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Australian Open Will Start As Scheduled With Strict Pandemic Regulations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, sports fans. Yesterday was indeed the big day. After all the buildup, all the waiting, the players finally got down to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: And he does it with an ace.

KELLY: Nope, not the Super Bowl. That is the sound of Australian Nick Kyrgios winning his first-round match yesterday at the Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament this year. That is real applause you can hear. Australia's strict 14-day quarantine protocol has allowed the tournament to proceed with fans - not at full capacity, but more than 380,000 fans are expected over the next two weeks, making the Australian Open one of the more normal-looking sporting events in a long time now. Scott Spits covers tennis for The Age. He's on the line from Melbourne. Welcome.

SCOTT SPITS: Thanks very much - lovely to talk to you.

KELLY: So how's it going so far? Does this feel like a normal Grand Slam tournament?

SPITS: Look; it feels reasonably normal. But the thing that struck me the most in Day 1 was the poor crowd. It was wonderful that it started and there were fans allowed in, but it just felt a bit off. We're used to, you know, being a really highly anticipated event. It's now held in February, so all the kids are back at school. But I think there is still an overwhelming gratitude that - due to all the effort that's gone by to get to this point, that the tournament started and is going ahead. So there is gratitude that it's underway.

KELLY: Yeah. Let's talk about the players. You've got 500 or so players who have come in for this. They arrived, and then - and what has the quarantine protocol been?

SPITS: So they immediately went into two weeks of compulsory quarantine. The key element that allowed the tournament to go ahead was that after all the negotiations, they were permitted to have a five-hour block each day that included time to train, time for treatment. And under strict conditions, they were able to prepare for the tournament. What happened is that of all the charter flights that arrived in Australia, three of those ended up carrying a person who had a positive case. And therefore, all the players and people who were on those flights were considered close contacts of that person, and their quarantine conditions changed. So it ended up that 72 of those players were stuck in hard lockdown. They were not able to leave their hotel rooms for those two weeks. So...

KELLY: Oh, wow.

SPITS: That was a really dramatic preparation for the tournament - took some players by surprise. They obviously all coped and adjusted to it differently. But obviously, the reality of 70 players whose preparations were severely different to those players who had that daily block each day to get on the tennis court.

KELLY: Yeah. There's only so many pushups on the floor of your hotel room and bouncing a tennis ball off the walls you can do. It's not ideal by any stretch.

SPITS: That's right.

KELLY: Do we know yet how the players who were in that extreme quarantine - how they've been affected, how it will affect their play?

SPITS: Yeah, we've had a couple examples of players who've come out, those who were in the high lockdown. Angelique Kerber was probably one of the most notable. On Day 1 she had a bad loss.

KELLY: She's a former winner, correct?

SPITS: Former winner five years ago and a former world No. 1.

KELLY: Yeah.

SPITS: She certainly said her preparation was affected. Naturally, we've got the second half of the first round to come, so we'll hear from a few more others. And soon we'll have a body of evidence as to what the overall effect was on different players.

KELLY: The stakes here are obviously really high if something goes wrong, if somebody gets sick. Is the hope, though, that this experiment - because that's what it is - that if it is successful, it could provide a template for other major tennis tournaments, other big events in other sports in this COVID age?

SPITS: Oh, definitely. The world is watching. The world is watching what Australia and the Australian government have done here. There could be implications for the Japan Olympics if they go ahead. I think what's really interesting now is that all the players who, once they leave quarantine and - they're considered members of the Australian community like everyone else. They're not in a separate bubble anymore. If they want to go to a restaurant and dine and wear a mask and go outside, they're free to do so. So I'm just a little bit surprised that there's not perhaps, like, a mini-bubble operating for the players during the tournament.

KELLY: Yeah - Scott Spits, sports reporter for The Age in Australia, giving us a little taste of what's going on there with the Australian Open.

Thank you, Scott.

SPITS: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.