Roll up, roll up to Melbourne Park! The Australian Open wants you! But there is a cost. Master promoter Craig Tiley, already a busy man as chief executive of Tennis Australia and Australian Open tournament director, is on the tout.
The Australian Open has been at the forefront of innovation since its move from Kooyong to the fringe of the city in 1988 and another experiment is underway this week. TA is charging fans a fee to attend qualifying for the first time as part of what it is billing as a “three week extravaganza of tennis and entertainment”.
There is nothing new about qualifying behind held the week before a grand slam. But Tiley has been spinning the sell on the campaign with more ferocity that the topspin Rafael Nadal imparts on his forehand.
“The program about pushing it to a three-week extravaganza is that we did have events during this week, but they were fairly ad hoc events, but now we are starting to tie it together,” Tiley said. “We are preparing for the future and extending the period of this event. It is the perfect time of the year in Australia and this is just year one of that growth initiative.”
The cost of running two Australian Opens in the pandemic dealt a significant blow to TA’s bank balance, with cash reserves exhausted and an $80 million loan orchestrated. But it also offered an insight into what was possible as TA works off that debt.
Given COVID-19 restrictions around the country, several tournaments were held at Melbourne Park before and after the 2021 and 2022 Australian Opens. Crowd figures for those events were far from astronomical. But some people were prepared to pay to watch events other than the Australian Open. An idea was born.
TA is targeting an audience of 900,000 attendees through the Australian Open. This is about 90,000 more than the current record set in 2020. Hence the big push over the past month.
Among the initiatives this year are specialised “Perfect Practice” sets featuring major stars. The headline act pits Novak Djokovic – who arrived in Melbourne yesterday a week short of a year since he was deported from Australia – against Nick Kyrgios on Friday night.
Again, practice sets are not a new feature. But the addition of officials and ball boys does add an element of formality to “enhance” the spectacle and, TA hopes, boost sales. Before the main event, TA will also run a charity fundraiser for Ukraine on Wednesday night and the regular kids day on Saturday, both with a charge in 2023.
“The events we have on Wednesday night, and now Friday night as well, and on Saturday during the day, and in ‘24 and ‘25 we will even expand further with music and entertainment,” Tiley said.
The target of 900,000 by the time the men’s champion holds aloft The Norman Brookes Trophy on January 29 to conclude the Australian Open seemed a long way off on Monday.
There were 58 people in attendance when Sydney teenager Jeremy Jin served a fault on Kia Arena to open the qualifying tournament as Tiley was about to begin his preview of the Open nearby. When Eugenie Bouchard, a Wimbledon finalist who was the WTA Newcomer of the Year a decade ago, stepped on to the same court a few hours later, the attendance had doubled.
Now 28, Bouchard has struggled with injuries and is ranked 327. As she walked onto Kia Stadium, the DJ opted to play Gotye’s one-time hit Somebody That I Used To Know. The Canadian is doing her best to make sure that is not the case. But she will not be around when the main stars arrive after falling to American teenager Ashlyn Krueger 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.
The question is whether the qualifying experience is value for money. A straw poll of fans spattered across the site suggested some, but not all, believed it value for money.
Andrew Lim, who is originally from Melbourne but now lives with his family in Westchester, New York, described the Australian Open tournament site as “absolutely phenomenal”. But he was among those who were surprised there was an entry fee.
“When did they start charging for the qualifiers, do you know? That is really uncalled for. I mean, the US Open qualifying, that is for free. That is the only qualm that I have,” he said. “The first few days, I think if you want to attract people to your event, that should be free. It is how you expose people to what tennis is like.”
But Juri Roots, an Estonian who played at a high level as a junior, loved the experience.
“It is worth $10, absolutely. Obviously you don’t see the top players, but it is still interesting and the level of tennis is still very high,” he said. “With Bouchard, for example, maybe she is not at her best now, but she was still a Wimbledon finalist, so you still see some legendary players.”