Melbourne – The sixth day of the Australian Open is usually one of the best attended of the tournament, but there was an eerie silence around Melbourne Park as play got underway on Saturday.
A five-day lockdown to try to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 came into effect just before midnight on Friday, restricting Victoria's six million residents to their homes and shutting fans out of the tournament.
The shops, bars and restaurants around the tournament site, usually teeming with fans, were shuttered and the only noise was the chatter of the mask-wearing workers deemed essential — police, security guards, match officials and media — to the proceedings.
Tennis players also fall into that official classification for the next five days in Melbourne, and 20 of them got back to work in front of empty stands in two singles and four doubles matches on Saturday.
For the duration of the lockdown, the players will be transported between a Melbourne Park "bubble" and their residences, where they will endure the same restrictions as everyone else.
The players, perhaps aware of the backlash in Melbourne that followed some complaints about restrictions in the early days of their pre-tournament hotel quarantines, have accepted the lockdown with equanimity.
They still miss the fans.
"I was so happy yesterday morning when I thought I would be playing in front of a big crowd," Karolina Muchova said after her win over Karolina Pliskova on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena, which usually holds almost 15,000 fans.
"Unlucky now for five days but hopefully they will come back. It's definitely better with fans."
There was an anti-lockdown protest involving some 200-300 people outside the gates of Melbourne Park on Friday evening, but most of the people of the city also appear to have accepted that the sacrifice is necessary.
"I'm a big tennis fanatic, so it's bittersweet," Desi Day told Reuters late on Friday. "I know that it has to happen, but at the same time I'm super disappointed."
The lockdown disrupted the match between No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Taylor Fritz late Friday night.
In extraordinary scenes, the match was suspended at 11:30 p.m. in order to clear Rod Laver Arena before Victoria state's midnight lockdown.
Fritz was on his way to pulling even in the five-set clash with an injured Djokovic when the players where told to leave the court as marshals ensured spectators left.
"To be honest, like, completely honest, it's absolutely ridiculous that at a Grand Slam match we're asked to leave the court for 10 minutes in the middle of the match, in the middle of the fourth set," he said after his 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 loss against Djokovic.
"That shouldn't be a thing at a Grand Slam.
"I understand the fact that Victoria is going back into lockdown and people have to go. If that's the case, then we shouldn't have played tonight if we weren't going to finish the match on time."
Organizers are hoping fans — albeit restricted to 25,000 a day — will be back in the stands starting Thursday and through the semifinals and finals next weekend.
The action went on without the fans on Saturday.
Former world No. 1 Pliskova was docked a point for smashing her racquet off the court and was soon on her way out of the tournament.
The frustrated No. 6 seed was out of sorts throughout and lost to 24-year-old Muchova 7-5, 7-5 in 1 hour, 54 minutes in the all-Czech third-round clash.
"I'm definitely happy to make it through in two sets. We were both nervous," Muchova said.
After Pliskova lost a tight first set, she took her frustration out on her racquet which cost her a code violation.
She then walked into the players' tunnel to inflict further damage, but it was seen by an official who informed chair umpire Alison Hughes resulting in her losing a point for a second code violation.
"It's off court, I'm allowed to do what I want," Pliskova pleaded.
"Not during a match, you can't," replied Hughes.
The incident seemed to spark Pliskova, who rattled off five consecutive games before inexplicably falling apart. She was broken twice on serve trying to close it out before Muchova, the No. 25 seed, inflicted a third break to complete the victory.
Pliskova, 28, is regarded as one of the best female players to have never won a Grand Slam, having risen to world No. 1 in July 2017.
Now ranked sixth, Pliskova made the semifinals at the 2019 Australian Open, where she lost in three sets to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.
In other matches, Jennifer Brady defeated Kaja Juvan 6-1, 6-3 while Jessica Pegula defeated Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-1 and Elina Svitolina was a 6-4, 6-0 winner over Yulia Putintseva.
In men's action, Daniil Medvedev was forced to dig deep to fight off a charging Filip Krajinovic but came through 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0 to extend his winning streak to 17 matches and join the Russian charge into the fourth round.
The frustrated No. 4 seen forced his coach Gilles Cervara from the otherwise empty stands at Rod Laver Arena with a couple of verbal volleys after dropping his first set of the tournament and going a break down in the fourth.
Krajinovic, who spent his pre-tournament quarantine practicing with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, found success preying on Medvedev's forehand and rode the momentum to send the contest into a fifth set.
A second trip to the toilets did the trick for Medvedev, however, and he broke the Serbian to go up 2-0 in the decider with a forehand winner.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.