Australian Open forges ahead despite Melbourne lockdown

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MELBOURNE (Reuters) - After playing in front of limited crowds in a boisterous atmosphere in Melbourne, players will return to the 'new normal' from Saturday as an eerie silence will descend on the Australian Open with fans barred for the next five days.

The discovery of more infections linked to the highly contagious UK variant of COVID-19 prompted authorities to place the state of Victoria under lockdown, but the show will go on as the Grand Slam retreats into its own bio-secure bubble.

Cheers quickly turned to a smattering of boos from the crowd when play was briefly suspended at 11:30 pm local time on Friday while top seed Novak Djokovic was in action, as spectators were asked to leave the arena ahead of the midnight deadline.

"It's going to be a rough few days for I think everyone," Serena Williams said. "It's not ideal. It's been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here."

Rafa Nadal continues his quest for a record-breaking 21st major when he takes on Briton Cameron Norrie and the Spaniard will prepare knowing there will be no distractions after a heckler was ejected during his second-round match.

Australian fans will tune in with bated breath when women's top seed Ash Barty takes on Russia's Ekaterina Alexandrova, with the country's biggest title hope playing with a heavily strapped thigh which forced her to withdraw from the doubles competition.

Former world number one Karolina Pliskova is still seeking her first Grand Slam title and standing in her way is Karolina Muchova in an all-Czech battle at the Rod Laver Arena.

Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas is up against Sweden's Mikael Ymer while Russia's Andrey Rublev looks to extend his unbeaten streak this year to seven games when he is up against Spain's Feliciano Lopez.

(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Toby Davis)