The first major women’s Grand Slam tournament is set to commence on Saturday in Melbourne, Australia, a welcome respite for singles fans in a year that has seen a shocking fall for Venus Williams and Heather Watson.
If success this year has been mixed, it has nevertheless been a particularly noteworthy one for female tennis players, with Serena Williams winning the U.S. Open and younger players Sam Stosur and Caroline Wozniacki all advancing to at least the quarterfinals of a major.
Two stars who were among the sport’s pioneers 50 years ago — Connie Riopelle, president of the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1966, and Pat Rafter, president of the Tennis Federation of Australia — were both at the Australian Open this week for the opening ceremony and watched on as new competitions were launched.
The Australian Open will again act as the fifth of the eight Grand Slam events, and Rafter has dubbed it a “gateway” event to the other four majors. “It will give you a chance to get a feel for how you’re going to prepare for the rest of the season, to get a baseline feel,” he said.
The marquee women’s draw could also see a first, with the 16 finalists being selected by the public vote. “It’s going to be the most contested grand slam draw ever,” said Riopelle, who retired in 1983.
The World Team Tennis spring season will also take place in Melbourne from March 7 to April 6, headlined by the U.S. Open in September. In 1980, Don Budge and Chris Evert won the WTT and the Australian Open crowns respectively. That gave the sport its first major Grand Slam and was in line with a larger trend that saw a similar championship become the men’s Open in 1968.
Riopelle, who later took over as president of the Women’s Tennis Association, and Rafter formed the American Pro Tennis Association in 1975. They recruited Andy Roddick as a founder and helped him reach the top of the men’s game. “He was good enough and had the drive,” Rafter said. “But I was also very loyal. He’s still a good friend.”
Unlike the men’s tour, which is still dominated by the big names, American men haven’t enjoyed much success at the U.S. Open or the Australian Open. Andy Roddick went out in the third round this year, while John Isner, who won the U.S. Open in 2010, also lost early. “You can’t do it alone,” Rafter said. “We’re always going to work together. It might not always go well, but we’re going to try.”
Also in 2015, Cille Pierre of France and Samantha Stosur of Australia became the first women’s pair to play in all eight majors in the same season. Stosur fell in the first round at Melbourne Park this year and had two less successful runs in New York. “It’s a massive accomplishment,” Rafter said. “They’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs, so it just shows that they love the game and have had success.”
Murray and Djokovic dropped out, but as tournaments go, the Australian Open remains compelling. The field is further boosted by the new six-year deal between Tennis Australia and Tennis Channel, which has likely been one of the reasons for the increase in interest this year.
“Australian fans love their tennis,” Riopelle said. “There’s still a lot of testosterone in that tennis crowd.”