ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) — Serena Williams was preparing to play Naomi Osaka at an Adelaide exhibition tournament on Friday. But first things first — after 14 days in quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic regulations in Australia, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion took her daughter to the zoo.
Williams said she'd been crossing off the 14 days of quarantine on a calendar, having spent the time with her three-year-old daughter Olympia.
“We went to the zoo,” Williams said of her first movements outside of quarantine. “I am so glad it’s over because to be in a room (for so long) with a three-year-old and being her best friend is definitely difficult, especially after training and working out.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade anything, spending hours and hours and hours with her was really fun.”
The visit must have been a good pre-match tonic for Williams. She beat Osaka 6-2, 2-6, 10-7. Both players showed obvious signs of rustiness, hitting set-up winners out of play or netting relatively easy shots.
“Thanks every one for having us. We honestly haven’t played in front of a crowd for over a year, it’s been a really long time, so this is really cool,” Williams said.
She acknowledged the tough 14-day quarantine restrictions that were in place to allow the Australian Open to take place beginning Feb. 8.
“Thanks for trusting us with your laws, (it) was great,” Williams added. “We were so happy just to be here, and now it’s worth it.”
No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal beat U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem 7-5, 6-4 to open night play in Adelaide. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty took on Simona Halep in the late match, Barty’s first match in 11 months.
In an on-court interview following his win, the oft-injured Nadal had a deadpan response when asked how he stays so young-looking at the age of 34.
“You are not in my body,” Nadal replied, smiling.
Second-ranked Simona Halep beat No. 1 Ash Barty 3-6, 6-1, 10-8 in the final match of the night. It was Barty’s first match in 11 months due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions and her decision not to defend her 2019 title at last year’s delayed French Open.
Earlier Friday, top-ranked Novak Djokovic missed the start of his scheduled exhibition match against emerging Italian talent Jannik Sinner, who was Nadal’s quarantine practice partner. Djokovic got treatment for a blister on his right hand, leaving Sinner to play Filip Krajinovic, but the eight-time Australian Open champion arrived on court at the start of the second set to cheers from the crowd.
Krajinovic won the first set 6-3 and Djokovic the second by the same score to give the Serbian tag-team victory.
“I am sorry that I didn’t step on on the court from the beginning, I had to do some treatment with my physio,” Djokovic told the crowd in a post-match interview. “I wanted to play, I wanted to get out there.”
A television close-up had earlier showed a large blister on the palm of his Djokovic's right hand, where his racket would sit.
“It’s part of what we do, we learn over the years to play with the pain," Djokovic said. "But I saw the crowds and the emotion was so strong for me to come out, I had to play.”
A few hours earlier, Djokovic, who has already had COVID-19, celebrated the end of his quarantine with a barefoot walk in a local park.
“Just putting bare feet on the ground,” he said. “Just doing something that I didn’t have a chance to do. So just having space, that is what we all kind of missed.”
The Adelaide tournament is the only Australian Open tune-up tournament that isn't being played in Melbourne. The others, including the ATP Cup and three WTA events, will start getting underway from Sunday.
In Melbourne, the first of the players to leave quarantine were greeted with the city’s often fickle weather — rain showers.
The National Tennis Centre at Melbourne Park has eight indoor courts and officials were expected to be inundated with requests from players, particularly those who have been in hard lockdown, for court time.
Those 72 players, who were on board the same three charter flights as the nine passengers who tested positive to COVID-19, have been unable to leave their rooms while others have been able to train for up to five hours a day.
Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said players who had been in hard lockdown would be given priority.
“We’re going to have a great deal of empathy for supporting those who have been in hard lockdown and I’ve already made that commitment to them,” Tiley said.