MELBOURNE, Australia -- At quick glance, the 2019 Australian Open looks much like Aussie Opens of recent past. There are the familiar matchups, the aqua blue courts and oversized thermometers pinned at 90-plus. But look a little closer and you'll see much has changed about the 107th edition of Melbourne's Happy Slam.
For starters: new balls! Thanks to a sponsor change, Dunlops replace Wilsons. Is that an upgrade? Depends on whom you ask. Player reactions have run the spectrum from Bernard Tomic: "They're pretty cheap," to Ashleigh Barty: "I like them."
The name of the tournament's second-largest stadium has also changed. Goodbye, Hisense Arena; hello, Melbourne Arena, an homage to the city that has hosted the tournament since 1972. The rulebook also received a modern reno. In the name of speeding up play, a 25-second serve clock is being used here for the first time. The clock made its Grand Slam debut in the main draw of the US Open in August and was trialed here last year in qualifying. On Monday, Maria Sharapova was the first player to receive a warning for exceeding the time limit. In her own bid to speed up play, Sharapova won the match without dropping a game.
Also new this year: A 10-point final-set tiebreaker will be played at 6-all. Wimbledon will debut a similar format this summer, with a seven-point breaker at 12-all. For nearly 50 years, the US Open has featured a seven-point breaker at 6-all. That means all four majors now decide final sets in different manners, with the French Open being the remaining holdout with the potential to play the final set to infinity.
For the majority of 2018, seven-time Australian Open champ Serena Williams was the story of the year as she returned from maternity leave and made the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. That made it easy to forget she didn't compete in Melbourne last year. Nor did Andy Murray (hip), Kei Nishikori (wrist) or Victoria Azarenka (custody battle), all of whom return this year. With Murray's announcement Friday that he will retire this season (if not after this tournament, which saw him lose an epic four-hour, five-set instant classic to Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round), this fortnight marks the last Australian Open in which the Big Four -- who own a combined 13 titles here -- will contest this major together.
The last time Williams did compete here, in 2017, she won a record seventh title by beating big sister Venus 6-4, 6-5 in an unforgettable final. With that win, Serena tied Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 23 major titles -- and she did so while pregnant with a daughter, Alexis Olympia, who was born that September. If Serena is successful at winning another title here in Melbourne, she will tie Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 and take home a record-sized check, as the prize purse increased this year to $43.6 million (USD), with each winner taking home $2.9 million and each runner-up pocketing $1.4 million.
But it's not just the draws that have changed. More than 20 top players arrived in Melbourne either with a new coach or with no coach at all. World No. 1 Simona Halep has yet to hire a coach to replace Darren Cahill, who stepped away from the sport to spend time with his family; Venus Williams split with longtime coach David Witt in December; and No. 5 Sloane Stephens is in Melbourne without Kamau Murray, her coach of the past few years. "Kamau and I needed a break," Stephens said Monday, adding that despite Murray's absence, her "coaching situation is exactly the same."
Stephens has struggled at this tournament for the past several years, but consistent with the theme of change, she sailed past American Taylor Townsend 6-4, 6-2 on Monday and will see the second round at the Australian Open for the first time since 2014.
But wait. There's more. Last year's Wimbledon champ, Angelique Kerber, now has her former coach, Wim Fissette, in Azarenka's coaching box; Elise Mertens split with her coach, Dieter Kindlmann, who's now coaching CiCi Bellis; Michael Joyce jumped from Johanna Konta to Eugenie Bouchard in the off-season; Andre Agassi, who last coached Novak Djokovic, is in Grigor Dimitrov's box; and Andy Murray's former coach, Amelie Mauresmo, is coaching Lucas Pouille.
That might actually have more to do with the heat, which on Monday reached highs in the mid-90s and led to two retirements in the women's draw. Tournament officials hope changes to the extreme heat policy will better safeguard players against the sweltering Aussie sun and lead to fewer retirements than in recent years. As of this year, the all-but-indecipherable Wet Bulb Globe Temperature scale (huh?) has been ditched in favor of the new Australian Open Heat Stress Scale, which ranks playing conditions from 1 (temperate) to 5 (suspension of play).
The new scale accounts for actual temperature, strength of the sun (your guess is as good as ours), humidity and wind speed. At a reading of 4, men are given a 10-minute break between the third and fourth sets and women receive a break between the second and third sets.
One way to avoid the need for those 10-minute breaks? Win in straight sets. That's what defending champions Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer did Monday night, extending the first-round win streak of defending champs at the Australian Open to 16 years. Because though change is inevitable, not all change is good.