Australian Open: why the tennis works but the Grand Prix struggles

Serena Williams practices ahead of this week’s Australian Open. AAP/Mast Irham

The first real global contest for professional tennis each year is the Australian Open: the preceding international games in Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney are comparative warm up bouts.

Through the months of November, December and January Melbourne rings with the words “the Open” and as the Christmas decorations are pulled down the international sports news media spring up.

The news machine and social-media reach frenzy with announcements of the gladiatorial capacities of sporting warriors soon to face each other in the arenas of Melbourne Park.

They talk of athletic prowess, of the rivalry between star players, of the likely impact of a new coach, and of the hunger for the championship never won. They also tell of personal pains, mysteries, of niggling knee strains, of the possible effects of asthma, and of the need to withdraw for unknown reasons.

But not every event causes such hype among fans and media about the sport, its warriors and Melbourne.

Tennis in pole position

Take for example Melbourne’s Formula 1 Grand Prix, which has its own warriors, brings with it the same paraphernalia of gladiatorial ambition and upset and offers the same capacity to trouble or confirm the heroes of sport.

Yet far from the big love-in of the Australian Open, the Grand Prix’s four days in March is often noticeable for its writhing, vitriol and argumentative news footage. But why?

The Grand Prix has glitz and glamour but struggles to form a genuine connection with Melbourne. AAP/Gero Breloer

The Australia Open has grown with the city. It has a home in the city. There are few people in the world that will remember the first game in 1905 (or its grass court roots). But the event remains grounded, physically and emotionally. The modern grounds are part of the Melbourne and Olympic Park development, a testament to Melbourne’s crowning glories – as host of the Olympics of 1956 and the Commonwealth Games of 2006, respectively.

Between these major great events, in 1985, the Victorian government decided to build a national home for tennis. Built in 1987 the Rod Laver Arena – the battle ground of many Australian Open finalists, was at its centre. It remains the centre of the Australian Open.

Following negotiations between the Formula 1 Grand Prix supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, and the then Victoria Premier, Jeff Kennett, the Grand Prix arrived in Melbourne in 1996. This followed ten years of residing in Adelaide. Like the Australian Open its presence in Melbourne parkland helps determine much of its attraction.

Albert Park has a history in which sport is certainly significant. However its impact on the natural and community resources have received far more vociferous complaints from the public than anything related to the Australian Open. It is these complaints and increasing comments on cost, noise and displacement that have been picked up by news media.

Where does Formula One fit into the narrative?

So why, in a city in which sport events are so key to its identity, has F1 Grand Prix been so difficult to adjust to?

Melbourne has a brand and it is a strong one. The brand is the result of a story that people understand. It has resonance. Sport is a core theme in that story. As part of that theme of the city story, the Australian Open resonates well. It is my belief, and there is much research to support me, that the liveability and attractiveness of any city rests within the story it tells.

The Australian Open and many of Melbourne’s other great sport events have a beginning (see above), a middle (often a physical legacy, such as a stadium) and an end (the event we experience each year). The Formula 1 Grand Prix story isn’t (yet) such a well constructed tale.

The F1 Grand Prix didn’t start here (some say it was forcibly removed from its Adelaide home). There isn’t a physical legacy to see (it is temporary, as are most of the structures it requires) and the end is still unsure. To be grounded it needs all the elements of a story.

The final lap?

The future of the F1 may be as short lived as the 2015 agreement that has been made by Bernie Ecclestone and the Victorian government. It could be shorter. Or a better story construction may be found and the event be better managed for arrival in the minds, memories and imaginations of the audience and residents. It could be a more resilient part of the Melbourne story. It could be a strong Melbourne brand element.

Four time Australian Open champion Roger Federer takes questions from the media ahead of this year’s event. AAP/How Hwee Young

Until then, all eyes will be on the skirmishes of the Australian Open – a true marketing success. Inside the grounds, the gastric, retail and entertainment experience offered to the public complements the tennis. It offers the right tipple for a mixture of taste preferences.

They match the main dish experience, the competitive sport itself. It’s a favourite, and it speaks of the exertion, the bravado and the passion that the populace understands. It’s like being back at home, right. My home, right.

It’s Melbourne.