Sport Tennis At Melbourne Park, it’s tennis, but not as we’ve known it

At Melbourne Park, it’s tennis, but not as we’ve known it

Rafael Nadal at a Melbourne Park training session ahead of the 2021 ATP Cup Photo: AAP
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Australia is used to a full January of tennis, but in 2021 the sport has had to be content with a cameo appearance on the final day of the month. What would typically be finishing around now is belatedly – and very differently – underway.

The low-key opening of the Summer Series of official lead-up tournaments started less than 11 hours after the last of the 72 players to endure more than 14 days of can’t-leave-your-room quarantine trickled from the official hotels.

The wisdom of the plan for multiple WTA/ATP events at one centralised venue, rather than scattered in capital cities around the country amid the possibility of further border closures, was confirmed by the dramatic response to Sunday’s COVID-19 developments in WA.

At Melbourne Park, the strict protocols mean that entry for all accredited personnel, including media, goes beyond the usual lanyard scan at the gate to presentation of a health pass via the dedicated app after completing the Daily Health Check.

Welcome to the Australian Open venue like it has not been seen before.

If there was some debate about how clearly the message regarding the potential for hard hotel lockdowns were communicated to players before their arrival, the health warnings are everywhere on the lime green signs plastered around Melbourne Park.

Tennis-themed, too. On the many “sanitise like a pro” stations. On rubbish bins labelled “make cleaning a winning ritual”. Through illustrated reminders to “keep a racquet’s reach – remain 1.5m apart at all times’’. And instructions to, well, “Play it Safe’’.

The usual route through the precinct from the Yarra-side entrance is blocked by temporary fencing where the end of the John Cain Arena zone becomes Rod Laver’s, next door to Margaret Court’s. After walking past a near-empty Garden Square and a group of masked policemen, another credential scan is required to enter Tennis HQ.

Unlike other Victorian workplaces, face coverings are politely insisted upon by the security guard at the entrance, and later explained as an extra layer of protection when inside. Not pleasant. Not at all. But a reminder, too, of how grim the situation in Victoria was so recently and the greater comforts we have not just earned but come to expect.

Inside, the usually-bustling media centre is oddly spacious, operating at 40-50 per cent capacity. Instead of being crammed into long rows of desks (184 fewer than last year’s 325), we each now have a stand-alone workstation separated by a locker – a safe distance compliant with government regulations. Naturally.

Melbourne Park is COVID safe and ready to go.

Also unusual is the lack of international accents. This could be an AFL or NRL game, almost. Among the small smattering of overseas journalists who braved two weeks of hotel quarantine after being able to afford the additional costs and secure the required flights, are my regular Canadian desk neighbour, a writer from French publication L’Equipe and two from The New York Times. Weirdly,  there’s barely a Brit in the house.

Even the majority of staff working on the official tournament website are doing so from off-shore. As are the stenographers who provide the interview transcripts. For the media, the benefits of even being on-site are questionable, given the chance to mingle with coaches, agents, etc, will be minimal.

So much is new, and evolving. The umpire’s spiel to Aussie veteran Sam Stosur and her Czech opponent Marie Bouzkova before their opening round of the Yarra Valley Classic included an explanation of the live Hawk-Eye system (that’s right, no line judges for the first time), the colour-coded boxes used to store towels at the back of the court and spare the ballkids that nasty job, and the need to wear masks during toilet or medical breaks.

Never on any previous walk around the grounds has there been the sight of a masked squad of cleaners as a player practises on the court below. There were small crowds for day one, but, admittedly, the top 10 seeds in each women’s event – including Ash Barty and Serena Williams – were granted opening round byes, and nor do any of the men start until Monday.

“It’s a definite adjustment,” said Barty, who plays Romanian Ana Bogdan. “I know come deeper into the tournament, into the Australian Open, the crowds will be here to the capacity they’re allowed without a doubt.

So I think it’s going to be a really nice vibe once people start rolling in.”

For commentator and experienced coach Roger Rasheed, he admitted to The New Daily it was a slightly “strange, eerie feeling”.

“It’s definitely different because you normally get the enormous energy of excitement of fans and they add so much to the tennis matches themselves. At the moment we’re all getting used to what the new normal looks, but I was lucky enough to be in Adelaide (for Friday’s exhibition) and see a (75%) full crowd,’’ Rasheed said.

“And you only need a small amount of fans around a tennis court to create a good vibe, and the players will really love it.’’

In the main – well, only – interview room, 17 chairs were spaced in fixed positions on the floor above laminated signs allocating 10 places to “major” Australian outlets and seven to unspecified internationals. Fortunately for The New Daily, which apparently fitted into neither category, it proved no hindrance to attendance at Australia’s five-man media conference ahead of Tuesday night’s  ATP Cup tie against Spain.

A few routine questions were asked by reporters (wearing masks) and answered by players and captain Lleyton Hewitt (not), before an off-site journalist –we’ll call him Tony – whose face was present on two video screens attempted to ask a question with his audio on mute.

Through multiple attempts, and much merriment, John Peers helpfully suggested Tony attempt sign language, John Millman wondered whether this might have been Tony’s “first go on Microsoft Teams”, and Hewitt suggested he write down his query and hold it up to the camera.

Alas, poor soundless Tony remained unheard, the remaining time ticked away in the process, and the interview finished with some waves and cheers from the departing Aussies but much still left unsaid.

As national No.1 Alex de Minaur had noted when we asked about the COVID-related differences at Melbourne Park in 2021: “I think one of the biggest things we’ve all learnt with the situation is it’s all about adapting.’’

With, it seems, plenty more lessons to come.