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Novak Djokovic’s five-set battle at Australian Open started with fans and ended without them

Fans were forced out of Rod Laver Arena before Novak Djokovic's match could finish. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The Australian state of Victoria entered a five-day coronavirus lockdown to curb a local outbreak of the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain. The restrictions began at 11:59 p.m. local time Friday (7:59 a.m. Friday Eastern time) right as Novak Djokovic was entering the fifth set of his third-round Australian Open match against Taylor Fritz.

And so we were left with the peculiar sight of fans being forced to depart Rod Laver Arena before a taut match could be decided between the world’s No. 1 player, who was laboring through an injury, and an up-and-coming American.

Australia, in particular Melbourne and the surrounding state of Victoria, had reached a level of normalcy unseen in most other places around the globe thanks to a strict lockdown that kept the city’s residents in their homes for 23 hours per day over a 111-day stretch last year. The city effectively snuffed out the virus, allowing for what Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said would be a “covid-normal summer”: While some restrictions still were in effect, restaurants were allowed to reopen for in-person dining, bars and clubs started welcoming partygoers, and concerts were able to resume.

Fans also were allowed to return to stadiums, and this year’s Australian Open was more or less the world’s first major sporting event to allow spectators in any significant fashion with a daily allowance of 30,000 fans, or about 50 percent of Melbourne Park’s capacity. A sizable number of players were forced into a hard lockdown in their hotel rooms for two weeks because they shared flights with people who tested positive for coronavirus, and there was some grumbling about that, but all in all the tournament was seen as a refreshing step toward normalcy in a sports world that has seen little of it over the past year.

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But the crowds did not make it through the tournament’s first week. On Thursday night, the cluster of coronavirus cases at a hotel quarantine site near the Melbourne airport grew to 13, and Andrews was forced to mandate a five-day lockdown, a “short, sharp circuit breaker” as he called it. People will be allowed to leave their homes only for work, to shop for essential supplies, for care or caregiving, and for limited exercise, and schools will be closed to in-person learning Monday through Wednesday.

All gatherings, including at sporting events, were banned. And so at about 11:30 p.m. local time Friday, the fans watching Djokovic and Fritz were forced to leave the stadium with the match unfinished.

Djokovic, who’s hoping to add to his record tally of eight Australian Open titles, was able to pull out the 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 victory but appeared to injure his foot early in the third set and said afterward he didn’t know whether he would be able to continue in the tournament with Sunday’s fourth-round match against Milos Raonic.

“I’m just hopeful that whatever is happening [with the injury] will feel better,” Djokovic said. “Toward the end of the fourth [set] it started to feel better. The third and fourth sets I just served and couldn’t do much on the return … and it worked, it worked well. This is definitely one of the more special wins in my life.”

Andrews allowed the Australian Open to continue “because these people are at their workplace.” Players and their direct support teams and essential staff members not able to work from home will be the only people allowed to enter Melbourne Park.

“It will be happening, but there’ll be no one there watching it,” he said. “I don’t have advice to cancel the event on the basis that it’s unsafe.”

Seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams defeated Anastasia Potapova on Friday to advance to the fourth round. The impending lockdown was announced in the middle of her match.

“I think it’s good that I didn’t know. … It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone,” Williams said. “It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here.”

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