New York stole Melbourne’s thunder last year when they increased the duration of their Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows, New York to 20 days. It boosted their attendance to a record 957,387 versus Melbourne’s 839,192 over 14 days early in 2023.
With the Melbourne event extended by one day at the start for 2024, the now 15-day event appears likely to set a new record of at least 1,000,000 fans through the turnstiles, with some insiders suggesting to us that strong ticket pre-sales could see the figure approach 1,100,000.
AO2024 resembles a mini-city with significant improvements to the infrastructure around the precinct. The Australian Open has more than 33 partners, many of them boasting sponsor lounges around the arenas. Food and drink outlets, plus 75 per cent more shade cover than last year have helped generate a distinctly family event around the outside courts, with hundreds of tables and chairs for the thousands who opt for a $60 ground pass rather than at least twice the price for a seat in the two major arenas.
During my backstage tour on Super Saturday, we learned the top priced ticket was $27,000 for special seats in Rod Laver Arena. We saw Rod Laver himself posing for media outside the media centre. At 85, he now uses a walking stick but was upbeat about being at the event as he joked with reporters and photographers.
Wearing our special passes – you had to provide a specific type of photo, your date of birth, home address and citizenship – the organisers were taking no chances with security arrangements. After all there’s a bunch of multi-millionaire tennis players in this precinct and they need to feel secure at what they call ‘the happy slam’.
We were ushered into the inner sanctum ‘below deck’ where fixed TV and cameras and dozens of security officials abound and where no photos could be taken. Everyone spoke in hushed tones as players relaxed in the lounge at their underground drop-off point.
We saw their restaurant in the ‘player pod’, a relatively recent addition to Rod Laver Arena. We saw the media centre – while our passes did not permit full access, we chatted with a veteran photographer on the tour. She looked burdened down with kilos of cameras with long lenses but had a cheery disposition.
With a quick check of the corridor to ensure no players were approaching we were allowed to take the ‘walk of champions’ that you see on television as contestants up next on centre court walk the final 50 metres through a gallery of illuminated past champions. It was hot like a sauna, so no wonder nobody lingers in this special tunnel that leads directly on to the court.
Among the highlights of our visit was time in the Tennis Australia boardroom with its panoramic view of the Melbourne CBD. We chatted at length with former tennis pro, Casey Dellacqua about her career, her doubles partner, Ash Barty, and her role now as a commentator. She says she’s still trying to convince Barty to have another crack at the championship.
And after taking some photos of Dellacqua with the two AO trophies sitting unguarded on a table beside us, we thanked our hosts and returned to the BestCities Global Forum that had facilitated our special VIP visit.
Later in the day, delegates from BestCities experienced a Melbourne major event, attending a match at the Australian Open. Some international attendees admitting they knew little of the game, but were now tennis converts.