Preparation for this year’s Australian Open has been unlike anything these professional tennis players have previously experienced.
Some have been through a “hard quarantine” and unable to leave their hotel rooms at all for 14 days, while others have been allowed out to practice for limited hours during the day.
However, there is one element of the upcoming tournament, set to begin on February 8, that will at least give the players some sense of normalcy.
For the first time at a grand slam since last year’s Australian Open, players will be met by the noise of a significant number of fans in the stands.
Victoria state sports minister Martin Pakula announced Saturday that up to 30,000 supporters per day will be permitted entry when the tournament gets underway, around 50% normal capacity. This will drop to a limit of 25,000 people a day for the last five days when there are less matches.
For certain players, like defending champion Sofia Kenin, it cannot be understated just how much of a boost a noisy and energetic crowd can provide to their game at crucial moments in a match.
“I think everyone obviously wanted the fans to be there,” Kenin told CNN Sport’s Christina Macfarlane from lockdown in her Melbourne hotel room
“Everyone wanted to reconnect with them and somehow get life back to normal, because obviously the whole year without any fans, it was a big toll I’m sure on everybody, especially on me.
“But I think we will all reunite, finally have some entertainment, have some excitement, you know, finally seeing the stands filled, maybe not 100%, but at least filled and some great energy coming from the fans and I think it’s exciting because obviously everyone missed it. No one saw it.
“I think it’s going to be quite loud, to be honest … for sure when the slam starts. Also for the fans, they obviously miss seeing their favorite players play and they obviously want to be there and support their favorite players. So obviously it’s going to be exciting and just finally going to be somewhat normal. I honestly cannot wait.
“I have great memories here. I’ve got my fans here, I’m excited to see them. I feel like it’s going to be a big change for everyone, especially myself. Finally having that atmosphere, finally bringing some positivity to the game. The atmosphere is going to be high, loud, everybody cheering and I think it’s going to be really exciting for us to play finally in front of our fans.”
Kenin was not among the 72 players required to undergo a “hard quarantine” on arrival in Melbourne. The 22-year-old was permitted to practice on a court for five hours a day, but had to spend the remaining 19 hours in her hotel room.
Complaints from some players about their quarantine conditions prompted a backlash from some Australians, who were frustrated with the preferential treatment afforded to the Australian Open stars. In December, tens of thousands of Australian citizens and permanent residents were unable to return home due to the country’s strict international arrival caps.
On Tuesday, 2009 Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that some players needed to have a “wider perspective,” something the philosophical Kenin has plenty of.
“It’s obviously the first time I’ve ever experienced something like this,” she said. “But I’m obviously grateful for starters to Tennis Australia, to the Australian government for allowing us to be here. I know it’s tough with other people who live here and they can’t come here, so I’m obviously really grateful that we’re able to come.
“The tournament is going to happen now, an Australian Open, so obviously I’m really thankful for that. I know how hard it is on everyone, you know, trying to do everything and everyone is doing a great job. Craig [Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia] is doing a great job arranging things, Tennis Australia is doing everything [they can].
“Obviously it’s a little bit different, but this is what it is. I knew this was going to happen. I was told that it was going to be two weeks strict quarantine, five hours you’re leaving the hotel room and then 19 hours in the room, but luckily I have a great room. It’s like a master suite. So, you know, I can’t really complain, but I’m just grateful for this whole situation.
“I’m at least going out, even if it’s five hours and trying to do the best I can in those hours to make the most time of it.”
While the coronavirus pandemic meant 2020 became a complicated year for so many, for Kenin, it ended up being her breakout season.
She followed up her victory at the Australian Open by reaching the final of the rescheduled French Open, where she lost to Poland’s Iga Swiatek.
Kenin’s performances have seen her rise to No. 4 in the world rankings and she knows that coming into a grand slam as the defending champion for the first time in her career means she will have a target on her back.
“It’s really special to go into the tournament and knowing I’m the defending champion,” Kenin said, explaining that she feels mentally and physically prepared despite having to quarantine.
“There’s pros and cons with that, but it’s a good challenge for me and I’m happy to face this challenge. It’s exciting and I obviously know it’s going to be tough.
“People will obviously try to play better against me. I mean, I guess everybody. When they play me, I feel like it’s going to be a little bit tougher for me because, you know, they obviously have no pressure, but I’m just doing the best I can. I feel like I’m in form, I’m playing well and, you know, it’s a new year. So let’s just see how it goes. I’m just going to do my best.”