Bizarre scenes have struck the Australian Open as Novak Djokovic's epic war against American Taylor Fritz was briefly suspended while fans were forced out midway through the fourth set.
It was already a strange sight to see Djokovic struggling on Rod Laver Arena — but at 11.30pm fans were booted from the venue as part of Tennis Australia's compliance with the five-day Victorian lockdown which began at 11.59pm (AEDT) on Friday night.
The lockdown announcement triggered a day of chaos at Melbourne Park with anti-lockdown protesters flooding the venue to take a stand against metropolitan Melbourne's third hard lockdown.
The crowds have been vocal at the Australian Open throughout the first week of the tournament but the COVID cluster linked to the Victorian hotel quarantine system has seen the city locked up again.
As part of the lockdown, spectators have been locked out of the tennis for at least the next five days.
Under the restrictions announced Friday public gatherings are not permitted.
The bizarre scenes were triggered as Djokovic was being pushed to breaking point by Fritz after he had earlier taken a medical time out to be treated on a side strain.
With the world No. 1 struggling to move around the court and Fritz rolling with all the momentum, the 11.30 deadline ticked over with the epic battle very much in the balance and a potential boil over looming.
Fritz took the third set 6-3 and had broken Djokovic before play was suspended while the fans were escorted out of the venue.
There was a loud chorus of boos when the chair umpire announced that all non-essential personnel must leave the arena with the fourth set at 3-2.
Those fans missed the moment Fritz served out the fourth set to send it to a decider.
In an epic fifth set that was played out in the eerie, cavernous silence of Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic showed his champion fighting spirit to weather the storm and eventually emerge with a 7-6 6-4 3-6 4-6 6-2 victory after 3.5 hours on court.
The clock had ticked over to 12.20am when he sealed the win. He roared a deep, guttural scream that sounded truly bizarre inside the deserted stadium.
He let his emotions show after surviving the scare which had left his hunt for a record ninth Australian Open crown hanging by a thread.
He said he understood why the match had to be stopped to kick the spectators out.
"With the bad news today that we got, everybody knew that midnight is going to be the deadline where we go into lockdown for five days so in a way it's unfortunate for the crowd that we didn't finish the match with them seeing the end," he said.
"They were enjoying it certainly."
Earlier, the players were also asked to leave the court as fans vented their frustrations about being kicked out of the stadium.
Confusion had been sewn as a rumour began circulating on social media that the fans in the stadium would be allowed to stay with their tickets the exemption to stay out beyond 11.30pm.
It was quickly proven untrue.
It came at a fascinating point of the game after Djokovic ran out to a two sets to love lead but a slip saw the No. 1 seed do the splits and require medical attention.
The Australian Open released a statement on Friday afternoon saying: "Tennis Australia continues to work with the government to ensure the healthy and safety of everyone.
"We are notifying ticketholders, players and staff that there will be no fans onsite at the AO for five days, commencing from Saturday 13 February.
"Full refunds will be available for anyone who has tickets for these sessions and they will be advised on how to apply as soon as possible."
text by Andrew McMurtry, news.com.au