MELBOURNE – Inside an empty Rod Laver Arena, the fluttering of a photographer's camera suddenly seemed all too distracting before a player served.
Other sounds not normally heard also felt amplified: the creaking of electronic sunshades rising into position on changeovers, the pitter-patter of the ball kids' shoes.
Terrific rallies were greeted with the lonely claps of a coach and physio. The cries of the new electronic line-calling system suddenly felt unnecessarily loud and obtrusive.
Crowds were gone from the Australian Open on Saturday because of a five-day hard lockdown imposed by the state government to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. And with the lack of fans, players were faced with an all-too-familiar feeling: a distinct lack of buzz.
The first five days of the tournament felt completely different — like a return to pre-pandemic Grand Slam tennis. Sizeable crowds were allowed for the first time in a year, and although attendance was well below previous years, it didn't seem to matter. The grounds felt alive.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in John Cain Arena during local favorite Nick Kyrgios' third-round match against Dominic Thiem on Friday night. A raucous crowd made the most of what could be one of the last matches with fans at the tournament — they roared for Kyrgios' winners, groaned with each of his mistakes and pounded the backs of their chairs in unison.
There were some less decorous crowd moments, as well. Rafael Nadal was heckled by a woman who yelled and waved her middle finger as the 20-time major winner prepared to serve in his second-round win over Michael Mmoh. He laughed it off, saying maybe she had “too much gin or tequila.”
The COVID-19 outbreak linked to Melbourne's hotel quarantine system brought this festive atmosphere to a halt. The Australian Open was allowed to continue during the lockdown — but without fans.
Fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina described the dramatic shift from playing in front of crowds to suddenly being faced with empty arenas again as “disturbing” and “in some ways sad.”
“I tried to convince myself that it’s a Grand Slam and that we are playing an important match,” she said after her third-round win over Yulia Putintseva on Saturday.
In some ways, the grounds had the feel of being closed up for the winter. The shutters were drawn on all the food and beverage stands, where just hours earlier, fans were lining up for top-ups on their beers during Novak Djokovic's thrilling five-set win over Taylor Fritz.
A television had been left on at a promo stand for the Rafa Nadal Academy, filling an empty corridor at Rod Laver Arena with the sounds of young players training to a soundtrack of rock music.
Many doors in the arena were locked and the only people in sight were masked police officers and cleaners.
Making the whole scene even stranger was the fact that another women's tournament had also begun Saturday for players who lost early in the Australian Open. It was difficult to tell whether the Grand Slam event was still happening — and who was playing in it.
Though some tournaments have allowed limited numbers of fans over the past year, players have more or less grown accustomed to playing in front of silent stands.
This doesn't make it easier, though. Mackenzie McDonald said he and his third-round opponent, Lloyd Harris, were both confounded by an odd beeping sound they heard as they played on Court 3.
“It was actually the guys scanning badges at the front gates for the people who were coming in who were working the tournament," he said. “But it took like seven games to figure that out.”
No crowds also means very little in the way of encouragement. Trailing in the second set, Harris kept up a steady stream of dialogue with the only person in the stands he could — his coach, Anthony Harris (no relation). It didn't seem to help — Harris lost in straight sets.
Svitolina said without crowds, there are definitely some “low moments that can sneak into the mind.”
“When you are down, I think you feel like you’re almost alone here,” she said. “People give you energy, they are supporting you, they are trying to get you back into the match.”
Playing in front of a boisterous home crowd again, Kyrgios realized just how much he loves this aspect of the game and he hinted he might not play a full schedule this year if there are no fans.
He struggled without a crowd in a warm-up tournament before the Australian Open.
“It was tough to have a chat with myself and look around and see no one watching and just trying to produce big tennis against a pretty good player,” he said. “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.”
And nothing can replace the excitement of playing in front of fans in Rod Laver Arena. Karolina Muchova got that chance on Saturday against her Czech countrywoman, Karolina Pliskova, after being scheduled on smaller courts for her first two matches.
“I was actually getting happy yesterday morning that I’m finally going to play on a bigger court and there’s going to be a crowd,” she said after beating Pliskova.
Muchova didn't get her wish, but she might have another chance. The fans could be back after the snap lockdown in five days. So, all she needs to do is keep winning.
AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.
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