Key lessons from the Australian Open for the world of sport
February 1, 2024
In this Member Insights article, Michael Pirrie looks at the key lessons from the Australian Open, first grand slam of the year, and what they mean for sport in 2024 as the world countdowns to the much-anticipated Paris Olympic Games.
From Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire to the Manchester United dynasty and Sir Alex Ferguson, all things must pass – political empires and leaders, and great sporting careers, teams and managers too.
And so the Djokovic era of dominance at the Australian Open (AO) tennis grand slam – one of the world’s biggest annual sporting events – has also come to pass for the Serbian superstar who has won four of the last six AO titles (2019, 2020, 2021, 2023).
And like many eras, the end was as swift and inglorious as it had seemed improbable for the alpha tennis predator – without Djokovic even breaking serve, a cornerstone of the game many experts still thought was unbeatable.
The AO has been the foundation for the Serb’s extraordinary grand slam success, the event where he has collected 10 of his record 24 grand slam trophies.
While major international sporting events focus primarily on the winners, such was the magnitude of Djokovic’s loss that his defeat has already become a milestone moment for sport in 2024.
Jannik Sinner’s epic come-from-behind five set thriller in the AO final will long be associated with his earlier and even more epic semi-final defeat of Novak Djokovic.
The defeat ended Djokovic’s extraordinary 2,195-day, 33-match steak at the AO.
Along with Aryna Sabalenka’s crushing win over Chinese opponent Qinwen Zheng in the women’s final, Djokovic’s downfall and Sinner’s rise were the tournament headlines.
The AO, the world’s biggest new year sporting event, was also a forerunner of issues and storylines likely to dominate sport in 2024 – from the impact of European and Middle East conflicts on players, security, economics and organisation of major sporting events and federations, to the growing migration of elite sport to Saudi Arabia.
THE KING IS DEAD
When Djokovic won his inaugural AO title in 2008, his mother Dijana, infamously declared “ the king is dead,” implying the reign of Roger Feder as king of tennis was over.
Dijana Djokovic will no doubt be hoping that, like her mistaken statement regarding Federer, similar predictions about her son’s future will also prove premature.
The on court killing of the reigning king of tennis was one of the new year jolts pointing to a high octane 2024 for sport, like the Australian Open itself, a bellwether for sport’s rapidly changing landscapes.
These jolts include the recent sanctioning of Russian teenage figure skater, Kamila Valieva, for doping violations relating to her performances at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY & SPORT
The landmark ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) sees the focus on Russia shift, temporarily at least, from crimes against humanity in its war on Ukraine back to crimes against sport and war on drugs and doping.
The ruling follows a series of investigations spanning the past decade by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) into secret Kremlin backed athlete doping programs, designed to project Russian power and influence on the world stage through sport.
The CAS ruling has seen Russia’s figure skating team stripped of its Beijing gold medal in a Cold War sporting victory for the US, which now takes Russia’s gold.
The CAS verdict is a major win for WADA, whose former chair, leading British and Olympic sports administrator, Sir Craig Reedie, was targeted by a Russian operative involved in a high-profile fatal poisoning attempt on a Russian double agent and his daughter at his England home, as revealed by intelligence officers in Reedie’s recent autobiography.
The CAS ruling, by contrast, is a personal blow to Putin who stood strongly by Valieva as Russian sporting and political figures waged a hostile disinformation campaign to discredit evidence of doping against the star teenage skater.
Djokovic’s Australian Open demise was the first major sports shock of 2024, along with the sudden resignation of Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, signalling a more dramatic year ahead following the AO.
The biggest annual sporting event in the southern hemisphere, the AO also highlighted key lessons for organising committees, federations, governments and other stakeholders involved in international events this year – from the Paris Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, Euro 2024, and T20 World Cup to the Monaco Grand Prix, Tour de France Femmes and others.
This Australian Open expanded the Grand Slam model, generating record crowds in excess of 1 million visitors for the first time with an entertainment imperative to bring in more people and money.
NEW GRAND SLAM MODEL
The tournament stretched players on and off the court, with innovations that included the first party court with bar and DJ, creating a night club atmosphere at evening sessions, with night club hours to match and some controversial predawn finishes.
The mega tournament is rapidly evolving beyond a sporting event into a multi experience extravaganza, centred around a tennis precinct filled with live entertainment, modern corporate and hospitality facilities for high level business meetings, children’s activities, water slides, and fine dining.
The site resembles a tennis theme fun park catering for visitors looking to participate in an international event without having to pick up a racquet or watch a volley.
Organisers have attempted to create a carnival atmosphere to attract younger people seeking to be part of a more glamorous social, sporting event.
The price for finals tickets was more than a Taylor Swift concert, reflecting the growing entertainment and celebrity focus to bring in new audiences and business.
Match scheduling was on the list of things that often go wrong at a major event, as organisers attempted to coordinate broadcast and match schedules with high value peak broadcast viewing times, audiences and revenues in Europe and American markets.
The AO’s progressive grand slam model also reflects mounting pressure on organisers to generate greater economic benefits from the tennis event.The business model for the grand slam must grow to justify state government investments of almost $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades to maintain the precinct as a world class sports and entertainment destination close to Melbourne’s CBD.
SPORT AT WAR
The AO tournament highlighted security as the number one issue for major events this year, with tensions from the Middle East and Europe spilling onto the Melbourne tennis courts and stopping matches.
These included a man with a Palestine flag chanting loudly, while another protestor threw anti war brochures from the stands onto the court below.
The AO’s strict policies on flags and war propaganda has also exposed weaknesses in neutrality protocols that will be adopted at major international events this year.
Russian players however didn’t need a flag nor other national emblems to be identified, while Ukraine’s tennis warriors kept the flag flying for their devastated homeland, and for refugees from the war-torn nation now living in Australia, which is supporting Ukraine against Russia.
Ukraine’s tennis players described the current ban on flags and other symbols as a form of pro-Russian neutrality.
“We have repeatedly asked the question ‘What is the status of a neutral athlete?’ Because it actually does not exist,” said Ukraine’s quarter finalist Marta Kostyuk.
“The athletes have repeatedly said that everyone knows which countries they represent…their government constantly says that these are their athletes and the world knows about it. Many athletes have their flag on social networks.”
‘ITS VERY EXHAUSTING TO LIVE IN THIS STATE’
Players also provided rare personal insights at media conferences on the personal impact of the war on athletes, their families and sport in wartime.
The intensity of the war in Ukraine meant family and friends were fighting for their survival while also cheering on the tennis players in Melbourne; one friend messaged Kostyuk: “Well, we were looking between your score and where the missiles are flying.”
“Its very exhausting to live in this state,” Kostyuk said.
The wall separating international sport from repressive regimes may also crumble further in 2024.
While Raphael Nada’s sudden withdrawal from the AO due to injury changed the complexion of the tournament, the tennis legend continued to loom large despite his on-court absence.
VOLLEY OF OPPOSITION
Nadal’s surprise ambassador appointment for Saudi Arabia could help to change the direction of elite professional tennis and sport more widely.
The tennis legend’s role to promote and develop tennis in Saudi is expected to help pave the way for a potential major tournament in Saudi at the end of the year or early next.
This could threaten scheduling of the Australian Open more than any other grand slam, and was a hot topic in VIP court side, government, sponsor, and business and hospitality meetings at the AO.
As the latest prize in Saudi’s sports trophy cabinet, Nadal would be expected to support a Saudi tournament, and help soften international opposition to Saudi’s growing sports domination.
Saudi’s expanding collection of sporting assets has triggered fears of a new sports underclass of nations lacking Saudi’s vast oil wealth to influence and invest in the world’s premier sports events, federations, leagues, and clubs.
While the hard-line kingdom’s traditional treatment of women and imprisonment and execution of state declared enemies has been a barrier to international sport, federations and governing bodies are increasingly wary about sources of finance in a world at war in Europe and the Middle East, and growing economic and security concerns in Asia and China.
While hosting the Olympics remains Saudi’s ultimate goal, the gravitation of elite sport towards Riyadh looms as a growing dilemma for world sport, with overtones of China’s expansion of sports as part of its bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, launched in the aftermath of Beijing’s 1989 massacre of prodemocracy students in Tiananmen Square.
Saudi is expected to plough extraordinary sums of money at tennis and other sports this year, generating further opposition to more buy outs as against the purpose and spirit of sport.
That spirit includes hope, which can come from sport in many different and unexpected ways.
Hope could be seen on the courts at the Australian Open as a young debutant finalist took down the reigning king of tennis from a sporting summit so high many thought he was beyond reach.
This was the first time Djokovic had lost in the semi-finals or final of the event, and the first time since 2005 the final did not feature Djokovic, Nadal or Federer.
In doing so, Sinner removed the final pillar of the human sports pyramid that had formed around the untouchable ‘Big Three’ of tennis.
MARATHON OF HOPE
Or hope could come at the upcoming Super Bowl, from a dream scene featuring Taylor Swift and her boyfriend Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the imagined scene, esteemed US columnist Peggy Noonan, urges Kelce “to take an impossible catch, jump a man’s height, score the winning touchdown, hold the ball up to your girl in the stands as the stadium roars and the confetti rains down. Leave 100 billion memories. Remind everyone: It’s good to be alive. Because it is.”
Hope could also come from Kenya’s Kelvin Kiptum at the Paris Olympic Games; his epic quest to run the first sub 2-hour marathon beckons as a new milestone in human achievement.
The holy grail of athletics, long regarded as improbable if not impossible, the Paris marathon looms as a landmark moment in human history, the long distance equivalent of Sir Roger Bannister’s sub four minute mile once regarded as sport’s moon landing.
Sport’s capacity for hope will be on full display in July and August at the Paris Olympic Games, the planet’s premier event centred on hope and peace.
Paris may also be a defining event for the Olympics, staged on a continent confronted by a catastrophic war waged by Vladimir Putin, who specialises in killing hope.
Putin however could not crush the hope of Ukraine that was demonstrated by tennis players from the devastated nation at the Australian Open.
These included Dayana Yastremska, who defied the odds much like her country has in defending itself against Russia’s genocidal war – she became the first player to make the women’s AO semi-finals since 1978, after having to first qualify just to secure a place in the main draw.
As Yastremska moved onto the tournament’s frontlines, her compatriot, Sergiy Stakhovsky, who once famously defeated Roger Federer at Wimbledon, was representing Ukraine on the front lines of the war having traded his racquet for a rifle.
While Yastremska played for Ukraine more than herself, the wife and 8-year-old daughter of Ukrainian rugby player Volodymyr Mashkin, were killed by missile attacks on Kharkiv.
This Australian Open has highlighted how war will continue to impact the world and its sport’s landscapes in 2024UKRAINE’S TIMELESS MESSAGE FOR SPORTWhile Yastremska didn’t win or reach the AO women’s final, her presence at the tournament was an important symbol of hope for her country and the wider world in times of adversity.
She and her tennis compatriots symbolise the relevance of sport in these times.
“It’s good for people to look at something different than missile shellings,” Kostyuk said. The Ukraine women’s tennis team retains a deep faith in sport despite the deaths of hundreds of their nation’s athletes and coaches and destruction of sporting facilities.
“Sport has always brought a lot of joy and happiness for people, regardless of time,” Kostyuk said. “I don’t think it has changed.”
The IOC and Games organisers are hoping the Olympic athletes in Paris can also be a symbol of hope for the world in turbulent times.