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A whole new ball game for the Australian Open.

27 January 2021

From practice sessions in quarantine to socially distanced dining options, we take a look at how Tennis Australia is serving up a major sporting event that’s safe for the new normal.

Explore


A whole new ball game for the Australian Open.

27 January 2021

From practice sessions in quarantine to socially distanced dining options, we take a look at how Tennis Australia is serving up a major sporting event that’s safe for the new normal.

A tennis ball on court at the Australian Open

The Australian Open in 2021 will be a whole new ball game. Image: Getty Images.

The Happy Slam returns in February 2021 to serve up the center piece event of the summer. Yes, the Australian Open (AO) will be different this year, but organisers are confident that a suite of innovative changes will ensure fans in Melbourne, as well as millions around the globe, will experience a safe and unforgettable event – for all the right reasons.

Since the AO moved from Kooyong in 1998 to what is now Melbourne Park, it has undergone a shift from a tournament for tennis fans to a global entertainment spectacle. But with Australia’s international borders remaining closed for the time being, there will be no celebrity jetsetters, international DJs or overseas fans this year.

Melbourne Park during the Australian Open in 2020

Melbourne Park will be limited to 25 per cent crowd capacity and fans will be split into three spectator zones. Image: Getty Images

There will, however, be a line-up of superstar players competing in singles, doubles and wheelchair competitions (the Juniors championship has been postponed until later in the year). These players will compete in front of reduced numbers of spectators, who will still get to enjoy the best of Victorian hospitality albeit in a new-look format.

The fact the tournament is happening at all is a huge achievement. “It has taken eight months of working alongside government authorities, here in Victoria, nationally and interstate, to give us the opportunity to present an Australian Open that will play a major role in both the economic and psychological reinvigoration and rejuvenation of Melbourne and Victoria,” says Craig Tiley, Tennis Australia CEO and tournament director.

In establishing new tournament protocols, organisers looked to the French Open and US Open, which both operated under strict health controls and, in the case of the latter, without any spectators in the stands. Wimbledon, the fourth grand slam, was cancelled altogether.

With fans at the heart of the Australian event, organisers would have always desperately hoped to host spectators safely in some format. That was not, however, always a foregone conclusion, after Victoria suffered Australia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak during 2020.

One of the major changes for 2021 was the scheduling shift from late January to early February, which will allow the players enough time to quarantine and then get some match practice to prepare.

Players and their support staff will arrive in Australia in mid-January and quarantine for 14 days in designated hotels where they will undergo daily testing. During this period they will be permitted to train and receive treatment for up to five hours a day in a quarantine bubble at Melbourne Park under strict supervision.

Roger Federer winning the MercedesCup in Stuttgart in 2018

Australian Open fan favourite and Mercedes-Benz global ambassador Roger Federer will not compete at Melbourne Park this year. Image: Daimler.

Unfortunately, one fan favourite who won’t be travelling Down Under this year is Mercedes-Benz global ambassador and 20-time grand slam champion Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery. Australian champion 82-year-old Rod Laver, who is a regular fixture in the stands of the stadium that was named for him, has also announced he will watch the 2021 tournament broadcast from his home in the US.

However, most other big names will be back, including local favourite, world number one Ash Barty. In return for players’ efforts, the AO total prize pool remains at the 2020 level of $71.5 million.

Another major change will see almost all lead-up events, including the ATP Cup, hosted in Melbourne, with one exception.

Novak Djokovic playing in the 2020 Australian Open

A host of top international players, including Novak Djokovic will undergo a strict two-week quarantine and daily testing to be eligible to play. Image: Getty Images.

Adelaide will host a one-day curtain raiser, A Day at the Drive, on 29 January. This exhibition event will feature an impressive line-up of eight champs, including Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka. These players will undergo quarantine in Adelaide, following the same protocols and requirements as players quarantining in Melbourne.

Once the AO is underway in Melbourne, crowds will be limited to 25 per cent capacity. Melbourne Park will be split into three spectator zones with physical distancing measures in place, and ticketing will be entirely digital.

Dining options have been designed to support Melbourne’s world-class hospitality industry, which was hit particularly hard during 2020’s lockdowns. As has become the norm when eating out in Melbourne and around Australia, vendors will rely heavily on digital components to ensure safe service delivery.

“It’s been a priority for our team to use the Australian Open as a platform to showcase the best local restaurants, chefs, food and wine producers,” Tiley says.

An effort to create a festival atmosphere and highlight local food offerings will see dining spread across the three spectator zones. There is also a new dining addition, The Glasshouse, across the road from Melbourne Park. Venues have been designed with greater focus on outdoor seating, innovative click and collect technology and mandatory QR code check-ins.

The AO Chef Series during the first week of the tournament will allow fans to sample offerings from some of Victoria’s finest chefs, including Jo Barrett, formerly from Oakridge Winery in the Yarra Valley, among others. In the second week, Melbourne chef Charlie Carrington will highlight local ingredients in five-course dinners at The Glasshouse, and Penfolds wine will have a stand-alone restaurant – it’s first ever at a sporting event.

There will also be a plethora of pop up and casual dining options, along with plenty of places to catch up with friends for a drink. These include The Atrium, which features a new alfresco area and the Peroni Bar – designed with social distancing in mind.

One group who won’t get the chance to experience the AO atmosphere for themselves is the hundreds of international journalists who usually travel to Australia to report from the tournament each day. Instead, the always-popular post-match media conferences will include virtual elements.

After a year like no other, the 2021 AO is shaping up to be an event without parallel. If everything goes according to plan, organisers believe it won’t just be the center piece of the summer – it will set the benchmark for other international sporting events embracing a new COVID-normal.

By Lucy Siebert