The first Serena Williams heard of the existence of a mystery new virus was when she was in Australia last January. She didn’t take it seriously. Or know its name.
“I didn’t think it would spread,’’ the 23-time major champion recalled on Friday.
Just over 12 months later, a sign of these fragile pandemic times was the fact that the first Australian Open-related news on a busy rain-interrupted Friday of lead-up matches at Melbourne Park was delivered by Victoria’s Premier, its Chief Health Officer and the grandly-named COVID Testing Commander.
It had been an anxious period for everyone involved in the ambitious staging of an $80 million event that continues to concern and divide the state.
Test results were pending from not just the broader community but the 506-member Open contingent deemed “casual contacts” of the Grand Hyatt Hotel quarantine worker who was reported late on Wednesday to have been infected with – we now know – the super-contagious UK variant.
Late that night, as Nick Kyrgios was tweeting “Am I playing tomorrow?”, pessimism about how the Open could be affected had begun to percolate. By the following morning, the six warm-up tournaments being played simultaneously were postponed for 24 hours.
When the action resumed, it was with the prospect of several men needing to double-up on singles duty, and women’s singles matches decided by a 10-point tiebreak rather than a third set as catch-up became the other game being played.
Most crucially, though, by the time a delayed and low-key draw was completed mid-afternoon, the last of the 506 Hyatt-specific tests had come back.
Negative. All negative.
Potential crisis averted.
“It was a bit of uncertainty,’’ Kyrgios said. “I thought Melbourne as a whole did the right thing, postponing it, making sure there was no possible spreading.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t even know if I was playing at 2am (Thursday). to be honest. I had no idea what was going on. Again, it was just about safety for everyone. I’m glad that there was no positive tests. We can just move forward.’’
Yet the Open has been an undeniably hard sell. Tournament director Craig Tiley asked for some media assistance to help talk up the weekend program, and boost ticket sales generally, at what he described as “one of the safest places to be in Melbourne’’.
Small attendances at the Melbourne Summer Series have contributed to an atmosphere far less energised than that in which Kyrgios, for example, usually thrives.
“Definitely feels a bit odd out there,’’ said Kyrgios after Friday’s 6-3, 6-4 defeat against world No.25 Borna Coric. “I usually bring a crowd. I look around, there’s like 30 people… It feels strange.
“I don’t think I’m going to experience as good of memories as I have here previously. You’re talking about (beating Karen) Khachanov last year or playing Rafa (Nadal) last year on centre court, where it was the highest-rated TV match in pretty much tennis history.
“I mean, it’s impossible to have those chances to be a part of that stuff again this year. That’s OK.
We’re just lucky to be even be playing at the moment.’’
In his first matches in almost 12 months, Kyrgios has laboured with a sore left knee that he revealed had required an arthroscopy less than five months ago, raged at an over-zealous chair umpire and complained about the Melbourne weather while logging two singles wins and a doubles loss with pal Matt Reid before Friday’s elimination.
Physically, one wonders how the world No.42 will fare over the best-of-five-set format under which he first faces Portugese qualifier Federico Ferreira Silva. Other drawcards managing injuries are world No.2 Rafael Nadal (who has not played a preparatory match due to lower back stiffness) and Williams (who cited right shoulder soreness for her withdrawal from Saturday’s Yarra Valley Open semi against Ash Barty).
“There’s a massive question mark for me even if I was completely healthy – not playing in a year. It’s not easy to turn around and prepare for such an event just like that. It’s not like a tap,’’ said Kyrgios.
“I thought I did everything I could this week. I won a couple matches. I had a lot of court time. I practiced every day as well. I think I’m ticking the boxes. I think I’m giving myself a chance. I think everyone has a bit of a question mark on their sort of physical level.
“I’m happy with the load this week. That’s all I wanted to get out of it. I was expecting my body to not feel great, to be honest. I’m not at all scared or anything that I won’t play, anything like that. I’m just going to maintain my body now.
“I actually feel good, yeah. I mean, I know mentally for me it’s more important than anything. If I’m positive, I’m motivated, I’m sure I’ll play some good tennis. Hopefully the crowds are going to be all right.’’
They are currently still capped at 30,000 per day, but there are also contingency plans based around potential community transmission cases rising from none to limited to significant.
Despite it all, though, after many months of angst, uncertainty and fingernail-gnawing, round one is just two more sleeps away.
Assuming that, for Craig Tiley and his team, there is any sleep to be had.