By Looking to Asia, the Australian Open Found Itself

Nicknamed the “Happy Slam” by Roger Federer, the Australian Open is the largest annual sporting event in the Southern Hemisphere, drawing the biggest names in tennis and record-breaking crowds from across the Pacific region.

Though now known as a premier event, it was not so long ago that the Open was considered a backwater. Played on grass courts — and offering little in the way of ranking points or prize money — it was seen by some as a poor copy of Wimbledon.

Today, the Open reflects a decades-long shift in Australian identity and politics, which reoriented the country away from Europe and toward its neighbors in Asia.

Though called the Australian Open, it is effectively the Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific Region.

When Paul McNamee became the tournament’s director in the 1990s, his mandate was to lift the Australian Open from a junior to equal partner of the four Grand Slam events of the year.

We needed to be ourselves, which was a sun-drenched nation that needs to have a big casual outdoor party,” said McNamee, who no longer runs the tournament. “The Australianization was absolutely the key for this tournament to find its identity.”

The three Northern Hemisphere tournaments had long-held identities. Wimbledon has always been a beautiful display of British tradition and ceremony. The French Open is chic and Parisian. And the United States Open is as big, loud and grand as its host city, New York.

But it was only in the 1990s when Australia began struggling with its place in the world — even flirting with the idea of severing ties with Britain to become a republic — that the Australian Open really found its stride.

Open officials knew they needed to embrace Asia in order to expand and grow. They hired a full-time manager to work on the Asia strategy. On the court were not only more players from Asia, but ball boys and girls from there, as well.

Kia Motors of South Korea took over as the tournament’s major sponsor. Ganten Water, a Chinese company, has the exclusive concession on selling bottled water — imported from China — at the Open this year.

Today, players repeatedly cite the facilities as being superior to any other Slam. It’s the only tennis event that has three stadiums with retractable roofs.

Players past and present also say the Australian Open strives to make sure the players’ experience at the Open is better than at any other tournament.

“It is always special coming back to Australia,” Angelique Kerber said after her quarterfinal win. “I feel good here.”

Rod Laver, widely regarded as one of Australia’s greatest athletes, and for whom the center court stadium was named, said he never imagined the Australian Open would become so large an event.

“It’s just unbelievable what the government and Tennis Australia has accomplished,” Laver said in a rare interview. “Saying we want this to be one of the best Grand Slams and they’ve proved them right.

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