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Updated: Nov 24, 2018
A new Grand Slam year awaits. Here's the lowdown on what to expect from the Australian Open that is happening right now.
(published in the Edge Malaysia, Options lifestyle section)
The calendar’s first Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, kicks off at Melbourne Park from Jan 16 to 29. As the first major tennis tournament of 2017 (the others are the French Open at Roland Garros, Wimbledon in the UK and the US Open at Flushing Meadows, New York), it is a springboard for many players to set the narrative for the rest of the year.
With two new world No 1s in men’s and women’s tennis, and the long-awaited return of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to Grand Slam tennis, this year’s Australian Open, in my opinion, heralds the most intriguing start to the tennis year in recent memory.
Dubbed the “Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific”, the Australian Open is broadcast to over 200 territories worldwide and reaches over 900 million homes. Last year, it recorded an attendance of more than 720,000 spectators, a record to date. Total prize money in 2016 was A$44 million (about RM145 million). This year, it will hit A$50 million — an increase of 14% — with the Men’s and Women’s singles champion set to take home a cool A$3.7 million each.
Just like the US Open, the Australian Open is played on hard courts, with the French on clay and Wimbledon on grass. The men’s defending champion is world No 2, Novak Djokovic, who has won the tournament a record six times! Fans will remember the thrilling 2012 Australian Open final where Djokovic finally defeated Nadal in the longest final match in Grand Slam history, lasting a gruelling 5hrs 53 mins — not forgetting Australia’s scorching temperatures.
The current women’s defending champion is Angelique Kerber, the new world No 1, who defeated Serena Williams for her first major win. Newly-minted world No 1 Andy Murray had an amazing second half of 2016 to edge Djokovic off the peak. Djokovic seemed to lose his way a little after winning last year’s French Open, and eventually parted ways recently with his coach for the last three years, former tennis great Boris Becker.
However, Djokovic played impressive tennis to beat Murray in the final of the Qatar Open in Doha recently, ending Murray’s 28-match winning streak. Should they meet in the final, it would be interesting to see how Murray, a five-time runner-up in Australia, copes with the pressure of starting the year as No 1 and having never won at Melbourne Park.
The perennial favourites of tennis fans worldwide, Federer and Nadal, make their much-awaited return to Melbourne. Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, took a six-month break from tennis after last year’s Wimbledon to rest and recover from a knee injury. Fourteen-time Grand Slam champion Nadal also took some time off last year to recover from a wrist injury. Their recent form at the Hopman Cup in Perth and in Brisbane suggests both remain strong forces to contend with at the Australian Open and are expected to make deep inroads into (or even win) the tournament.
On the women’s front, it remains anyone’s guess as the top five players lost in tournaments played in the first week of 2017. Kerber did not look her usual self and lost to world No 14 Elina Svitolina. World No 2 Serena Williams made 88 unforced errors and lost to a 72nd-ranked opponent. Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep and Dominika Cibulkova, ranked world No 3, 4 and 5 respectively, all lost to lower-ranked players. Nevertheless, I suspect Kerber and Williams will meet again in the finals. Cibulkova (nicknamed the “Energiser Bunny” — she is 5ft 3in tall and fast on her feet), winner of the year-ending WTA Finals held in Singapore last year, however, could well spring a surprise.
For those who like to watch rising stars, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev from Germany, who recently beat Federer at the Hopman Cup in Perth, certainly warrants attention, while 22-year-old Lucas Pouille from France had an impressive 2016, having reached the quarter-finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open. Currently ranked world No 15, we hope to see him extend his fine form in Australia.
Belinda Bencic, who partnered Federer in the Hopman Cup, shows good potential alongside Naomi Osaka of Japan, winner of WTA’s 2016 Newcomer of the Year award. Australia’s hopes, meanwhile, are placed on their top two men’s players, Nick Kyrgios (world No 13) and Bernard Tomic (world No 26). Samantha Stosur (world No 21), Australia’s top-ranked women’s player would surely like to place a disappointing 2016 behind her and do well on home ground. Daria Gavrilova (world No 25) and Australian No 2, who won the Hopman Cup with her compatriot Kyrgios in 2016, also shows great promise.
Melbourne Park tips
Held at the peak of the Australian summer, temperatures at the court have reached over 40°C in the past, with incidents of players and ball boys collapsing and fainting due to the extreme heat. Under the “extreme heat policy” at Melbourne Park, the referee can suspend play if certain extreme heat conditions have been reached. If you are lucky enough to be at the Australian Open, don’t forget to bring along your favourite sunglasses, hat/cap and lots of sunscreen! For night matches, it is usually a good idea to bring along a jumper for those unpredictable cool Melbourne summer nights.
A ground pass ticket (about A$40 for adults, A$5 for children) gives you access to all the outside tennis courts. You can see the top players there, particularly during the early rounds, so do take a walk around the ground. Who knows, you may bump into a famous tennis star on his/her way to a match or practice session. A bonus is that the ground pass ticket also allows you access to the Hisense Arena, where some of the biggest names in tennis are featured. There are usually long queues for general admission at Hisense Arena, so I recommend going early and staying put once inside the arena.
The Garden Square is the perfect place to lay down a picnic mat, relax and enjoy the live telecast of matches on the big screen. When it gets crowded during an exciting match, the atmosphere can be rather high-spirited among the tennis fans.
Three of Melbourne Park’s primary courts (the Rod Laver Arena, the Hisense Arena and the Margaret Court Arena) are equipped with retractable roofs in case of rain or extreme heat. This means continuous tennis can be played on all three courts throughout the competition. Wimbledon and the US Open currently have just one retractable roof each for their main courts. Plans are underway to install a retractable roof at the French Open, which is estimated to be ready no earlier than 2020.
The Australian Open is also known as “the friendly Slam”. Players and fans love it as the atmosphere is relaxed. Everything is well-organised and Melbourne itself is an easy city to navigate.