January 30, 2021

Gearing Up

Exhibitions are underway, warm-up events are about to start -- the Australian Open is finally on the horizon, folks! And what we see this coming week could give us a good idea of what we might expect at the first Grand Slam of the year -- not only in terms of the action on court, but also for what sporting events could look like in a still very different sort of world.

Yup, those are actual, real life fans in the stadium in Adelaide, watching Serena and Naomi battle it out. And they'll be there too when play starts in Melbourne next Monday -- officials announced this week that as many as 30,000 observers will be allowed at the event each day. That's about half the usual capacity of the Australian Open, but would still mark one of the biggest events since the COVID pandemic began.

In some ways, it makes sense that Australia would be the first site of somewhat normalized play -- already well-isolated from the rest of the world and having implemented some of the stictest lockdown measures, it's had fewer cases of the coronavirus in total than the U.S. has had deaths in just the past month, and less than a thousand fatalities in all. But that's not to say it's entirely in the clear, and some organizational hiccups have led to plenty of questions and consternation.

A spate of athletes -- and others -- who tested positive on arrival in Melbourne, plus anyone on their flights, were forced into a rigid two week quarantine and are only now getting back on actual courts. Some, like Paula Badosa, who got a positive test a week after touching down, may go straight from the hotel room to the match play, with no practice in between -- that's if she's well enough to compete at all. And, of course, there's no telling what might happen if more cases crop up as the main draws get underway.

Meanwhile this week, six separate tournaments will take place on the courts of Melbourne Park -- the ATP Cup, as well as the Grand Ocean Road and Murray River Cups for the men, and the Yarra Valley Classic and Gippsland and Grampians Trophy for the ladies. And it's the first time we'll see some big stars at work in a long time.

Ashleigh Barty, who other than an exhibition in Adelaide hasn't seen match play since the Australian last year, makes her return in a draw that features defending Melbourne champ Sofia Kenin and seven-time winner Serena Williams. And 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu hits the court for the first time since a knee injury took her out of that year's WTA Finals. And on the men's side Nick Kyrgios, who somehow became the voice of reason during the pandemic, is back in action for the Murray River crown.

And as interested as I am to see how these guys perform after such long hiatuses, it'll be even more worth watching whether these events go off without any major hitches. After all, the first priority is of course that everyone stays safe and that we get the virus under control. And hopefully officials have put in place all the steps we need to do that.

And just maybe sometime soon things will truly be back to normal.

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