Fears that locals will turn their backs on the forthcoming Australian Open were heightened on Saturday as the multiple build-up events degenerated into a shambles.
The final of one of the women’s tournaments was abandoned altogether as the tactical-looking withdrawals of former champions continued amid a backlog of matches ahead of the Open‘s Monday start.
A combination of factors are working against normally buoyant ticket sales, not helped by a succession of stars choosing to save themselves for the main event.
Australian Open organisers admitted that ticket sales for the Grand Slam have gone down
A crowd of just 40 people watched Dan Evans reach the Murray River Open final on Saturday
For British men’s No 1 Dan Evans it has been full steam ahead, and on Sunday morning he is due to play the final of the Murray River Open, one of six tournaments laid on to try and get the players in the best shape possible for the next fortnight.
The 30-year-old Midlander was going for his first ATP title when he faced rising Canadian star Felix Auger-Aliassime. Evans comfortably saw off Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-2, 6-2 in the semi-final.
However, only 40 spectators were in the stands to watch, in line with a build-up week that has been marked by acres of empty seats around the huge Melbourne Park complex.
Rafael Nadal (left) and Serena Williams (right) have both pulled out of their warm-up events
Tennis Australia will be hoping that normally sports-mad Melburnians are saving themselves for the two-week extravaganza, which begins on Sunday at midnight UK time.
The host governing body have gone to huge lengths and expense to stage warm-ups for the players, and might be entitled to feel that no good deed goes unpunished.
Saturday’s schedule was affected by three former winners pulling out of their matches citing minor injuries: Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka. Already two male ex-champions, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal, had withdrawn from matches they were expected to play for the same reason.
One of the women’s events, the Grampians Trophy, was announced as having its two winning semi-finalists share the title after delays caused by weather and Thursday’s mass emergency Covid testing following a positive case at the main player hotel.
The host governing body have gone to huge lengths and expense to stage warm-up events
The Grampians Trophy quickly became known as the ‘Lockdown Trophy’ because it was specially laid on for the women who were forced to do 14 days’ full quarantine with no daily release. It will now find its place as a slightly embarrassing footnote in the history of the game.
The Open last year attracted a massive 812,000 spectators over the fortnight, but there is no danger of that record being overhauled this time.
Understandable Covid caution and resentment of previous player whinging when many Australians continue to be stranded overseas are among the factors in play.
Unseasonably miserable weather has also conspired against the authorities. Monday is due to be relatively cold and Osaka even sported a woollen beanie at her Saturday press conference. Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley admitted that ticket sales have been facing headwinds.
‘They (tickets) go through periods where there are uncertainties like Thursday when they were flat. Next week when players start to play it will be great again. You guys are going to talk it up I know. I am pretty confident. It hasn’t been easy but nothing good comes easy.’
Melbourne Park was deathly quiet the weekend before the Australian Open is due to start
Ground passes that allow fans to roam Melbourne Park without restriction are not on offer this year while the local return to school and border travel restrictions will also blight attendances.
Melbourne Park was deathly quiet the weekend before the Open and looked exactly as you would expect in a city ravaged by a pandemic.
But Monday when the concession stores and more food and drinks outlets open should hopefully see an upturn.
‘We are going to be here to pull it off for Melburnians, for Australians, for our fans,’ Tiley said.