MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tennis fans will be able to return to the Australian Open starting Thursday after the Victorian government announced the easing of its recently implemented COVID-19 restrictions.
After lengthy discussions between Tennis Australia and the state government, it was agreed that 7,477 fans -- approximately 50% of Rod Laver Arena's capacity -- would be able to attend each session, beginning Thursday morning. It's unclear if the crowd cap will rise ahead of the weekend's finals.
The state was placed into a snap five-day "circuit-breaker" lockdown last Friday following a series of virus outbreaks in Melbourne's suburbs that took Victoria's active coronavirus case tally to 13.
The bulk of these cases were linked to Melbourne Airport's Holiday Inn and all were presumed to be the UK strain of the virus, which is proving to be highly contagious and more difficult to contain than the original variant.
Victoria has recorded just 12 additional cases of the virus since the lockdown began, taking the active tally to 25, while no new cases have been detected in the past 24 hours from more than 39,000 tests.
"We look forward to welcoming fans back to the Australian Open for the next four days and to finishing the event safely and on a high," said tournament director Craig Tiley. "Last week we had our first real experience of live sport with fans in the stands and the atmosphere was electric.
"The players appreciated the opportunity to compete in front of crowds for the first time in almost a year, and many spoke about how emotional it was to connect with fans again."
On Wednesday morning, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed the Stage 4 restrictions -- which prevent residents from leaving their homes for any reason other than work, shopping for groceries, giving or receiving medical care and exercise -- would be lifted.
"I'm very, very pleased to announce that the restrictions will come off, almost all of them, at midnight tonight," said Andrews. "From 11:59 p.m. tonight, the restrictions will be dropped [but] masks will be required indoors and outdoors when you can't socially distance."
The announcement means tennis fans will be able to make their way back to Melbourne Park for the semifinals and finals of the Australian Open, a massive boost for Tennis Australia, which was already dealing with a crowd cap of 30,000 spectators per day, before the lockdown began late last week.
Through the opening 10 days, 98,512 fans have attended the tournament, while at the same stage in 2020, the figure was 650,138.
The Australian Open women's semifinals begin Thursday, highlighted by 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams facing Japan's Naomi Osaka in a highly anticipated rematch of the 2018 US Open final. American Jennifer Brady will take on Karolina Muchova, who ousted Australian world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, in the other semifinal.
Meanwhile, in the men's draw, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic booked his place in the last four after defeating Alexander Zverev in four sets. Djokovic will face qualifier Aslan Karatsev. In the other semifinal, world No. 4 Daniil Medvedev will play the winner of 20-time major champion Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas.