The Australian Open show did go on, but has it been worth it?

This article is more than 2 months old
Emma Kemp

The players have done their best, but 2021’s first slam will be remembered not for what was there, but for what was missing

Melbourne did host its annual grand slam, and the world did not believe it.
Melbourne did host its annual grand slam, and the world did not believe it. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock
Melbourne did host its annual grand slam, and the world did not believe it. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Last modified on Sat 20 Feb 2021 01.06 EST

On the eve of the Australian Open, Craig Tiley was a man of resolve. “Covid, in the next 12 to 18 months, will kill off events like we knew them before, they won’t exist,” the tournament boss said the day before play began. “This event, because it survived the Covid onslaught, will be looked at as a shining light that continues to grow.”

In reality, this grand slam is probably more one part beacon and one part small reading lamp. For Melbourne did host its annual grand slam and, to paraphrase Tiley’s words, the world did not believe it. But that disbelief was not always born from wonder and appreciation, even if it has reached its conclusion with some spectators in their seats.

Tennis and government officials will attribute this relieved scamper across the finish line to the success of what they called the strictest tennis protocols in the world. The more cynical will venture that they took a punt and got a little bit lucky, then unlucky, then lucky again, and ended up somewhere between adequacy and mediocrity.

Some two weeks later, Tiley admits it will take years to recover from the financial hit incurred by such a monstrous logistical operation to retain the crown jewel in the country’s sporting calendar. He estimates a loss of more than $100m.

That has been spent on running the tournament with limited crowds, which became none for five days in line with Victoria’s lockdown. Tennis Australia has also absorbed massive expenditure for transport and stringent quarantine measures for more than 1,000 people for the two weeks leading up the event.

The federation has exhausted its cash reserves of $80m and will need a loan of $40m-$60m, while relying on the tournament’s future success just to break even. At least, Tiley reasons, “Australia’s now got a playbook that we can share with the rest of the world”.

“We’ve made Melburnians, Victorians and Australians proud that no one in the pandemic has brought in this many international stars from that many hotspots around the world and played an international sporting event for $86m, and in front of crowds.”

The comments carried about as much weight as the New South Wales health minister suggesting cricket fans should be allowed to attend the SCG Test between Australia and India, in the middle of a Sydney outbreak, to help their mental health.

That sentiment of pride may not have travelled down to the Yarra river and its surrounds where local businesses and livelihoods, already under significant strain, survived at the behest of this gamble with a virus that does not adhere to rules and regulations.

There was a sneaking suspicion this might be the case in January when the contamination of charter flights left about 500 players and staff in a 14-day lockdown. The fallout was akin to a Nick Kyrgios five-setter; an emotional rollercoaster.

Nick Kyrgios during his third-round defeat by Dominic Thiem in Melbourne.
Nick Kyrgios during his third-round defeat by Dominic Thiem in Melbourne. Photograph: Hamish Blair/AP

As mattresses, walls and double-glazed windows were repurposed for training in confinement, tweets were typed in anger and confusion. Yulia Putintseva, ensconced in a hotel room containing oxygen, posted quarantine selfies holding signs that read, “We need fresh air to breathe”.

The public – particularly those living in Melbourne who had endured a bleak 111-day lockdown – condemned what they perceived as gross player entitlement. Many players, truth be told, quietly went about their business despite their disadvantage while rivals in Adelaide enjoyed an easier run. An extra women’s warm-up tournament was scheduled. Of the 51 singles players who endured those two weeks of quarantine only one made it past the third round in Jennifer Brady, who will play Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s women’s final.

Other citizens fulminated against the hypocrisy of officials for leaving Australians stuck overseas on the grounds of health and safety while rolling out the welcome mat for more than 1,200 international visitors from countries in the throes of noxious outbreaks.

The justification for pushing ahead was a desire to stop another country, specifically in Asia, from turning the Australian Open into the China Open, the Japan Open or the Singapore Open. “The real risk then,” the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said at the time, “is it doesn’t come back.” Melbourne Park is contracted to host the Australian Open until 2039.

While the unfolding farce did offer some of the most intriguing pre-Open subplots, it also eroded the goodwill and anticipation allied to this event for more than a century. In its place was a foreboding sense that this might not have been such a good idea after all.

Those fears were only compounded when a Melbourne quarantine hotel worker tested positive, ending the state’s 28-day streak of no community transmission. Andrews said there was no reason to panic. The opposition leader warned, “We can’t afford to roll the dice” on a tournament that was, like much else in life, poured through the political colander and turned into a partisan issue.

Still, even as some ticket holders asked for refunds, the show went on. After all, up to 30,000 spectators were allowed into Melbourne Park each day. Half-capacity is 50% better than none at all, and 100% more than permitted at Flushing Meadows for the US Open.

The players did their best to provide sporting narrative under strain and monotony. It took three days before Kyrgios got the party started in an epic five-set win over Ugo Humbert. It was another two days before fans were shut out altogether amid a fresh lockdown.

Even then, the big names remained. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played ball between spurts of artificial broadcast crowd noise. Serena Williams defied her years in raptures and then in tears, and Aslan Karatsev and Hsieh Su-wei flagrantly disregarded their low rankings. The Kyrgios v Djokovic feud bubbled along nicely, but the latter later said he thought the Covid regulations had contributed to a spike in injuries.

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For locals, Ash Barty’s shock quarter-final exit may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, ensuring a 43rd consecutive year without an Australian champion.

But that was merely a distraction. The crowds are back in time for the finals, but the room had not been read from the start, and the 2021 Open will be remembered not for what was there, but for what was missing. A flicker in the dark, perhaps, but no shining light.

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