It’s no secret that major sporting events aren’t getting the television viewership this year that they normally do. There’s a bunch of reasons for that, all likely stemming from the ongoing nightmare of Covid, which throws every part of human existence into some state of confusion. But you want to know a sporting event that really not a lot of folks in American want to watch – the Australian Open. Most of that is for the same reason we don’t watch every year – it’s tennis, and it airs in the middle of the night. So for a lot of us, the Aussie Open is something we watch when we’re about to fall asleep, then watch again when we first wake up, oblivious to the fact that they were playing the whole time.
This year, though, it’s a bit weirder. While the US plows through its herd immunity strategy, Australia has largely avoided the intense virus spikes that plagued much of the Western world. There’s a lot of reasons for that, obviously including the fact that they’re pretty much a giant island in the middle of nowhere. But also because unlike us, they have rules and tend to follow them. Which is why they approached this major tennis tournament unlike anything we could imagine in the US. Namely, after quarantining athletes for a fortnight, they were able to hold their Grand Slam tennis tournament almost like a grand slam tennis tournament, where you weren’t worried that the guy sitting next might get you sick." class="wysiwyg-break drupal-content" src="/sites/all/modules/contrib/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif" title="<--break-->">
That lasted until it didn’t, which came last Friday as the clock struck midnight. That was when all fans were asked to leave the grounds – in the middle of a third round match featuring world number one men’s player Novak Djokovic, no less – and head to wherever they live or stay to enter another five day lockdown to halt the spread from a cluster of 19 cases from a hotel. Now to be clear, a cluster of 19 cases in the US is called Monday. In Australia, it means they shut down everything but essential services, and residents can only leave their house for an hour a day and go no further than three miles from home. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between there and here, and also why we can’t have nice things.
It also means that fans couldn’t attend the Open for five days, putting a damper on an event that was doing its very best to give us hope. So for the past five days, any clapping you’ve heard from watching tennis is either fake or part of a dream you’re having. Which probably has made the Australian Open less exciting for the TV viewers, the players, and pretty much anyone who had tickets. Also making it less exciting is that three of the top men’s players in the world are out, including Roger Federer, who never even started. For most Americans outside of nocturnal tennis fans, the only real draw left is Serena Williams, both to watch her chase history with a 24th grand slam and to check out what kind of suit she’s wearing for the match, perhaps not in that order.
Regardless of the Covid setbacks, the tournament will reach its conclusion this weekend as how they pretty much all do – with Serena and Novak winning the title. So in that regard, it’s the same as it ever was. But this Australian Open does raise questions. Tournament organizers went to great lengths to make this happen, despite great fears of bringing in outsiders to a country that had largely shut its borders. And I suppose because of that, are going to cross the Rubicon without a major outbreak of players and staff. So that’s pretty good, and should be a glimmer of hope to anyone who likes not watching replays of games they saw last year. That said, even with the best of intentions and strategies, they still couldn’t manage two weeks without the city going back on lockdown, something that seems nearly impossible to conceive a full year into the crisis. It’s also a warning shot to the upcoming Summer Olympics, which is basically like hosting dozens of Australian Opens at the same time. And it begs the question, when it comes to hosting sporting events, what does success look like? Does it look like the Australian Open, where we made it but not without quarantine? Is that the new goal line?
Of course, that’s impossible to answer, and it’s a moving target, especially with vaccines on the way. Besides, I’m fairly certain most Americans aren’t watching right now anyway
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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