This year the Australian Open introduced Welcome Week in an expansion of the two week Grand Slam.
The tournament has become the first of the Slams to charge for admission to the qualifying event for the main draw.
But the AU$10 Adult and $5 Child admission price was made palatable by the inclusion of other tennis watching opportunities and children’s activities, most of which were included in the cost of a ticket.
So, alongside the traditional opportunity of watching emerging talent or comeback faves or journeymen players striving to make it to Round 1 of the main event, Welcome Week was launched as a family entertainment package.
Tournament Director Craig Tiley described the new concept of the Australian Open as “A three week festival of tennis. An extravaganza.”
Many of the top players agreed to take part in 75 minutes practice matches on Rod Laver Arena during Welcome Week.
These sessions were played under match conditions, with umpires, ballkids and electronic line calling.
Players participating included Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, Maria Sakkari, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Taylor Fritz and Novak Djokovic.
Dominic Thiem v Holger Rune was a particularly intense practice match. Both players used their utmost power and animatedly self-reproached over any errors.
Some top players chose to book Rod Laver Arena for a practice session with another player or with their coach. Fans could wander in and watch at their leisure.
Iga Świątek and Laylah Fernandez had a friendly session together, playing some rallies and fine-tuning their volleys.
Rafael Nadal and his coach Carlos Moya worked on the new ball toss for his serve, designed to accommodate his abdominal strain.
Stefanos Tsitsipas was accompanied by the new addition to his coaching team, former World No. 8 Mark Philippoussis, who will complement the coaching duties of Tsitsipas’s father Apostolos.
Melbourne boy Philippoussis, known to Aussies as Scud (i.e. Scud missile) for the speed of his serve, spent much of the session watching Tsitsipas serving to different spots in the service box.
Court 10 outside is often used as a practice court during the Australian Open and was in use during Welcome Week. It’s a favourite location for fans to hang out due to how close you can get to the players; great for selfies and autographs.
Of course, the core business of Welcome Week was the qualifying event, which ran from Monday to Thursday, with the first round split over two days.
The men’s qualifying was particularly volatile this year. By the end of the first round, 15 seeds were out. By the end of all three rounds, 28 seeds – out of 32 – had not made it through to the main draw.
In 2009, Fernando Verdasco played Rafael Nadal in a battle of the Spanish lefties. It was the semi final of the Australian Open.
At the time, it was the longest ever match at the tournament, lasting five hours and 14 minutes.
Verdasco played brilliantly, fighting all the way and hitting 95 winners. But Nadal was even more brilliant for a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4 victory. Despite his exhaustion after the match, Nadal went on to beat Roger Federer in the final for his first Australian Open.
Because of Verdasco’s fighting effort, he became a favourite with Australian tennis fans.
Now, seeded 16th in qualifying, he lost in the second round to unseeded Shang Juncheng of China.
But this is Verdasco’s first step back after serving a two-month ban from the tour for forgetting to renew the Therapeutic Use Exemption for his ADHD medication.
There was a good news story from 296th ranked Brandon Holt, son of Tracey Austin, winner of three Grand Slam titles. After beating 3rd seed Radu Albot in three and Gastão Elias in a second set tiebreak, he easily defeated Marco Trungelliti 3 and 0 in the final round.
The women’s section outcomes were a little more consistent with the seedings.
Another second generation player in qualifying was Elizabeth Mandlik, who possesses a crisp volley reminiscent of her mother, Hana Manlikova.
She was seeded 21 and played really well against Brit Sonay Kartal and Mai Hontama of Japan. By comparison, she seemed lethargic in the final round, losing 4 and 4 to 3rd seed Anna Karolína Schmiedlová.
Katie Swan entered qualifying having just won both her matches for Great Britain in the United Cup. Her win against higher ranked Nuria Parrizas Diaz was particularly impressive as she whipped through the last two sets.
But, she lost in straight sets in the first round of qualifying to Jessika Ponchet of France. They were both unseeded. Ponchet lost in the next round to Anna Karolína Schmiedlová.
Also unseeded was Eugenie Bouchard, who lost in first round 3-6 6-1 4-6 to Ashlyn Krueger of the USA. Bouchard was a top story of the 2014 Australian Open, having a great a run to her first Slam semi.
Along the way she gathered a fan club called the Genie Army who presented her with a stuffed toy Australian animal after her last five matches.
There were some exceptions to the seeding predictability. The biggest surprise was the first round loss for Linda Nosková to Canadian Katherine Sebov.
Before heading to Melbourne, Nosková qualified for the Adelaide International 1, then preceded to set that tournament alight. Ranked 102 she achieved her first victory over a top 10 player, 8th ranked Daria Kastakina.
She made it all the way to the final, past Victoria Azarenka and Ons Jabeur, to take on Aryna Kalinskaya.
Nosková lost the final in straight sets but rose 50 places in the rankings and made a statement about her abilities.
Having performed so well and heading into the Australian Open qualifying as 2nd seed, many found it hard to understand why Nosková couldn’t win a round.
It may have been a letdown for her to have made the final in the WTA 500 in Adelaide then a week later having to play the qualies in Melbourne.
The erratic weather during her match may also have affected her.
Out in the wilds of Court 17, it seemed that her opponent Katherine Sebov adapted to the changing conditions better. It was very warm and getting hotter and Sebov smartly changed racquets whenever she needed different tensions. She broke at the end of the first set for 6-4.
Early in the second set, the wind picked up and the gumtrees near the court continually shed leaves across the baseline. Sometimes the players had to clear them before they could serve.
Nosková came back to take the second set and it looked like she was on a roll. But Sebov discovered how to play the wind and came back to clinch the match 6-4 3-6 6-4.
Katie Boulter made good progress last year after suffering from a spinal stress fracture and chronic fatigue syndrome. She worked through ITF-level tournaments, winning in Grenoble, before injuring her leg at the WTA 250 in Lyon.
Returning for the grass season, Boulter found her best form, making the round of 16 at Nottingham and Eastbourne, and the quarters at Birmingham.
Along the way, she beat Caroline Garcia at Birmingham and twice defeated world number 7 Karolina Plíšková, at Eastbourne and in the second round of Wimbledon.
Seeded 30th in Australian Open qualifying, she toughed it out against unseeded Caroline Dolehide 6-2 3-6 7-6(5), before losing in the next round 1 & 3 to another unseeded player, Polina Kudermetova.
Just when it looked like Asia Muhammad was on her way to her first Australian Open main draw, injury thwarted her at the last hurdle.
The 31 year old garnered her variety and athleticism to beat Paula Ormaechea, 6-2 2-6 7-5, then 16th seed Anna-Lena Freidsam, 6-4 4-6 6-4.
So, on Muhammad’s seventh consecutive attempt at qualifying for a Slam, she got to the third round for the first time.
Unfortunately for her, the injury created a loss to Polina Kudermetova. But, perhaps next year.
On the Wednesday evening of Welcome Week, Rafael Nadal, Grigor Dimitrov, Alex De Minaur, Coco Gauff, Maria Sakkari, Andy Murray, Alexander Zverev, Frances Tiafoe and Ukrainians Dayana Yastremska and Marta Kostyuk gathered at a sold out Rod Laver Arena.
The occasion was Tennis Playing for Peace, raising funds to support the humanitarian efforts of UNICEF Australia and Global Giving, organisations that are providing help on the ground in Ukraine.
The evening began with a video message from Elina Svitolina:
“In Ukraine, life is no longer normal. The homes lost, just like ours. These are families like yours and mine. Lives like yours, destroyed. The crisis is ongoing. We can provide a vital relief and together bring hope.”
Following the video, Volya Ukrainian choir sang the country’s national anthem.
Master of Ceremonies Dylan Alcott then rotated the players through a game of hit the ball in the inflatable pool, randomly changing the rules or adding an extra $1000 jackpot.
After a lengthy spell of Dingles, the night’s tennis highlight arrived as 98 year old Ukrainian Leonid Stanislavskyi strolled on court for a hit with the players and his 99 year old friend Henry Young.
On the Friday, Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios reunited for a match for the first time since their Wimbledon final.
This time it would be a very different match in the Fast4 format.
But fans were just happy at the idea of seeing them together on court. The $20 tickets sold out in just 58 minutes.
Most importantly, the match proceeds went to the Australian Tennis Foundation, which gives disadvantaged children to opportunity to play tennis.
Djokovic did not seem familiar with the format they were playing.
In the second game, he casually hit a tweener return on Kyrgios’s let serve forgetting that in Fast4 format, let serves are acceptable. As Djokovic stood waiting for the second serve, a puzzled Kyrgios hit that ball into open court for a winner.
At 3-3, there was a tiebreak and Djokovic served once and won the point, then positioned himself to return serve, not realising that in a Fast Four tiebreak, you serve 2 then 2.
In the second set, Djokovic took shot selection advice from a guy in the crowd and won the point. He went over and shook the guy’s hand. Then he called out to Goran Ivanišević at court side “Your job’s done, I’ve got a new coach.” Ivanišević laughed heartily.
Not that it really mattered, but Kyrgios won the match.
The players were then joined by wheelchair players David Wagner and Heath Davidson for a spot of doubles, followed by two promising 10 year olds.
The next day, Kids Tennis Day returned to Melbourne after its pandemic enforced hiatus and became part of Welcome Week.
The children’s entertainment was spread across Melbourne Park precinct; all included in the admission price with the exception of the modestly priced ticket for the circus on Rod Laver Arena.
Craig Tiley has confirmed the tournament’s commitment to Welcome Week.
“As we go on to 2024, 25, we’ll grow the content. We’ll have music, we’ll have other activities for the rest of the week,” he said.
“Now we’re investing a lot more in the content, experience and entertainment. So in the course of the next several years we’re going to see this event extend more formally to a three week event.
“This is the beginning of that journey.”
Title photo of Grand Slam Oval at Melbourne Park ready for the opening day of Welcome Week by Vanessa Taylor
Brandon Holt made it through to the second round on the main draw. Firstly, he defeated Australia’s Aleksandar Vukic in five, before losing to 24th seed Roberto Bautista Agut in another five setter, 6-4 6-3 3-6 2-6 2-6.
Elizabeth Mandl replaced S. Zheng in the main draw as one of three Lucky Losers. Her first round was delayed by a day due to heat and rain suspensions. She lost 6-3 7-6(1) 2-6 to 27th seed Irina-Camelia Begu.
Katherine Sebov made it to the main draw and was beaten 3 and 0 by tournament No. 4 seed Caroline Garcia.
Polina Kudermetova lost to Olivia Gadecki, a mentee of Ash Barty, 7-5 6-1 in the first round of the main draw.