Out of all the four Majors that make up the “Grand Slam” in tennis, no event has endured more changes than the Australian Open. Despite shifting locales, different surfaces and a necessary move in its spot on the calendar, the event has survived becoming nearly irrelevant to now being not only more successful than ever, but for many fans, their favorite tournament of the year.
Origins and Early Days
Though the first recorded tennis tournament in the country was held in 1880 at the Melbourne Cricket Club, it wasn’t until 1904 that six Australian state tennis associations and the organizing body of the sport in New Zealand came together to form the Lawn Tennis Association of Australasia. It was that group in 1905 that sponsored the Australasian men’s championships. This event, first held in Melbourne and then in Christchurch, New Zealand the year after, is considered to be the beginning of the modern Australian Open that we know of today.
New Zealand hosted the event one more time but in 1922, the country split off from its partnership with Australia to form its own group. 1922 was also the first year a women’s championship was held and it was that expansion that led the International Lawn Tennis Federation to declare the event as a major in 1924. In 1927, the event was renamed the Australian Championships.
Because travel to Australia in the early years of the 20th century was difficult and only possible by boat, the tournament was primarily played by Australians who also won the majority of titles. In 1928, France’s Jean Borotra became the first man not born in Australia or Great Britain to win the men’s singles title. Don Budge became the first American man to win it in 1938 while Dorothy Cheney became the first American woman to win the event in the same year.
Laver, Court and the Open Era
While Melbourne was the birthplace of the event, the tournament itself switched cities multiple times throughout the continent. Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth all played host to the tournament over the years. It was on the grass courts of Brisbane in 1960 where Australian greats Rod Laver and Margaret Court both took home the titles. Laver proceeded to become the first man in history to win all four Majors in a calender year while Court went on to win the event seven years in a row from 1960 to 1966.
1969 saw the birth of the Open era where both amateur and professional players could compete at the same tournaments. The event changed its name to the Australian Open to reflect this new era in the sport. Laver once again won all four Majors that same year and cemented his place as one of the sport’s greatest players. Margaret Court won the women’s event again in 1969 and raised the trophy three more times in 1970, 1971 and 1973.
Challenges and Decline During 1970′s and 1980′s
Though the Australian Open found a permanent home city in Melbourne starting in 1971, the year marked the beginning of severe problems that almost threatened its existence. A combination of conflicting agendas on the men’s tour, low prize money and that the event was now held in December saw many top players skip the tournament altogether.
Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club became the new site of the tournament in 1982. But that still didn’t help the event deal with less then stellar fields especially in the men’s singles draw. In order to help stop the growing impression that the Australian Open didn’t have the same legitimacy as the other Majors, the newly formed Tennis Australia organization petitioned to have the tournament’s slot on the calendar shifted to January in order to make players appear, especially if they wanted to win the “Grand Slam”.
Rebirth and Expansion from 1980 to Today
1987 was the last year the event was played on grass. The newly built Flinders Park, later called Melbourne Park, became the new site of the tournament in 1988. Players would now compete on the new Rebound Ace synthetic surface. The main stadium also was one of the first to feature a retractable roof that could cover the entire court due to inclement weather or extreme heat. The roof was used during the women’s singles final won by Steffi Graf who later went on to win all four Majors and the Olympics that same year.
In 2000, the main stadium was renamed Rod Laver Arena in honor of the country’s greatest champion.
Increased interest in the sport from fans and television networks helped the event grow in popularity and attendance. Lleyton Hewitt’s appearance in the 2005 men’s finals became one of the most watched sporting events in the nation’s history.
Yet another transition in the tournament occurred in 2008 when the event changed to a new Plexicushion surface that is still in use today. Notable matches of the last few years include Francesca Schiavone defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2011 in what would be the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history and last year when Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in five hours and fifty-three minutes in the longest Grand Slam men’s final ever.
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