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Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, out of quarantine, thankful to play in front of thousands of fans

Spectators look on during a match between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem during Friday's exhibition tournament ahead of the Australian Open. (Morgan Sette/Reuters)

A ray of optimism emerged from the gloomy drama preceding this year’s Australian Open on Friday, when fans packed the stands to watch some of the sport’s biggest names in Adelaide.

The exhibition event, which included Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal, was the first in a series of tuneup tournaments ahead of the Australian Open, which begins Feb. 8.

The sight encouraged viewers and players, who competed in front of a reported 4,000 fans, many not wearing masks.

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic received treatment for a blister on his right hand and missed the start of his scheduled exhibition match against Jannik Sinner. He rotated in for fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic in the second set, later crediting his return to the cheering crowd.

“First of all, thank you so much for coming out and making our day and making our year. We didn’t play in front of this much crowd for 12 months, so this is definitely something very special,” he said during his post-match interview. “We learn over the years to play with the pain. … But the emotion was so strong in me to come out on the court today seeing almost full stands — I had to play.”

Djokovic’s appearance followed his withdrawal from the exhibition less than an hour before, citing a right hand injury. It was the latest twist in a series of episodes involving him and other competitors.

Djokovic, an eight-time Australian Open champion, had previously proposed and then apologized for a list of “demands” to accommodate players in Melbourne, about 450 miles southeast from where Friday’s exhibition took place.

Those proposals stemmed from some players’ complaints about hotel conditions after they arrived in Melbourne. Players and personnel were flown to Australia this month, but 72 players were funneled into a 14-day quarantine and confined to their hotel rooms because their flights included passengers who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Players were unable to leave their rooms for practice or meals ahead of the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. One player likened the experience to prison and later apologized; some have been accused of feeding uninvited guests; and others have found creative ways to cope.

Djokovic was quarantined in Adelaide under less restrictive conditions along with Williams, Osaka and the sport’s top stars. Their event was the only tuneup competition held in Adelaide. The others, which begin next week, will be in Melbourne.

The Australian Open’s restrictions, which allowed players who were not on affected flights to practice outside for five hours daily, come amid the country’s success in managing the pandemic. Australia has had fewer than 29,000 coronavirus cases (compared with roughly 26 million in the United States) and has an estimated 78 active cases in the country of 25 million. It has employed strict national and local government regulations, which include mandatory mask-wearing and extended lockdowns. The country also restricts travel from overseas.

That success, and the risk that players and their entourages invite, led players to thank the crowd in Adelaide.

“We haven’t played in front of a crowd in over a year, so it’s been a really long time. So this is really cool, and then for having us and trusting us with your laws was great,” Williams said after her match against Osaka. “We were so happy just to be here, and now it’s worth it.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

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