World

At the Australian Open, the sports world flirts with normality.

“It’s so good to see people.”

That was Naomi Osaka, the three-time Grand Slam champion, moments after her first-round win on Monday afternoon at the Australian Open. She stood at a microphone on the court at Rod Laver Arena and peered up at a crowd that seemed, if not normal, then something like it.

That was how it was on Monday across the grounds of Melbourne Park, where international sports returned, however temporarily, to something like it was before the pandemic.

Spectators lined up for tickets. They waited in security lines, pondered whether to order burgers or fish and chips, and decided how many $13 beers they could stomach.

The tournament could safely occur now only because the Grand Slam tennis season happens to start in a country that has arguably controlled Covid-19 better than anywhere else, thanks to months of enforced lockdowns, closed borders, and thorough testing and contact tracing. Just 909 people in Australia, which has a population of more than 25 million, have died of Covid-19. The country has averaged a half-dozen cases a day during the past two weeks, nearly all of them international arrivals.

Compromises have been made at this year’s event: Spectators are capped at 30,000 per day, about half the number that would usually attend. But their roars were appreciated more than ever.

“That’s one of the biggest motivations that we have, the source where we draw our energy and strength and motivation,” said Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1. “Especially at my age and stage of my career, I’m looking to feed off that energy from the crowd.”


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