The Grand Slam starts here: a history of the Australian Open
The Australian Open is the traditional curtain raiser for the tennis world’s four Grand Slam tournaments each year. It’s eagerly awaited by all tennis betting fans as the season’s first chance to compare the odds on all the year’s potential stars of the court.
The competition was once dominated by American tennis players – although Europeans found success in the 1980s and more recently and lead the betting in the 2009 Australian Open through Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
That hasn’t always been the case, though, and the Grand Slam event has been the biggest showpiece for Australian tennis for most of its history.
From Australasian Tennis Championships to Australian Open
The event was first held in 1905 as the Australasian Tennis Championships. Matches were played at the Warehouseman's Cricket Ground in St Kilda Rd, Melbourne. It was organised by The Lawn Tennis Association of Australia (now known as Tennis Australia) and the first title was won by Rodney Heath (there was no women’s single title until 1922). The name was changed to the Australian Championships in 1927, and to the Australian Open in 1969.
Up to the start of the “Open Era”, the tournament was held at different venues around Australia, and solely on grass tennis courts. Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and even Christchurch and Hastings all hosted the tournament until it found a permanent home at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in Melbourne in 1972.
During those years the tournament gained in worldwide popularity. In its early years Australia’s remote location deterred the biggest tennis stars from making the 45-day boat trip from Europe, and air travel wasn’t an option until after the Second World War.
Correspondingly, the first half-century of the tournament saw it won mainly by Australian and New Zealand tennis players. What’s more, until the tournament became an Open it was off-limits to professionals – although the exploits of Australians like Jack Crawford, who won four tournaments in the 1930s, Ken Rosewall, who won the Australian Open twice in the 1950s on his way to becoming an international star, and Roy Emerson, who won a record six Australian Opens in the 1960s, are still remarkable.
Even more worthy of note were the achievements of Margaret Court, who won her first seven Australian Open singles titles between 1960 and 1966 – before the Open era – and came back to win four more titles when the competition was open to all comers.
The Australian Open finds a permanent home
The move didn’t initially do a lot to boost the Australian Open’s, popularity with the game’s top players; the distance, the New Year scheduling and the relatively low prize money kept many big stars away.
The low point probably came in 1970 when the National Tennis League prevented its players – including Aussies Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson – from appearing.
The Lawn Tennis Association of Australia awarded the Open to Melbourne on a permanent basis starting in 1972 because the city had always been the most enthusiastic host of the tournament from its days as the Australasian Tennis Championships.
The tournament gradually grew in stature throughout the seventies and eighties, though, and was moved to Flinders Park, still in Melbourne, in 1988. This move saw a shift from grass courts to hard surfaces.
During the 1980s Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg were the dominant players in the mens, while Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were at the forefront in the women's game. Wilander became the only man to win the Australian Open on both grass and hard court when he won on the “Rebound Ace” surface in ’88.
Flinders Park was expanded and renamed Melbourne Park in 1996. The stadium court, the Rod Laver Arena, and the No 1 show-court were given movable roofs, which can be shut when weather conditions outside threaten to interrupt play – although it’s the searing heat of Melbourne’s summer that affects the players more than rain: this isn’t Wimbledon.
The Australian Open up to 2009
US players dominated the Australian Open in the 1990s. Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi won seven tournaments between 1992 and 2003. After that the tournament was commandeered – like most of world tennis – by Roger Federer, until Novak Djokovic’s win in 2008.
The Rebound Ace surface has been replaced by Plexicushion in recent years: some conspiracy theorists claim the change was made to give an advantage to Aussie tennis hero Lleyton Hewitt, a confirmed baseliner.
Rebound Ace favoured big serve-and-volley players, and the list of winners in the 2000s certainly shows the advantage may now be with those who prefer to play on the baseline.
Baseliners should certainly be among the favourites in this year’s Australian Open betting odds.