Not-so-happy Slam: Australian Open to start under Covid shadow

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The Australian Open is known as the "Happy Slam" for its convivial atmosphere but the coronavirus has cast dark clouds over this year's build-up and could cause more chaos during the next fortnight.

The on-court focus is familiar: Novak Djokovic is going for a record-extending ninth title and Serena Williams will attempt to match Margaret Court's all-time mark of 24 Grand Slam singles trophies when the action starts on Monday.

But in other respects it will be an Australian Open like no other, with attendances reduced by half and social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and sanitising stations around Melbourne Park.

Even diminished crowds will be a welcome sight for Grand Slam tennis fans, after last year's Wimbledon was cancelled, the US Open took place behind closed doors and spectator numbers were severely restricted at the delayed French Open.

Aggressive travel restrictions and lockdowns have made Australia virtually virus-free, allowing it to be one of the few countries around the world where fans can attend live sporting events.

However, officials will be wary of further problems from Covid-19, which ruined the tournament's run-up and caused grumbling from players and Melbourne residents alike.

The year's first Grand Slam is starting three weeks late, which has allowed players to complete Australia's 14-day quarantine and take part in a hectic week of warm-up tournaments at Melbourne Park.

Preparations were thrown into fresh chaos on Wednesday, when a coronavirus case -- the city's first locally acquired infection in 28 days -- forced a suspension of play as hundreds of players and officials were tested. All results came back negative.

Tournament director Craig Tiley, who has faced complaints from players over quarantine, and public anger over the Covid risk of flying in competitors and officials from abroad, said he was prepared to order a further halt if necessary.

"If we have to go through this again, we'll go through this again," he warned.

The helter-skelter lead-in took another twist when Sunday's final of the WTA Grampians Trophy, one of six warm-up tournaments this week at Melbourne Park, was cancelled due to lack of time.

- Younger generation -

The tournament has underlined the complexity of organising international sport during the pandemic, as Japanese officials wrestle with holding the Tokyo Olympics safely later this year.

But barring any more coronavirus problems, US Open champion Naomi Osaka of Japan will open the tournament in the first match on Rod Laver Arena Monday morning against Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Djokovic's main rival shapes as his old sparring partner Rafael Nadal, who is gunning to take sole ownership of the all-time Grand Slams record with his 21st title -- outstripping the injury-sidelined Roger Federer.

However, Spain's Nadal has been nursing a sore back which prevented him playing in last week's ATP Cup and with his only Australian Open win now 12 years ago, it could time for the younger generation to step up.

Austria's Dominic Thiem came close in last year's five-set final against Djokovic, and is riding high after breaking through for his first major title at the US Open.

Daniil Medvedev, who led Russia to their maiden ATP Cup triumph on Sunday, and Germany's Alexander Zverev are also leading contenders for a first Grand Slam win, after both reached major finals in the last two years.

Osaka, 23, is the leading women's prospect and the draw means she could face Williams, 39, in the semi-final.

Williams has given birth to a daughter and lost four Grand Slam finals since her 2017 win -- while pregnant -- in Melbourne left her on 23 major trophies, one short of Court's record.

Ashleigh Barty, still world number one despite hardly playing last year, can become the first Australian winner for 43 years.

Barty swept past in-form two-time major-winner Garbine Muguruza, last year's Australian Open runner-up, to win the warm-up Yarra Valley Classic in straight sets on Sunday and will have a day's rest before beginning her assault on a second Grand Slam title on Tuesday.

Defending champion Sofia Kenin, French Open winner Iga Swiatek, world number two Simona Halep and two-time Australian Open winner Viktoria Azarenka could also have a say in what looks a wide-open and intriguing women's competition.

th/dh