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Australian Open: From nomad to nouveau riche

By Greg Duke, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Australian Open is the first of the four grand slams events in the tennis season
  • It became the Australian Open in 1969, when professionals were allowed to compete
  • Such is the prize fund for the event, it now overshadows the other three grand slams
  • The move to Melbourne Park in 1988 helped raise the profile of the tournament

(CNN) -- The Australian Open has come a long way from its formative years.

Back in the days when it would take competitors 45 days to make the journey from Europe by ship, their reward for winning the then-amateur event was often nothing more exciting than shopping vouchers.

Now the tournament is firmly established as a mainstay of the world tennis calendar, offering a total prize fund of more than $5 million that even overshadows -- thanks to the strength of the Australian dollar -- the other three events that make up the sport's "grand slam."

Superb tennis, famous players, huge crowds, glitz and glamor are very much the order of the day at Melbourne Park, but things have not always been quite so successful for the event.

The history of tennis can be divided neatly into two main periods, the amateur era and the professional age.

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The move to a big high-tech venue gave the Australian Open one of the best venues in world tennis
--Pat Cash
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And during its amateur phase pre-1968, the Australian Open suffered from its geographical location and its place on the tennis calendar, with the top players of the era understandably reluctant to travel halfway around the world for very little reward.

In fact, before the introduction of air travel, the vastness of Australia gave its own logistical difficulties which meant that even home-grown players could sometimes miss out on their own national tournament.

But a revolution occurred in the 1960s, the decade when Australian tennis ruled the world. Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe plundering an astonishing 29 grand slam titles in the 1960s alone, while Margaret Court was the dominant woman player in that time.

Therefore when the professional, or Open era, came into effect in 1968, the attraction for the top non-Australian players to compete became more obvious, even if it took a while for the tournament to get to where it is today.

"To be honest, the Australian Open has completely changed over the last 30 years or so," renowned tennis journalist Simon Cambers told CNN.

"It is only in recent history that the leading players have started coming to the event, recognizing its rightful place among the top tournaments on the calendar.

"For instance, Bjorn Borg never played here, Jimmy Connors only played here twice and John McEnroe never considered it a proper grand slam," added Cambers.

But organizers Tennis Australia made two significant changes that were to alter the make-up of the tournament.

The leading players have started coming to the event, recognizing its rightful place
--Simon Cambers

"First of all, they moved the Open to its current slot in January. It never had a proper place on the calendar before and sometimes was even played in December," Cambers said.

"But, more importantly, the organizers recognized they needed a new venue, and moving the tournament to Melbourne Park has made all the difference."

Undoubtedly, the Australian Open's early nomadic existence did not help in its quest for greater recognition. From its inception in 1905, the event visited nearly every major Australian city before finally arriving in the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong in 1972.

And there it stayed until 1988, when the decision was made to move to Melbourne Park, close to the city's famous MCG cricket ground.

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"When you look at Kooyong now, it is hard to believe that it ever hosted a grand slam tournament. People could literally be walking down the street watching the tennis," Cambers said.

"It was just not suitable for a big tournament -- John McEnroe used to joke that you had to climb a hill just to get to the net!

"The tournament had to move. With big money coming in from TV rights it was a natural transition. It just happened to occur after Pat Cash, the bright new Australian tennis hope, had won Wimbledon, therefore increasing its profile even further."

Cash himself, speaking exclusively to CNN, does not share Cambers' view, although he does except that the tournament is now completely different to when he was first starting out in tennis.

"I never really thought of it that way and I'm not sure I had that much of an impact," the former Wimbledon champion said.

"The last two years or so of Kooyong had all the top players competing, but the big names like Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe didn't perform at their best.

"I think the move to a new high-tech stadium with a closable roof certainly gave the Australian Open one of the best venues in world tennis.

"I suppose me being a hometown favorite and playing a great final against Mats Wilander brought the world's attention to the venue and kick-started a new era in Australian tennis history."

With a 2011 prize fund of just under $2 million for the men's and women's singles events, the Australian Open is now firmly established as one of the monuments of professional tennis, equal with Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Opens.

And, on the eve of this year's tournament, Cash concedes that his failure to lift the title will always stay with him.

"Wimbledon was always regarded as the biggest tournament in my eyes and I was lucky enough to win that," the 45-year-old said.

"But losing two close five-set finals in two years in the Australian Open, in front of my hometown crowd, was heartbreaking and remains the biggest disappointment of my career."