Not since World War II ended in 1945 has sports experienced a disruption like Covid-19. Every major athletic expo last year was canceled or postponed, none larger than the games in Tokyo.
Tennis in 2020 was affected. Wimbledon, which began in 1877, got deleted from the calendar; that hasn’t happened since WWII. The US Open pushed through but, given its location in pandemic-stricken New York City, no fans watched. The French Open proceeded, allowing entry to 1,000 fans per day; the only normalcy in Paris was Rafael Nadal’s 13th victory.
Melbourne, Australia. This is the site of the year’s first Grand Slam drama. Usually held in January, it was pushed back three weeks and started last Monday.
What’s remarkable about the Oz Open is this: as many as 30,000 fans are allowed to watch each day.
Last year, the 14-day event was attended by a total of 820,000 spectators. This 2021, organizers are selling tickets that would allow up to 50 percent capacity; this will grow to 75% in the final week.
This is remarkable. I can’t think of another mega-event (sports or otherwise) that allows these many people. And it’s not like Australia is reckless and is inviting a surge in Covid-19 cases. They’re strict.
Here’s the backstory: With a population of 25 million, Australia has reported a total of only 28,857 cases and 909 deaths. Examine those Covid-19 numbers for a minute. They’re miniscule. By comparison, the Philippines has over 540,000 cases and 11,231 deaths. (Region 7 has logged 31,450 cases and 1,494 deaths — more than Australia.)
Melbourne has endured one of the world’s toughest lockdowns lasting nearly four months. As a whole, Australia’s Covid-19 management is one of the planet’s best.
For the Australian Open, they chartered 17 planes to fly players, coaches, umpires and officials. As a result of their draconian Covid-19 measures, the mantra of Australia is: “We’re back to normal.”
I chatted with my good friend Jonel Borromeo about this last week when we ran together. Jonel, who calls Sydney his second home, told me that Australia is so normal that they barely stopped face-to-face classes during the pandemic.
With tennis, the players are delighted.
“I’m just really happy to see people in the stands,” said Naomi Osaka, the 2019 champ. “It was a bit lonely in New York.”
Novak Djokovic added: “In Europe, it’s going to be I think far more challenging to experience something that we are experiencing here. We might as well enjoy it as much as we can.”
We hope that this Australian experiment — thousands of fans, most seen on TV not wearing masks — will be a success. But one thing is certain: The sound of the fans hollering and the sight of them clapping is the best music and sight to the players.
“Compared to what we were playing (in front of) last year, which is zero, this is huge,” said Venus Williams. “I am not complaining. It’s exciting. I think every single person there was probably in awe to be sitting at a sporting event, as much as I was to have them there.”