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No crowds, a tricky adjustment for players at Australian Open

Going from cheering crowds to playing in front of no fans was a strange experience for all the players at the Australian Open on Saturday

Australian Open, 2021 AI / REUTERS / PANORAMIC

For Stefanos Tsitsipas, it’s simple.

“It’s all in the head. It’s only mental,” he said.

For others, including Nick Kyrgios, it’s more difficult.

“It would have been tough for me, I think, playing with no crowd, especially next match,” he said. “For me personally I think sports is entertainment at the end of the day, and I want to be able to play in front of full crowds around the world.”

The decision by the Victoria government to call a five-day lockdown due to an outbreak of Coronavirus cases, all related to a quarantine hotel, means that the Australian Open will be played behind closed doors until Wednesday. Then, if all’s well, the tournament hopes to welcome fans back inside the grounds for the final four days.

Most players have become used to performing with no fans over the past year but it’s the switch from the elation of having a crowd to the disappointment of having none, that is taking some adjustment.

“It’s for sure tough just because of the change in atmosphere,” Russia’s Daniil Medvedev said, after his five-set win over Filip Krajinovic of Serbia. “Something that changes in atmosphere during the tournament, it’s not easy. We want to play with the crowd. We’re still going to have this chance if we’re later in the tournament. That’s what I was thinking yesterday, the more I stay in the tournament, the more chances I will have to see the crowd back, to have the chance to go to restaurants again and stuff like this. I had to adapt, had to win my match. That’s the most important. But for sure would prefer to do it with a crowd in Rod Laver.”


Svitolina: “It was a bit disturbing”

Women’s fifth seed Elina Svitolina said it had been a “bit sad” to see the empty stands again.

“I played a night match at 7pm with a good crowd,” she said. “Now it was completely different. It was for sure a bit disturbing, I would say, in some ways sad. But it is what it is. I had to accept. I had to have a good mindset, not thinking too much about that. I just tried to focus on my game.”

Elina Svitolina, Australian Open, 2021

But Svitolina said her mind did wander at times.

“For sure there are some thoughts and there are some low moments that can sneak into the mind,” she said. “It’s what we have to deal with. I’m trying my best to do it. It’s easier and tougher in the same way because when you are down, I think you feel like you’re almost alone here. People give you energy, they are supporting you, they are trying to get you back into the match. Here, when you are down, it’s like almost only one person, your coach, your physio is there. In this way, that’s why I think it’s a bit tougher. But you have to push yourself more in that moment.”

Unflappable Barty

Not much bothers Ash Barty, although it was a new experience for the world No 1, who chose to stay home in Australia last year when the Coronavirus broke out. The former Roland-Garros champion did make a few adjustments, though, and said she found the whole thing “a bit strange”.

“It was something I’ve never experienced before in my life,” she said. “It was very strange. We had a chat about it before to prepare, but I didn’t want it to affect how I went about my business.”

Barty also said she enjoyed hearing the sound of the ball on her strings, something often drowned out by the crowds.

“It changed the sound of the court and the ball,” she said. “It’s maybe a little rude (to say) but I liked the sound. I love the crowd but I liked hearing the sound of the ball.”


Strange sounds on court

American Mackenzie McDonald, into the last 16 after a fine win on Saturday, said he and his opponent Lloyd Harris had a few problems, just because they could hear everything going on around the court.

“I always feel like there’s a massive buzz here in Melbourne, the fans are awesome,” he said. “It was so quiet, me and Lloyd could hear this beep for the first set and we had no idea what it was, and they got a guy to come over and check it out. It was actually the guys scanning badges at the front gates for the people who were coming in who were working the tournament. But it took like seven games to figure that out. So it was so quiet we could hear that beep all through the stadium. And I could also hear how loud the out calls were with no one there. But other than that, I mean, it is what it is. We have to be safe and it’s all necessary, so just happy we could play today.”

Kyrgios, who offered a fine celebration at the end of his doubles match, said playing with no fans was not something he wanted to do on a long-term basis.

“I was talking to Thanasi when I was out on the doubles court and I was like, I don’t know if I’m able to do a full schedule with doing this stuff,” he said. “Obviously the quarantine in itself, but just like going out on court and playing with no crowd, I don’t know if that’s the way I want to do it, me personally, and that’s fine. That’s not a shot on anybody who does want to go play and go get points and make money. That’s fine, but for me I’m not sure that’s the option I’m going to go down.”

Kyrgios: “We’ve just got to abide by the rules”

But Kyrgios also said the rules were important to follow if tennis is ever to get back to normal.

“Ultimately it is what it is and we’ve got to just abide by the rules and hopefully we can just finally get over this pandemic in Australia,” he said. “The world is a bit far behind, but hopefully by next year we can actually not worry about anything, everyone can just have freedom to go outside, watch matches, watch some of the best Aussies play, but for now we can’t do that.”

Italy’s Matteo Berrettini said the prospect of fans returning on Thursday was something that can keep players going over the next few days.

“Looking at the stadium empty like this isn’t the best feeling but we’re living really tough times and we have to be tough,” he said. “I think there are worse things in the world. I’m sorry for the players and obviously for the crowd because a great event like this deserves a great crowd.”

For one man, Fabio Fognini, the absence of fans helped in his win over home favourite Alex de Minaur.

“It was better for me without crowd,” the Italian said. “I played an Australian”.

Rafael Nadal Australian Open 2021

Nadal the voice of reason

And Rafael Nadal was the voice of reason as he expressed gratitude for what everyone has gone through to allow the Australian Open to take place.

“Nobody wants this (no fans) but it’s not a moment to forget about the situation that we’re facing,” he said. “As I have said many times, it’s a moment to be responsible. Australia is one of the best examples in the world on how to deal with the pandemic. Hopefully the situation will improve and at the end of the tournament the crowd will be back.”

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