MELBOURNE – Hey, Australian Open TV viewers: The crowd's loud clapping and mid-match chatter you hear on the telecasts are not real.
With all spectators banned from Melbourne Park by the Victoria state government for the time being because of a five-day lockdown in response to new COVID-19 cases in the area, Tennis Australia decided to artificially amplify the ambiance.
Or as the tournament organizers phrased it in a statement issued Sunday: “We are looking to do what we can to enhance the AO coverage without the crowds."
So when Serena Williams delivered one of her nine aces during her fourth-round victory, it might have seemed from afar as if that shot were greeted by raucous applause.
But Williams herself — and her opponent, Aryna Sabalenka — couldn't hear a thing, other than from the handful of credentialed player guests allowed in the seats.
It's similar to what was done for broadcasts from the U.S. Open in September, when fans were barred throughout the tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic. In New York, though, the manufactured sound initially was played live in the stadium, before eventually being cut off at the site and only used via TV.
The timing wasn't always perfectly spot-on, with the fake cheering occasionally sprouting up before a point actually ended.
Also piped in to the television feeds for the contests played in Rod Laver Arena were the sort of murmuring that might emanate from thousands of folks chatting with each other between points.
Another tweak to the tournament's main stadium, which can seat nearly 15,000 for tennis matches: Three lower sections at one end of the court were covered by a blue tarp decorated with the letters “AO” and images of the champions' trophies.
WHAT A DEBUT
The first man in 25 years to make it all the way to the quarterfinals of his Grand Slam debut put his accomplishment in perspective this way: “It’s like you never know when it happens. It just happened here.”
Aslan Karatsev is a 27-year-old Russian who is ranked 114th and needed to go through three rounds of qualifying just to get into the main draw at the Australian Open. Then he won his first match, his second, his third and, on Sunday, his fourth, eliminating two seeded players along the way.
With quick-strike, big-stroke tennis, he added a win over No. 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime — and what a win it was, erasing a two-set deficit to come out on top 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 — to an earlier victory over No. 8 Diego Schwartzman.
Karatsev plays No. 18 Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals.
As it is, he is only the third qualifier to get that far in Australia in the professional era, the first since Goran Ivanisevic in 1989. The last man to get to the round of eight in his first Grand Slam appearance was Alex Radulescu at Wimbledon in 1996.
And not since Patrick McEnroe — John's brother — in 1991 has a man ranked as low as 114th made it to the Australian Open quarterfinals.
A reporter wanted to know whether Karatsev has surprised himself over the past week.
“I try,” he said, arms crossed, “not to show that.”
And then he laughed at the excitement of it all.
A WAKEUP CALL
As entertaining a story-teller as she is a racket-swinger, Hsieh Su-wei traces the improvement that led to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at age 35 to — get ready for this — worrying her play was causing some important people to doze off.
She was playing at the French Open, and was losing, with her boyfriend's parents in the stands watching her compete for the first time.
“They look like they're going to fall asleep,” she recalled thinking to herself.
Determined to fix that, Hsieh said, this is what went through her mind at the time: “OK, now I don’t care what happens, I will try to (get) every ball, try to make it look little bit better. At least I want to see them a little bit awake.”
And the rest is history: Hsieh said she won that match and soon enough had her first victory over a Top 10 opponent.
Now she is the oldest woman in the professional era to get to her first major quarterfinal; Hsieh will face three-time major winner Naomi Osaka on Tuesday.
“She’s a free spirit," said Hsieh's coach, Paul McNamee. "It’s important that she’s allowed to express herself. That’s the same with her tennis. It kind of reflects the way she is off the court.”
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