THE Australian Open was once dominated by the local tennis greats Frank Crook reports.
This year's Australian Open Tennis Championships is unprecedented for the number of top players taking part.
It has attracted all of the top 100 male players and 99 of the top 100 women, firmly establishing it as the first of the grand-slam tournaments and the highlight of the Australian tennis year.
The line-up for the 2008 championship includes former men's singles winners Roger Federer, Thomas Johansson and Marat Safin.
Past women's champions Venus and Serena Williams -- the defending champion -- Amelie Mouresmo, Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin and Lindsay Davenport are among the contenders.
The only player missing from the women's list of top 100 players is the No.44-ranked player Russian Vera Dushevina, who withdrew from the tournament because of a foot injury.
It is a far cry from the early days of the tournament, when Australia's isolation from the rest of the world made it difficult for the leading players to take part.
Few foreign players took part in the early days of the Open. In the 1920s the journey to Australia took 45 days by ship, meaning the absence of great players such as Bill Tilden of the US and the French champion Rene Lacoste.
Australia also missed out on the opportunity of seeing top Americans such as Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales compete for the national title.
Other stars of the game, including Ellsworth Vines, Donald Budge, Jaroslav Drobny and Bjorn Borg, graced the Open on only a single occasion. The first players to arrive by aircraft were members of the 1946 US Davis Cup team.
Since then there has been a steady stream of overseas stars, all keen to take out the first grand-slam tournament of the year.
The figures tell the story: Andre Agassi of the US has won the title four times, while Switzerland's Roger Federer is shooting for his fourth triumph this year, having won the title in 2004, 2006 and again last year.
Not since 1976, when Mark Edmondson caused a surprise by downing John Newcombe in the final, has an Australian player won the championship.
The days of Australian triumphs, of players such as Jack Crawford, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad and Newcombe are reminders of Australia's past tennis greatness.
Only Lleyton Hewitt, still striving to add the Australian Open title to his Wimbledon and US Open victories, remains as a local hope.
Today's opening round marks the beginning of the 103rd Aust-ralian Championships. While the first tennis tournament to be played in Australia took place in January 1880 at tennis courts at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the first Australasian Championships began in 1905 at the Warehouseman's Cricket Ground in St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, a year after the Australian Lawn Tennis Association was formed with the responsibility of running the game in Australia and New Zealand.
The tournament became the Australian Championship in 1927 and has been called the Australian Open since 1969 when the line between amateur and professional players was erased.
Overall, Australian players have been most successful in their own tournament, winning 51 of the men's singles titles and 43 of the women's.
Emerson won six times, while Rosewall and Crawford, a star of the 1930s, each took the title four times. Among the women, Margaret Smith Court won 11 titles, Nancye Bolton six and Evonne Goolagong Cawley four times.
While Melbourne Park has been home to the Open since 1988, in its early years the tournament was staged in cities around Australia and twice in New Zealand.
Melbourne has hosted the championships on 50 occasions, while Sydney (17), Adelaide (14) Brisbane (8) and Perth (3) have each had their turns staging the tournament.
Christchurch in 1906, and Hastings in 1912, were New Zealand host cities. In 1972 the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia decided that the tournament would be played in the same city each year.
The grass courts of Kooyong in Melbourne were synonymous with the Open from 1972 until the move to Melbourne Park, a state-of-the-art tennis complex situated alongside the MCG.
The old grass courts of Kooyong are long gone. A synthetic surface called Rebound Ace was the surface of choice until this year, when it was replaced by a cushioned acrylic surface called Plexicushion, which retains less heat than the old Rebound Ace, an important factor in the often sweltering days of a Melbourne summer.
The Swede Mats Wilander was the last player to win the title both on grass and Rebound Ace. In 1983, in a field that included both John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, Wilander, in Australia for a Davis Cup final, was a last-minute entry in the Open. He won the tournament and both his Davis Cup singles matches.
Melbourne Park's two main stands are the Rod Laver and Vodafone arenas, both of which feature retractable roofs, making the Australian Open the only grand-slam tournament to feature indoor matches. Work on a retractable roof at Wimbledon has begun and is expected to be completed for the 2009 championship.
Laver, who gave his name to the main arena, won his first Australian title in 1960 in a five-set match against fellow Australian Neale Fraser.
He added a second title in 1962 and a third in 1969, when he was welcomed back to the playing ranks after tennis opened its doors to professional players.
Laver also won four Wimbledon singles titles and two grand slams -- the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US titles in a single year.
The move from Kooyong to Melbourne Park has rejuvenated the Open. In its first year it drew 266,436 spectators, compared with 140,000 at Kooyong the previous year.
Last year's attendance for the Open was a record 554,858.
Rosewall, who like Laver, spent several years in the tennis wilderness before tennis was declared open, is the youngest and oldest winner of the championship.
He won as a amateur at the age of 18 in 1953, then came back to take the title in 1972, aged 37.
The winner of the Open's men's singles title is awarded the Norman Brookes Cup, named after Australia's first great star of the courts. Brookes, later Sir Norman, who won the Wimbledon singles title in 1907 and 1914, was Australian champion in 1911 and formed dynamic Davis Cup partnerships with New Zealander Tony Wilding -- when Australia competed alongside New Zealand as part of Australasia -- and with fellow Australian Gerald Patterson.
Brookes was runner-up to Patterson in 1919 in the first all-Australian Wimbledon final. He played his final match at Wimbledon in 1924, aged 46, and managed to give a good account of himself.
At last year's Australian Open, 45,000 balls were used under the gaze of 361 umpires and collected by more than 300 ballboys and ballgirls.
The tournament is also something of a social event and family day out, as spectators disposed of 164,000 ice creams and 37,500 barbecued sausages. There's nothing like tennis to work up an appetite.
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