratnam of Melbourne, a university worker.

She pointed to the almost 40,000 Aussies who remain stuck overseas and have applied to the government to come home, unable to book a flight.

Just days ago, a hotel quarantine worker tested positive for what proved to be the highly contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus. Local health officials put hundreds of local workers and more than 500 tennis players and staff back into isolation for testing, frustrating players who’d just finished quarantine and hit the courts.

Medical staff wearing PPE in Melbourne, Australia, in July 2020.Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images file

Others fear opening the border to those from Covid-19 hotspots might prompt another infection wave Down Under.

Melbourne virtually extinguished Covid-19 with a strict lockdown, but it took an economic and emotional toll. Locals celebrate “donut days” of zero Covid-19 deaths and zero cases of community transmission. Health officials say it will be another week before they know for certain if Victoria state has dodged another virus breakout.

The state’s chief health officer said Monday that he was getting a Covid-19 test and isolating at home after not feeling well.

Mississippi-born Melbourne resident Ollie Brock says he understood that some held concerns, but said that holding the event was the right call.

“At some point you’ve got to take a swing at it … stick your toe in the water,” the 54-year-old medical photographer said. “I think they’ve done as good a job as they could.”

The Grand Stand Oval during day one of the 2021 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Monday.Mackenzie Sweetnam / Getty Images

Brock has tickets to several matches, including the highly anticipated women’s semi-finals. A strong field of women includes top seed and Australian Ashleigh Barty, defending champ Sofia Kenin, and 2019 Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka. Brock hopes Serena Williams will make history and tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

Whether the Australian Open will make history as a Covid-19-safe Grand Slam will be decided over the next two weeks.