By James Crabtree
A drive down the infamous and maddening Punt road, a quick turn onto Swan Street and you are smack bang in the middle of a sports nut holy land.
Indeed you could have gone the other way on Swan Street, had a great coffee and watched a gig at the famed Corner Hotel. But head in the direction of the city on tram or by foot and you are at The Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct. This particular area consists of Olympic Park, Yarra Park and Melbourne Park which is home to not only the tennis but also soccer, rugby, AFL, basketball, cricket and every major concert in town. Even the Grand Prix and horse racing’s Melbourne Cup are not too far away.
This is one hell of a town and a place born to breathe sport.
Unlike Wimbledon and Roland Garros, tickets for the Australian Open can be purchased easily and almost anybody you speak to will attend for at least one day. This is not tennis snobbery but tennis for all and the flamboyant crowds are certainly testament to this.
The tournament arrives too quickly and leaves too soon for most Melburnians. During roughly three weeks of January (including qualifying and pre-week warm-up) the Kia tournament cars buzz around the city leaving you to wonder, while trying to peer through the tinted glass, whom might be getting ferried around. Early on before the tournament has begun players like Novak Djokovic and Sam Stosur are getting acclimatised to the courts and weather, whilst speakers at conferences such as Judy Murray, Scott Draper or Ivan Lendl will be giving talks.
An interesting tale from a couple of Open’s past is the story that Roger Federer, on his occasional days off , liked to clip on a walkie talkie and drive a tournament car to taxi players around the city. Imagine having just lost a match and hauling your luggage into the back of an official car, only to be greeted by good ol’ Fed looking back at you from the rear view mirror. There are no further reports to the quality of his driving although Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear has claimed that Switzerland is a car hating place. It is also well known that Federer prefers to drive himself to and from matches at Melbourne Park rather than be chauffeured, and he is known to work on crossword puzzles during waiting times, asking tournament officials and staff for the odd bit of help.
Novak Djokovic on the other hand likes to walk. He is known to stay in the South Yarra area and visit the nearby botanical gardens to perhaps capture a sense of Zen. His team are known to spend a good amount of time at the European style cafes close to their hotel. It’s important to remember Melbourne prides itself on its café culture and exceptional coffee.
The Williams sisters also enjoy staying within the Chapel street precinct (South Yarra), along with others such as Andy Murray and Lleyton Hewitt. Serena Williams is known to rent out eight rooms for her entourage that includes a personal assistant, trainer, hitting partner, agent, and a whole heap of family and friends whilst staying in this famed area. And, big sister Venus includes a chef amongst her personal support team.
Whereas players at Wimbledon rent houses in or near the village, most players at the Aussie Open stay at some of the bigger hotels within the CBD. With Melbourne Park is only a 5 minute drive, the city is an ideal place to call home throughout the two week tournament. Players are often seen frequenting the inner city restaurants and shopping precincts, two of Melbourne’s most talked about attributes. The parent of a notable Russian player was known to attempt to purchase a large quantity of clothing from one store, with the promise that they would be back (insert Russian accent now) ‘probably tomorrow I hope’ (some will try anything and please end Russian accent). Jo- Wilfred Tsonga was also seen on the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street adding to his wardrobe in Armani.
Of course Melbourne is not exempt from the associated pre-tournament marketing exploits of brands such as Adidas, Lacoste, Nike, Rolex, Kia, Jacob’s Creek and ANZ. Adidas has been known to host a pre-hitting event on a court on top of an iconic Melbourne building and Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have been known to open new jewelery and fashion stores within the city.
Speak to many of the locals and the first month of the year is often their favourite time in the city. With holidays, heat and hard hitting, the Australian Open is certainly an event that is well organised, attended and looked forward to for much of the year. Melbourne Park suitably plays host to this reputable Asia Pacific Grand Slam and with its latest list of renovations will no doubt impress both players and visitors. If you plan a visit to Australia be sure to include a visit to Melbourne during the Australian Open, it would be criminal to miss.