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The Australian Open, tennis' first Grand Slam, is underway in Melbourne

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Australian Open is underway in Melbourne, the first tennis Grand Slam event of this year, and the headlines have mostly focused on who will not be playing - Novak Djokovic. He's back in Serbia after the Australian government revoked his visa due to his unvaccinated status, which leaves the court wide open for everybody else. From Melbourne, we're joined by Tom Maddocks of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC. Welcome to the program.

TOM MADDOCKS: Hey, Steve. How are you going?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. Thank you very much. How much has this championship changed, this Open changed, because Djokovic won't be there?

MADDOCKS: Well, I think the tournament goes on. As you say, there's been such a distraction in the lead-up to this tournament that I think there's a sense on the ground that spectators just want to see some tennis now. I mean, of course, this has been a hugely divisive issue, and it's captured the opinions of the nation, gone from being a tennis story to one about politics. But despite there being restrictions on crowds this year at this year's tournament, like last year, I think there is a sense from spectators that they just want to see some tennis. And really, the opening few days are all about the locals, the Australians, and there are a number of Australians in action, so perhaps that's provided a bit of a distraction from Djokovic's absence.

INSKEEP: What are the restrictions on crowds? How does Australia put on an event like this?

MADDOCKS: So the Victorian government recently capped the capacity at 50% in response to a recent surge in cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19. So just to give you a perspective, on Day 1, we had a tick over 25,000 people through the gates at Melbourne Park. On Day 2, a little bit more. So there are still people coming through the gates, and there is still a buzz, and they do call this the Happy Slam for a reason.

INSKEEP: OK, that's great. I'm just thinking about now the playing that is beginning and thinking, as a layman, about a very basic thing. There are brackets. You match up tennis players against other tennis players, and they play against each other and move on forward. The unexpected disappearance of Djokovic means that every single matchup is slightly different or very different than it would otherwise have been. What is the - what do things look like as they get started?

MADDOCKS: Well, it was a really bizarre order of play that was - that became, I guess. So it was only released late on Sunday, so all the other players had no idea what time they were playing, just hours from when they were meant to take to the court because of Djokovic. Djokovic was originally included. Then, of course, the court case was handed down; he was deported. So that meant a lucky loser - a so-called lucky loser came in his place. But in terms of the tournament itself, there are a few rising stars in men's tennis who are really now in contention. Rafa Nadal has made it to Melbourne despite recently contracting COVID-19.

But the favorite now is Daniil Medvedev from Russia, the world No. 2, who, of course, beat Djokovic at the U.S. Open in September. And I think one of the great little storylines that's being set up now is that Nick Kyrgios, Australia's Nick Kyrgios, the great big personality and entertainer he is, even though he can be divisive - he's very much loved - he's playing Daniil Medvedev on Thursday after advancing to the second round today, winning his game. So that's...

INSKEEP: And in...

MADDOCKS: ...Going to be a really interesting matchup.

INSKEEP: And in just 10 seconds, which doesn't do it justice, Australia's Ashleigh Barty is the No. 1 in the world on the women's side.

MADDOCKS: And she's setting up this mouthwatering clash in the fourth round with none other than Naomi Osaka, the defending champion who spent a lot of time away from tennis last year because of mental health problems. So that's an intriguing clash if they keep progressing to the fourth round.

INSKEEP: Tom Maddocks of the Australian Broadcasting Company in Melbourne. Thanks. Enjoy the tournament.

MADDOCKS: Cheers, Steve. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PALMASUR'S "PARQUE DE BUGAMBILIAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.