This time last year, as another record-breaking Australian Open was drawing to a triumphant close, it was unthinkable that the next tournaments to be played at Melbourne Park would be the not-so-grandly-named Gippsland Trophy and Yarra Valley Classic.
With a titular nod to bushfire and pandemic-affected communities, and trophies inspired by native animals and created by Indigenous artists, Sunday launches a condensed local tennis calendar unrecognisable from any that has gone before.
The pair of WTA 500-level tournaments, to be played concurrently and feature world No.1 Ash Barty, 23-time major singles winner Serena Williams and defending AO champion Sofia Kenin, will be the first of six lead-up events staged across the precinct following the international arrivals’ ongoing release from quarantine and the arrival of the privileged group of A-listers fortunate to have been shuttled directly to Adelaide.
By mid-week, the grand slam venue will be hosting close to 100 daily matches, including a half-sized ATP Cup featuring the four top-ranked men – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev – plus leading Australians Alex de Minaur and John Millman. In a sign of the times, adult tickets for Tuesday night’s Australia-Spain fixture are selling for just $20.
“It’s going to be an absolute tennis-fest,’’ says Tennis Australia’s respected women’s coach Nicole Pratt, a former world No.35.
Everyone’s biggest problem is going to be which match to go and watch.’’
That has included negative public sentiment, as many Australians continue to question – although a little more quietly, it seems – whether the tournament should be occurring at all.
Yet, as the player whinging has subsided – with the absurd Tennys Sandgren among the exceptions after learning of the staggered and slightly delayed release of players from hard lockdown – signs have arrived of a determined charm offensive.
It has featured, among others, Nadal (“we can’t complain, we can only say thanks”), Williams (“they’re doing it right”) and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, who acknowledged the travel demands faraway Australians face for the rest of the year. “For once they have a bit of an advantage to … be home, to practice outside,’’ Dimitrov told Nine. “I’m just happy they’re in a good situation.’’
The local posse of direct entrants and wildcards will only return to Melbourne Park on Sunday for the first time since their temporary eviction on January 6. Aussie HQ has been Xavier College in Kew, where around 30-40 players, coaches and support staff have been based for the past three weeks.
“We’re practising elsewhere, so that’s sort of strange in itself,’’ says Pratt. “And it will be almost strange (to be back at Melbourne Park). I’m not even playing and I’m going to find it strange. I mean ‘strangely exciting’, I guess I should say!’’
Yet Pratt also queried the extent of the benefit to Barty, for example, who made a last-minute dash to Melbourne before borders were closed on January 8. Having not played since late February, the Open’s top seed has been practising freely, including on Rod Laver Arena before it was ruled off-limits, and was due to play an exhibition against Simona Halep in Adelaide on Friday night.
“To be honest, it’s not normal what (the Australians) are dealing with, either, in terms of their preparation. They have obviously been able to be out and about a lot more than players in quarantine, but they’ve had to adjust as well,’’ says Pratt.
So I think it comes down to which players are going to be the most resilient and agile from a mental standpoint.
“For me, those are the ones who will rise at the end of the Australian Open, probably, because it’s been a long time to get ready to actually play the Australian Open, and they’re not used to that, either.’’
Still, in no way will this be a typical pre-Open week.
Qualifying was held in advance in the Middle East, before positive COVID-19 cases were discovered on two of Tennis Australia’s inbound charter flights. That forced 72 of the arrivals into hard lockdown – unable to leave their hotel rooms for at least 14 days while other international arrivals were afforded five hours for practice, treatment, gym and food.
Hence the delay by 24 hours of an ATP Cup teams event already scaled back by half to 12 nations, and the addition of a third women’s event, the WTA 500 Grampians Trophy, designed to assist those with the most compromised lead-in. Nick Kyrgios, who hit at Xavier on Thursday for the first time, will be among seven Australian men contesting the Murray River Open from Monday.
A new-look Melbourne Park will be divided into three distinct zones to assist with any contact tracing, each with its own stadium court. The ATP Cup, for example, will split its four groups between RLA and John Cain (formerly Hisense) Arena. Ball kids will have self-contained areas within each, and will not handle player towels or water bottles; frankly, a move in line with protocols at both the 2020 US and French Opens would have been welcome long before the pandemic made it essential.
Then there’s the fans – remember them?
Numbers were limited to 1000 per day at Roland Garros and banned altogether at Flushing Meadows. Indeed, if there is a consensus about one thing, it is that the expected return of around a third of the annual 800,000-plus attendance will be welcome, indeed.
Back, too, at Melbourne Park will be veteran Sam Stosur at her 19th home slam, despite a ranking that has slipped to 112th.
“Overall I think I’m in a good place, and looking forward to just getting started,’’ the former US Open champion said after practising on Thursday.
“You train and train and train, and you’ve got to see what it’s all for, eventually.’’
That day is now imminent, and not just for the players.
What’s it all for? We shall see soon enough.