Bigger, better Australian Open kicks off

It’s Oct. 9 in Australia, and it’s spring.

So that means it’s time for the Australian Open to have its official kickoff, as tickets go on general sale Tuesday.

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We’re not ready, of course. There is so much left to be decided in the 2018 season. And it’s not yet cold enough in northern countries that we’re dying for a little taste of summer.

(Won’t be long, though).

Still, it’s a day to get excited. The tournament laid out the improvements and changes and started amping up the promotional effort for the first Grand Slam of the 2019 season.

It begins with the guarantees on player participation that are full of hope. Everyone in the top 100 on the men’s and women’s side is coming, tournament director director Craig Tiley said. He also announced that Serena Williams would be returning to Melbourne.

“Serena loves coming to Melbourne and I know she’s excited about returning in January with her family, it’s definitely a very special place for her. She’ll also be super-focused on winning here, and equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.”

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Serena Williams missed this year’s Australian Open after the birth of Olympia. But she’ll be chasing history in January.

(A year ago, Tiley said Williams, who had just given birth to daughter Olympia, was “very likely” to come in 2018. That didn’t happen, of course.

Tiley also said he’d been in touch with Rafael Nadal.

“I’ve been in touch with him and he’s happy with how everything is progressing. Rafa is such an amazing champion I know everyone will be pleased to hear he’ll be returning in January,” Tiley said.

But onto the sure things

Here’s a brief overview of the changes, improvements, additions and everything else the tournament will roll out for the 2019 edition.

Prize money and player initiatives

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(Australian Open/Fiona Hamilton)

Yes, there’s an increase in prize money for 2019, and the tournament is proud to say it’s setting another prize-money record with a total purse of $60.5 million.

That’s not a Grand Slam record; that amount converts into $42.87 million US. That’s about $10 million less than what the US Open offered in 2018. But it remains in second place.

It’s an increase of exactly 10 per cent, less than the 17 per cent the ATP players who’ve discussed what they’re looking for from the Grand Slams, to be more more in line with sharing the revenue equitably.

It’s also not quite that, as the women’s qualifying draw is increasing this year, and so the total purse is divided among more players.

But it’s still a staggering sum of money.

App should be better

The tournament had a big issue on its hands in 2018, with the depature of IBM.

It scrambled to put together its website and app in a couple of months. And the result provoked near unanimous complaints in just about every level.

But it appears they’ve addressed that with a three-year deal signed with Infosys.

(Australian Open/Fiona Hamilton)

“The partnership will see Infosys leverage its expertise in emerging technologies like Big Data & Analytics, Artificial Intelligence as well as Virtual & Augmented Reality, to provide unique, innovative and engaging experiences for Australian Open fans,” the announcement statement said.

That should mean a decent app.

50th anniversaries

The 2019 edition is not only the 50th anniversary of the Australian tournament as a true “open” event.

And it’s also the 50th anniversary of home-country hero Rod Laver’s second calendar Grand Slam – seven years after his first, and after the period of exile when professional players were not allowed to enter.

Hawkeye, serve clocks, qualies matches on MCA

*25-second serve clock moves into the main draw

*Hawkeye on all 16 match courts.

*Despite the talk of reducing the seeds to 16, the regular 32 seeds will be in place in both the main draw and qualifying.

*Qualifying draw for the women is increased to 128 players, to make it the same size as the men’s draw. Because of that, the qualifying will start on the Tuesday, a day earlier.

*There will be matches on Margaret Court Arena on each day of the qualifying.

*The Tie Break Tens event will return, on Wednesday, Jan. 9 (the second day of qualifying).

*There will be no more “bulb measurements”, that mysterious number that was the cause of such controversy last January amid the debates about whether or not to close the roofs on the stadiums. The “Extreme Heat Policy” will be replaced by the “Heat Stress Index”. That factors in air temperature, humidity and the temperature on the court surface.

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Spoiling the players

One of the cool things about the Australian Open – at least on the player’s side – is that they treat them as though it was still the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, players regularly skipped the tournament because of the distance and its date at the end of the season.

It’s on a more than equal footing with the other majors now. In fact, it may well be the one the players think is the most fun. And the prize money is so massive that they’ll get there on one leg if they have to.

Still, the tournament continues to upgrade their amenities and perks.

Last year, the eastern side underneath Rod Laver Arena was a bit of a construction zone, with a few hallways leading nowhere and temporary walls put up. They evicted the media and put them on the fourth floor of the office building on site, and they got to work.

The result this year, the tournament says, is an increase of 30 percent of player space “in some areas”. 

The Player Café is expanded. There are more lockers (375 per gender) and charging points in each locker..

The crèche for babies and kids has been expanded – by necessity! – and there’s a special “parents’ room”.

They’ve added gawking space. An outdoor terrace overlooks the retail area on the concourse and the Grand Slam Oval. And the fans will be able to stare up at people walking around the third-floor dining area through big glass windows.

Bigger and better for the kids

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One of the biggest changes at the Australian Open over the last few years has been its focus on making sue the kids come, and have a good time.

The AO Ballpark area has tripled in size this year. And they’ve added a 12-metre water slide (!!!!!) and a “super soaker play zone” which we predict with confidence will be a huge hit.

They’ve got kids’ movies, too. 

And – this is a biggie – there will be onsite child care for kids 5-12.

It’s summer vacation time in Australia. And this will allow parents to go out and watch tennis and not have to worry as much about entertaining the younger kids who might not want to watch a three-hour barnburner.

No other Grand Slam event does this. This is huge.

They’re also having a Kids’ Day on Sept. 17, sponsored by ANZ bank, which will allow 7,000 kids to get in free if their parents buy tickets.

As well, kids aged 3-14 can get in on a $5 grounds pass.

These are things that get the next generation excited about going to the tennis.

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