The 2021 Australian Open is officially underway at Melbourne Park and things are looking a little different from previous years. From face masks to reduced crowds, here's everything you need to know about this year's tournament and the first major of the year.
What is the current COVID-19 situation in Melbourne?
There are currently just two active community-based cases in the state of Victoria, and both of those cases are isolating, as per regulations. One of those two cases was diagnosed on Sunday evening, with the other being announced earlier in the week. Both are workers at different quarantine hotels in Melbourne's CBD. In addition to the two community-based cases, there are 18 other active cases in the state, all of which are returned travellers currently isolating in hotel quarantine.
What are the current COVID-19 protocols for fans, players and the media?
Upon notice of the community case found last week, the Victorian government reintroduced an updated mask mandate; masks are currently required when travelling on public transport, taxis or rideshare vehicles, and in indoor settings such as in shopping centers and supermarkets.
This means fans are required to wear masks at indoor stadiums such as Rod Laver Arena, John Cain Arena and Margaret Court Arena when the roofs are closed. Auxiliary workers such as security workers and event staff are required to wear masks at all times. Fans are only permitted to take their masks off when eating and drinking. Players, on the other hand, have been offered a little more freedom. They must wear masks while in transit from their hotels to Melbourne Park but do not need to when warming up or playing matches.
Players are also able to move freely around the entire precinct (while fans are restricted to specific zones, which we'll explain later), and once again have access to the recently built player-only facilities just outside Rod Laver Arena.
Even in the media rooms, masks are required to be worn at all times, coffees are now delivered to work desks to avoid unnecessary congregations in the tea room, and news conferences will now be completed with a mix of in-person and online questions, due to the limited seating in the news conference rooms in order to abide by social distancing guidelines.
Tennis Australia has also launched a health and safety mobile application, which all accredited personnel must complete each day prior to entering the complex. It consists of three questions, checking if you feel healthy and have any cold and flu symptoms.
What are the testing protocols for players in and around the event?
After completing their mandatory 14-day quarantine in the state's "hotel quarantine" program, players are now being treated as regular citizens, so to speak.
However, last week, when a hotel quarantine worker tested positive from a hotel at which players are staying, players were again required to get a test and self-isolate until a negative test was returned.
What are the major on-court differences this year?
The first thing fans might notice when tuning into the Australian Open this year is the lack of linespeople. For the first time ever at a major, technology will be used instead of linespeople to determine whether a ball was in or out. This will eliminate the need for player challenges and require fewer people on the court.
Ball kids will still be on courts, albeit with a reduced workload. They have also been instructed not to get too close to the players. As a result, players must fetch their own towels and water bottles between points, something which is likely to slow down play.
Everyone else on court, aside from the players, chair umpire and ball kids, must wear a face mask at all times; this includes photographers, commentators and security guards.
Prize money has also been a talking point in Melbourne with the 2021 singles winners receiving AU$2.75 million, a 33% drop from the AU$4.12 million check Novak Djokovic and Sofia Kenin pocketed last year. However, a first-round exit this year will net you AU$100,000, an 11% rise from last year.
What are the major differences between last year and this year around the grounds?
Surprisingly, the Melbourne Park grounds look staggeringly similar to what fans and players have become accustomed to over recent years. Garden Square, outside Rod Laver Arena, is once again packed full of sun lounges, only this year patrons must scan a QR code and "check-in" when they sit down to watch the action on the big screen. Food trucks are in place on the lawns outside John Cain Arena and the famed Aperol Spritz bar has also made a welcomed return.
The main change fans must get their heads around in 2021 is the three "zones" being implemented at Melbourne Park. Each zone provides access to one of the three main arenas, as well as a selection of entertainment and food and beverage options. When purchasing tickets, fans need to select the zone they wish to be stationed in. They must then enter at their designated entrance and are unable to move between zones. No longer can fans purchase ground passes and roam around the complex.
Digital tickets have replaced traditional paper tickets to support contact tracing and unnecessary reduced shared contact. Hand sanitizer stations have been set up throughout the precinct, while cashless transactions will be the only way you can make purchases during the Slam. The cleaning of high-touch areas, such as handrails, door handles and bathrooms, will be conducted after each session of play.
Due to government restrictions on mass gatherings, a significant reduction in crowds can be expected this year. The maximum number of fans allowed through the gates is 30,000 per day, almost 50% down on previous years, though still significantly higher than what we saw in New York and Paris last year.