"It's my favourite Grand Slam." On the hunt for a fourth Australian Open crown, Novak Djokovic doesn't have to think much to establish his preference in terms of Majors. His vote in favour of the Australian Open says a lot about the comeback of the former ugly duckling of the Grand Slams, which is now all grown up...
1/ From Rod Laver to Bruce Springsteen
The fundamental shift in the destiny of the Australian Open happened in the mid 80s. Aware of the anachronism of hosting a tournament held on grass, at Christmas time, in the old Kooyong stadium, and tired of crowning some obscure Mark Edmondson or Barbara Jordan, the Australian federation and the event organisers reviewed their baby and re-thought it from A to Z: date, location, surface. In 1988, the rebirth: the Australian Open takes up residence in January, in the heart of Melbourne, and cuts all ties with its British heritage by abandoning grass. If choosing a hard surface (Rebound Ace and Plexicushion) condemned the hopes of the successful locals Rafter, Philippoussis and even Hewitt, all more comfortable on fast courts, it was perfectly in sync with the general trend towards slower surfaces that operated throughout the 2000s. "I still wonder why I've waited so long to come and play here" says Andre Agassi, four-time winner of the event, and who disembarked for the first time in Melbourne in 1995. The spearhead of this brand new and beautiful Australian Open, its central court, soon to be baptised the "Rod Laver Arena" a gorgeous setting of 15,000 seats, covered by a retractable roof offering protection against the heat of the southern summer. Host of the Australia vs. France Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final in 2001, the stadium also has the particularity of not being solely dedicated to tennis and hosts concerts the rest of the year. Springsteen and Neil Young will then be playing there in 2013. Enough to get a fast return on investment...
2/ The “Players' Grand Slam”
31 million Australian dollars in 2013 (€24.5 million), representing a 15% increase over 2012, which was already a record year in terms of allocation: it has become a standard refrain in January - the Australian Open keeps revising upward its overall budget, surfing on the good wave of the national economy... And feeding the competition with its three counterparts - and yet rivals. This generosity, however, gives full satisfaction to the players, that the event has spoiled to ensure its popularity. Australia has thus earned the nickname of the "Players’ Grand Slam". The most recent coup: the large increase in prize money paid to those eliminated in the earlier rounds, following requests from those concerned.... "The largest increases are in the early round, in the qualifications and in the doubles to reward many lower ranked players for accomplishments that should not be underestimated, says Craig Tiley, event director. “To reach a Grand Slam main draw, a player must be ranked in the Top 100, which makes of tennis one of, if not, the most competitive professional sports in the world. We won’t stop there. There will be further negotiations and further increases over the next four years.” Four years is the duration of the next development plan of the tournament, seeing more than 500 million pounds worth of investment. This includes the covering of the third big court, the Margaret Court Arena, and the addition of 2,000 additional seats on the Rod Laver. Finally, the Australians were the first to open their doors to Asia (the tournament was officially renamed (“Asia-Pacific Grand Slam”) and its huge market potential. It is absolutely no coincidence that Chinese tennis took off in Melbourne, from the doubles title of Zheng Jie and Yan Zi in 2006 to the final of Li Na in 2011.
3/ “Here it's like the football!”
At the Australian Open, it's a big party in the stands - far from the capricious Parisians, the quiet Londoners and the inconsiderate New Yorkers. From a cosmopolitan country, the event draws a unique atmosphere. "I like everything here,” gushes Novak Djokovic: “the Central Court, the surface, the playing conditions, and especially the incredible atmosphere in the stands. This is the most colourful Grand Slam, with fans from Serbia, Sweden, Croatia, Greece... It certainly has a very special flavour." Colourful, the Australian Open quite certainly is. The Swedish fans set the pace immediately upon arrival at Melbourne Park, just before the Chilean (with Marcelo Rios, Fernando Gonzalez), the Serbian (Novak Djokovic) or the Greek communities (Marcos Baghdatis) arrived to drown out the songs recounting the glory of Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt. "It's like the audience of a Davis Cup by BNP Paribas game, described Baghdatis, an event's favourite. They bring a fantastic atmosphere, and love to support the underdog. If you are generous, they will make it up to you. Here it's like the football!" And just like at a football game, it is also in Melbourne that the general public's happy and festive spirit has been the most overflowing in recent years. Everyone remembers those smoke bombs thrown during Gonzalez’s matches in 2010, or the fight between the Serbian and Bosnian fans on the side-lines of the match between Novak Djokovic and the American Amer Delic, of Bosnian origin, in 2009. The police had to eject 30 people from the stadium. But despite these dramatic interludes, the "OZ" is also the tournament of school holidays, space in the alleyways and concerts in the evening...
4/ The roll of honour
These improvements have logically led to the inscription of all the past two decades’ dominant champions, men and women, in the austral record books. Furthermore, since Mats Wilander inaugurated Melbourne Park, only two of its winners have never found themselves at the top of the rankings pile: Petr Korda (1998) and Thomas Johansson (2002). Only the U.S. Open can compete with such a history of excellence (Del Potro in 2009, Murray 2012), whereas Wimbledon counts three and Roland Garros five. Also for the youngest, no more value distinction between the four pillars of tennis: "We train, we play, we dream of Grand Slams”, said Victoria Azarenka, the reigning women’s champion. “No matter which one it is. I think it is in Australia that I had my first success as a junior. This is what makes it a special place for me, dear to my heart." Thus are born the new references.
By Guillaume Willecoq