Last week, your intrepid correspondent at the Australian Open ventured into the sprawling Heineken beer garden, which is not to be confused with the sprawling Jacob's Creek Wine Bar, immediately adjacent. Amid a sea of deck chairs, a mass of humanity gathered to chat, eat, drink and nap on a blisteringly hot afternoon. A band played Crowded House covers. It seemed fair to assume that everyone was taking a break from watching the matches at this, the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. But it soon became apparent that many of these people, despite holding tickets, would never make it to the courts.
That included the man suddenly before me, unsteady in his footing, wearing cargo shorts, no shoes, no shirt and what looked to be a Mexican sombrero shading his sunburned face. It was Steve "Wait, you're writing this down? I don't want to use my full name then," a teacher from a far Melbourne suburb who wondered why I was taking notes. He was genial but firm. "You're working too hard, mate," he slurred. "Put away your notebook and relax. There's plenty of keg left in the beer."
You generalize about 700,000 people at your peril. But let's put it this way: If you were to administer a field sobriety test to the crowds at the Australian Open, the collective result might be ugly. Struck by how thoroughly the Australian Open splinters the stereotype of the pristine tennis tournament, someone once remarked, "[It] is a beer event, not a champagne event." But, really, it's open bar. There's wine, mixed drinks, champagne and beer. Lots of beer. So much, in fact, that if you can't be bothered to wait in line at the concession stand, a man with a keg strapped to his back will happily refill your plastic cup.
Those who aren't sloshed? They might as well be. That includes the pack of 14 men dressed as Waldo from Where's Waldo?, the woman on stilts, a grown man blowing soap bubbles and two men dressed as tennis balls who chased each other around the perimeter of the stadium concourse during breaks in play—a scoreboard dot race come to life.
This is, after all, the Uninhibited Open. It's a two-week bacchanalia masquerading as a Grand Slam tennis tournament. It's the infield of the Daytona 500, only with the rhythmic thwock of tennis racket meeting ball instead of the Doppler effect as the sound track. It's Lollapalooza with Federer and Serena as the headliners. It's the way all big-time global sporting events ought to be.
THE RECEIVED wisdom in tennis: Each major exudes the vibe of its host city. The U.S. Open is a carnival of chaos and energy that, like New York City, exhilarates some and repels others. Wimbledon is brimming with tradition and elegance, a two-week garden party for Britain's landed gentry. The French Open is fashionable and chic and moody and slightly arrogant.
The Oz Open comes closest of all to approximating its nation's character, filled as it is with those singularly Australian dichotomies: It is whimsical but pragmatic, dignified but unrestrained. Like Australia, the tournament is filled with charms both antique (free streetcars that transport patrons) and modern (a no-bad-seat-in-the-house main stadium).
Above all, there's a quintessential Aussie emphasis—a mandate, really—on having fun. "Look, go have a good time," says Craig Tiley, the tournament director. "Buy yourself a drink, sit out on a [public] beanbag. You want to shout for a player? Shout. You're hot? Go stand in the mister."
As you might expect in a country founded as a penal colony, Aussies tend not to go in for pretension and social codes. So it is that their biggest national sporting event is an exercise in populism. It's affordable. It's on free TV. It's resolutely middle-class. (BMW, Mercedes and Porsche sponsor other tournaments around the world; the Aussie Open is brought to you by Kia.) No shoes, no shirt? No problem. Want to show up—as various fans did last week—in a string bikini, lederhosen or a superhero costume? Go nuts. Want to take a nap on a grass patch or pass out on one of the beanbags? No worries, mate.
Like the U.S., Australia is a nation of immigrants, with waves that keep coming. At Melbourne Park, flags might as well be part of the dress code. Last week an army of Serbs came swaddled in blue and red and serenaded Novak Djokovic, the defending champ. A cluster of Greeks came in blue stripes to cheer little-known Eleni Daniilidou. (Melbourne allegedly has the largest Hellenic population of any city save Athens.) A throng of Swedes came in yellow and blue—never mind that there were no Swedish players left in the draw.
In the locker room, meanwhile, there's a bonhomie that you find nowhere else on the tennis circuit. The tournament falls in midsummer Down Under. Up Over, of course, it is the dead of winter. But for most players the tournament has the feel of spring training. Their campaigns still pregnant with promise, they converge on Melbourne in high spirits. Their bills of health are clean; so are their win-loss records. "It's like there's a freshness," says 10th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. "Everyone walks around in a good mood."
Happiness, though, is generally suspended for players during the matches, for which the conditions are often brutal. Last Thursday on-court temperatures exceeded 140°. For years the tournament archetype was Ivan Lendl rocking a legionnaire's cap, its flaps shrouding his ears and neck. The courts have become so hot that players' soles have stuck to the surface as if it were flypaper. Or the surface has simply bubbled. "This tournament," Serena Williams once said, "can make you into a warrior."
That transformation of tennis into an extreme sport was vivid last year. In the semifinals, Djokovic beat Andy Murray in a ruthless five-setter. It was an early Match of the Year candidate. Until the next round. In the final Djokovic battled Rafael Nadal for five hours and 53 minutes, many rallies ending with both players doubled over, their tongues hanging to the ground.
The crowd hung in just as tenaciously. When Djokovic pasted his final shot, it was 1:37 a.m. on a Monday, and none of the 15,000 seats in Rod Laver Arena was unoccupied. "It's all very macho, very Australian," says Richard Hinds, ace columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald. "Survive the Outback, survive the tournament."
The players' pain is the fans' gain. At least in part because of the conditions, the Australian Open features an uncommonly high quotient of gripping matches and comebacks. Last week alone, 50 matches were won by players who'd lost the first set.
The most stirring Australian Open comeback, though, may have been mounted by the tournament itself. For most of its 108 years the Oz Open was a minor major, a Grand Slam event in name only. The tournament's previous home was at Kooyong, a Melbourne club whose grass courts ranged from sandlots to unkempt meadows. The draws consisted mostly of Australian players. "Honestly," says Chris Evert, "you just felt that it wasn't worth the trip." As Evert, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova ruled tennis in the mid- to late '70s, the champions in Melbourne included lesser lights such as Roscoe Tanner, Mark Edmondson, Kerry Reid, Chris O'Neil and Barbara Jordan.
In the '80s, as murmurs grew that the event could lose its Grand Slam status, the tournament faced the equivalent of match point. The organizers went for broke. With some help from the Australian government, they relocated to a downtown venue wedged between the rail yards and the Yarra River. There would be a fancy stadium court, christened in Rod Laver's honor and festooned with a retractable roof. Grass gave way to a new surface, Rebound Ace, a rubber sheet that could accommodate a variety of playing styles.
The reviews were smashing. Fans came in droves. So did the best players, imbuing the tournament with new legitimacy. From Andre Agassi to Federer, Steffi Graf to Serena Williams, they raved about the event's ease and spirit and fans. And the tournament took care of them too, steadily increasing prize money, improving the court surface and adding welcome touches: A juice bar. An on-site beauty salon. This year there is a cool plunge pool.
There were strokes of genius along the way. Organizers cleverly branded the tournament as a pan-Asian major, tapping into the Chinese market. There were strokes of luck as well. The Australian economy has been humming, which makes it easier to find sponsors, sell tickets and even get the Victoria state government to underwrite a new $386 million expansion plan. Suddenly the Ringo Starr of the Slams is the darling. "The feedback we're getting from the players now," Tiley boasts, "is that we are the best."
There's a dirty secret about big-time tennis tournaments: They're sporting events, yes, but they're also incubators for commerce. The real high-stakes action is often not on the courts but in the luxury suites and hospitality tents. When NBC broadcasts the French Open, the network's parent company, General Electric, entertains European corporate chieftains. If G.E. leaves town having sewn up contracts to, say, provide the engines for a new fleet of Airbus jets? Well, the French Open rights fees just paid for themselves, and the viewer ratings are rendered almost irrelevant.
This, of course, exacts a price on a tournament's soul. The U.S. Open has come to resemble a mullet: business in the front, party in the back. Hard-core fans are consigned to seats so high up that they fall under FAA jurisdiction, while prime spots are all empty suits and full suites. What bolsters the balance sheet diminishes the atmosphere.
The creep of corporatization is noticeable in Melbourne too. In recent years there's been an uptick in pantsuits and starched shirts, a change in the stemware-to-plastic-cup ratio. Though a grounds pass costs only $34, locals wistfully recall the back-in-the-day days when the town was papered with tickets. Still, the Oz Open is careful to limit its selling out to seating capacity. When organizers realized the millions at stake, they peddled stadium rights. Hisense Arena, named for the Chinese electronics company, is the No. 2 venue. But Rod Laver Arena is inviolable, and calls to enforce a dress code or ask the didgeridoo player to pipe down during matches have been rejected. Nor are there any of those "stadium clubs" that exclude the masses.
Besides, how do you transact business surrounded by sweaty fans in face paint slurring chants to the tune of Winter Wonderland while the Wave ripples around and around the crowd? Such was the scene on Jan. 16, Day 3 of the 2013 tournament, as Jerzy Janowicz of Poland played Somdev Devvarman of India on Court 8. The players were so invested in the match that it was hard for the crowd not to be. There was protagonist and antagonist, back-and-forth momentum, a contrast in styles and disposition, the pugnacious 6' 8" Janowicz against the counterpunching 5' 11" Devvarman. And this was Australia, which meant each player had his own cheering section: on one side a knot of Poles wrapped in red-and-white flags, on the other a smaller, more subdued cluster of Indians. All in a thoroughly winning setting, Melbourne's skyline hovering as a backdrop, the clang of the streetcar dropping off fans audible during points.
For hours the players went back and forth. Devvarman won the first two sets. Janowicz won the next two. A classic Aussie Open comeback match. In the fifth, Janowicz brought his titanic serve to bear and prevailed. At the end he fell over on his back. His cheering section reacted as if Poland had won the World Cup, one fan eluding guards to present Janowicz with flowers. Then the hundreds of delirious Poles headed off to the beer garden—naturally—to celebrate some more.
Navratilova, now a commentator, took in the tableau from a perch above the courts. She marveled at it all: The sprawling complex. The crowds. The way a mom-and-pop tournament had transformed itself into a global party. The way it thrives even though there have never been fewer Australian players in the draws. "Staggering," Navratilova said. "It's just staggering."
Which means it has something in common with so many of the folks on the grounds.
This is, after all, the Uninhibited Open. Want to show up in a string bikini or a superhero costume? Go nuts.
For full coverage of the Australian Open, including the Daily Bagel and columns and reports by L. Jon Wertheim, Courtney Nguyen and Bruce Jenkins, go to SI.com/tennis
Photograph by DAVID CALLOW
MERRY OLD LAND OF OZ While players labor under the often broiling sun, fans gambol in '70s-style tennis outfits, flags of all stripes and head-to-toe Aussie green and gold.
ERICK W. RASCO (BEER)
Photograph by DAVID CALLOW
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE Part amusement park, part costume party, part outdoor spa, the Aussie Open accommodates fans of all ages and nationalities.
Photograph by DAVID CALLOW