MELBOURNE, Australia — The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year, begins today. Here are five things to know about the tournament at Melbourne Park, which is within minutes of the city center and situated along the banks of the Yarra River:
Welcome back Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka. Djokovic, who has won the last three titles here, went on from Melbourne Park to win seven titles in nine finals in 2013 and finished the season with a 24-match winning streak. He lost the No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal on Oct. 7. Azarenka, the two-time defending women’s champion, won two additional titles in 2013 at Doha and Cincinnati. Azarenka was one of only three players to beat Serena Williams in 2013.
Always a factor — it can be intensely hot one day, cool and wet the next. The tournament’s Extreme Heat Policy gets invoked most years, meaning matches can be moved indoors, or suspended or prolonged by extra breaks given to players.
To combat the weather, the Australian Open continues to lead the way with covered venues. Rod Laver and Hisense arenas both have retractable roofs. A roof over Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne Park’s third featured arena, is under construction and will be fully retractable by next year.
SHOW THEM THE MONEY
In October, Tennis Australia said it would increase prize money by $2.8 million to bring overall player compensation to $31 million. In keeping with player demands for a larger slice of Grand Slam revenues, all four of the sport’s major tournaments have greatly increased their prize money in the past two years.
Wimbledon now offers about $36.5 million, while the U.S. Open increased its purse to $34.3 million and the French Open went up to $29.7 million.
This year, the singles champions in Australia will receive $2.35 million.
WHO’S HOT, WHO’S NOT
Serena Williams beat Victoria Azarenka in the Brisbane International final a week ago to continue where she left off last year. She won 11 titles in 2013 — the most by a player on the WTA tour since Martina Hingis’ 12 in 1997. She compiled a 34-match winning streak and earned more than $12 million in prize money. She comes to Melbourne on a 22-match winning streak. Martina Navratilova has predicted Williams can equal her total of 18 Grand Slam singles titles by winning the Australian Open this month, and then eclipse Steffi Graf’s 22 major titles in the Open era. “If she can stay healthy there is no doubt she can go into the 20s,” Navratilova said. “The sky is the limit.”
Defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic won four consecutive men’s titles to finish last season, including the World Tour Finals in London. On the not-so-hot side is Roger Federer. The 17-time major winner failed to reach a Grand Slam final last year for the first year since 2002, certainly a poor year by his standards. Federer lost the Brisbane International final last week to Lleyton Hewitt and comes into the Australian Open seeded sixth.
WHO’S HERE, WHO’S NOT
Pete Sampras, a 14-time Grand Slam winner, will be at the tournament for ceremonies to mark the first of his two Australian Open titles 20 years ago; Six-time major winner Boris Becker, making his first visit to Australia in 15 years, arrives as Novak Djokovic’s new coach.
Among those missing in Melbourne will be Nicolas Almagro, who finished No. 13 in the rankings last year, and No. 27 Jurgen Melzer. And definitely not Bernard Tomic’s father, John. Tomic Sr. was suspended from Grand Slam events following his conviction for assaulting his son’s hitting partner, Thomas Drouet. John Tomic did make an appearance at the Sydney International this week, with the tournament’s knowledge, but purchased his own ticket and was not given access to the restricted areas for players and officials.