Tennis: Grass roots, hi-tech future

The Anniversary: The Australian Open Tennis Championships were born 95 years ago
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NINETY-FIVE years have rolled by since Rodney Heath won the first Australian Tennis Championships at the Warehouseman's Ground, Melbourne, from a 17-man field. No Sheilas permitted in those days, mate; they weren't invited to compete until 1922.

It is one of the safer bets that dear old Rodney's eyes would have popped at the sight of the retractable roof unfurling next weekend to mark the start of the Australian Open's second decade at its Melbourne Park home, snuggled alongside another of the nation's great sporting venues, the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

If there is hardly anyone outside the confines of record-book devotees who could come up with Heath's name as the first tennis champion of Australia, there are not too many of those who will be competing at the 1999 Australian Open who will have played at, or even visited, Kooyong, that grand old private club whose grass courts were the focal point of Australia's tennis for 60 years until 1987.

Kooyong was, and remains, a delightful spot, but even 25 years ago its limitations as the home of one of the four Grand Slams were so obvious that the tournament's status declined to an alarming extent in the late 1970s. A few other locations which fancied their chances of becoming one of the big four clearly thought their prospects were getting better every year the likes of Johan Kriek and Barbara Jordan won the Australian Open.

Fortunately the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia was alert to the perils of a standstill mentality. As well as doing the smart thing and shortening its own name to Tennis Australia, the organisation built alongside the MCG and the River Yarra a national tennis centre which Ivan Lendl, the Australian Open champion in 1989 and 1990, praised as "the best stadium in the world".

The spectacular new structure not only preserved the Australian Open's Grand Slam status but transformed it into the greatest and most successful event in a sport-besotted nation. In turning away from Kooyong the decision was also taken to abandon grass in favour of a medium-paced rubberised surface, Rebound Ace.

The new venue, with its 15,000-seat centre court under a 700-ton retractable roof, two other show courts and another dozen outdoors, was an instant hit. The first Australian Open there in 1988 saw the event's attendance record virtually doubled to 244,859 and it has escalated steadily ever since thanks to an imaginative expansion of facilities.

The criticisms of the tournament have come over the choice of surface and that much- admired roof. Grass (no matter what Wimbledon may say) is doomed as a surface, particularly at a public centre such as Melbourne Park, but many of those required to play in temperatures exceeding 40C pointed out that on grass the heat would not have burned through the soles of their shoes, as it did - and continues to do - on Rebound Ace.

In its first year of operation the roof of centre court was closed because of rain, the first time a Grand Slam had ever gone "indoors". While the demands of television were probably paramount in persuading officials to shut the roof on that occasion, the discussion over the ethics of playing under a roof was nothing compared to the furore when it was used in 1997 to keep out the sun during a heatwave.

A letter of protest was sent by the competitors claiming that those forced to play in the heat on the other courts were at a disadvantage and Goran Ivanisevic, never a laggard when a dramatic quote is needed, called the conditions "a killer".

There is never a shortage of anniversaries in a sport-rich country like Australia and this year will mark the 65th since Fred Perry became in 1934 the last Englishman to win the event. The closest since then is John Lloyd, runner-up to Vitas Gerulaitis in 1977. Thirty years have passed since Rod Laver won the 1969 Australian Open as part of his second Grand Slam - and also completed 10 straight years of an Aussie winning the men's singles.

This time Australia will have high hopes of Pat Rafter and slightly lesser ones of Mark Philippoussis, but there is no sign whatsoever of an Australian woman winning, as Margaret Court famously did seven years in a row from 1960 to 1966.

But if they haven't come up with home-bred champions, the Australians have produced a sure-fire hit with a superb stadium which prodded the other three Grand Slams into updating their own facilities.

Just how close the event slid towards obscurity can be readily seen since it became the only Grand Slam to recruit a title sponsor for the 1988 opening of the new stadium as the Ford Australian Open. One visiting English journalist, a cricket writer, sat and counted the car company's logos on centre court alone: 169.

It was part of the price the Australian Open paid to preserve and enhance its status to the present eminent level.