Australian Open | All set for the ‘Nervous Slam’

Djokovic, Serena and Osaka will be in action on the opening day

After a three-week delay, a massive logistical mission and a handful of health scares, a very different Australian Open gets underway on Monday with pandemic protocols providing a backdrop of caution to the action on court.

Serena Williams begins her latest campaign to win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title on Day One while Novak Djokovic is also in action, the Serb seeking a record-extending ninth Australian Open crown.

Once dubbed the ‘Happy Slam’ by Roger Federer, this year’s edition might be remembered as the ‘Nervous Slam’ after struggling to build enthusiasm in a wary host nation, but organisers hope the anxious buildup will be forgotten when the action begins.

Herculean effort

Tennis Australia (TA) has made a Herculean effort to try to stage it safely and spent a fortune on biosecurity measures in a country where community transmission of the novel coronavirus has become rare.

It will be the third Grand Slam of the pandemic, with the U.S. and French Opens passing safely enough.

Yet many in Melbourne regard it a pointless risk to the freedoms they earned after spending nearly four months in a brutal lockdown to crush an outbreak last year.

Warmup tournaments that packed out stadiums across the country a year ago have drawn tiny crowds to Melbourne Park over the past week, even with the game’s biggest stars in action.

Tournament director Craig Tiley asked media to boost the tuneup events but the modest crowds that turned up on Saturday were denied the chance to watch Williams and other former champions after they pulled out of their matches rather than risk injury ahead of the main event.

Half normal capacity

Melbourne Park is usually heaving with fans but crowds will be capped at 30,000 per day during the Grand Slam, about half normal capacity.

The onus now shifts to the players to put on a good show, and most sound thrilled about competing in a country where the virus is effectively at bay.

“We are also entertainers. We like to exchange that vibe and energy with the crowd,” said defending champion Djokovic, who plays Jeremy Chardy on Monday.

Tough clash

Former champion Naomi Osaka also takes the court for a tough clash against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, first up at Rod Laver Arena.

With luck, the two weeks will pass smoothly and trophies will be hoisted by beaming champions on centre court.

Organisers may yet triumph in staging a ‘Safe Slam’, if not the ‘Happy Slam’ of the pre-pandemic era.

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