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Official Review by JP Rezzonico, Stadium Journey Guest Correspondent
Tennis’ Australian Open is nicknamed ‘The Happy Slam’ by the players and for most visitors who come as tourists from abroad. Nothing brings a smile to your face more than going from being stuck indoors in a freezing winter climate to kicking back in the warm sunshine while downing a local brew and watching two world class players slug it out below you.
The venue is Melbourne Park, which not only sports 22 tennis courts, but also features nearby lawns and is adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Yarra Park. It is right next to the Yarra River, where one of the tournament’s former champions, Jim Courier, once dove in after his title run. While taking causal walks to the tennis site on the river side, you can see rowers from the various clubs practicing, little kids running down sandy pathways headed to a children’s museum, joggers and cyclists on their daily workout, and people of all sorts sitting on benches and napping in the mild weather.
The Australian Open is the most accessible of the four tennis Grand Slams from three perspectives: it's the closest to any of the cities’ central business districts so it’s in walking distance of numerous good hotels, restaurants and bars; it isn’t impossible to get a good, reasonably priced ticket to a secondary stadium and also take in few matches on outer courts without being totally squeezed out; and the people who work there aren’t on occasion stuck up (which can be a problem in Paris or London for the French Open and Wimbledon) or rude (as in the case of some New Yorkers at the US Open). Like most Australians, people who work at the facility are genuinely nice and helpful.
Even though it can get hot, the weather is usually very good and because Australians are so diligent about protecting their skin from burning due to the hole in the ozone layer above their continent, there is enough shade, weather and free sunscreen available.
The center court, Rod Laver Arena, seats 15,000, and has a retractable roof. The second stadium, Hisense Arena, also has a retractable roof and seats 10,000.
The third stadium, Margaret Court Arena, (which will also soon have a roof) seats 5,000, while Show Courts 2 and 3 seat 3,000 apiece.
The other side courts range in number of seats, but if you don't try and enter a five-set classic too late, it’s quite possible to get on all of them. Perhaps most importantly, the sight lines on all the major courts are excellent so don’t be concerned about obstructed views.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The site has a broad selection of eating and drinking options, and the famous Aussie love of beer is in evidence all over the grounds. A number of food outlets are located in Laver Arena itself, as well as near the grassy garden square inside the south entrance. Prices are reasonable for a sporting event, with items ranging from about AU $5-$15.
The typical stand offers burgers, chicken and hot dogs for at or under $10, while drinks, coffee, cookies and snacks are about $5. For typical Aussie fare, try a meat pie, also about $5. If you're hungry for a proper meal but don't want to pay too much, hidden away in the northeast corner of Rod Laver Arena is a booth offering Thai food -- it's a good choice, with chicken and rice for $15.
There's also full dining available at a restaurant just off the side of the arena with main courses and pizzas for $20-$35.
The Australian Open is the most relaxed of the Grand Slams, with a friendly, holiday atmosphere and spectators out to have a good time. The two main stadiums are large but not oversized, and the third stadium, Margaret Court Arena, has a cozy feel. Multicultural Melbourne draws out lots of support for players from many nations, including particularly enthusiastic supporters for Chile, the Balkan countries and Poland. Costumed fans are also common around the grounds, and there's usually a crowd of people sunbathing and watching tennis in front of the big screens. It's hard not to join in the locals' enthusiasm for both the tennis and having a good time.
The Australian Open is the only Grand Slam where you can walk right into the heart of an attractive and fun city within 10 minutes.
There are a variety of restaurants with every type of cuisine available. There are laid back cafes and coffee houses, swank bistros and rocking clubs and bars. There are hotels of all types from 1 star to 5 stars, but the cheaper ones tend to be further away from the tennis site, although everything is connected to public transport. There are museums, art galleries, theaters and there always seems to be festivals and community events going on. And of course there is plenty of shopping, from high-end boutiques and department stores, to small local shops, to the gigantic outdoor market - Queen Victoria.
There is plenty of energy at the tournament, as fans come there expecting to eat, drink, be merry and cheer their lungs out. There is a pretty large international population of fans, which makes it more enjoyable as you can travel court to court and hear Swedes, Serbians, Chinese and other nationalities cheering on their players or singing in their language in support of their national heroes.
The Aussies do that plenty as well, and even have longstanding fan clubs (such as the famous "The Fanatics") who paint their faces, buy blocks of tickets and chant enthusiastically all match long.
On occasion, certain groups of fans have become too unruly (some Serbian and Croatians who immigrated to Australia formed local fans clubs and have yet to put aside their age old hostilities and have actually battled on site), but security has tightened to the point where it's become extremely rare for any conflict to reach a tipping point.
Australia is far away for most parts of the world but once you're there the Australian Open is fairly easy to reach.
There is one international airport at Melbourne, which is about a half an hour drive from the city. Flights from abroad are pricey, but flights inside the country are fairly inexpensive.
The tournament grounds are close to town, about a 15-minute walk and 5-minute tram ride or taxi from the central Flinders Street Station, as well as the smaller Jolimont and Richmond stops. A free tram operates from the central business district to Melbourne Park, running until an hour after play ends. There are separate stops for Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena, which are at opposite ends of the grounds.
Parking is available at two lots, but space is limited. Taxis stop at the south entrances, and there are drop-off points at this location for cars as well.
In the grounds, line-ups for food and facilities are common, but tend to move quickly.
If you are looking for a super cheap ticket to watch pro tennis, the sport's four Grand Slams are not the place to go. There are plenty of events around the world where you can get a ticket for $20 and under: in fact, at the WTA Championships in Istanbul (the women's tour season ending event) you can buy a courtside seat for some nights for as little as $35.
But the tennis majors do not have a price that far down in the major arenas, so courtside seats at Laver Arena can cost as much as $700 and that's face value without service charges.
But here are affordable options if you don't want to attend the semifinals or finals and are willing to go during the first 8 days of the tournament. Single session tickets start from $80 (US) and ground passes from $32 (US). There are also package deals available which makes every ticket cheaper.
Ground passes get fans access to Margaret Court Arena, as well as the Show Courts 2 and 3 and the back courts. There's also a good deal on a Family Grounds pass for about $100, which covers four people (at least 2 kids).
At Rod Laver Arena, the cheapest single session ticket starts at $80 US for the first two days for the day or night session, jumps to $95 for Wednesday and Thursday, go up to $125 on Friday, and then to $150 from Saturday to the Monday of the second week. The middle weekend is by far the busiest time, so buy your tickets early.
Pricing for Hisense Arena is the same for the first eight days of the tournament at $80 for the cheapest seats, which is a darn good price considering that many of the game's best players compete there and because there tend to be more competitive matches than they have on Laver the first five days, as Laver emphasizes the game's top 6 players or so, who often win in blowouts until the second week.
There are family packages for four (at least 2 kids) at Hisense for around $190 US, a very good deal considering it gives you the option of big show court matches and everything else outside of Laver.
Once the quarterfinals begin on the second Tuesday prepare to break the bank for Laver tickets, which start at $145 for the cheap seats and keep getting higher until the end of the event, when a bleacher seat for the women's final goes for $290 and the men's final goes for $420. None of the quoted prices include ticket agency charges.
If you are thinking of going, realize this: after the first six days of the tournament, it's slim picking for singles matches on the outer courts so unless you love doubles and mixed doubles, don't buy a grounds pass after Saturday.
Grand Slam tennis is not for the light of wallet, but if you can manage to get to the Australian Open during the first five days of the tournament before the crowds descend on Saturday and buy a grounds pass, take public transport, only have one meal, a snack and say a beer, then it's possible to leave there having spent around $75, not exactly like going to a Thursday afternoon baseball game between two bad teams where you might be able to get in and out for $40. But the Australian Open is not a run in the mill event: it's like attending a playoff game in any sport, so expect to come up with playoff seats money. If you want to attend the final, expect to come up with Super Bowl and World Cup final money.
There is shopping and places to sit and relax on the grounds, and plenty to see nearby. Fans can gather in the Garden Square to watch the Rod Laver Arena action on a big screen, or head over to the new viewing bridge that is situated above the practice courts to watch their favorite players sweat. Live bands play daily, and there are kids courts as well.
If you get to the tournament early enough during the day time in the first week and are willing to stay until all the day time matches are complete, it's possible to watch 12 hours straight of high-level tennis from the world's best. For hardcore tennis fans, that's worth every penny, even if you buy an arena ticket, a T-shirt, eat two meals and shell out $200. That's still less than $20 per hour for entertainment, which can be less than you spend at a bar on a Saturday night.
But if you buy a second week night session ticket for you and your partner for around $300, decide to dine at one of the onsite restaurants and drop another $100, buy two sweatshirts for $150, have a few cocktails for another $50 and unfortunately get treated to two garbage matches, the $600 won't seem worth it.
However, if you dare to buy a ticket to the men's final and get treated to a historic match like the Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal five-hour plus final in 2012, then you remember that match for the rest of your life and be able to fondly tell your grandchildren about it. Then, laying out $600 or so won't seem like a steep price.
There is nothing like a Grand Slam environment whether you are a tennis lover, a marginal fan or a newcomer. Step inside the grounds and you will immediately feel the energy. The Aussies love their tennis, so if you live in Australia the experience is akin to attending a test match in cricket between Australia and top rival England. If you are from outside Australia, you'll remember your experience as fondly as you will your visit to the Great Barrier Reef.
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