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Australian Open eyes record-breaking crowds, but Djokovic questions remain

Tickets go on sale for the 2023 Australian Open today, with organisers targeting a record-breaking attendance of 900,000 visitors.

After two years of capped crowd capacities, quarantined players and the odd deportation, Australia’s grand slam will look to move past the COVID era.

From January 16 to 29, organisers have promised three weeks of activities, music and events around a revamped Melbourne Park precinct.

Here are the major talking points heading into the 2023 tournament.

What will a tournament without COVID rules look like?

The 2023 Australian Open will mark the first time since 2020 that the tournament is played without COVID restrictions.

Full capacities are expected at Melbourne Park next year, with players no longer required to stay in hotel quarantine or undergo daily rapid antigen tests as they were in pandemic years.

Craig Tiley says he hopes more than 900,000 people will attend the 2023 Australian Open.(ABC News: Chris Le Page)

Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said the tournament would be bigger than ever following two COVID-affected years.

“We’ve been through a bit of a rough patch for a few years and we’re going into what is going to be an absolutely bumper 2023,” Mr Tiley said.

“Our ambition … is to have more than 900,000 people come through the gate.”

Ticket sales were paused for the 2022 tournament as a result of Victoria’s worsening COVID wave.

Grass in front of Rod Laver Arena with colourful mats laid out about a metre apart, some people lying on them.
Spectators were encouraged to socially distance during the 2022 Australian Open.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

Mr Tiley said the previous attendance record for the tournament was around 820,000 people.

He said the rate of pre-sales for tickets was already breaking records.

“It’s a trajectory we expect to continue, record-breaking significantly — double-digit percentage increases — and that’s against our best year prior to the pandemic,” he said.

A dedicated kid’s day, a three-day music festival and staged practice matches will be held in an attempt to break the attendance record.

Will Novak Djokovic play?

Controversy over Novak Djokovic’s vaccination and visa status overshadowed the 2022 Australian Open, and questions of whether the Serb will play next year are still being raised.

Djokovic had his visa cancelled and was deported from Australia in January after a protracted legal battle and is currently serving a three-year ban on entering the country.

While the ban can be overturned at the discretion of the federal government, Victorian Sport Minister Steve Dimopoulos said the state government had no plans to go in to bat for Djokovic at a federal level.

Shadow Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, who was home affairs minister at the time of the decision, told ABC Radio Melbourne there was no reason Djokovic should be given special treatment.

“It would be a slap in the face for those people in Australia who did the right thing, got vaccinated, did everything they needed to do if all of a sudden, Novak Djokovic is allowed back into the country, simply because he is a high-ranking tennis player with many millions of dollars,” Ms Andrews said.

A picture of a tennis player in blue and a woman in a red dress
Former Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews says there is no reason Djokovic’s ban should be overturned.(AP: Seth Wenig/ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Mr Tiley said that the decision was not Tennis Australia’s to make, but that Djokovic would be invited to play if eligible.

“Right now, [it’s] between him and the federal government and needs to be resolved on his entry to Australia,” Mr Tiley said.

“We will always welcome him back, he’s a nine-time champion.”

Djokovic’s ranking as world number seven belies his strong form, having claimed his 21st grand slam title in July at a ranking points-stripped Wimbledon.

After handily beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets to win the Astana Open on Sunday, the Serb would remain a firm favourite should he be allowed to compete in Melbourne next January.

Will Russians be allowed to play?

The ATP’s and WTA’s decision to strip Wimbledon of its ranking points due to its exclusionary policy towards Russian and Belarusian players will not be implemented at Melbourne Park.

Mr Tiley said no restrictions had been placed on the eligibility of players from countries involved in the Ukraine conflict.

“At this point, Russian and Belarusian players will be eligible to play at the Australian Open,” he said.

A man stands between two trophies.
Craig Tiley says Russian players will not be able to represent their country.(ABC News: Chris Le Page)

“The only difference will be that they cannot represent Russia, cannot represent the flag of Russia, cannot participate in any activity such as the anthem of Russia and have to play as independent players.”

Mr Tiley also announced that Tennis Australia would hold a fundraising event during the tournament for the people of Ukraine. 

What does the end of the Barty Party mean for the Open?

In her final professional appearance, Ashleigh Barty wrote her name into Australian tennis folklore, becoming the first Australian to win on home soil since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

In a dominating performance, Barty lost just three service games in the entire tournament.

The 26-year-old’s retirement has left a major void in the women’s bracket, with Number 35 in the world Ajla Tomljanovic the next highest ranked Australian.

tennis player ash barty swings a racket at a moving tennis ball, her face looks like she is breathing heavily
Ash Barty retired just two months after winning the 2022 Australian Open.(AAP: Joe Castro)

Tomljanovic starred at the 2022 US Open, knocking out veteran Serena Williams in what may have been Williams’s last ever match.

Mr Tiley said Williams had not indicated whether she would participate in the Australian Open or not.

“The question is going to be: is Serena coming?” Mr Tiley said.

“We don’t know that yet. Has she retired? She has indicated that she has but we would love to always see Serena and Roger [Federer] in any capacity back here at the Australian Open.”

Mr Tiley said conversations had been ongoing to have Barty, Williams and Federer involved in the tournament in a non-playing capacity.

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