Melbourne is often claimed to be “the best city in Australia”; a hub of culture, food, activity and, above all, sport. For the sports fan, casual or hardcore, Melbourne, Victoria is Mecca. And every January, the stars align with the largest sports event in the Southern Hemisphere – the Australian Open Tennis Championships at Melbourne Park. The Australian Open is the year’s first tennis major, or Grand Slam, and signals the beginning of the season for many players, fresh off a break from the long, gruelling international tour season. This year, I headed across the Tasman Sea to experience this event first-hand.
Getting into the city
From the airport to the CBD is a 20-odd kilometre trip, one we opted to take in a cab as opposed to the regularly-departing Skybus (which costs $18 a head and takes you to the Southern Cross Station, located outside of the CBD which is rather inconvenient). While the bus does sometimes offer hotel transfers, the $50 fare for two of us in a taxi was considerably shorter, easier and bearable, especially since it was already dawning a warm sunny day.
Melbourne in January is legendary for its ferociously hot days, with the 2014 Australian Open experiencing a week of 35°C plus days. However, the city is also described as having ‘four seasons in one day’, meaning it can be stinking hot one minute, and pouring rain and freezing cold the next. We didn’t experience these extremes (fortunately), with only one day reaching the super-uncomfortable level of 37°C. However, what we didn’t expect was it to be cold… many days only hit 20°C, which, when sitting in a large draughty stadium, especially in the shade, can be a bone-chilling experience.
The home of sport
Situated on the banks of the Yarra River, running through the middle of the city, is the Melbourne Olympic Park Precinct, home to some of the greatest sporting amphitheatres in the world. The Australian Open is played at Melbourne Park, which consists of the 15,000 seat Rod Laver Arena, the smaller Margaret Court Arena, the Hisense Arena, and over twenty smaller courts dotted around the grounds. Next door to the tennis precinct is the enormous Melbourne Cricket Ground, complete with over 100,000 seats. The biggest cricket stadium in the world, the MCG is holy ground for cricket tragics. Finally, the rugby/football stadium of AAMI Park completes the precinct.Over the course my short trip there, the precinct hosted a One Day International cricket match between Australia and India, the Asian Cup football tournament, and, last but certainly not least, the Australian Open. There are no large, empty concrete white elephants here – Melbournians turn out to watch their sport in droves, preferring the live environment to watching it on television.
Tennis, tennis everywhere
Outside of the precinct, sport is everywhere, especially during the tennis. Hotel lobbies and shops boast table tennis tables, and big screens show the major matches in public areas like Federation Square at the bottom of the CBD. At the Crown Entertainment Complex, an enormous casino/hotel/shopping centre on the Southbank of the Yarra, a ‘SportsHub’ had been established, with big screens, umbrellas, fake grass, deck chairs, and capped off with Canadian Club and Heineken on tap. To make it even better, the SportsHub boasted frequent autograph appearances by major tennis stars. Being able to meet some of these tennis greats was an unforgettable experience. All in all, the sporting atmosphere in this city is without peer – for sports fans, it really is the centre of the world.
What else to do in Melbourne?
There is more to Melbourne than just the sport! Many of the city’s famous laneways have been turned into small shopping streets, hip eateries and, in one case, bombarded with graffiti for a cool spot of urban art. Rumoured to include a famous Banksy piece, the art covers everything from mockery of Monsters, Inc. to a protest against the government of Tony Abbott. Foodwise, Melbourne is well equipped with expensive as well as cheap eateries. Since we were spending virtually all our money on tennis tickets, we made do with extremely cheap meals in places like Chinatown but also on Lygon Street, just out of the CBD, where Italian restaurants jostle for business offering ludicrous freebies and discounts.
Australian Open logistics
The Australian Open is, without doubt, the best-organised sporting event I have ever been to. The queues at the entrance were minimal, and security was un-intrusive and reassuring. Prior to leaving New Zealand, I had bought a four-day pass to Margaret Court Arena for the first three rounds of the tournament. While you do not get access to Rod Laver Arena, the centre court, with this ticket you can soak up the atmosphere on the outside courts as well as the Hisense Arena. You may not see players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on this ticket, but we did see eventual finalist Andy Murray, Eugenie Bouchard, Kei Nishikori and Venus Williams amongst many others. Furthermore, all tickets gain access to the practise courts, allowing you to stand mere feet from superstars playing warm-up matches or honing their skills.
While tickets to Rod Laver would give you the chance to see the megastars, the cheaper Margaret Court tickets were just as good if not better, with the matches closer and more enjoyable. Tickets are available for the day session, which starts at 11 a.m. and consists of three matches, and the night session, which starts at 7 p.m. and has two. Both cost the same, but the night matches boast a particularly special atmosphere.
Pre-buying tickets in the weeks before the tournament really isn’t necessary, unless you want access to the middle weekend, which falls on the Australia Day long weekend. Rod Laver Arena virtually sold out from the Friday to the Monday. Unfortunately, tennis tournaments like the Open release their schedules the evening before the next day’s play, but the Australian Open app allows you to remain on top of things and buy tickets immediately, or even at the ticket booths. Crucially, it is possible to buy tickets according to the schedule rather than guessing beforehand, but you need to be quick when the schedule is announced, and, annoyingly, it can be released any time between 12 and 5pm. For the second week, which consists of quarters, semis and the finals, the tickets are mostly sold out well in advance, but you will be guaranteed good tennis if you buy these beforehand.Unlike the snobby, dead silent atmosphere of Wimbledon, the Australian Open crowds are raucous and loud. And unlike the US Open, they are also respectful of the players and the match, pausing their cheers and chants during play. Australian players are all vehemently supported, while Eugenie Bouchard’s ‘Genie Army’ follows her around the matches, singing songs and leading chants around the stadium. For less then fifty dollars, I printed a Genie Army shirt for my friend and I, allowing us to join in, feature on the global telecast of the match, and even be interviewed by ESPN! People in dress-up is common, and vocal support of players is encouraged. For atmosphere, this tournament is like no other on the tennis tour.
The Australian Open will make even non-sports fans into tennis diehards. The event is immaculately run, with plenty of non-tennis activities around the precinct to keep you occupied if you tire of watching matches. While it is true many of the first round matches are short and very one-sided, you never know when you’ll witness a historic upset, such as we did when Federer was sensationally beaten in the third round. There is nothing quite like watching live sport, and tennis in particular is superb when you’re in the stadium, soaking up the atmosphere that no television broadcast can convey. And of all the majors, the Australian Open is known as the ‘happy slam’, with easily accessible and well-priced tickets, good weather, joyous crowds and superb organisation. It really is unmissable.
Thanks to Patrick Chappell for writing this post – it’s always great when family members go to interesting destinations and are happy to contribute an article to The Global Couple!