Tennis fans will be shut out of the Australian Open from Saturday after Victoria announced a raft of new restrictions as part of a five-day lockdown.
A cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to Victoria’s hotel quarantine system grew to 13 overnight and had state government advisers drawing up the framework for another lockdown.
The Victorian cabinet had an emergency meeting on Friday and Premier Daniel Andrews announced the new Stage Four restrictions at a press conference this afternoon as he outlined the difficulties in combating the mutant UK strain of the virus.
As part of the lockdown, which comes into place at 11.59pm on Friday and lasts until the same time on Wednesday, public gatherings are not permitted and as such, no fans will be allowed at Melbourne Park to watch the tennis for the next five days.
Professional athletes are deemed “essential workers” so the grand slam can continue, but only behind closed doors.
Mr Andrews said large-scale sporting events would operate as a “workplace” rather than an “entertainment venue”. That means necessary staff can attend, but spectators cannot.
The Australian Open released a statement on Friday afternoon saying: “Tennis Australia continues to work with the government to ensure the healthy and safety of everyone.
“We are notifying ticketholders, players and staff that there will be no fans onsite at the AO for five days, commencing from Saturday 13 February.
“Full refunds will be available for anyone who has tickets for these sessions and they will be advised on how to apply as soon as possible.”
Tournament director Craig Tiley told reporters that players, their support staff and essential personnel will still be allowed on site as stars compete in a bubble format for the next five days.
This means players will only be allowed to travel between Melbourne Park and their accommodation.
Nick Kyrgios has benefited greatly from the support of the local crowd in his two Australian Open matches and was able to request tonight’s blockbuster against world number three Dominic Thiem be played on his favoured John Cain Arena, where the fans adore him.
Kyrgios’ rabid base will still be on hand to cheer him over the line against Thiem but should he win, his next encounters will be very different.
A stale atmosphere is on the cards for any of the Aussie star’s future matches, greatly impacting his chances of progressing further in the tournament.
“I know it’s not the place that we wanted to be in,” Mr Andrews said. “However, we’ve all given so much, we’ve all done so much. We’ve built something precious, and we have to make difficult decisions, and do difficult things, in order to defend what we’ve built.
“I am confident that this short, sharp circuit breaker will be effective.
“We will be able to smother this. We will be able to prevent it getting away from us.
“I want to be here on Wednesday next week announcing that these restrictions are coming off, but I can’t do it on my own. I need every single Victorian to work with me, and with our team, so that we can run this to ground and we can see this strategy work.”
Mr Andrews said he has to assume the virus is spreading at “light speed”.
“We may find that, because of the contact tracing that we’ve already done, because of these sorts of charts and the thousands of hours of work that’s gone on these last 10 days or so, that we don’t have this problem,” he said.
“The challenge is I can’t wait a week to be proven right in that. We have to assume, based on advice, that there’s transmission out there that we don’t know about, and that it’s not moving quickly, it’s moving at light speed.
“And unless we make these decisions and limit movement in a short, sharp circuit breaker event, then we may be here in a week, regretting that we didn’t follow that advice.
“That’s not the way we’ve operated, and it won’t be the way that we ever operate.”
The first week of the Australian Open had been largely void of COVID scares after it had dominated the lead-up.
Seventy-two players were forced into a hard 14-day lockdown after arriving in Melbourne when separate people on three charter flights which brought players in from across the globe returned positive tests.
There was another major scare days out from the tournament when a staff member at a hotel used to house players tested positive and 600 players and officials were told to isolate and get tested.
Order was restored when all tests came back negative but Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley has a new headache to deal with after the latest development.