It’s 1 p.m. at the Australian Open on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon in Melbourne, but no one is watching tennis.
Everyone is glued to their phones as Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews announces the entire state will plunge into a five-day midnight lockdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Everyone in Victoria is to stay indoors with limited exemptions to go out, including essential shopping and exercise, but the Australian Open will go on without crowds.
The situation presents a huge problem for people who have traveled from state to state to watch the best tennis players in the world compete against each other.
You can see people frantically scrolling through airline websites looking for flights and trying to weigh their options with the limited information they have.
Canberra resident and tennis enthusiast Alex Salcedo sits at Margaret Court Arena and immediately panics with his flight back to ACT which is not expected to leave Melbourne until Monday.
“How do I get home to Canberra tonight at midnight?” he asks me.
All available flights are stopped within seconds and there is no train or bus that will take Salcedo back to Canberra before midnight.
What if he doesn’t get back to Canberra before midnight? Will he be stuck in Melbourne until the lockdown is over? Should he quarantine in Canberra on his return, with huge expenses in a hotel?
Who knows? This is the new standard. Where governments make quick decisions. The information is not clear. Plans and situations can be turned upside down.
The Australian Open was a bizarre experience during the COVID era. Melbourne Park’s tennis arenas and surrounding courts have been sparsely populated, with a ceiling of 30,000 fans per day.
Supporters can only travel to certain areas of Melbourne Park with their ticket to limit the spread of people in the venue. Paint circles can be seen drawn on grassy hills to denote areas where people can congregate while remaining socially distant.
People walk around in masks like it’s something they’ve done their whole life. Cell phones are constantly in people’s hands as they use their QR code to check in in different courts.
With the lockdown at midnight, there is a discussion of what happens if Novak Djokovic’s match with Taylor Fritz at Rod Laver Arena goes past that hour.
Will supporters be expelled from the stadium? Or will they be allowed to continue watching the game until the end?
Thirty minutes before the midnight deadline and in the heart of the fourth set, security officials halted the game and ordered all supporters to leave the premises immediately to return home before the lockdown began.
There were mockeries and boos when fans were forced out of Rod Laver Arena, but there is no compromise on government advice for COVID-19 – even as world No.1 Djokovic fired back at the edge of elimination.
As for the stranded Salcedo, it is stranded in Melbourne at least until Thursday, the lockdown ends, after its Monday flight to Canberra was canceled.
For many, a visit to Melbourne for the Australian Open has turned into an indefinite stay in the capital city of Victoria.
There were always risks to visiting the tournament in these uncertain times with the coronavirus able to lift its ugly head at any moment.
It’s an Australian Open that players, staff and fans will never forget – but under conditions that we all hope will never happen again.