March 20, 2023

Open Court


AO fan experience not the same with decreasing star power, loss of signature courts

MELBOURNE, Australia – It wasn’t so long ago that there were three courts – No. 16, 17 and 18 if memory serves – in the formerly much more dense back part of Melbourne Park.

They were lined up one behind the other, and there was a walkway above that allowed the fans to hang over and watch the players practice.

There was also some seating on one of the courts. And the thing was that, even before practice times and courts were available online or on the message boards around the site, the fans always knew when, and where their guy would practice.

Between the overhead walkway and the open space on the other sides, the old configuration of courts where the bigger stars practiced was a great part of having a grounds pass.

And their gal.

They would stake their place long ahead of time, banners and flags and country-coloured garb in hand, big yellow balls and Sharpies at the ready.

Those courts are gone now, blasted away for Kia Arena and such. And the value for the grounds pass at Melbourne Park – which has great increased in price the last few years – has been diminished significantly.

But so has the star power. That’s the fascinating thing – especially as you look at how tennis moves forward after this pretty comprehensive “star power” generation.

Djokovic jogs over after his practice at the 2018 Australian Open to make some fans’ day with selfies and autographs.

Star Gazing Not Quite the Same

It was very noticeable this year with Federer and Williams and Sharapova gone.

That left Djokovic as the one “mega-star” left to star-gaze for once Nadal was out. With honorable mention to Andy Murray.

On the plus side, they’ve finally let fans into Rod Laver Arena during the qualifying week, now that they’ve begun charging admission. So some of the fans on hand were able to get in there and watch the higher-ranked players during the week.

Those who knew about it, that is; there wasn’t exactly a stampede.

Read us

But it wasn’t the same; it was formal, and the players were far away – not nearly the proximity (the safety of that is a whole other debate) you get on the practice courts. That’s one of the unique features of tennis and even in these scary times, an important one to nurture.

Once the tournament began, when one of the big names did venture out to Court 10 or Court 11, which are in the middle of the area where nearly all the Melbourne Park courts are now, there was a LOT of humankind.

Here was the crush of fans waiting for Rafael Nadal, just before noon on the day after his first-round win.

They stuffed in around Court 10 way ahead of time. A quick peek in revealed that Jelena Ostapenko was practicing – probably in front of the biggest crowd of her life. But, bless her, the fans were there to get a good spot for Nadal.

The problem was – Nadal never showed up. It was that burning-hot day early in the tournament when play was halted for several hours in the afternoon.

Nadal ended up practicing indoors. But the fans weren’t advised of this until about 20 minutes after the scheduled start time.

FAA, Djokovic and Medvedev on Rod Laver

The new experience for fans, who were finally allowed onto Rod Laver Arena during the qualifying week to watch a few select practice matches, was something that should probably be tweaked.

The first thing was that they limited the fans to a few sections – so in a 15,000 seat stadium during a pandemic, those who came in for the more popular practices were smooshed in together.

You dared to go rogue and sit in the sunny seats or without six people in your face, security went scurrying after you.

Team FAA sitting on the sidelines during a practice match on Rod Laver Arena

The other thing was that they overmanaged it, positing it as a “practice match exhibition”. That meant ballkids. And a chair umpire. And the scoreboard. So, very much out of the regular routine of the players who, for the most part, are creatures of habit.

It appeared the teams were told to sit in some shaded seats on the sidelines, and not be around their player on the court handing out advice and whatnot as they usually would.

Here’s what it looked like when Félix Auger-Aliassime took on Cristian Garin, followed quickly by Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.

Team FAA complied. Team Djoko and Team Meddy did – for a couple of minutes. After which the coaches said, “Yeah, no, we’re gonna do what we usually do”.

The arrival of Djokovic and Medvedev, who clearly had already warmed up on an outer court, came suddenly and without fanfare as Auger-Aliassime and Garin reached the end of their time-limit match.

There were only a few dozen Djokovic supporters on hand, which tells you the news of this wasn’t publicized nearly enough.

And there wasn’t even any real introduction to give him a rousing welcome.

Djokovic and Medvedev took to the court and immediately started serving it up. It was a long first game. And the chair umpire didn’t even get up to his chair to start the game clock and call the score until seven minutes in.

Fan experience not what it was

In short, while the price of grounds passes at the Australian Open has doubled (at least) over the last decade, the fan experience isn’t nearly what it was in the old “Court 17” days.

The diehards might well flock to court 8, where No. 37 plays No. 25 and they have a knock-down, drag-out, high-quality marathon.

But the vast majority of the 800,000+ the AO will attract this fortnight are the casual fans. And as is the case at most tournaments around the world, they have a few players they recognize. And in many cases, they’d prefer to watch them practice (with the attendant selfie/autograph potential) than watch a GREAT tennis match just metres away.

Just look at the fans who jammed Court 11 before Andy Murray’s match against Thanasi Kokkinakis (which turned out to be an infamous one).

The interaction between the two protagonists and their team as the court changed over from Murray to Kokkinakis was great – and one of those moments fans love to see, little experiences you can only get when you get out and attend a tournament in person.

A flock of fans engulfed Murray as he left the court; he spent considerable time signing and selfie-ing before he could finally get to the locker room.

(As I write this, Karen Khachanov is practicing, warming up for his semifinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas. And he’s on John Cain Arena, which is never open to the public outside of actual matches and has been shut down even for that since earlier in the week. So no opportunity for fans to watch him).

In 2023, the number of “big-time marquee” players is dwindling. And so the Australian Open, which has not followed the lead of, say, the US Open and Indian Wells in catering to those fans wanting to cheer on their favorites in practice, will likely have to make a few more tweaks to upgrade this part of the operation.

Letting the fans into Rod Laver Arena for some practice sessions was at least a good start.

About Post Author