Walking down the banks of the Yarra River, the festival is in full swing.
Blue umbrellas pop up all over the Birrarung Marr park with swarms of patrons basking in the belting Australian sun.
Of course, the buzzing crowd and blue brollies can only mean one thing; it’s the start of the Australian Open.
As the largest sporting event in the southern hemisphere, welcoming 812,174 spectators in 2020, the Australian Open (AO) is not just a celebration of tennis, but a celebration of Australian culture.
Feeling more like you’re walking into a music festival rather than a tennis tournament, you’ll be overwhelmed by the array of pop-up bars, food stalls, restaurants, and live bands that align the walkways and parks around the tennis stadia.
And it’s not hard to see why the event is referred to as the ‘Happy Slam’.
With the festivities in full swing, it’s all about having a good time at the Australian Open, with patrons and players alike embodying the classic Australian ‘no worries’ mentality.
If you’re lucky, you might even spot a couple of players mingling with the crowd, enjoying the local Victorian food and music on offer.
For the players, the Tournament signals the start of the tennis season with the world’s best converging on Melbourne every January, fresh from their winter break and full of high hopes at what the new season could bring.
Players catch up with old friends and past teammates in the state of the art player facilities and revel at the chance of winning a share of the enormous prize pot on offer.
But the major down under didn’t always have the stature it holds today, despite it hosting some of the biggest names in tennis.
In the early years, the slam lagged behind its European and American counterparts when it came to the roster of players it could attract, its low prize pots, and the number of spectators in attendance.
In recent years, the AO has evolved to become one of the greatest events on the sporting calendar and is now the largest tournament on the tennis circuit.
The Inaugural Championships
It’s hard to think back to what the Australian Open must have been like in its early years, considering the vibrant festival it has become.
The inaugural tournament was held back in 1905, on the grass courts of the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground, just 10 minutes south of where the event is currently held at Melbourne Park.
Back then, the Tournament was actually known as the Australasian Championships, with the hosting duties being shared between Australia and New Zealand.
Only 17 players attended the inaugural event, with Melbourne’s native Rodney Heath winning the first-ever men’s singles championship, and Randolph Lycett of Great Britain and Tom Tachell of Australia combining to win the maiden men’s doubles title.
15 years later in 1922, women’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles competitions were introduced to the Australasian Championships, with Margaret Molesworth beating Australian Esna Boyd to win the first women’s singles championship.
Boyd came runner up in the following 4 years of the Tournament, and in 1925 was beaten by her Victorian rival Daphne Akhurst.
Daphne Akhurst is the fourth most decorated women’s singles title winner at the Australian Championships, behind Margaret Court, Serena Williams, and Nancye Wynne Bolton. But after her sudden passing in 1933, the trophy presented to each winner of the women’s singles tournament was renamed the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in her honour.
Similarly, the men’s singles trophy is named in homage to its 1911 champion, Norman Brookes, who’s illustrious playing career led Brookes to a combined 7 doubles and singles majors. After his playing career, Brookes became the president of the Australian Lawn Tennis association in 1926 and was instrumental in helping to grow the success of the Championships.
The Closed Shop
After the International Law Tennis Federation (ILTF) recognised the Australasian Championships as the fourth and final slam in 1923, the ILTF introduced new rules to the Tournament adding seeding to the Australasian Championships.
More players started to attend the Championships, and in 1927, the Tournament was renamed to become the Australian Championships after New Zealand stopped co-hosting the event.
But in the early years, the Tournament struggled to keep up with the likes of Wimbledon and Roland Garros, and couldn’t attract the biggest stars to play down under.
This was in part due to the remoteness of Australia, with most players having to travel on a 45-day ship journey to get to the event.
The long-travel times meant tennis stars of the age like big Bill Tilden of America and France’s René Lacoste didn’t actually attend the event during their playing careers.
The Age of professionalism also didn’t help the Australian Championships.
Over the next 40 years, professional players like Fred Perry and Rod Laver were unable to participate in the four grand slam tournaments, as they were contracted solely to play in exhibition matches.
The Australian Championships inevitably became a closed shop with only local Southern Hemisphere amateurs being allowed to compete in the Tournament.
But this all changed in 1968, when the four grand slam tournaments, Wimbledon, Roland Garros, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open, agreed to allow professional players back into the four majors to compete with amateurs.
Australian Rod Laver subsequently returned to win the newly named Australian Open the following year.
From Kooyong to Flinders
Despite the prospect of professional players now being able to compete at the Championships, many still didn’t want to play in the Tournament, with professionals like Björn Borg and Ellsworth Vines only participating in the Tournament once in their professional careers.
In 1972, the Championships moved to the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club and remained there until 1987 when the event moved just 10km up the road to Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park).
Trailing behind its major counterparts, the AO still struggled to attract blockbuster players with some criticizing the slow speed of Kooyong’s grass courts and some officials boycotting the event entirely.
But the move to Flinders Park in 1988 was a welcomed change, one that organisers hoped would bring in bigger crowds and better players.
And it did.
The custom-built tennis complex, just a stone’s throw away from Melbourne’s central business district, drew in a record 266,436 fans in its opening year.
Costing $94 million Australian dollars, the groundbreaking new facilities laid down a huge statement and changed the way tennis would be played for years to come.
And its state of the art centre court with its groundbreaking retractable roof was the crown jewel of the project.
Being the first of its kind, the mechanical roof was built to ensure play could continue should it start to rain, or if temperatures got too high.
It enabled the 1988 Australian Open to host the first-ever night game and was also the first tournament to host a finals match played with the roof closed, after Steffi Graf defeated Chris Evert 6-1, 7-6 in the Women’s singles final.
Players and spectators marveled at the modern space-age facilities, with pros like Ivan Lendl commending the Tournament expressing that “Australian tennis deserves to be congratulated,” and Martina Navratilova also stating, “from what I have seen so far, they have thought about everything.”
One other major change was the move away from grass courts to a green acrylic playing surface, known as “Rebound Ace,” which would subsequently be changed to a blue plexicushion surface in 2007.
But there was some controversy at the time surrounding what playing surface should be used.
Tennis Australia initially wanted to use synthetic grass as a playing surface for the Championships but this sparked major scrutiny from players such as Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl, and Australian Paul McNamee, with some players threatening to boycott the Tournament if it were to be played on synthetic grass.
With their arm bent, Tennis Australia ultimately agreed to use the green Rebound Ace courts.
The Turn of the Century
In 1996, Flinders Park was officially renamed Melbourne Park and a further $23 million was invested by the Victorian government into the expansion of the Park.
Tennis Australia used the investment to construct two more show courts, eight slightly smaller ace courts, and a communal area where patrons could gather and watch games on a large screen, known as the ‘Garden Square’.
But even with its brand spanking new state of the art facilities, the Australian Open still had a hard time attracting the top players.
With its low prize purse and disappointing ranking points on offer, the event couldn’t provide a big enough hook to lure the best players down under.
To solve the issue Head of Tennis Australia, Jeff Pollard, drafted in Aussie tennis legend Paul McNamee as Director and CEO of the Australian Open.
McNamee and Pollard set about changing the perception of the Open to give the event more credibility as a major tournament.
Their first move was to change the name of the Open, calling the Championships the Australian Open, sponsored by Ford, instead of the Ford Australian Open.
Similarly, instead of naming the AO’s brand new Show Court and the National Tennis Centre after a mobile phone company or a car manufacturer, the pair instead paid homage to Australian tennis legends Rod Laver and Margaret Court.
While the Tournament celebrated its heritage, it started to gain more prominence in the tennis circuit and the introduction of the Grand Slam Cup in 1990 also helped it attract more notoriety.
The Grand Slam Cup gave the highest-ranking players from each of the four grand slam tournaments the chance to compete to win a share of a $2 million Australian dollar prize pot.
With Grand Slam points on offer, more and more players traveled down under to compete in Australia, but the ATP still didn’t award the same points to Australian Open competitors as it’s major namesakes.
Paul McNamee recognised this and campaigned to the ATP to give the AO the same standing as Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and The French Open.
And the ATP agreed, only on the condition that the Australian Open doubled its prize money, and it did.
Since then the Australian Open’s prize purse has boomed and in 2020 reached a record $71 million Australian dollars.
With bigger increasing prize purse, more ranking points on offer, and its state of the art playing facilities, the Australian Open consistently started to draw in more greats of the game, welcoming legends like Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, and Andre Agassi.
The Asia-Pacific Open
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Pollard and McNamee’s era was redefining the Australian Open as the Asian-Pacific Grand Slam.
In a move designed to increase Asian representation at the Championships, Pollard and McNamee created a wild card system that gave the best Asian players the chance to play-off against each other for a wild card spot that would allow them to qualify for the AO.
And in their bid to build a legacy among younger people, the pair invited more teenagers from around Australia, Korea, India, and China to become ball kids at the Open.
“For more than 10 years the Australian Open has been known as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific and there has never been a more important time for us to promote the event and deepen our ties and relationships throughout the region.” AO Tournament Director Craig Tiley.
Recently, players from the region have flourished at the Tournament with Japan’s Naiomi Osaka winning the women’s singles title in 2019 and Shingo Kunieda, also of Japan, winning the men’s singles wheelchair title in 2020.
The AO has now become the biggest sporting event in the southern hemisphere and is still growing after Jeff Pollard secured a $1 billion dollar investment from the Victorian government to be used for the development of the Tournament over the next 15 years.
Since its beginnings, the Happy Slam has evolved to become one of the biggest and best tennis tournaments in the world.
And it won’t be long before we’re walking past more new developments in Melbourne Park, with a new submerged stadium, media centre, and two more match courts currently being built in time for the 2023 Tournament.
Paul McNamee and Jeff Pollard certainly have cemented the competition as one of the greatest sporting events in the world.
Tennis legends now flock from far and wide to battle it out on the blue courts of Melbourne, and since the turn of the century, the tournament has welcomed and still continues to welcome greats like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, and Novak Djokovic.
The Australian Open will return in January 2021 and after a year of uncertainty following the COVID-19 pandemic, we are excited to see the festival of tennis return to the banks of the Yarra River for the 109th edition of the Tournament.
Featured Image By SimonEast // Crowds gathering at Rod Laver Area in Melbourne, Australia. // https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rod_Laver_Arena_front.jpg // CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons // Image un-edited