© Reuters. Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne, Australia
© Reuters. Tennis – Australian Open – Melbourne, Australia

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The Australian Open will start on Feb. 8, three weeks later than scheduled, organisers confirmed on Saturday after months of speculation over the first Grand Slam of 2021.

The start date of the main draw of the tournament was originally slated for Jan. 18 and organisers have been locked in drawn-out negotiations with local government over COVID-19 health security measures.

“This will be an historic Australian Open on so many levels,” tournament director Craig Tiley said in a statement.

“For the first time in more than 100 years the Australian Open will start in February and we look forward to offering the players what we believe will be one of their best playing experiences in 2021.”

The state of Victoria on Saturday recorded a 50th straight day without a case of community transmitted COVID-19 but many health restrictions remain in place in Melbourne and international travel into Australia is still strictly limited.

Victoria’s state government said that players would be tested for COVID-19 prior to departure for Australia and a minimum of five times during quarantine, during which they would be able to train for five hours a day.

“From the outset, ensuring players have the best possible preparation for the Australian Open, while at all times protecting the precious COVID-free environment that the Victorian community has built … over the past six months, has been paramount,” Tiley added.

This year’s Wimbledon tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the U.S. and French Opens went ahead with the players confined to bio-secure ‘bubbles’, unable to leave their hotel rooms except to train and play.

Qualifying for the Melbourne Park tournament will take place overseas for the first time — in Dubai for the women and Doha for the men — before the players travel to Australia to undergo 14 days of quarantine.

After quarantine there will be men’s and women’s warm-up events in Melbourne to allow players some match practice before the start of the Grand Slam.

The ATP Tour on Thursday pre-empted Tennis Australia’s announcement in releasing an update of its calendar for 2021 revising the first seven weeks of the season.

The WTA followed suit on Saturday, announcing two tournaments in Melbourne in the week commencing on Jan. 31 and another in the second week of the Australian Open for players knocked out of the Grand Slam.

The women’s tour will open its 2021 season with the Abu Dhabi Open starting on Jan. 5 before Australian Open qualifying in the neighbouring city of Dubai from Jan. 10-13.

Tournaments in Auckland and Shenzhen, China, have been cancelled but will return to the tour in 2022, the WTA said in a statement.

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