Australian Open History
by Christopher G. Shepar - 01/14/2008
If Roger Federer wins his fourth Australian Open title in five years at Melbourne Park this January he'll need to win two more Championships to tie Australian Roy Emerson and seven more to tie Margaret Court for the all-time singles record Down Under.
Emerson holds the record for the most Australian Open championships with six titles, however, all his Grand Slam singles titles were won against an amateur field at a time when many of the world's best players had turned professional and were unable to compete in the Grand Slam events. Court holds the all-time record of 11 Australian Open (Court also holds the all-time Grand Slam titles record at 62).
But Federer's quest for history, Martina Hingis' cocaine use (or lack thereof) and subsequent retirement, and the ongoing probe into Nikolai Davydenko's alleged match fixing last year is not the most significant news at this year's Australian Open. The most significant change for players (and bettors) at this year's Australian Open are brand new re-surfaced courts.
The Rebound Ace experiment is out; replaced after 20 years by a Plexicushion surface, which is a cushioned acrylic surface. The new court is heralded as more consistent and more resistant to the heat. Tennis insiders have commented that an ancillary reason that Rebound Ace was replaced was to help Australian Lleyton Hewitt finally win Down Under. However, the new surface should help all power base-liners and big servers and not just Australians.
The main complaint by players over the last 20 years was that in the searing heat, often times more than 100 degrees, Rebound Ace became sticky and took too much pace off the ball, and the rubbery surface proved so sticky to tennis shoes that players were often turning their ankles as shoes would come to too sudden a stop. However, Andy Roddick dispelled questions about the new surface when he won the Kooyong Classic on Thursday, overwhelming Marat Safin with his cannon-like serve. The Kooyong Classic was the first tournament to feature the Plexicushion surface and apparently it did not slow down Roddick's serve.
The Australian Open is renowned for Melbourne's excessive summer heat. This is the tour's first Grand Slam of the season, and the extreme weather puts a premium on player conditioning -- players like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who are in peak physical condition, have the advantage over players who lack stamina. The heat can be unbearable so the tournament has special rules allowing for breaks due to excessive heat (as well as retractable roofs on Rod Laver and Vodaphone Arena). Tennis balls bounce significantly higher in hot weather, which favors players with a big kick serve like Andy Roddick, Serena Williams, and Lleyton Hewitt.
The official name of the tournament is the Australian Open Tennis Championships. Rodney Heath won the first title in Australian Open history in 1905 at the Warehouseman's Cricket Ground in St Kilda Road, Melbourne when it was known as The Australasian Championships. In the early days the Championships toured Australia and were held in different states over the years. There was no tournament during World War I. The first women's singles champion was Margaret Molesworth in 1922. In 1927 the name was shortened to the Australian Championships. The Championships were suspended during WWII. With the birth of the Open Era in 1969 the name was changed for a final time to the Australian Open.
If there was ever a gilded age of Australian tennis it had to have been the 1960s when Rod Laver, Emerson and Court won 16 of a possible 20 men's and women's titles between them. By 1972 the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club hosted the Open for the next 16 years due to Melbourne attracting the biggest fan base. The 70s Australian Opens were dominated by Australian women who won seven of 10 singles titles and a mix of Australians (five), Americans (four) and Argentines (two) for the Men's; including two titles in 1977 for the Americans due to the decision to shift the Australian Open from its traditional January to December resulting in two Australian Opens that year.
By the 1980s Kooyong had become too small to hold the international event, so the government built Flinders Park, which first hosted the Open in 1988. The 1980s were characterized by European dominance in the men's event from Sweden's Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, who won it five times between 1983-88, to Germany's Boris Becker and Czechoslovakia's Ivan Lendl. In the modern Slam era, though, the Australian Open has favored power baseliners. However, as recently as the last five years this trend has changed for the men with the dominance of All-World All-Court player Federer. For the women, however, this is still the trend. Monica Seles and Steffi Graf have each won it four times; defending champion Serena Williams and Hingis have won it three times while Jennifer Capriati added two titles to her resume.
In 1996 the venue was expanded and renamed Melbourne Park. In 2000 Center Court was christened The Rod Laver Arena in honor of Australia's tennis hero. The Australian Open has long been considered significant because it serves up the first of the four Grand Slams and can set the tone for the year; and due to the fact this year's edition of the Australian Open has the strongest field in the event's history it could be one of the most competitive years in tennis history.