The world premiere of Australia’s Open took place at the Melbourne International Film Festival today.
At the screening, Sydney-based director Ili Baré explained why she chose the subject for her latest documentary. “I think that sport naturally offers all these great narrative spices. You’ve got heroes, you’ve got villains, you’ve got downfalls, you’ve got victory, you’ve got people struggling through adversity.
“So a lot of things you have to do in a documentary to help turn it into a film, they’re kind of there for you.”
With a length of 96 minutes, it has no pretensions of being a comprehensive history of Australia’s grand slam. Most of its running time focuses on Melbourne Park, the home of the tournament for the last 36 of its 118 years.
The Open’s previous tenancy at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club is dealt with only briefly and the earlier hosting of the tournament in Australian cities other than Melbourne and in New Zealand, is not mentioned.
Australia’s Open is more interested in how the transition from Kooyong to the tournament’s new home at Flinders Park – as Melbourne Park was originally known – preserved its status as a grand slam and led the standards to rise at the other three slams.
Baré and her editor Alex Archer were granted access to the “incredible archives” of Tennis Australia, which also contributed to the funding of the project.
But Baré is clear that “they did not have editorial input. The understanding was that we were never going to be telling a film about Tennis Australia…it was always about a bigger, broader thing. So I think once that was established, that’s how the relationship worked.”
Six finals were selected for inclusion in the documentary, condensed into highlights by Baré and Archer.
The film opens with, and returns to, last year’s final between Ash Barty and Danielle Collins. The match offers the feel good Australian story of Barty’s comeback from 1-5 down in the second set to claim the title 6-3 7-6, and the surprise presentation of the Daphne Akhurst Trophy by her idol Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
Rafael Nadal features in two of the matches – his loss to Roger Federer in the seesawing five-setter of 2017 and his victory last year over Daniil Medvedev as, seemingly dead on his feet, he came back from two sets to love down.
Also making the cut is the first men’s final at Flinders Park in 1988. Wimbledon champion and hometown boy Pat Cash played Swede Mats Wilander for the championship.
After rain delays in the second and third sets, Wilander won the fourth set and what would turn about to be a lengthy deciding set began.
In the 13th game, Wilander broke Cash’s serve to take the lead 7-6. Then, as Cash puts it, “Mats held to win the title and absolutely broke my heart.
“…Every time I walk into Melbourne Park and see the winners, it still stings…”
For years, Wilander and Cash have disagreed about whether the rain caused the Centre Court roof to be closed for the remainder of the final.
In Australia’s Open, Cash is taken at his word.
“I was in charge…then the rain came,” Cash recalls.
“They decided to close the roof. Wow, we were the first people ever to play a grand slam final with a roof, indoors. That’s kind of cool.”
In Cash’s memory, the closure dealt “a little bit of an advantage to Mats. He could hit the ball more cleanly.”
Actually, Wilander’s recollection is better. The roof was never closed during their final.
The women’s final, the day before, was actually the first Slam final to be played indoors. After heavy rain hit Flinders Park early in the opening set, the decision was taken to close the roof. This intervention was controversial, not least because Chris Evert was disadvantaged. Unlike her opponent Steffi Graf, she had not been offered an opportunity to practise with the roof closed prior to the final.
Nonetheless, just as he was in the recent documentary Boris Becker: The Rise and Fall, Cash proves to be a frank and insightful interviewee. “When I arrived in Australia most years during my career, I had to take a deep breath. I went, ‘OK, brace yourself for what’s coming’.
“It’s not easy to win your home tournament…often you don’t perform your best. I needed extra psychological help to survive in Australia and play the Australian Open.”
“I put enough pressure on myself, believe me, more than I should have, way more than I should have. So, to have that extra expectation was crippling at times, it really was.”
From 2017, the ninth grand slam final pitting the Williams sisters against each other, makes an appearance in the documentary. Their match has been edited to look more exciting – much closer and with fewer unforced errors – than it was live. A pregnant Serena beat Venus 6-4 6-4 in 82 minutes to claim her 23rd slam singles title.
Australian Dylan Alcott, also a winner of 23 grand slams, in singles and doubles combined, is shown going down to Dutch player Sam Schroder in last year’s quad wheelchair final. Alcott ran out of steam in the second set and the match was most notable for the great sportsmanship between the players and Alcott’s emotional retirement speech, which the documentary lingers on.
The sole doubles match is Australian Rennae Stubbs and Lisa Raymond from the US winning their first grand slam title over Martina Hingis and Mary Pierce in 2000. Again, the documentary emphasises a tearful post-match speech, this time from Stubbs. The undercurrent, which we now know, was that she was not “out” at the time and could only thank Raymond as her doubles partner, not as her romantic partner.
Aside from the sport of tennis, the other focal point of Australia’s Open is the social issues that swirl around the tournament.
As Baré says, “I think that was what we were always trying to do with the film – to not make it a film with the lens only pointed at the court. It was always going to be about pointing it back to the stands and beyond.”
Providing “a great jumping off point”, the tennis footage is continually interspersed with segments on the impact of issues such as LGBTQIA+ and indigenous rights; climate change with increasing heat and bushfire smoke affecting players; the impact of the covid pandemic; the Djokovic deportation and the attention it brought to detained refugees; and the increasingly parochial nature of the fans.
The only current player interviewed is Brit Liam Broady, who relates his experience of getting through Australian Open qualifying for the first time in 10 attempts, only to face Nick Kyrgios in round one.
He was confronted by a full house of over 10,000 rampant Kyrgios fans on the Australian’s preferred court of John Cain Arena. He recalls the “instant boos and being heckled. It was crazy like walking into the lion’s den…It was absolutely awful”. Even Kyrgios described the crowd as “a zoo”.
Broady’s story is used to illustrate how the crowds at the Australian Open have changed over the years and become less a traditional tennis crowd and more like a football mob, at least when certain players are on.
There’s a strong Australian slant to the film. Much of the laughter at the premiere was directed at what comes out of the mouths of politicians and local knowledge may enhance an appreciation of some of the situations presented. Nevertheless, an international audience can take a fresh view of the material as well as learning of news that was not widely reported.
The documentary was partly funded by an Australian national broadcaster, the free-to-air ABC-TV network, and will screen on television in the near future.
Given the amount of material to cover within its running time, another half hour would have been handy or perhaps a two-parter or a series with discrete episodes around the various topics.
Obviously, subscription-only streamer Netflix has already produced a 10-episode series in Break Point, some of which was shot at the 2022 Australian Open. But Australia’s Open has its own stories to tell.
Title image of the sun over Melbourne shrouded in bushfire smoke by GoodThing Productions
Australia’s Open was entered in the Best Documentary category for the 2024 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. When the 42 entries were narrowed down to eight nominations, Australia’s Open missed out.