New Season, New Event in Brisbane
Published December 28, 2008 12:00
BRISBANE, Australia - New stadium facilities, a greater number of combined women's and men's events and bigger prize money purses are key elements of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's new Roadmap calendar, which makes the Brisbane International a poster child for the changes set to revitalize tennis in 2009.
Due to kick off on Sunday, January 4, the $220,000 event narrowly eclipses Auckland's ASB Classic for bragging rights as first stop of the season, but the real developments in the capital of the state of Queensland are much more concrete than that. The inaugural Brisbane International will be staged in the just-completed Queensland Tennis Centre, which has been built in the riverside suburb of Tennyson at a cost of some A$82 million.
The state-of-the-art facility boasts a 5,500 seat center court stadium - named after two-time US Open champion Pat Rafter, who was born at Mount Isa in the Queensland outback - with a curved roof structure and fabric cover to protect players and fans from the blistering summer sun. The 23-court complex is also the first in Australia to offer all three Grand Slam surfaces - clay, grass and hardcourt. The tournament itself will be contested on Plexicushion, the same surface as is found at Melbourne Park.
The Brisbane International might be a shiny new spectacle, albeit one that incorporates the Australian Men's Hardcourt title (formerly held in Adelaide) with the corresponding women's event (which moves from the Gold Coast), but the city is no stranger to top flight tennis. Before the Australian Open finally settled in Melbourne in the 1970s the national championships were passed between various state capitals. In fact, Brisbane was the host in 1969 when the first 'Open' competition was held and Rod Laver won the men's crown on his way to his second Grand Slam sweep.
The scene of that triumph was a few miles away from Tennyson at the Milton Tennis Centre, which had been built in 1915. In 1958 the courts and provisions for spectators were upgraded for the Davis Cup final between Australia and the United States - one of three finals, and 16 ties overall, that would be staged at the complex. As well as hosting the national titles eight times, Milton also played host to women's and men's circuit events from the 1970s until the early 1990s, initially on grass and then on Rebound Ace, but in the end sentiment wouldn't be enough to save the ageing venue. In 1994, a young American by the name of Lindsay Davenport won the second of her 55 career Tour titles at Milton; afterwards, the wooden stands were declared unsafe, and the stadium was eventually demolished.
The Tour returned to Queensland in 1997, but this time an hour down the road at the Gold Coast. Over the next decade or so the sponsors changed, and so did the resorts at which the competition was held, but the Tier III event became a popular fixture with such luminaries as Justine Henin, Venus Williams, Dinara Safina and Patty Schnyder lifting the trophy. In 2008 the victor was China's No.1, Li Na, who should be fifth seed at the forthcoming tournament.
"The combination of this new major tournament and world-class field will reinvigorate tennis in Queensland," says tournament director Steve Ayles. "The Brisbane and Queensland public have embraced the event and tickets are selling unbelievably well."
Among a range of fan-friendly initiatives, a deal has even been struck with the Translink Transit Authority to offer free public transport for Brisbane International tournament ticketholders. Indeed, such is the interest in the event that organizers have already taken the rare step of announcing that world No.5 Ana Ivanovic, who will be top seed, is scheduled to play her first round match in the evening session on day two, Monday January 5.
Ivanovic's first opponent won't be known until the draw is conducted in the Queen St Mall in the city center at noon on Saturday, January 3. But the reigning French Open champion can expect stiff competition: the field also includes Victoria Azarenka, Marion Bartoli, Daniela Hantuchova and Amélie Mauresmo, as well as Australia's own Samantha Stosur. Co-world No.1 doubles stars Cara Black and Liezel Huber will also be present.
Balancing Ivanovic on the men's side will be her compatriot, world No.3 and reigning Australian Open and Masters Cup champion Novak Djokovic. Joining the Serb in the ATP World Tour line-up are Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Fernando Verdasco.