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Opinion

The Australian Open is tennis' ugly duckling that came good

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15th January, 2020
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It’s easy to forget that the Australian Open was once on the cusp of having its Grand Slam status revoked.

In 1925, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) designated the national championships of Australia, France, England and the United States as the ‘big four’.

If you’re wondering how Australia – with a population of barely six million people at the time and half a world away from the epicentres of Europe and America – nabbed a seat at the big table, the credit belongs to the wealthy businessman and talented tennis player Sir Norman Brookes.

Brookes took it upon himself to mount a challenge for the most prestigious silverware in tennis at the time, the Davis Cup.

With some help from New Zealander Anthony Wilding, who was a more-than-handy player, Australasia (as the Aussie-Kiwi combo became known) snared the Davis Cup six times by the time of the 1925 ITF meeting. This made it easy for Brookes to put forward a compelling case for Australia’s inclusion as one of the four designated majors.

And that’s when things started going pear-shaped.

Seems as though nobody in 1925 thought too hard about the consequences of Australia’s remoteness. No international players ventured Down Under and the tournament became little more than a provincial event, keeping a slender grip on its status by the historical reputation and calibre of its players.

Add to this a sequence of ‘shooting oneself in the foot’ moments: presenting Margaret Court with an umbrella to celebrate her 1960 Open win; failing to properly seed players at the men’s 1969 Australian Open so that players in the top ten faced each other in the second round; playing the Australian Open twice in 1977 in order to move it from January to December, and then not playing it at all in 1986 in order to move the event back to January and to a new permanent location.

You start to get an idea of how bad things got.

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By the mid-1970s, with Australia no longer supplying the world’s top players, and with no overseas champions interested in making the trip to a badly organised event with low prize-money on the other side of the world, the Australian Open was on its last legs.

What was really worrying the ITF was that with none of the top overseas players making the trip, the concept of the Grand Slam was dead in the water. The threat was made to revoke the tournament’s status.

Thankfully, Australian tennis officialdom bit the bullet, clunked heads with the Victorian state government, and in 1985 a huge chunk of land in the heart of Melbourne’s sporting precinct (Flinders Park) was acquired and the best damn tennis complex the world had seen was built.

The prize money was jacked up to the level of the other three Slams and the tournament was restored to January as the first leg of the Grand Slam.

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It’s hard to think of a more apt quote for the Australian Open than the one (misquoted) from the movie Field of Dreams: “Build it and he will come” is the actual dialogue. Over time it’s morphed into “Build it and they will come.”

That’s exactly what happened with the Australian Open.

Check out Off The Frame, a new, quirky and off-beat podcast exploring the outer limits of the world of tennis.