There was only a smattering of fans in the crowd at Rod Laver Arena on Monday for Naomi Osaka’s first-round victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the Australian Open. The 15,000-seat stadium sat largely empty with those in attendance generously spaced throughout.
Any other year the vacant chairs would be disappointing — concerning, even — but in 2021, it was clear that the presence of each and every person in attendance was a welcome sight for Osaka.
“I’m just really happy to see people in the stands,” she said during her postmatch on-court interview. “It was a bit lonely in New York.”
Osaka, who won the US Open in September in front of a sea of empty chairs and a few dozen virtual fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium, didn’t need the extra support Monday as she rolled to a 6-1, 6-2 finish in just 68 minutes, but the fans still provided a brief respite of normalcy after a year full of anything but.
For the first time since the season shut down because of the pandemic in March, sizable crowds were permitted at a major. As a result, there were flashes of regularity Monday and Tuesday — dozens of Bulgarian fans chanting for Grigor Dimitrov and waving flags, a young girl seen courtside with a “Serena [Williams], you’re the reason I play tennis” sign, and Nick Kyrgios yelling at someone to get their girlfriend out of his player box in the middle of his match.
There were 17,922 fans in attendance Monday, significantly less than the restricted 30,000 capacity and a far cry from the 64,387 that took in the action at Melbourne Park during opening day in 2020 — but still more than at most of the tournaments played since the resumption of the tennis season in August after a five-month suspension.
After dealing with the constant uncertainty, endless rumors and ever-changing restrictions and protocols over the past 11 months, players seemed grateful for anything that resembled what they once took for granted.
“Compared to what we were playing [in front of] last year, which is zero, this is huge,” Venus Williams said. “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.”
There were no fans allowed at the US Open, and the French Open had a limit of 1,000 patrons per day. Some of the smaller tournaments admitted a similar number. But as those events were held in the United States and Europe, places where the virus remains largely out of control, the circumstances were markedly different in Australia. Due to strict rules for its citizens and visitors, which included a 14-day quarantine for all players and anyone traveling internationally to attend the tournament, Australia has overwhelmingly contained COVID-19. There are currently just two locally transmitted cases in Victoria, in which Melbourne is located, and 51 active cases overall.
Because of this, the Australian Open is permitting up to 30,000 fans per day during the first eight days of competition, split evenly between the day and night sessions, and 25,000 from the quarterfinals on, for just under 50% of typical capacity. Fans must choose one of three zones in Melbourne Park — each of the major arenas is in a separate section — and they are required to stay within that during their session. The traditional grounds pass, in which fans don’t have access to the stadiums but do to the outer courts, is not offered. Several of the typical fan areas are open, however, for ticket holders to sit on the grass or at picnic tables, watch matches on large screens and to get food and drink from concession stands.
“It will not be the same as the last few years, but it will be the most significant international event with crowds that the world has seen for many, many months,” Martin Pakula, the Victorian Minister for Sport, said before the tournament got underway.
As there are no face mask requirements unless the roof is closed, spectators are able to cheer and chant without hindrance. During Kyrgios’ match against Frederico Ferreira Silva, the chair umpire even had to ask the crowd to be quiet between serves and during rallies. Some players said it might even be a temporary challenge to re-adjust to the sounds of the live audience.
“It was super weird to play [previously] without a crowd,” said reigning US Open men’s champion Dominic Thiem following his opening-round victory over Mikhail Kukushkin. “I think everybody had to get used to it. Nobody was ever used to it before.
“[At] Roland Garros, we had a thousand people, Vienna we had a thousand people, then in London, again, zero people, and then I played the exhibition in Adelaide where it was 4,000 people. That was something I had to get used to again with all the cheering … If there are so many people watching you, you want to do it even better.”
There were questions during the first two days of play about ticket sales and why the tournament wasn’t selling out of its limited inventory. There are some theories to explain it. Some speculate the delayed start, three weeks later than its usual mid-January date, is to blame, as school is now back in session after the summer holiday; others point to lingering fears about the virus. More fans are expected during the weekend and night sessions.
“I think when things are going really well, it’s not going to really change too much, but I think there’s a few critical moments you’ll find throughout a match where a player might feel dejected, a little demotivated,” Milos Raonic said. “A crowd having that sort of noise, somebody get behind them, can really turn things on for somebody.
“I think those kind of things, especially in three-out-of-five, when fatigue starts kicking in towards the later end of matches, can make a big difference.”
For those watching at home, particularly outside of Australia, the noise and sight of a live crowd will likely enhance the television experience, and perhaps show a light at the end of the tunnel following a harrowing year.
For those competing, the significant return of fans is making it feel like an ordinary tennis tournament.