The evolution of the Australian Open can be considered one of the most compelling “worst to first” tales in sports, even though it has nothing to do with teams, coaches or win-loss records.
A Grand Slam in name only as late as 1987, the tournament (it begins Sunday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 in Melbourne Park) has set the gold standard for tennis promotions. The venue has three roofed stadiums, beautiful open-air secondary courts and numerous crossover attractions, from kid-friendly zones to the AO Live Stage music venue.
Put plainly, the other three majors have been playing catch-up.
Once shunned by the top stars, the tournament is now beloved by the elites. Here’s how Roger Federer put it in his postmatch press conference after winning last year:
“This is a tournament I’ve not missed,” he said. “This is the one I guess that is my most consistent Slam potentially. It all started for me here. I played the qualies here in ’99, the juniors in ’98. Won my first match maybe against Michael Chang here back in 2000. I go way back. Always loved coming here.”
The transformation of the Australian Open from a moribund event played on grass in the confines of a fusty old tennis club (Kooyong) into the model major happened in one great leap in 1987. That’s when the tournament, aided by a date change from late December to early January, moved into Melbourne Park. It soon began to alter the arc of tennis history.
At that time and into the early 1990s, Roy Emerson’s record of 11 Grand Slam singles titles still seemed unbeatable. Elite players had grown accustomed to a three-Slam game. The poor conditions at Kooyong and the holiday-season time slot gradually drove away stars once they started making enough money to skip the event.
“[The tournament] wasn’t like a major, and the players didn’t think of it as one,” said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who played at Kooyong a few times. “The grass was goofy. You dropped the ball and it didn’t even reach your calf on the bounce. The club was crowded. If you were playing on the field courts, you were right on top of the guy playing next to you. It was nothing like Wimbledon or the US Open.”
Bjorn Borg, who retired with 11 majors, played in Melbourne just once. Jimmy Connors, who won eight majors, played the US Open 21 times and the Down Under Slam just twice (he did win a title there). John McEnroe played the Australian Open just once during the period when he had his best chance to win it.
But that has not been the case for this generation of stars. Novak Djokovic has won the Aussie six times — which accounts for half of his Slam total. The tournament launched Djokovic’s tenure in the big time when he bagged his first major in Melbourne, in 2008. He failed to win another major in 11 tries, but entered the most prolific period with another title Down Under three years later.
Serena Williams owns seven Aussie titles. Even though she withdrew this season, without that event as a staple in her schedule, she wouldn’t be vying for the all-time single’s Grand Slam record.
Federer isn’t far down on the beneficiary list. He’s been most successful at Wimbledon (eight major titles), but he’s won the same number of titles (five) in Australia as at the US Open.
The hard courts in Melbourne Park have also played a significant role in the rivalry between Federer and Rafael Nadal. While Nadal has contended at almost every Australian Open he’s entered, he’s won just once in four finals. It helps explain why he’s still No. 2 to Roger Federer in the all-time singles title derby, 19-16.
The other Hall-of-Fame players who benefited greatly when the Australian Open became important again were Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, who like Djokovic, won half their majors Down Under.
The Australian Open has done more for the game than enriching the top players. The move to January transformed the tennis calendar, leading to an enormous expansion of the game and its popularity.
Tennis is still largely seen as an outdoor, summer enterprise, even though Wimbledon and the US Open still generate the greatest amount of media buzz. But the Australian Open now launches the tennis year with a great big bang. It’s a critical advantage for tennis, because for most fans in this sports-glutted age, tennis is still all about the Grand Slams.
Now the first Grand Slam champions of the new year are crowned, with an appropriate degree of fanfare, in late January, not early June. The game is off and running, and that helps give momentum to the two big outdoor hard-court events played a little more than a month after the conclusion of the AO, Indian Wells and Miami. Federer expressed his awareness and appreciation of that history last year. After the final, he spoke about how happy he was to mount his epic comeback in Melbourne, citing two of his former Aussie coaches — and a lot of other folks — as cherished influences and motivators.
“I’m so thankful to Peter Carter and Tony Roche, and [also] just [Australian] people,” he said. “I guess my popularity here, their support, [helped me show] that I can still do it at my age after not having won a Slam for almost five years.”
We’ve come a long way from the days when droves of European and American stars skipped the one-time December event in order to be home for the holidays.
As Federer pointed out, “When you win down here, the journey home is not a problem. When you lose, it’s just brutal.”
The travel time hasn’t changed, but these days all the top players are willing to make the journey because the reward for winning is well worth it.