By BB&T Atlanta Open Contributor Craig Gabriel - (@crosscourt1)
Do you remember those times when you had been on school holidays a long time and when it was time to go back to school there was an element of excitement? Catching up with friends, who you’d be sitting next to, wondering about all that would be going to happen.
The Australian Open, the year's first major is like that -- seeing friends after a long break. Adding to the whole experience is that it’s summer-time in Australia while the Northern Hemisphere is trying to keep Jack Frost from the door. Everyone is all rugged up, snow abounds, and the wind chill factor makes it feel as if Antarctica is in the tropics.
The Australian Open is known as the “Happy Slam.” No surprise. The players love being “down under,” getting away from winter. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and the beauty of the venue, Melbourne Park with the Rod Laver Arena, is its superb positioning. It is the only major right in the middle of the host city and in 2017 it will get even close with the opening of a new bridge.
There was a time when the Australian Open was at risk of losing its major status but it is now ahead of every other major. It has three stadiums with retractable roofs -- no other event comes close to facilities like that -- and the grounds highlight the casual atmosphere and laconic nature of the locals. “G’day mate, how you going?” is heard all the time.
No tennis event in the world has more live entertainment, more activities, and more smiles and in 2017 elements from the other three Grand Slam cities will be featured around Melbourne Park.
The 2017 Australian Open is poised to be the best yet. The expectation is that it will break the all-time attendance record of over 720,300 and the benefit to the local economy will out-strip the 2016 record of $278.1 million.
A total of $50 million in prize money is a new record with the respective singles champions banking $3.7 million each. And the $64 question is: who will those singles champions be?
Angelique Kerber will have the pressure on her, it will be her first time defending a major; Melbourne Park was where she was catapulted into tennis’ stratosphere. Serena Williams wants “her” title back and is returning after a four-month layoff. Andy Murray, or should we say Sir Andy Murray, starts a season as world No.1 for the first time and will be desperate to shake off the five-time bridesmaid tag in Melbourne. With legendary Ivan Lendl back in his corner at the Open for the first time in a couple of years, Murray is certainly the early favorite. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic will be doing all he can to break records and win the Norman Brookes Trophy for the seventh time.
And then there are Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios, the BB&T Atlanta Open champion. The return of Federer is probably the most eagerly awaited appearance at the Australian Open in recent times. The GOAT will probably get a standing ovation the first time he walks on court, and he’s made it clear that he can’t wait to get back.
Kyrgios, who will be earnestly watched and urged on by Aussie Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt, a former finalist at the Rod Laver Arena, will be one of the most exciting threats as he tries to end a 41-year Australian drought. Not since 1976 has a local won the year’s first major; that year it was Mark Edmondson who, when presented with the trophy, had to become an instant juggler because he dropped the cup and tried to catch it before it hit the court. In recent weeks, Rafa Nadal has made it clear that Kyrgios is in line to win majors and become No.1 in the world.
The U.S. contingent will do everything possible to be there at the business end. John Isner and Jack Sock will lead the men along with Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson, and the fast-rising Taylor Fritz, while Serena Williams will be joined by sister Venus and Coco Vandeweghe among the notables.
It will be a wonderful fortnight. The Australian Open has tennis as its core but around our amazing sport something spectacular has been built, it’s a party, it’s a festival, it’s a darn good time mate.