Another year, another beautiful fortnight at Melbourne Park.
The trip to Melbourne for the tennis is always a special one. The city’s love for sport is palpable as soon as you arrive at Southern Cross station, from the grand Ethiad Stadium, pride of place; to the big screen at Federation Square, where hordes loll on deckchairs beneath beach umbrellas, watching the tennis on the big screen. (I can confidentially say I’ve never felt as relaxed slap-bang in the centre of Sydney as I have in Fed Square, alternating between sunbathing and beer bars every 30 minutes.) A ten-minute walk from Federation Square along the beautiful Yarra River ends with the grand Rod Laver Arena staring you in the face.
The whole city seems built on sport; the facilities are all so central and are integral to the identity of the city. As well as boasting the Australian Open, it proudly hosts the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Grand Prix, and is home to two A-League football clubs, one of which, Melbourne City, is financially-backed and franchise-owned by City Football Group (the holding group that backs Manchester City in the Premier League – if any club can significantly boost the popularity and watchability of Australia’s A-League, it’s Melbourne City).
Not long after my first visit to the Open some years ago, I was deeply concerned by growing murmurs and the odd report that Melbourne might not host the tournament past 2016, with the possibility of being outbid by Sydney.
It seemed crazy to me. As the commercialisation of sport increases by the year, how could Sydney possibly benefit the competition any better than Melbourne? Melbourne clearly takes pride in its cultural identity and the part sport plays in it; for Sydney it’d be about revenue, tourism, advertising. With dollar signs in their eyes, NSW premiers look at the competition as a big goldmine to be tapped that could further boost their economy.
But then, why walk along the river to Melbourne Park when you could get a train into Sydney’s western suburbs to the heap of concrete that is Olympic Park? It’d be like a slightly less bogan Easter Show but with more tennis and fewer knitted tea cosies.
Another alternative, proposed when Melbourne’s contract was due to expire, suggested relocating the tournament to Glebe Island, behind Sydney’s Exhibition Centre. The artist’s impression showed a rather cramped triangle of ground next to the water’s edge. It screamed congestion, noise and stomped-on meat pies.
At the time, Victorian Tourism and Major Events Minister Tim Holding offered his own view on Sydney’s attempts to take the event: “For too long Sydney has rested on the laurels of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge to market itself internationally. Sydney’s last attempt to steal an event from Melbourne ended in embarrassment with Melbourne re-signing the Grand Prix … They have finally decided to copy Melbourne and try to host major international events. However, like much of Sydney, they are all fizz but no action.”
I know this is fuelled by the natural antagonism Holding has as a born and bred Melbournian, but to me he was bang on. Sydney’s attempts to take the event reminded me of a fat, spoilt younger brother at Christmas trying to snatch his brother’s presents when he has plenty of his own to play with.
Don’t fight children. Otherwise it’ll just be given to Canberra.
Another senior source from the Victorian government said that, “Tennis Australia is playing us off against Sydney, but runs the risk of losing the event completely”.
This is another point altogether. In 2008, there was also reported interest from Shanghai, Dubai and Abu Dhabi to take over the event, mounting campaigns in anticipation of Melbourne’s contract expiring. Regardless of the fact that the Australian Open promotes itself as the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific”, a move to the United Arab Emirates would see 100-odd years of heritage gone in a flash. The UAE could pump millions of bucks into the competition, but just imagine watching your favourite tennis stars in a depressingly efficient, soulless, air-conditioned stadium in the middle of the desert.
Australia needs to accept that Melbourne is the permanent home of the Australian Open or it risks losing it completely. Those at the top must realise it’s each Grand Slam tournament’s individual identity that makes them so prestigious. It’s not something you can buy. Imagine Wimbledon moving to Milton Keynes – it wouldn’t happen. Not in the world of tennis anyway.
But a major reason for the competition staying in Melbourne? A move is so unnecessary. Following the imminent threat of having the competition taken from them, thankfully in 2010 the Victorian government began a AU$363 million investment to secure the competition until 2036. The most notable upgrade to Melbourne Park since then has been to the handsome Margaret Court Arena, which now boasts an additional 1500 seats and a retractable roof, making the Aussie Open the only Grand Slam with three arenas with this indoor capability. This year’s event saw the opening of a new media and administration building, while redevelopment work continues with the refurbishment of the Rod Laver Arena and a new pedestrian bridge.
It’s a shame it took so much money to secure the tournament at what was an already superb venue.
But it does mean that Melbourne Park is primed for the future and a move 20 years from now would be lunacy. Clearer and in larger lettering than before, the word “Melbourne” runs along the near baseline of Melbourne Park’s courts. Following a multi-million-dollar injection, Melbourne is prouder than ever to call the event theirs.
For at least the next 20 years, the competition stays where it belongs. Let’s hope that post 2036, generations of tennis fans and players alike can enjoy the tournament in its rightful place – on the banks of the Yarra, bathed in peachy Victorian sunshine.