Excited fans drifted back to the Australian Open Thursday after a snap five-day lockdown in Melbourne was eased, determined to create some atmosphere over the final days of a tournament severely disrupted by the coronavirus.
The already-delayed opening Grand Slam of the year was plunged into yet more chaos last week when Australia's second most populous city was ordered behind closed doors after a new Covid-19 cluster.
Even before the latest roadblock, the sprawling Melbourne Park complex on the banks of the Yarra River had been operating with a limit of just 30,000 spectators a day -- less than half -- under coronavirus restrictions.
With far fewer matches scheduled Thursday, the cap has now been set at just under 7,500 per session, half the capacity of the Rod Laver Arena centre court.
And with the new outbreak, which centred on a hotel near Melbourne airport, appearing to be contained, fans jumped at the chance to return.
"Look I'm really excited to be coming back," Melbourne local Beatrice Leonard told AFP.
"I was just fed up. It was such a long year last year and then the five days (of lockdown), just all of a sudden. It was pretty depressing."
On a scorching hot day headlined by a blockbuster clash between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, they were happy not only for themselves but the players, who have been performing to canned applause instead of the roar of a crowd for the past five days.
"It's good for the players to have a bit of atmosphere. It gives them a bit of up and go," said Linda Clupland, as people slowly returned to what had been an eerily quiet Melbourne Park.
The Australian Open is the first Covid-era Grand Slam to welcome large numbers of fans after last year's Wimbledon was cancelled, the US Open took place behind closed doors and the French Open was limited to 1,000 spectators a day.
Some 22,299 spectators attended last Friday, the best of a tournament that was lit up by two five-set epics involving flamboyant local hope Nick Kyrgios, with raucous crowds roaring him on in an electric atmosphere.
Nitia Gupta said he wanted to be at Melbourne Park on Thursday to show the players he had their back after they endured 14 days in quarantine on arrival in Australia to ensure the tournament could be played.
"It's a mental fight that they (players) would have been fighting quarantining themselves into a hotel room and small spaces and if somebody (fans) has got their back to cheer them up, it's going to be good for them also," he said.
Social distancing measures remain in place with sanitising stations dotted around the complex, but patrons are now able to walk around freely, although face-coverings must be worn.
Previously, the precinct had been divided into three separate zones around Rod Laver, Margaret Court and John Cain arenas, curbing the usual free flow of fans.
Food outlets and bars in Garden Square, which has a giant screen, were once again open, with a smattering of fans soaking up the sun and enjoying live music.
"I feel very happy to be back to see the Australian Open today. I'm so excited," said Cathy Stacey as she awaited the Williams-Osaka showdown.
"Melbourne's done a great job with handling the pandemic. The organisers of the Australian Open are amazing and everyone's respectful of what's happening around the world."
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