For many sports fans, the Australian Open marks not only the start of the tennis year but the sporting year in general. Its current scheduling–in the last two weeks of January–may create some difficulties for the players, as they enter the first Major of the year only a few weeks into the season proper, but for fans in Australia and around the world it represents the perfect way to shake off the winter blues and enjoy the white heat of a Slam (often literally, as the temperatures in Melbourne at this time of year can soar to dangerous levels). But it was not always like that. The Australian Open may now be almost universally regarded as “the Friendly Open,” because of the ultra-enthusiastic welcome that Australian fans give to the world’s best players, but for much of tennis history it was more like the “Unloved Open,” as many of the world’s best players (or at least the non-Australian ones) chose to stay away. The tournament’s transition from one that was ignored to one that is adored is a fascinating one.
The Australian Open is by some distance the youngest of the four tennis Majors. It was first held in 1905, long after the other three Majors were established (Wimbledon was the first, in 1877, followed by the US Open in 1881 and the French Open in 1891). It was originally staged in Melbourne, but was then moved around Australia to its other big cities, including Sydney and Brisbane. Indeed, because it was originally called “the Australasian Championships,” in its first ten years it was twice staged in New Zealand. It only became a Major tournament (being designated as such by the then International Lawn Tennis Association) in 1924. However, even granting it “Slam” status could not help the “Australian Championships,” as it was known from 1927 onwards, to attract the world’s greatest players to compete, largely because of Australia’s geographical remoteness from the rest of the world.
In our 21st century of instant communication and high-speed travel, it is almost impossible to appreciate just how distant Australia appeared to the rest of the world for much of the 20th century. Before commercial air travel was fully established in the 1950s, the only way to get to Australia was by boat–and a truly slow boat at that. Before World War II, a boat trip from Europe to Australia took approximately 45 to 50 days, which was a huge deterrent to anyone, let alone tennis players. Officially, the first non-Australian tennis players to travel by boat to Australia were the members of the US Davis Cup team who made the journey in 1946. The English cricket team may have been traveling by boat to Australia since the first series down under in 1882-83, but cricket is a much slower game than tennis (in every sense). Whereas cricket tours lasted for months, it made little sense for non-Australian tennis players–even the best of them–to travel for more than a month to Australia when they could be knocked out of the tournament in the first round.
Even after air travel replaced boat travel from the 1950s onwards, the Australian Open struggled to attract the tennis elite. The flip side of this was that the tournament was dominated by local players, with a whole host of historic names in both the men’s and women’s games–including Rosewall, Emerson, Laver, and Court–each winning multiple titles in the first three decades after the war. The down side was that the Australian Open never quite enjoyed the elevated status of the other three Majors until relatively late in its history. Even into the 1970s, many of the game’s greatest players elected not to compete in the tournament, with probably the greatest player of the era, Bjorn Borg, only appearing once (in 1973) before deciding never to make the trip again.
In addition, for a long time the Australian Open (as it was renamed in 1969, at the advent of the “Open” or fully professional era in tennis) suffered not only from its geographical remoteness but from scheduling difficulties. The tournament moved around the calendar between the end of one year and the start of another, only becoming fully established as the first Major of the year (rather than the last) in 1987, which meant that there was no tournament at all in 1986.
The 1980s was the period when the Australian Open finally took its place as a fully-fledged Slam, attracting all of the game’s greatest players, as technological developments in air travel and communications completely “connected” Australia to the rest of the world that it had seemed so distant from for so long. As a result, a succession of great men’s and women’s champions, including Edberg, Lendl, Navratilova and Evert, finally broke the stranglehold that Australia’s own players had held on the tournament. Indeed, there has not been a “homegrown” champion in either the men’s or women’s singles since the late 1970s, when the relatively unheralded Mark Edmondson and Chris O’Neil claimed victory in 1976 and 1978 respectively. Given the traditional sporting rivalry between Australia and Great Britain, it is surely embarrassing for Australia that there has been a more recent British winner of Wimbledon (Andy Murray, in 2013 and again last year) than an Aussie winner of the Australian Open.
Ever since the late 1980s, when the tournament was fixed both in the calendar year and in Melbourne as its geographical home, the Australian Open has really come into its own. First, it made the controversial switch from grass to hardcourt in 1988, which was possibly another factor contributing to the decline in homegrown champions, as Australian players had traditionally been among the finest serve-and-volleyers in the game. Secondly, as it has become a truly global tournament (indeed, in recent years it has rebranded itself as “The Open of Asia-Pacific”, as part of Australia’s general reorientation from being Britain and Europe-facing to being Asia-facing), it has seen a succession of truly great champions, particularly on the men’s side. Among them are Andre Agassi, who proudly declared himself “half-Australian” after he won in Melbourne in 2003 for the fourth and final time (fittingly, half of his eight Major titles were Australian Opens); Roger Federer, for whom the first of his four Australian titles in 2004 arguably represented the beginning of his “imperial phase,” even more than his first Major win at Wimbledon a year earlier; and of course in recent years Novak Djokovic has virtually made the tournament his own, with six wins in total, including victory last year.
There is another way in which the Australian Open has really established itself as the “First Major” of the year, in that it has often been the tournament at which players have made their breakthrough and won their first ever Slam. Djokovic exemplifies this, having won his first Major in Melbourne in 2008, but as recently as last year Angelique Kerber showed how a win in Australia could transform a good player into a great one, as she followed up what at the time was an astonishing win over Serena Williams (who, like Djokovic, has won the Australian title six times) by becoming US Open Champion and ultimately World No. 1. Similarly, three years ago Stan Wawrinka rose from being a promising talent to being a world elite by breaking through and winning the Australian Open title.
In all these ways, the Australian Open has made the transition from being a largely unloved (even ignored) tournament to one that is almost universally adored by tennis fans, as it gives us the first glimpse of what lies ahead in the tennis year. As the newly ennobled Andy Murray attempts to win in Melbourne for the first time (having finished runner-up five times, usually to Djokovic) and Kerber attempts to retain her title in the face of a resurgent Serena Williams, “the Friendly Open” is entirely likely to kick off the tennis year in the grandest of style.