Australian Open crowds were sent home during Novak Djokovic’s match as Melbourne began a snap five-day lockdown.
At 11.30pm local time fans were asked to leave Rod Laver Arena – where Djokovic was locked in a fourth set with Taylor Fritz – after the Victoria government had earlier announced a lockdown from midnight.
Players had savoured the atmosphere of a crowd in the preceding hours before Melbourne Park closed its doors until at least Thursday.
The sight of unmasked spectators and the sound of raucous cheers at the Grand Slam this week has been a glorious reminder of the best parts of live sport at a time when empty stadiums and piped fan noise on TV are the norm.
But it was always a fragile privilege.
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said a “short, sharp circuit breaker” was needed to combat an outbreak of the UK strain of coronavirus.
People must stay at home, schools are closed and gatherings are banned, although the tennis is allowed to carry on behind closed doors.
Fans made the most of the fact they could still watch the action on Friday, cheering on Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, and getting behind home hope Nick Kyrgios when he lost in a five-set thriller to Dominic Thiem in the evening session.
Kyrgios and Thiem faced a race against the clock to get their match finished in front of a crowd, finishing with 50 minutes to spare, while Djokovic had the bizarre situation of suddenly being in a near-empty stadium.
Fans will be missed, having once again played a big part in spurring on Kyrgios to a two-set lead before he succumbed to US Open champion Thiem.
“It’s rough. It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone. But we’ll hopefully get through it,” 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams said.
“It’s not ideal. It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here. It’s been really cool,” she added. “But, you know what, at the end of the day we have to do what’s best. Hopefully it will be all right.”
Three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka urged fans on John Cain Arena to give her a rendition of local chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!”, telling them: “Thanks for coming out, it’s so great to play in front you.”
Former world number three Grigor Dimitrov added: “I mean, clearly it’s unexpected. [But we are] still being very fortunate to be able to play a Grand Slam tournament in the middle of a pandemic.”
The players will enter a biosecure ‘bubble’ from Saturday morning similar to ones they have experienced at tournaments for much of the pandemic, whereby they are not allowed to leave their hotels or the tournament grounds.
“They’ve been doing this all year,” Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said.
“The last five days have been a unique experience for them and the next five will be back to what they know.”
Before this outbreak – involving 13 cases stemming from a quarantine worker at a Melbourne hotel – Victoria had not had a local infection for 28 days and the state had largely eliminated the virus.
Last year, in Australia’s winter, Melbourne locals endured one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns to overcome a second wave that led to more than 90% of Australia’s 29,000 cases and 909 deaths.
Preparations for the Grand Slam had been mired in controversy, with locals concerned about the influx of so many international players during a global pandemic, and complaints from some players about strict quarantine measures.
The build-up last week was disrupted when a worker at one of the tennis quarantine hotels tested positive, with warm-up events paused and players having to be tested. And the Australian Open itself is being held three weeks later than usual so that players could quarantine for 14 days.
Up to 30,000 fans have been allowed in each day – around 50% of the usual attendance – although the actual numbers attending have fallen well short of that with 22,299 coming through the gates on Thursday.