But it was only in the 1990s when Australia began struggling with its place in the world — even flirting with the idea of severing ties with Britain to become a republic — that the Australian Open really found its stride.
Open officials knew they needed to embrace Asia in order to expand and grow. They hired a full-time manager to work on the Asia strategy. On the court were not only more players from Asia, but ball boys and girls from there, as well.
Kia Motors of South Korea took over as the tournament’s major sponsor. Ganten Water, a Chinese company, has the exclusive concession on selling bottled water — imported from China — at the Open this year.
Credit Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
More than 60,000 sushi rolls were sold at the Open in 2017, up from 21,323 a decade earlier.
In China, there are 330 million tennis fans, and 220 million Australian Open fans, according to Tennis Australia. And those fans are spurring the Open’s record-breaking attendance. Last year, 700,000 people attended the event.
Tennis found thousands of new fans in China after Li Na won the Australian Open in 2014 and became a household name. Photographs of her celebrating with the trophy on a sunny Australian beach went viral in her home country.
“Countries in Asia we see as the largest growth area,” said Craig Tiley, the Open’s tournament director and chief executive of Tennis Australia. “We have offices in China. We promote the sport in China.”
The Open has also attracted an increasing number of tennis players from across the Asia-Pacific region.
“Out of the 500 players this year, there were 111 from our region and there was half that amount five years ago,” Mr. Tiley said.
Last week, Hyeon Chung, 21, became the first South Korean tennis player to reach the semifinal of a Grand Slam.
“I think all the people is watching the Australian Open now because we made history in Korea,” Chung said after his win.
When asked which tournament he dreamed of winning as a child, he said, “I think Australian Open.”
Players of previous generations, including the Americans Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, rarely made the long flight to play in the event. But today’s players are now fighting to be included.
“One of the big issues is it’s so damn popular,” said Pat Cash, a former Australian professional tennis player who won Wimbledon in 1987. “For somebody like myself who wants to go and watch a match, even though I got to the final of the Australian Open, and won two Davis Cups, they can’t even find me one single ticket.”
Credit Saeed Khan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Today, players repeatedly cite the facilities as being superior to any other Slam. It’s the only tennis event that has three stadiums with retractable roofs.
Players past and present also say the Australian Open strives to make sure the players’ experience at the Open is better than at any other tournament.
“It is always special coming back to Australia,” Angelique Kerber said after her quarterfinal win. “I feel good here.”
Rod Laver, widely regarded as one of Australia’s greatest athletes, and for whom the center court stadium was named, said he never imagined the Australian Open would become so large an event.
“It’s just unbelievable what the government and Tennis Australia has accomplished,” Laver said in a rare interview. “Saying we want this to be one of the best Grand Slams and they’ve proved them right.
“It’s head and shoulders over everybody.”