50 years of the Australian Open: how times have changed

Jonathan Howcroft in Melbourne
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">The early days of the Australian Open bore little resemblance to the modern-day incarnation of the tournament.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Victor Colin Sumner/Fairfax Media via Getty Images</span>
The early days of the Australian Open bore little resemblance to the modern-day incarnation of the tournament. Photograph: Victor Colin Sumner/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The defining match of the 1969 Australian Open was the first men’s singles semi-final. Over the course of four and a half hours, Rod Laver and Tony Roche traded blows in a 90-game marathon in temperatures pushing 40C. Laver’s writing collaborator Bud Collins later recalled both men keeping their cool in the punishing conditions by stuffing wet cabbage leaves underneath their cloth hats.

When participants at the opening grand slam of 2019 sit down during the change of ends they are protected from the sun’s glare by a custom built shade that unfurls from bespoke chairs like a bird of paradise conducting a courtship ritual, and if conditions become too oppressive in the open air a roof can cocoon centre court within five minutes.

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Times have changed over the 50 years of Australia’s most prestigious sporting event.

<span class="element-image__caption">Roger Federer of Switzerland has a drink during a practice session in Melbourne on January 8, 2019</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Roger Federer of Switzerland has a drink during a practice session in Melbourne on January 8, 2019 Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

After outlasting Roche, Laver went on to collect the maiden Australian Open title, lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at Milton Courts in Brisbane in front of just 3,500 spectators. The Associated Press reported that the small crowd and $15,120 loss incurred by tournament organisers “cast a shadow on the future of open competition”. “It was a big loss, but it won’t kill us,” a spokesman for the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia said.

<span class="element-image__caption">John Newcombe during a match against Charles Pasarell in the Dunlop Australian Open at White City</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images</span>
John Newcombe during a match against Charles Pasarell in the Dunlop Australian Open at White City Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

The inaugural Australian Open remains the only time the championship has been staged in Queensland. The following year it moved to Sydney’s White City Tennis Club where it remained for two editions before finding a more permanent base amongst the wooden panels of Melbourne’s Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club.

In the tournament’s earliest days, before 1969 and the dawning of professionalism, the AO was the Australian Championships and before that the Australasian Championships, even venturing across the Tasman twice between the event’s conception in 1905 and the outbreak of WWI. It was bestowed with major championship status in 1924.

The 16 years the AO spent at Kooyong were its last on grass and they oversaw the transition of an event dominated by Australians to one where cheap and easy intercontinental travel has helped make it near-impossible for a local hope to win. In the men’s singles Mark Edmondson’s victory in 1976 was the 50th by an Australian in 63 stagings. The past 42 years have been barren, pockmarked by five losing finalists.

The most agonising of these were the successive five-set defeats endured by Pat Cash in 1987 and 1988 to Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander during a Swedish love affair with the Open that straddled Kooyong and Melbourne Park. Cash unwittingly gave Wilander a leg-up before the second of those losses, allowing his friend and rival practice time on the court in his family home to help him acclimatise to the Rebound Ace surface at the new venue.

<span class="element-image__caption">Pat Cash reaches for a ball against Stefan Edberg in the 1987 Australian Open final at Kooyong.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images</span>
Pat Cash reaches for a ball against Stefan Edberg in the 1987 Australian Open final at Kooyong. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

That new venue, once an unprepossessing jumble of concrete, has since gone on to establish itself among the premier sporting facilities in the world with three stadium courts boasting retractable roofs. “It’s amazing to think 30 years ago there was the great vision and foresight to get a stadium with a retractable roof,” Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia said last week. “It’s been the envy of the world,” beamed Davis Cup icon Neale Fraser, the man tasked with pushing the button for the first roof opening in 1988 and again just a few days ago following upgrades to slash the time it takes the roof to complete its journey.

The lid was no use in 1995 though when drainage failed, the power went out, and Rod Laver Arena flooded.

<span class="element-image__caption">Centre court under water in 1995.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images</span>
Centre court under water in 1995. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Three years earlier Jim Courier engaged in a hazardous watery activity entirely of his own volition, jumping into the Yarra river that flows alongside the tennis precinct. Despite Courier starting a trend continued by modern champions Life Saving Victoria advises against the celebration in such a notorious drowning blackspot. It’s also illegal to swim in that section of the river (with the risk of a fine of up to $1,000), although no tennis stars have been prosecuted.

While Courier was taking a dip, the women’s champion Monica Seles was basking in the success of the second of her four Australian Open titles. Three of those arrived in quicktime – while still a teenager – before tragedy struck and her career was interrupted. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when she returned in 1996 to add one more Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to her collection. “She’s endured something none of us can relate to,” Paul McNamee told New York Times. “We’re privileged as a tournament that this was her first victory in a major since her comeback.”

The comeback narrative has provided further high points in the women’s draw in recent decades. At the turn of the 90s Jennifer Capriati was a school-age curiosity but it wasn’t until her second career was blossoming in 2001 that she satisfied her grand slam ambition. A decade later Kim Clijsters cemented her place in the hearts of Australian tennis fans by claiming the Australian Open for the first time, becoming only the third mother to achieve the feat in the open era, following in the footsteps of Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

<span class="element-image__caption">Jennifer Capriati hits the ball to Katerina Maleeva of Bulgaria at the 1993 Australian Open.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: David Callow/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Jennifer Capriati hits the ball to Katerina Maleeva of Bulgaria at the 1993 Australian Open. Photograph: David Callow/AFP/Getty Images

The Australian Open is now a fixture on the global sporting calendar and synonymous with Melbourne. “It’s a great celebration of our city,” states Tiley, an adopted Melburnian, “and it’s great for our city to be showcased around the world. Anyone that watches the Australian Open – and there’s a billion people that do during those two weeks – get an identity with Melbourne.”

That identity is now recognisably blue, Australian Open True Blue, to be precise, the palate that has dominated Melbourne Park since the shift from Rebound Ace to Plexicushion Prestige in 2008. This has provided the backdrop to some of the high points of a golden age of men’s tennis, including all six of Novak Djokovic’s record-equalling titles and Rafael Nadal’s solitary championship victory in 2009, remembered as much for Roger Federer’s tears late in the summer night following a final for the ages.

The contemporary Australian Open experience is now a world away from that first tournament 50 years ago, but linkages remain. Margaret Court, who swept the women’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles in Brisbane, has her own arena, as does Rod Laver, whose name continues to cast a warm glow over Australian tennis. You can even find a cabbage leaf or two, only this time on the exclusive AO Chef Series menu.

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