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AO celebrates 30 years at Melbourne Park

10 October 2017 by Australian Open

Australian Open 1988 runner up Pat Cash.

Australian Open 2018 will mark 30 years since the tournament’s move from the grass courts of Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club to the state-of-the-art sporting precinct at Melbourne Park.
 
Rewinding to 1988, a crowd of 266,436 flocked to the new home of the Australian Open, which was known as Flinders Park until the name changed in 1996.
 
The 1987 Wimbledon champion and Aussie Davis Cup hero Pat Cash played in the first men’s final at the new stadium, losing an epic five-set match to Sweden’s Mats Wilander.
 
Although the result didn’t go his way, Cash has fond memories of his run to the final, the excitement of launching a new chapter in Australian Open history and the growth of the tournament since.
 
“It was very exciting to have this brand new facility with a closing roof, that was phenomenal,” Cash said.
 
“For a while the Australian Open was regarded as the poor cousin, the ugly duckling [among the four Grand Slams] … I think that having the new stadium, Flinders Park and the whole arena being so central meant that our facility was up to scratch, if not better than, everybody else’s. I think people got very excited about the whole thing, the new stadium, new facility and a reborn Australian Open so all of the players came flying in to try and win.
 
“I was a Wimbledon champion coming into Melbourne Park. I really wanted to win the Australian Open, it was one of my dreams to do that. To win Wimbledon, the Davis Cup and then the Australian Open, my national championship, one, two and three. I had a chance to do that, the court was a pretty quick court.
 
“I was playing great tennis and got through to the semifinal against Lendl and he was the man to beat. I somehow managed to get through in five sets and it was obviously a tough match, as always against Ivan, and there I was playing Mats Wilander in the final.
 
“We were playing great tennis, it was really exciting stuff and it was nip and tuck the whole way. I just couldn’t quite get ahead of Mats on Mats’ serve, he served really well in the fifth set and I just couldn’t break him. It was one of those occasions where you walk off the court and go ‘you know what, I played really well’. I lost, barely, to this guy. It was too good,” Cash recalls.
 
Wilander also has great memories of playing that 1988 final, and the ongoing improvements at Melbourne Park.
 
“This is a great place and a great stadium,” Wilander said.
 
“Obviously, playing Pat in the finals on the bicentennial birthday of Australia that day was extremely special.
“I know that most players welcomed the change [from Kooyong] and I think I didn’t early on, but then once you start playing on Rod Laver Arena and big matches against Stefan Edberg in the semi, and of course Cashie in the finals, it felt like it was a great change.”
 
As a leading commentator for Eurosport, Wilander has watched the growth of the precinct closely over the past 30 years and is impressed with the constant innovation.
 
“The change that Tennis Australia and Craig Tiley have made since 1988 is amazing,” Wilander said.
 
“I think that they [Australian Open] were a tournament that were trying to do things at Melbourne Park that the other three Slams had, and now it’s the other way around.
 
“Now they’re basically the leading innovators when it comes to Grand Slam tennis.
 
“I personally think that they’re up there with Wimbledon, they’re about the same level.
 
“The way they take care of the players, the way they take care of the media, the vibe inside the stadium.
 
“I think it’s the most special trip that you make in a year, because most players today are Europeans and winter in Europe hits when the Australian Open comes around, so when you get down there it’s like everybody is dying to get the season started. Everybody comes with no pressure because the season hasn’t started, everybody is fresh from their injuries the year before and they’ve now recovered. It seems like it’s the favourite tournament for a lot of players.” 
 
The first women’s final at the new venue was won by a teenage Steffi Graf who defeated Chris Evert, the beginning of what would turn out to be her ‘Golden Slam’ year, where she won not just all four Grand Slam titles, but also Olympic gold.
 
Kim Clijsters was dubbed ‘Aussie Kim’ by local fans, embracing the Belgian who went on to win the 2011 title.
 
“I definitely felt the love … I always felt very supported,” Clijsters said.
 
“When I think about Melbourne Park, the first things that come to mind are obviously a lot of great memories. Winning there was to me, probably one of my favourite tournament victories ever.
 
“Coming to Australia is always very special to me, there’s so many people that I know. Walking out onto Rod Laver Arena before your matches, practicing there, it’s just very special. Every Grand Slam obviously has a big court, but for me Rod Laver Arena is something very unique.”
 
Australian Open champion in 1991 and 1996, Boris Becker looks back on the 1988 tournament and how significant the Australian Open has been to his career.
 
“I was playing in the 1988 Australian Open and was a proud member of the 128 players to open this incredible facility,” Becker said.
 
“Winning it in ’91 and in ’96 – in particular in ’91 because it made me the No.1 player in the world playing Ivan Lendl in the final.
 
“I remember having the match point and running out of the stadium because I just felt that moment was something so personal. Imagine nowadays one of the players doing it. So I was always a little bit different, but that was a special moment for me.”
 
“Melbourne has always been a very successful, a very important tournament for me.” 
 
With a rich history that spans over three decades, a lot has changed over the past 30 years.
 
A record 728,763 fans poured through the gates at Australian Open 2017, which was broadcast live in 220 territories on more than 65 different TV channels, and reached more than 900 million homes worldwide.
 
“By the time I came and started my career at the Australian Open it was at Melbourne Park,” Jim Courier, the 1992 and 1993 champion, recalls.
 
“It was incredible to be at a place that had a retractable roof stadium, it really was. To be able to drive underneath the stadium with the courtesy cars and to be right in there, it really had a different feel to all the other majors.
 
“It felt super modern and it still does now, 30 years later.”
 
The Australian Open, often dubbed ‘the happy slam’, has been renowned as a favourite destination for the players, media, tournament staff and fans over the past three decades.