Playing the Field

Friday, 20 March, 2015

Once upon a time, the world’s best tennis players were more often than not inclined to skip the Australian Open. Rather than brave the eight week boat trip required to overcome our geographic isolation, it seemed like a better idea to stay put and focus on preparing for the more substantive tournaments in Europe and North America. Perhaps as a result, the Australian Championships – as it was then known – shifted from city to city, year after year. Apparently, so insignificant was the tournament, that it was twice allowed to take place in New Zealand.

However, that was in the 1920s. Long before an estimated 700,000 people were attending the Australian Open from all over the world, the Victorian Government was splurging nearly AUD $1billion to keep the tournament out of New South Wales, and before top tennis players like Andre Aggasi were turning to crystal meth to help cope with the stresses of the modern game.

Melbourne and its denizens alike have a habit of labelling the city the sporting capital of the world. Whilst this title is inherently vague and can probably never actually be determined, several things are clear. Melbournians love sport, and the city is a great sporting city – certainly more so than any other in the country. If you were to argue that sport is an indispensable pillar of this city’s cultural identity, few people could argue that you are wrong. And it all kicks off in January with the Australian Open, regarded by many as the biggest sporting event in the Southern Hemisphere.

Tennis has matured into one of the premium international professional sports. At the height of this maturity are the four annual Grand Slam Tournaments where, as the sporting clichés go, good tennis players can become great tennis players. With the other slams held in London, New York and Paris, it’s easy to see how the Australian Open is Melbourne’s marquee event in its global sporting capital aspirations.

What it means to Melbourne is hard to say. The city is certainly proud to be home to an annual event watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. That these viewers are beamed panoramic views of Melbourne’s scenic skyline every time there is a break in play doesn’t do tourism any harm. With the second highest attendance figures for a Grand Slam – behind only the US Open – it is also notoriously difficult to get a hotel room in the city for the two weeks that the tournament runs. Around 40 per cent of those who attend the Open come from overseas or interstate, which accounts for about half a million hotel nights across Victoria, providing a boom for the City’s hospitality industry.

A recent New York Times article dubbed the tournament the ‘Happy Open’ for its un-Wimbledon-like laid back approach to attracting audiences. Able to watch matches on big screens outside the arenas, people turn up for the live music and the beer gardens just as much as they do to attend a match. Supposedly, our small population and harsh distance encourages the tournament organisers to entice crowds by thinking outside of the box. The article concluded that the Australian Open might be the most democratic of all Grand Slams.

It might come as no surprise, then, that the Australian Open is held in immensely high regard by the State of Victoria. It was recently described as the “crown jewel in Melbourne’s impressive calendar of sporting events” by John Eren, State Minister for Sport and Tourism. So crucial for the city is the tournament that when in 2008 New South Wales prepared an audacious bid for the Open – which was set to expire in Melbourne in 2016 – the Victorian Government pledged a three-stage upgrade to its sporting precinct at a cost of just under $1billion.

Chief Executive of Tennis Australia Craig Tiley says that this investment will go beyond paying for itself. According to Tiley, the Open makes the State of Victoria  $200 million a year. The return over the next 20 years will easily cover the Government’s investment, and the rest is “icing on the cake”. In the end, Melbourne gets  a retractable roof or two, extra seats, a pedestrian pathway and the Australian Open until at least 2036, while Sydney has to settle for a curtain-raising tournament named after an insurance company.

Despite the hefty price tag, the Australian Open is a January tradition. For two weeks the spotlight is firmly on Melbourne, giving the city a unique opportunity to showcase itself to the world. Not something the world’s best tennis players can afford to skip anymore.