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, 4½-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."
While Lendl's soles sizzled, his game fizzled. For the second Australian Open in a row, Lendl, who spent nearly a month in Australia preparing for the tournament, lost a five-set semifinal match to Cash. The hometown heartthrob hoped to become the first native to win the tournament since Mark Edmondson did so in 1976.
During Cash's first match antiapartheid demonstrators protested his appearance at last November's South African Open by lobbing dozens of blackened balls onto the court. Furious that the organizers had allowed demonstrators inside the stadium, Cash's father, Pat Sr., demanded the resignation of Brian Tobin, president of Tennis Australia. Pat Sr. found an ally in Martina Navratilova, who compared permitting the demonstration to "making concessions with terrorism. It was like what Reagan did.... It's not much different than making a deal with Iran."
Navratilova became even more unhappy when she lost in straight sets to Evert in the semis. The 33-year-old Evert had considered quitting the tour after losses to Pam Shriver and Sylvia Hanika in November, but this match didn't seem to indicate that her game had improved; rather that Navratilova's had dropped a notch or two. The final confirmed that Evert had not really turned back the clock.
She had lost two of the first three games to the 18-year-old Graf when it began to rain and officials decided to close the roof. That was a 23-minute production, but the delay lasted 91 minutes because the court had gotten wet. When the tennis changed from outdoor to indoor, Evert unraveled. "For two weeks I have been throwing the ball up to serve and seeing blue sky," she said. "Now all of a sudden I'm seeing a black roof. It's very different, and it took me a long time to adjust."
Evert dropped eight straight games to fall behind 6-1, 4-0. She thought of Larry Holmes, whom she had watched get knocked out by Mike Tyson on television during the delay. "That was me on the ground," she said. "I said to myself, out of desperation, Do something!" With Graf leading 5-1, Evert buckled down, took some pace off her shots and won five games in a row. But Graf won the next game and then took the tiebreaker 7-3.
But the Australian Open isn't the end of the world. It's only the antipode.