It’s 1 p.m. at the Australian Open on a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon in Melbourne, but no one’s eyes are on the tennis.
Everyone is glued to their phones as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announces the entire state will be plunging into a snap five-day lockdown at midnight because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
All of Victoria’s population must remain inside with limited exemptions to go outside including essential shopping and exercise, but the Australian Open will go on with no crowds.
The situation presents a huge problem for people who have traveled from interstate to watch the world’s best tennis players duke it out.
People can be seen frantically scrolling through airline websites looking for flights and trying to weigh up their options with the limited information they have.
Canberra resident and tennis enthusiast Alex Salcedo is sitting at Margaret Court Arena and immediately panics with his flight back to the ACT not scheduled to depart Melbourne until Monday.
“How do I get home to Canberra by midnight tonight?” he asks me.
All available flights are snapped up within seconds and there is no train or bus that will get Salcedo back to Canberra by when the clock strikes 12 a.m.
What happens if he doesn’t get back to Canberra by midnight? Will he be stuck in Melbourne until the lockdown ends? Does he have to quarantine in Canberra when he returns, with huge expense at a hotel?
Who knows? It’s the new normal. Where governments make snap decisions. Information is unclear. Plans and situations can be completely turned upside down.
The Australian Open has been a bizarre experience during COVID times. Melbourne Park’s tennis arenas and surrounding grounds have been sparsely populated, with a 30,000 cap put on the amount of attending fans per day.
Supporters can only attend certain zones of Melbourne Park with their ticket to help confine the spread of people within the venue. Paint circles can be seen drawn on grass hills to designate areas for people to congregate but still be socially distanced.
People walk around wearing masks like it’s something they have done their entire lives. Mobile phones are constantly in people’s hands as they use their QR code to check into the different courts.
With the lockdown kicking in at midnight, there is discussion about what happens if Novak Djokovic’s match with Taylor Fritz at Rod Laver Arena goes past this time.
Will fans be kicked out of the stadium? Or will they be allowed to continue watching the match until completion?
Thirty minutes before the midnight deadline and deep into the fourth set, security officials halted the match and ordered all supporters to leave the venue immediately to get home before the lockdown commenced.
There were jeers and boos as fans were forced from Rod Laver Arena, but there is no compromising on government advice for COVID-19 — even as world No.1 Djokovic fought back from the brink of the elimination.
As for the stranded Salcedo, he is stuck in Melbourne until at least Thursday, the end of the lockdown, after his Monday flight to Canberra was canceled.
For many, a visit to Melbourne for the Australian Open has turned into an indefinite stay in Victoria’s capital.
There were always risks in visiting the tournament during these uncertain times with the coronavirus able to rear its ugly head at any second.
It’s an Australian Open that players, staff and fans will never forget — but one under conditions that we all hope will never be repeated.