As recently as 1993, the Australian Open was far from being the Happy Slam. It was the Struggling Slam, perhaps even the Dying Slam, mired in potentially fatal difficulties.
There was that awkward January start date. The far-flung location. The chicken-or-egg combination of low prize money, measly rankings points and player indifference. Also, the great pool of Aussie talent was drying up like rainwater in the unforgiving antipodal sun.
That's when Jeff Pollard, then head of Tennis Australia, called upon Paul McNamee and said, "We need help. Do you think you can help lift the tournament, make it a full and equal partner of the other Grand Slams?"
McNamee was barely 39 at the time, a recently retired ATP pro best known for winning five Grand Slam doubles titles and adopting a two-handed backhand midway through his career. He took the job.
While McNamee was the tournament director and CEO of the Australian Open only until 2006, the empire along the Yarra unmistakably bears his stamp. He was the prime mover in the transformation of the Struggling Slam into the Super Slam that has become the leading sporting event of the year in the Southern Hemisphere in roughly 30 years.
Today the face of the tournament keeps changing and improving.
The Australian Open now has with the highest attendance of any major (743,667 in 2018), the most advanced infrastructure (three roofed stadiums, more than any of its sisters), player and fan amenities that justify the "Happy Slam" sobriquet, and parity -- if not -- superiority in the Grand Slam pecking order.
"Paul was visionary for Australian tennis," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill recently wrote in an email. "He's a massive reason as to why the Australian Open enjoys the success it does today."
Cahill listed some of the improvements and changes the tournament has seen and added, "They all were brought in on his [McNamee's] watch. The event has been gathering momentum and expanding ever since."
The obstacles facing Pollard and, later, McNamee, were varied and, in some cases, subtle. "We had to find a way to change it from 'Ford Australian Open' to the Australian Open sponsored by Ford," Pollard told ESPN.com. "We had to start looking like a Slam, not sound like every other weekly tournament."
The issue there was perception, but player participation cut right to the event's credibility as one of the four vaunted majors. The Australian Open trailed the other Slams in prize money and wasn't allowed to offer equal ranking points.
In its waning years at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club (host of the AO until 1988), the AO was attracting as few as five of the top 20 players, a situation so dire that officials at other Slams discussed ways they might distance themselves from their poor relation Down Under. The move to the present site in 1988 helped, but the AO didn't reach the tipping point until the ITF and the other majors came to the rescue with the Grand Slam Cup.
That one-week indoor event, which lasted from 1990 through 1999, set a new record for prize money ($2 million, with a $1 million bonus for the winner if he also won a major that year).
Qualification for the 16-man field was based on points accumulated in Grand Slam play. Suddenly, the idea of playing the Australian Open became more appealing.
But the ATP did not acknowledge the Grand Slam Cup or award rankings points and did not allow the same number of points for the Aussie Open. But that would change shortly after McNamee assumed leadership. After Andre Agassi defeated Pete Sampras in the widely viewed 1995 men's singles final, McNamee said, "We went to the ATP and said it was about time we had the same rankings points as the other Slams. Ticking that box was important."
The ATP agreed, but only if the Australian Open would allocate double the prize money that players earned in the Super 9 (now the Masters 1000s) tournaments. In order to hit the target, Australian Open officials had to reverse what had been an enlightened equal prize money policy. For the next five years, the women earned less than the men, a decision that was often criticized and finally redressed in 2001.
By then, though, the Australian Open was building a great head of steam -- aided in large part by major financial support from the host state of Victoria. "I understand others look from afar and say how lucky it is that the government invests so much," McNamee said. "But it is really investing in its own position as the sports capital in the Asia-Pacific region (the state is also an investor in golf and F1 auto racing). Melbourne prides itself on being arguably the greatest sports city in the world."
Pollard's last significant act before leaving office in 2010 was securing a contract calling for Victoria to invest a billion dollars in the Australian Open over 15 years. Those seemingly endless upgrades of the Melbourne Park infrastructure? That's government money working, and it helps explain why the Australian Open has been free to flex its Grand Slam muscles.
McNamee, with Pollard in the background, presided over numerous firsts during their partnership. He fought to have the main stadium named for tennis icon Rod Laver, rather than a cell phone maker, bank or car company. He scheduled the first night-time Grand Slam singles final in 2005, and was rewarded when that Lleyton Hewitt vs. Marat Safin clash became (and remains) the highest-rated sporting event in the history of Australian television. But their most prescient act was re-defining the AO -- which in the early 20th Century was officially known as "the Australasian Championships" -- as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific.
McNamee wasn't just cooking up some catchy marketing campaign or jumping on the globalist bandwagon. He strongly felt the region, despite an emerging interest in tennis, had been badly neglected by alphabet elites of the ATP, WTA and ITF. The Super 9 (Masters) events that once existed in Sydney and Tokyo were gone. China lay dormant. Tennis was fixated on the West.
The Australian Open's engagement with Asia was real.
"It wasn't just words," Pollard said. "We recruited ball kids in Asia. We gave the most successful Asia players a wild cards, We grew relationships. We even did some help in coaching. But in Asia you don't just go in and do something. You have to be invited. And the countries are all different so you have to develop real friendships and show genuine interest."
McNamee hosted meetings of Asian tennis officials and ITF personnel at the Australian Open and helped get two Asian representatives onto the ITF board -- all of it long before the tours started saying all the right things while jumping on the financial opportunities that would soon emerge in China.
That emphasis on Asia diminished considerably when McNamee left his post to take over as tournament director of the golf Australian Open. It's being revived now, though. Like many of the policies McNamee set in motion back when the empire on the Yarra still looked more like the nearby railyards than a sporting fantasyland, that strategy has stood the test of time. It's another reason the empire continues to grow.