By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Australian Open will open its gates to thousands of tennis fans for the last four days of the tournament after the state of Victoria announced that a snap coronavirus lockdown would be lifted at midnight on Wednesday.
Victoria State Premier Dan Andrews announced the lifting of the lockdown but said the crowds allowed into Melbourne Park for the semi-finals and finals of the Grand Slam might be reduced from the originally agreed 25,000 a day.
Tournament organisers later said they had agreed with the government to have 7,477 fans in each of Thursday's two sessions and the same number for the singles finals sessions on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
Fans must wear masks where "social distancing is not possible", they added.
"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," tournament director Craig Tiley said in a statement.
"The crowd will be capped at 7,477 for each session, which is approximately 50% capacity. Last week we had our first real experience of live sport with fans in the stands and the atmosphere was electric."
Tiley's reference to 50% capacity related to the showcase Rod Laver Arena, which can seat some 15,000 people, but he said fans would be allowed into the various entertainment areas around the precinct.
That number of spectators in masks might present a stark contrast to the first five days of the tournament when there was a sometimes febrile atmosphere, not least for local hero Nick Kyrgios's second and third round matches on John Cain Arena.
Fans were shut out of the precincts of Melbourne Park from last Saturday after a small outbreak of the COVID-19 variant associated with Britain. The state reported no locally acquired coronavirus cases on Wednesday.
Tournament organisers will be desperate for fans to return after spending a huge amount of money to get the tournament up and running, including some A$40 million ($31 million) on putting players through 14 days of quarantine.
($1 = 1.2898 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Additional reporting by John Mair in Sydney; Editing by Pritha Sarkar, Richard Pullin and Lincoln Feast.)