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Week In Sports: Pandemic Drops The Australian Open

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Australian Open opens but has to close down for fans, and Kamaiu Johnson makes his PGA Tour debut with a story to inspire, whatever the score. We now turn to NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Let me ask about the Australian Open. There was a great match last night, I gather.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

SIMON: But no fans, right? What happened? In Victoria, they declared a lockdown.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, they sure did because of increased coronavirus cases. And for at least the next five days, no fans at the tournament. Players have been deemed essential workers, so they can go to work and play and practice. But other than that, they have to adhere to strict lockdown rules just like the rest of the citizens. It definitely changes the feel of the tournament. Fans get pretty raucous at Melbourne Park, and we certainly saw that last night.

SIMON: Novak Djokovic, right?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. I mean...

SIMON: An epic five-set win from what I've read.

GOLDMAN: Epic, epic. And what happened was in the middle of the match against American Taylor Fritz, Djokovic looked like he wouldn't be able to finish. He says he thinks he tore an abdominal muscle. Somehow, he did gut it out, get it?

SIMON: Wow.

GOLDMAN: Get it, Scott? Gut it out.

SIMON: Oh, oh, now I get it. That's brilliant.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) He called the five...

SIMON: Oh, that's Joycean word play. Go ahead.

GOLDMAN: Yes. Thank you.

SIMON: Joyce was an Irish writer, but go ahead.

GOLDMAN: Got it. Thank you. Yeah. Oh, I thought he was a player. Anyway - called the five-set win one of the best moments I've had in my career. Although it's uncertain if he can continue. The truly weird part of it - the lockdown went into effect during the match, so fans had to leave before it was finished. And really during this whole pandemic in sport, Scott, we've never really seen the impact of no fans like this roaring and cheering one moment, then Djokovic and Fritz finish their epic duel in silence. When Djokovic won, he screamed and you could hear it echoing throughout the empty stadium.

SIMON: Wow. I knew there was something I heard last night.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: Please tell us about Kamaiu Johnson. You did a great piece on him this past week, and listeners should know about him.

GOLDMAN: Thank you. It's a story of a sad 13-year-old African American kid who had dropped out of school because he was put in slow-learning classes. He didn't have direction, knew nothing about golf, and through a pretty improbable journey, ended up this week as a 27-year-old very bright and thoughtful young man - nothing slow-learning about him - playing in his first ever PGA Tour event. The biggest moment in that journey came when he was 13. He was swinging a stick like a golf club next to a golf course in Tallahassee, Fla. The assistant pro noticed him, asked if he wanted to hit some balls with a real club. She ended up telling him he could play for a dollar a round if he did chores around the course. He got hooked on the game, and as he says, the rest is history.

And it's a rich history. It led him to Pebble Beach this week. He didn't score well enough to make the cut this weekend and play this weekend. But I talked to him last night, Scott, and even though he finished last in the field, he was absolutely jazzed. He said when he got to the course Thursday, he teared up thinking about all he'd been through and about all the people who'd helped him. Fellow players came up to him telling how inspired they were by his story. And he said the biggest lesson he learned was that he belongs and he's gotten two more - he's got two more chances next month. He's gotten what are called sponsor's exemptions to two more PGA Tour events next month in Florida.

SIMON: That's so wonderful. I mean, it's hard not to root for him. In fact, I root for him. I'm going to say it.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

SIMON: Thanks very much, NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN'S "SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.