The Happy Slam: A History of the Australian Open

An evolution of the Southern Hemisphere's largest annual sporting event.

Norman Brookes in action by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

A stunning showcase

Watching the Australian Open light up as the Southern Hemisphere’s largest sporting event each January, it’s hard to imagine the record-breaking event – now attracting just under 800,000 spectators – ever existed in any other home than in the state-of-the-art Melbourne Park precinct. In reality, though, the tournament has been played at more than a dozen sites in its 114-year history, switching between Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (at the Perth Zoo, no less, in 1909!) in its early years. It has even been played in New Zealand. The two New Zealand cities – Christchurch in 1906 and Hastings in 1912 – reflect the tournament’s early beginnings. Known as the Australasian Championships when it was first staged at the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground at Albert Park (now known as Albert Reserve) in 1905, it was initially a joint venture between Australia and New Zealand. A year previously, the six Australian state associations and the governing body of tennis in New Zealand had merged to form the Lawn Tennis Association of Australasia; the new organisation determined a national tournament would help showcase tennis. 

Daphne Akhurst by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Early heroes

Rodney Heath claimed the inaugural Australian Championships, defeating Dr Albert Curtis in a four-set final. Local players Randolph Lycett and Tom Tachell combined to win the first doubles title. Norman Brookes, after whom the men’s singles trophy is now named, claimed his lone Australian Open title in 1911 and was later influential as an administrator. In 1922, women’s singles and doubles, mixed doubles and junior events were introduced – creating a setting for new tennis heroes. Margaret Molesworth won the inaugural women’s singles title – defeating Esna Boyd, who was runner-up for the first five years – before Daphne Akhurst forged her place in Australian tennis history. Revered for her talent and adored for her natural humility, the Sydneysider won five titles between 1925 and 1930 but tragically died of an ectopic pregnancy in 1933. The Australian Open women’s trophy is now named in Akhurst’s honour. 

Rod Laver by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Major developments

In 1923, the International Lawn Tennis Federation’s decision to “recognise the Australasian Championships on the same footing as those of the United States, England and France”. It was therefore recognised as a major tournament. Soon there was another change, the tournament officially becoming the Australian Championships in 1927 when New Zealand no longer had an organisational involvement. The only other name change occurred in 1969 when the first “open” Australian Open was contested at Milton Tennis Centre in Brisbane. It followed the birth of the Open era at the 1968 French Open, ensuring that players who’d competed on professional tours could also return to Grand Slam tournaments. Becoming an enduring symbol to a new golden era, that Australian Open also marked the first leg of Rod Laver’s second calendar-year Grand Slam.  

John Newcombe by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

The Kooyong years

The Australian Open moved to a permanent home at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in 1972, reflecting the fact that Melbourne typically attracted the strongest audiences. It remained on that site until 1987, when the last Australian Open staged on grass was contested. Perhaps already sensing some nostalgia, a record 140,000 fans attended.

Flinders Park by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Fabulous Flinders Park

A custom-built tennis complex, on the edge of Melbourne’s central business district, created a new world of possibilities. The centre court roof – the first of its kind at any tennis venue globally – was its crowning glory; so too were the sparkling facilities, with a record 244,859 fans attending the 1988 Australian Open, the first staged at the new Flinders Park venue. Night tennis became a feature, giving rise to many classics that have shaped the tournament’s most recent history. 

Rod Laver Arena by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Making a name

While the name Flinders Park quickly caught on with tennis fans, Melbourne Park – as the venue became known in 1996 – was even more recognisable globally. Other name changes honoured great Australian champions: the centre court was named for Rod Laver in 2000, while Margaret Court Arena was dedicated three years later. 

Melbourne Park by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Through the roof

The turn of the century also marked a new chapter for Melbourne Park, with the opening of the second stadium court that is now known as Melbourne Arena. Making the venue the first facility in the world to have two roofed stadiums, it seated 10,500 patrons. 

Rod Laver Arena by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Surface shifts

From the grass courts of Kooyong and previous venues, the Australian Open was contested on green Rebound Ace courts with the move to Flinders Park. In 2008, the “true blue” hard courts were introduced, also becoming a feature for clubs and tennis centres throughout the nation.

Court painting is an art form by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

National Tennis Centre Melbourne by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Exciting evolution

In 2010, the Victorian Government announced the multi-million dollar investment that would ensure the Australian Open remains in Melbourne until at least 2036. Glittering symbols of that progress soon became tangible: the National Tennis Centre opened in 2013, and the Tennis HQ building became home to Tennis Australia and MOPT teams three years later. The redevelopment of Margaret Court Arena saw a roof added to that stadium. Most futuristic of all was the state-of-the-art Player Pod, which set a new standard in world tennis and in sport when it opened in January 2019. Grand in its structure and spectacular in its detail, it offered premier facilities for players and a stunning new entrance for spectators. 

Ballkids at the Australian Open by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Expanding the footprint

The new Tanderrum Bridge, first used at Australian Open 2017, connects the Melbourne Park precinct to the city’s edge. Birrarung Marr is the home of the AO Festival – where the AO Live Stage hosts world-class sporting acts and is a must-visit for local music lovers. Reflecting an event that is now considered as much an entertainment event as it is a sporting one, the Australian Open also becomes a foodie’s paradise each January with dining offerings ranging from fine-dining to best street and casual food trucks. There’s also a family focus, with the AO Ballpark further expanding the footprint and transforming the eastern side of the precinct.

RLA gets a roof upgrade (2019) by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Rod Laver Area Player Pod by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Next level

The transformation of the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest sporting event continues. The third stage of the Melbourne Park redevelopment, initially announced in 2010, commenced immediately after Australian Open 2019. Soon the venue will boast a new multi-purpose 5000-seat sunken show court, along with new function and media centres, plus broadcast studios. It reflects a vibrant event that is fondly entrenched in tradition, yet undeniably dynamic in its nature.  

Stage 3 Melbourne Park construction by Tennis AustraliaTennis Australia

Credits: Story

(C) 2019 Tennis Australia. All Rights Reserved.

Select imagery courtesy of Melbourne & Olympic Parks.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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