Police wear face masks on day five of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on February 12, 2021. AFP
The Australian Open endured a rocky build-up during the coronavirus pandemic and was hit again Friday as Victoria state ordered a five-day lockdown from Saturday over a new cluster in Melbourne.
Melbourne became the epicentre of the country's "second wave" after security bungles at quarantine hotels for international returnees sparked a major outbreak last July, with new daily cases rising above 700 in August.
The city's five million residents were placed in lockdown for nearly four months under onerous restrictions.
It forced major sports such as Australian Rules football and rugby league to relocate away from Melbourne. But tennis boss Craig Tiley remained adamant the Australian Open would go ahead under biosecure conditions.
The Grand Slam was due to start on January 18, but the country's strict quarantine rules forced a rethink by Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government.
There was speculation the tournament might be delayed until March, but the Australian Open was eventually moved back three weeks to February 8.
More than 1,000 players and staff arrived from January 15 on 17 charter flights to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed on all overseas arrivals before a week of warm-up tournaments.
There had been a sticking point over allowing players to practise during the compulsory 14-day quarantine, but eventually authorities allowed them out of their rooms daily for five-hour blocks of training and treatment.
The stricter bio-secure measures, compared with last year's US and French Opens held in cities stricken by the virus, led to some resenting the conditions.
Novak Djokovic sent a letter to Tennis Australia that reportedly called for players to be moved into private homes with tennis courts and get better meals, among other demands, while Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut said quarantine was like prison "with wifi".
The situation was compounded with at least 72 players barred from leaving their rooms for two weeks after coronavirus cases were detected on their flights into the country.
There was also accusations of preferential treatment after a select group -- including Djokovic, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal -- were allowed to fly into Adelaide and enjoy better facilities such as rooms with balconies.
A public furore erupted against the players flown in during a raging pandemic when thousands of Australians were stranded overseas.
The media portrayed Djokovic's request to Tennis Australia as petulant and selfish, while Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews was forced to insist players would not have "special treatment".
Some of those who complained about the conditions later retracted their original statements, including France's world number 53 Alize Cornet who wrote on social media that the backlash "made me realise what you've been through last year and how much you suffered".
Preparations were thrown into further chaos nine days ago when it was announced a worker at one the tennis quarantine hotels had tested positive for coronavirus causing warm-up tournaments at Melbourne Park to be suspended.
It forced more than 500 players and officials to get tested and isolate until they received their results, with last play at the ATP Cup team competition, three WTA events and two ATP tournaments in Melbourne Park postponed.
Despite the setback, Tiley insisted: "We're absolutely confident the Australian Open will go ahead."
Fans shut out
A ban on fans was announced Friday with players confined to biosecure "bubbles" as Victoria state authorities ordered six million people in Melbourne and surrounding areas into lockdown to stamp out a new coronavirus outbreak.
The five-day lockdown from midnight (1300 GMT) was imposed to combat an outbreak of the highly infectious UK strain at an airport hotel.
The tournament started Monday with up to 30,000 socially-distanced fans attending in the biggest crowds seen in tennis since the pandemic but now will feature empty stands from Saturday until at least Wednesday.
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