The first Grand Slam of the year is held every January in Melbourne. The Australian Open has grown significantly in status and stature during the Open Era, and is now one of the most well-attended and prestigious events in tennis. Regarded by many fans and players as the “Happy Slam”, the tournament is renowned for its excellent facilities, superb organisation and jovial atmosphere.
The Australian Open is the youngest of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments. First played as the Australasian Championships in 1905, and then known as the Australian Championships from 1927 onwards, it has also changed locations more than any other major. Before 1971, when the event moved permanently to Melbourne, it was hosted by seven different cities: Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide in Australia; and Hastings and Christchurch in neighbouring New Zealand.
Unfortunately, few top players were able to play in Australia during the early days of the tournament, as travel from Europe could take up to eight weeks by boat. With the advent of passenger planes, more elite competitors began to make the journey, but the Australian Championships continued to lack the lustre of the other Grand Slams, even as the Open Era dawned and professionals were welcomed for the first time. As recently the early 1980s, many otherwise dominant players were regularly missing in action, such as John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova. Bjorn Borg played the Australian Open only once in his career.
But as the big names began to make the trip down under more regularly, attendance figures increased and the decision was made to relocate from Melbourne’s Kooyong Stadium to the larger Flinders Park in 1988. With the move came a switch from grass to hard courts.
Since then, the venue now known as Melbourne Park has continued to expand. A major upgrade in the mid-nineties made the Rod Laver Arena one of the most atmospheric centre courts in the world, and like the Australian Open’s other main show court, the Hisense Arena, it has a retractable roof, guaranteeing play in either wet or extremely hot conditions.
What does it take to win?
In 2008, the Australian Open’s original hard court surface, Rebound Ace, was replaced with Plexicushion Prestige. The new surface, somewhat similar to the DecoTurf used at the US Open, is fair to both offensive and defensive players, and was introduced because it retains less heat.
Nevertheless, coping with the soaring temperatures remains one of the biggest challenges for the top players in Melbourne: during the Australian summer, the mercury can climb to well over 50˚C. It is estimated that players’ reaction times may slow by up to a quarter of a second if they have been battling for several hours in extreme heat; at the same time, the balls fly through the air quicker and bounce higher. As a result, those who triumph in Melbourne tend to be the fittest and strongest players on tour.
Also important, however, is the ability to hit top form within the first few weeks of the year. The Australian Open begins just two weeks after the end of the off-season, leaving little time for players to shake off any lingering rust.
Just as the US Open roll of honour is dominated by American players, so the Australian Open has produced countless home-grown champions, most of whom triumphed during the amateur era. Nancye Wynne Bolton was the first player to win six titles, but the great Roy Emerson matched her feat in the 1960s. Several Aussie greats have won both pre- and post-1968. Ken Rosewall won two titles as an amateur and two more as a professional, while Rod Laver was victorious in 1960 and 1962 before winning the very first Australian “Open” in 1969. Far outdoing all of these players, however, is Margaret Court. From 1960 - 1973, the Perth-born powerhouse won an astonishing 11 titles, a period of Grand Slam dominance not seen anywhere else before or since.
Concentrating solely on the Open Era, three men are tied at the top of the list of multiple champions. Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have each won four times in Melbourne, and Djokovic holds the distinction of being the only man to win three consecutive titles. Mats Wilander stands alone with three titles down under, but there are many big names who triumphed twice at the Australian Open, including Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier.
Serena Williams, with five titles to her name, is the most decorated female player. She leads Steffi Graf, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Monica Seles, each four-time winners. Also prominent on the list of past champions is Martina Hingis, who won three titles and reached six Australian Open finals in her career, and Martina Navratilova, who won a hat-trick of trophies in Melbourne when the tournament was played on grass.
If the Australian Open’s best matches have one theme in common, it’s that of endurance. Over the decades, tight contests between the best competitors in the sport have been made even tougher thanks to the searing Melbourne heat. Here are two men’s and two women’s matches that are legendary not only for the quality of the tennis, but also for the incredible fitness and will to win shown by both the winners and losers.
Safin def. Federer, 2005 semi-final:
At the 2005 Australian Open, the mercurial giant Marat Safin had rediscovered his best form, and entered his last four clash with Roger Federer believing he could score an upset. Devastatingly accurate serving and brutal groundstrokes prevented the Swiss from ripping his trademark improbable winners at the beginning of the match, and the rallies that ensued were some of the most intense ever witnessed. Reaching deep into his reserves, Federer wrestled his way to a two sets to one lead, and was 5-2 up in the fourth set tie-break. One point from victory at 6-5, he made an uncharacteristically reckless decision to hit a “tweener” when chasing down a Safin lob, even though he had time to run around the ball and hit a much more reliable forehand. Safin duly saved the match point, and pushed the contest into an incredibly tense fifth set. The Russian continued to produce some stunning tennis, but Federer’s performance was a revelation. In spite of suffering from elbow and back pain, he clawed his way back from 2-5 down and stared down six match points before Safin finally nailed a forehand to take the decider 9-7.
Video: Safin v Federer, 2005
Djokovic def. Nadal, 2012 final:
The two highest-ranked players in the world contested one of the most competitive Grand Slam finals of all time in 2012. Nadal, having failed to beat Djokovic throughout 2011, looked to have developed a mental block against the Serb. Djokovic, meanwhile, was gunning for his fourth Grand Slam title from the last five, and had only just managed to edge past Andy Murray in a classic semi-final. The showpiece match, at 5 hours 53 minutes, became the longest Grand Slam final in history, a brutal and physical war of attrition that left both men on the verge of collapse during the trophy presentation. Amid scenes of drama and tension rarely witnessed in Melbourne, Nadal led with a break in the final set, but Djokovic refused to buckle. Ripping his shirt and unleashing a primal roar after clinching victory, the Djoker cemented his reputation as the iron man of tennis with this stunning comeback performance.
Capriati def. Hingis, 2002 final:
At the Australian Open in 2001, Martina Hingis accomplished the rare feat of beating both Williams sisters in the same tournament, only to be overpowered by Jennifer Capriati in the final. A year later, the Swiss Miss knew what she had to do to win for a fourth time in Melbourne, and she executed her game plan perfectly at the beginning of the match. Mixing spins and angles while keeping her opponent firmly behind the baseline, she played smart, error-free tennis to race into a 5-1 lead. Although Capriati closed the gap, Hingis won the opening set 6-4 and charged to another comfortable 4-0 lead in the second. But once again Capriati, one of the most dogged competitors on tour, fought back, saving a match point at 3-5 and then another at 5-6 to force a tie-break. Hingis had two more chances to win, but played far too tentatively, and Capriati produced some incredibly bold tennis to snatch the second set. Extreme heat delayed the decider, but it couldn’t stop Capriati from maintaining her momentum and securing a successful title defence. The American’s comeback was one of the great Australian Open moments, but the spotlight was also shone on Hingis. Usually such an astute and instinctive player, she wilted in the tough conditions, and admitted afterwards that dehydration and exhaustion had diminished her judgement and desire.
Video: Capriati v Hingis, 2002
Serena def. Clijsters, 2003 semi-final:
At the very height of her powers, Serena entered the 2003 Australian Open intent on completing the self-styled “Serena Slam.” After sweeping the last three Grand Slam events of 2002, victory in Melbourne would make her the first woman to hold all four major titles simultaneously since Steffi Graf. Following a first round scare, Serena blitzed every opponent on her way to the last four. There, she ran into Kim Clijsters, one of only five women to beat her in 2002. The pair shared the first two sets after treating fans to some superb rallies and shotmaking, but most expected Serena’s greater experience and match toughness to prevail in the decider. However, it was Clijsters who stormed out of the blocks, and with Serena’s movement hampered by a foot injury, the Belgian moved into a comfortable 5-1 lead. With “Aussie Kim” enjoying the majority of the crowd’s support and the scoreline stacked against her, it seemed that Serena, and the prospects of a Serena Slam, were down and out. But the number one seed saved two match points at 5-2 down, the second with a courageous charge to the net, and eventually clawed her way back to 5-all. Emboldened and full of self-belief, Serena held serve and then broke Clijsters to love to complete one of the all-time great Australian Open comebacks. With victory in the final over big sister Venus two days later, the dream of the Serena Slam was realised.
Video: Serena v Clijsters, 2003
- In 1977, the Australian Open was moved from January to December, so there were two events in that year. In 1987, the event moved back to January, so no tournament was held in 1986.
- Ken Rosewall is both the youngest and oldest over men’s singles champion, winning in 1953 aged 18 and in 1972 aged 37.
- Mats Wilander is the only man to win the Australian Open on both grass and hard courts.
- The longest ever women’s match at the Australian Open was the 2011 fourth round clash between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Schiavone eventually won 16-14 in the deciding set after 4 hours, 44 minutes of play.
- The men’s singles trophy is called the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, and the women’s singles champion is presented with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. Both trophies are named for former Australian players.
- In 2013, the wrong country name was engraved on the women’s trophy. Next to Victoria Azarenka’s name were the letters “BEL” - Azarenka is actually from Belarus, which has the abbreviation “BLR”.