Australian Open 2021: Ashleigh Barty brings cheer for host country as crowd-less event falls quiet


Melbourne: World No 1 Ashleigh Barty gave long-suffering Melbourne something to cheer as the home hope swept into the Australian Open last-16 at an empty Margaret Court Arena following a snap coronavirus lockdown on Saturday.

Barty said it was “very strange” to play behind closed doors, a day after more than 22,000 fans visited Melbourne Park, as the five-day, state-wide lockdown went into force.

Barty’s straightforward 6-2, 6-4 win over Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova put her into the fourth round without dropping a set as she bids to become the first Australian winner since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

“It’s very strange, it changes the sound in the court a little bit,” Barty said of the empty, 7,500-seat stadium.

“Maybe a little bit rude of me, but I quite liked the sound. Man, I love the crowd but I love the sound the ball makes. It kind of felt a little bit like practice.”

Six million people in Victoria state, including Melbourne, returned to lockdown after an outbreak of the highly contagious UK strain at an airport hotel.

Australia’s second-biggest city only emerged from a four-month shutdown in October and has since stayed virtually virus-free.

The latest curbs triggered bizarre scenes late on Friday as Novak Djokovic’s injury-hit win over Taylor Fritz was suspended at 11:30 pm local time to remove fans before the midnight lockdown.

The defending champion’s tournament now hangs in the balance over the midriff injury he said could rule him out of his last-16 match against Milos Raonic.

Djokovic, the record eight-time Australian Open winner, skipped training and sought medical advice and treatment on Saturday. He is scheduled to play Canada’s Raonic late on Sunday.

The loss of Djokovic would be another blow for the tournament, reducing the men’s ‘Big Three’ to just one — Rafael Nadal — with Roger Federer already sidelined by injury.

‘Different vibe’

As play unfolded in Melbourne Park’s empty arenas on Saturday, former World No 1 Karolina Pliskova had a racquet-smashing tantrum en route to a 7-5, 7-5 defeat by fellow Czech Karolina Muchova.

Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina beat Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 6-0, and Russia’s men’s fourth seed Daniil Medvedev overcame buttock pain and a mid-match lapse in his 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0 win over Filip Krajinovic of Serbia.

“It’s a different atmosphere, different vibe,” said Greece’s World No 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, after his 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Mikael Ymer.

“But if I can win my next matches, the crowd will be back. It’s just five days, and I’ll be happy to see them back.”

Tsitsipas beat Ymer in a silent John Cain Arena — which was packed with thousands of noisy fans late on Friday for Australian player Nick Kyrgios’s defeat by Dominic Thiem.

In the same venue, Matteo Berrettini beat Russian seed Karen Khachanov 7-6 (7/1), 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/5) to set up a meeting with Tsitsipas.

“I really miss the crowd, I have to be honest,” said the Italian ninth seed.

“Looking at a stadium like this and seeing it empty is not the best feeling. But we’re living in really tough times.”


Times2 Desk
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