Australian Open 2016

A wonderfull madness Down Under

Would you be so crazy? Why would one take this on? A twenty-five hour trip; twenty-two of them wedged in a seat on a plane. Feet lulled to sleep and a stiff neck. Forget it!

It's really wonderful when, after a night in a hotel room in Melbourne, you wake up in Australia - a country deemed by the United Nations to have the best quality of life in the world ahead of Switzerland and just behind Norway. And why? As the saying goes: Only in Heaven is it more beautiful. Australia is fascinating. Pure nature: tropical, jungle, canyons, white beaches, endless wide, red desert, national parks. It's a continent of cordiality and cosmopolitan cities - such as Melbourne which hosts the  Australian Open in January.

As soon as you leave the hotel you can smell that the tennis players are in town. There are Australian Open banners along many roads, monstrous posters of Serena, Roger, Rafa and others in shop windows and in the middle of the city, in Federation Square, there's a huge video screen with the tennis beeing broadcast live from the Aussie Open for everyone to watch. Often thousands of people can be found sitting there on the ground avidly watching. And opposite, at Flinders Street Station, is the tram stop from where you can go directly to the tennis stadium - free of charge, of course! In the morning there are huge crowds but it's not a problem. "In here for the tennis", call the guides directing fans to the right tram to Melbourne Park.

After only three stops and a few minutes you're at "Rod Laver Arena" at the National Tennis Center. Waiting to greet the visitors even before they go through the security checkpoints are young, friendly  Aussies, "Hey mate, have a good day!" What a personal welcome to a mega event where there are more than 60,000 spectators every day!  Where else do you find that?

Typical also for Aussies is what you see once you step inside. Young and old are sitting on the lawn of the "Grand Slam Oval" in front of a big screen as casually as at the beach - shirtless, tattoos, sunglasses, cool bag and a beer in hand. Others are sitting comfortably in lounge chairs and they do this for hours, out in the blazing sun - inconceivable at Wimbledon. To see Federer and other top players you don't need a center court ticket and don't have to wait at the practice courts either because you can watch them on a video screen beside the Rod Laver Arena and hear the lively cheering of the 15,000 spectators from the centre court.

Every year I meet up with Kim Grgat, the wife of a building contractor. She moved to Melbourne forty years ago and is a crazy tennis fan. During the Australian Open she leaves her suburban villa with its pool and tennis court and moves into the luxury Crown-Metropol Hotel so as to be close to the tournament. "I'm

not going to miss a thing," she says, "when the world's best tennis pros play here. I know them all, even those who come from my former country." And then the names flow … "Lendl, Korda, Mecir, Martina (Navratilova), Hana (Mandlikova), Helena ( Sukova), Jana (Novotna), Dominika (Cibulkova). It's just great, all of them have been here in the finals and some have even won the tournament."  And then Kim's off to court No 6 because the Czech, Barbora Strycova, is about to play.

And here's another nice, quaint story. A few years ago an elderly gentleman drove me to the stadium. He was one of the 230 KIA - tournament chauffeurs. Bob told me that he was previously General Manager of a company with his own private chauffeur.  "It's funny," he said grinning, "now, for two weeks, I'm being the chauffeur and sometimes I drive one of the world famous stars."  Wonderful Kim and Bob - Aussies through and through!
The Australian Open, as part of the quartet of the Slams, have always been out of the frame. For quarter of a century after 1950 Australia was the dominant tennis nation in the world. Because of this, and because of the long journey to get here, only a few European and American players came and so the winners were usually Australian.  In 1982 Borg, McEnroe, Wilander and Lendl didn't want to play in the Australian Open because the prize money was only 400,000 dollars. The top stars of that time preferred playing in Antwerp and Barcelona with 700,000 dollars.

Not anymore! Now the total prize pool is valued at 44 million australian dollars. The Australian Open is now a very prestigious tournament which certainly keeps up with the other Grand Slams. Here are a few figures to indicate the calibre of this tournament. For the Apollo flight and the first moon landing, the largest media event of the 20th century, there were reporters from 56 countries - at the Australian Open there are press and media journalists from 46 nations. In the supporting program of the "Legends", a doubles tournament at the Australian Open, there are 22 former super tennis stars - Navratilova, Clijsters, Davenport, Kafelnikov, Chang, Wilander, Philippoussis, Ivanisevic…. - who have won 131 Grand Slam titles (44 single and 87 double) together! During the tournament, there are about 4,500 volunteers who often give up all of their holidays and another 4,000 who work for companies and restaurants on site. The Australian Open tournament brings in 400 million dollars, a figure not to be sneezed at!

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