Six tennis tournaments played simultaneously at one venue during a pandemic – that is the feat Melbourne Park is aiming to pull off next week.
After two weeks of quarantine – and no shortage of controversy – players will be warming up for the Australian Open.
Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal lead the field at the ATP Cup, one of three men’s events.
And top-ranked Ashleigh Barty plays her first match in almost a year in one of the three women’s events.
Andy Murray will not compete in Australia because he tested positive for coronavirus shortly before he was due to travel, but Johanna Konta, Dan Evans and Cameron Norrie are among the Britons in action as the site of the opening Grand Slam of the year opens it doors to fans and players a week before the major event begins.
The pre-Australian Open tournaments would usually take place in other cities across the country, including Brisbane and Adelaide, but have been moved to one place.
Proceedings have been under the spotlight and provide a small taste of the logistics that organisers of the postponed Tokyo Olympics will face if their Games are to go ahead this summer.
Quarantine over, let the competition begin
Melbourne had one of the world’s longest lockdowns last year and many locals have expressed concerns about the potential Covid risk posed by the Australian Open.
Unlike many European countries and the United States, which are fighting to contain the virus, Australia has not had a case of community transmission for 12 successive days and residents have regained many of their pre-Covid freedoms.
Tennis Australia chartered at least 15 flights to bring players and their entourages into the country earlier this month for a 14-day quarantine in preparation for the Australian Open, which was pushed back by three weeks.
Three flights had passengers who later tested positive for coronavirus, meaning that 72 players were confined full-time to their hotel rooms for two weeks.
One of the women’s events next week – the Grampians Trophy – is exclusively for players who have been in ‘hard’ quarantine.
Britain’s Heather Watson, who posted a video of her running 5K between the door and window in her hotel room, is among those competing in that tournament, which also features former Australian Open champions Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber, and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.
The remaining players who flew into Australia were also in quarantine but were allowed out for five hours of court practice a day.
While many players have spoken of their gratitude for having the opportunity to compete during the pandemic and posted light-hearted videos of innovative ways they have been training in their rooms, others have expressed frustration over quarantine conditions.
Tennis Australia says that while there are strict measures in place at the events – including social distancing, enhanced hygiene and cleaning protocols – the players will be able to stay at the accommodation of their choice and enjoy the city of Melbourne as they usually do now that the quarantine period is over.
There will be fans at the events although organisers say they still do not know exactly how many and have been planning for 25-50% capacity depending on the government regulations. Melbourne Park is being divided into three zones and fans will only be able to enter the one zone they have a ticket for.
Up to 30,000 fans a day will be allowed to attend the Australian Open.
Djokovic to lead Serbia’s ATP Cup defence
The highest-profile men’s event taking place is the ATP Cup, where Djokovic leads Serbia as they look to defend the title they won at last year’s inaugural team event.
Djokovic has faced wide criticism for asking Australian Open organisers to relax quarantine rules for players. He later said his letter was “misconstrued as being selfish, difficult and ungrateful” and he had only “good intentions”.
Nadal took an apparent swipe at his rival, saying not everyone felt the need to “advertise” how they were trying to help.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion represents a Spain side who are aiming to avenge their defeat by Serbia in the 2020 final.
US Open champion Dominic Thiem leads Austria, while ATP Finals champion Daniil Medvedev plays for Russia.
Britain, who agonisingly missed out on the semi-finals last year, did not qualify this time.
The event has been reduced to 12 countries from 24 last year. The 12 teams will be divided into four groups of three for a round-robin stage, with group winners advancing to the semi-finals.
Barty back and Williams warming up for history
Women’s number one and home favourite Ashleigh Barty will play her first competitive match in 11 months after missing much of last season because of coronavirus concerns.
She is playing in the Yarra Valley Classic, which also features last year’s Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams.
Williams, who will be launching her latest bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, and Barty were among a small group of leading players, including Nadal and Djokovic, who quarantined in Adelaide and played in an exhibition event there on Friday.
Meanwhile, three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka is in the draw for the Gippsland Trophy, where she is joined by world number two Simona Halep and Britain’s Johanna Konta.
Which events are the Brits playing at?
British number one Dan Evans and compatriot Cameron Norrie are playing at the Murray River Open, where world number 18 Stan Wawrinka is the top-ranked player and Australian Nick Kyrgios is also in action.
With many of the world’s best players involved in the ATP Cup, the fields at the two remaining men’s events have been weakened.
Francesca Jones, who has qualified for a Grand Slam main draw for the first time, features in the Yarra Valley Classic, while Katie Boulter joins British number one Konta at the Gippsland Trophy.
British doubles players are in action too, with Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury among those seeking some practice before the opening Grand Slam of the year.