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The Happy Slam Serves Up Safety

In the early days of 2020, The Australian Open became the highest attended Grand Slam event in history with over 812,000 fans present to witness the wins of Novak Djokovic, Sofia Kenin and several others.

The events in Melbourne Park were the last uninhibited exhibits of professional tennis that the world saw before the global shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic just weeks later.

And, while the event has faced obstacles, such as bushfires and rainstorms alike, they are now facing a challenge they’ve never dealt with before: how to hold one of the world’s most important tennis tournaments during a pandemic.

While both the French and U.S. Open were held amidst the shutdown, they went forward with significant limitations and alterations. And, as COVID-19 continues to affect many areas around the world, the Australian Open must also proceed with caution.

In order to ensure adherence to safety guidelines and allow for athletes to quarantine, the Australian Open was pushed back three weeks from its original January 18th start date. The tournament will now start on February 8th under strict protocols.

To keep everyone in attendance safe and healthy, they are making drastic changes from previous years. Notably, fans won’t be permitted to roam freely around the grounds. Instead, they will have tickets to specific zones of Melbourne Park, each with its own entry and exit points to promote social distancing.

And though the exact numbers of spectators allowed into the tournament was not disclosed, a letter from the organizers spoke of the matches taking place in front of “significant crowds.”

For the players, the Open’s restrictions have been so intense, that some athletes such as Andy Murray and Josh Isner won’t be in attendance. Murray, due to a recent coronavirus diagnosis that would not provide adequate time to quarantine, and Isner because of the time he would have to spend away from his family.

In accordance with the Australian Open’s protocols, competitors arrived in Melbourne between January 15th and 17th on flights arranged by Tennis Australia, no later than 48 hours after receiving a negative coronavirus test. They were then required to isolate in a hotel for two weeks where they had to receive five more negative tests.

With the strict restrictions placed on the players, many have expressed frustrations with their inability to train and prepare for their upcoming matches. However, other players have adapted and made the best of their mandatory quarantine. A majority of players were provided with a stationary bike, and many have adjusted their room to allow them to hit shots into windows or volley with the wall. In fact, many players have taken to social to show their makeshift training stations.

World number 11 player, Belina Bencic volleyed against her window that she taped up to resemble a net.

Teenage phenom, CoCo Gauff pushed a bed up against her window as she blasted forehands in her hotel room.

The quarantine also provided another cool training movement, as Novak Djokovic got to see two young players show off their skills below his hotel room.

As a nation, Australia has some of the strictest COVID-19 guidelines in the world and went into a strict lockdown after a second wave of the virus late this summer. However, the city of Melbourne has not reported a single case in over a month - a good sign for the ‘Happy Slam.’

While some players have voiced their frustrations with the intensity of the guidelines ahead of the event, others, such as Serena Williams, have praised the precautions, noting the importance of safety.

And while Melbourne may not be able to boast any new attendance records this year, they can surely celebrate that the health and safety of everyone in attendance is what is valued most of all.

Watch the 2021 Australian open February 8th - February 21st on ESPN and the Tennis Channel.

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