When Ava Gardner went to Australia in the late 1950s to make On the Beach, she was so put off by Melbourne's provincialism that she exclaimed, "What a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world."
Back then Aussie tennis was all-powerful and the Australian Open was a sedate affair usually held at the tony Kooyong club in suburban Melbourne. But when tennis went big time, the Australian version went down under. While the U.S. Open moved from cramped Forest Hills in 1978, and the French Open and Wimbledon improved and expanded their facilities, the Australian championships remained at Kooyong, which was crumbling.
Then, for the sake of inconvenience, in 1977 the tournament was moved from January to late December, a time when many players were reluctant to make the long trip because of the holidays. The draws became so weak that the 1981 and '82 finals were played between Johan Kriek and Steve Denton, who barely qualified as dim stars in the tennis firmament. But Australia's top players were even dimmer.
Last week, as Australia prepared for its bicentennial, tennis there was enjoying a renaissance. The Open, now rescheduled to be the first rather than the last Grand Slam event of the year, drew record crowds and most of the top players. Wimbledon winner Pat Cash, the best of an emerging generation of Aussies, laid out top-ranked Ivan Lendl in the semifinals, only to lose a scintillating, 4�-hour final to Mats Wilander, 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6. In the women's final Steffi Graf solidifed her No. 1 ranking by defeating Chris Evert.
But the real star of the show was the new National Tennis Center, a $50 million indoor-outdoor 21-court complex in the heart of Melbourne. "This place is marvelous, the new wonder of the tennis world," gushed R.E.H. (Buzzer) Hadingham, Wimbledon's overlord. "For the public, the players and the game, it's a great advance."
The center is the work of architects Jamie Learmonth and Peter Brook, who visited the other Grand Slam sites to incorporate the good, eschew the bad and eliminate the ugly. From Wimbledon they appropriated the idea of a royal balcony. At Roland Garros they were enchanted by the landscaping. And Flushing Meadow? "We did not find much to like about Flushing Meadow," said Brook. In particular they didn't think much of the U.S. facility's precipitous steps or the long shadows cast on the court by the scoreboard.
Back in Melbourne, Learmonth and Brook had to digest what they had learned. "It was like being faced with a huge bowl of fruit salad," Learmonth said. "We had to separate bits and resolve how to put them back into a whole."
The resulting concoction features a 15,000-seat stadium court with a retractable roof as well as two sunken show courts, one holding 6,000 fans, the other 3,000. A veritable erector set of cantilevered steel I beams, the stadium looks like a couple of huge dish drainers resting on an enormous bedpan. To keep the stadium court dry, Brook and Learmonth dreamed up the retractable roof. You need to keep a lid on things in Melbourne, where the climate is so unsettled you can run through all four seasons in a single day.
This year rain twice interrupted the men's final. The roof, which had been closed for the women's doubles final because of morning showers, remained open for the big event. "I don't understand," Cash complained. "They spend millions of bucks for the thing, so why not use it?" Wilander, who won the tournament for the third time, disagreed: "This is a Grand Slam event and meant to be held in the open."
The biggest break in tradition was the switch from grass to a hard-surface mix of asphalt and mulched tires. The medium-paced court won praise from baseliners and serve-and-volleyers alike. The only problem was the heat, which reached 137� on the surface. "The worst part was standing still for the postmatch TV interviews," said Lendl. "I thought my feet would melt."