It was back in his 2007 prime that the great Roger Federer christened the first tennis major of the season the "Happy Slam". What remains a favourite of players and the media is also famously fan-friendly, with its inner-city location, trio of all-weather stadiums, good-value ground passes and summer holiday time-slot. Yet just as leading drawcards such as six-time champion Federer, Queensland's world No.1 and French Open champion Ash Barty or current titleholders Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka would not arrive unprepared, nor should spectators whose collective attendance in 2019 was a record 796,435. Online booking fees through Ticketmaster have been abolished this year for the first time, and although seats for the men's final sold out within hours, there are plenty still available for a tournament that spans 25 sessions over 14 days from January 20. As recently as the late 1980s, when the Open moved from undersized Kooyong to its new riverside home on the edge of the CBD, Australia's slam was seen as the endangered lesser sibling of its brethren in Paris, London and New York. Now the event transforms a city for a fortnight that has become as much about the social carnival as the tennis. Which means it's not only the players in need of a game plan.
The cheapest seats at the two main ticketed arenas, named for Rod Laver and Margaret Court, were snapped up for $62, and those that remain rise in price by the round. Some reserved seats behind each baseline are available for the eight days of play on Melbourne Arena (formerly Hisense) - the preferred high-energy habitat of Nick Kyrgios. The dollar baseline is the daily $54 ground pass ($5 for children aged 3-14) which provides access to all the outside courts as well as Melbourne Arena, plus the AO Live Stage, new Practice Village at the eastern end and kid-centric AO Ballpark - complete with climbing wall, zip-line, kart racing, Lego stage, water battle zone, etc - at its four-times-bigger home at Birrarung Marr.
More exclusive ticketing options include On Court Seating - which is as it suggests, just metres from the action - from $1500 a chair, and the Vantage premium deal that covers all 25 sessions, dining and other benefits. There are all sorts of other hospitality packages, plus fan walks, clinics and photos with the trophies, etc, etc, at a range of price points at ausopen.com and ticketmaster.com.au/ausopen
So when to go? Half of each singles draw plays on alternate days, meaning that if the Barty Party starts on Tuesday it will continue on Thursday, Saturday… and, on an unashamedly parochial note, hopefully for four rounds thereafter. After all, the most recent Australian winner was Chris O'Neill in 1978. In Barty, there is a home-grown top seed for the first time since Lleyton Hewitt - which was 17 years and an awful lot of "c'mons" ago - and although tickets to the women's final can typically be sourced until a day or two prior, there will be a stampede for seats should the admirable Queenslander make it that far.
There are 7000 free kids ground passes to be distributed by Hot Shots sponsor ANZ on Thursday, 23 January, and if budgets are tight, a family could consider buying a couple of stadium seats and general admission tickets to share. Tip: the middle Saturday crush, for which an all-time record crowd of over 93,000 was on-site in 2019, may be one to avoid. But things quieten down outside the two main courts in the second week when the numbers in the singles draws halve every second day, leading to more prominence for doubles and the start of the junior, wheelchair and legends events. Which means a nostalgic chance to see a past great, the next Serena, perhaps, or Dylan Alcott, the Victorian seeking a sixth quad singles crown.
The No.70 and 70a trams that run past the north side of the complex provide a free shuttle service from Flinders Street Station for AO ticket-holders, or walk along Birrarung Marr to the city entrance via Tanderrum Bridge. With stage two of the $972 million redevelopment now complete, the Melbourne Park precinct stretches from Federation Square south-east to Richmond station for the first time. If coming by car, try Yarra Park (via gate three for day and night sessions and gate five for nights only).
Melbourne Park has experienced everything from the famous flood of 1995 to the brutal heat that can be blown away in the winds of a changeable Melbourne summer. In short: be prepared for anything, and think comfort, Sunsmart and hydration. Also consider some BYO catering to augment the vast number of choices at main-event-prices, and install the redesigned AO app featuring an interactive map that helps to locate food and facilities close to your seat. Forget something? There are 21 merchandise outlets, but please note that only the players can pinch the official towels.
Gates open at 10am for the day sessions and, after the requisite bag search, ground-pass holders will dash for the 10,500-seat Melbourne Arena plus the smaller courts boasting the most enticing programs and/or most relief from the sun, with show court three the beneficiary of a $1 million shade cloth instalment to cover the almost-3000 seats. The daily order-of-play is available on the tournament website on the night prior, and a little preparation can assist in getting the most from your viewing day. Going "Adults Only" at the AO may also help; there's a Kids' Club for 5-12-year-olds at Fed Square's Deakin Edge (from $80-$140, extended "Date Night" hours from 6-9pm and bookings essential). No excuses, then. The tennis awaits.
So you've found your seat. The warm-up is underway. If you're new to up-close tennis watching, don't be surprised to discover that the ball is hit a fair bit harder than it can appear on your TV screen. On the show courts, you'll need to be in place before the chair umpire calls "time", or be forced to wait until after the first three games of a set, with entry and exit opportunities at the odd-numbered changes-of-ends thereafter. But the joy of so many matches being played simultaneously, mostly in week one, is that a dull match can easily be replaced by another with more appeal - vacant seats permitting.
Barrack, by all means. Loudly. Wear your national colours and chant/sing along with the Aussie supporter group, the Fanatics - or the Swedes, Slovaks or Serbs - if that's your thing. But etiquette requires silence as a player prepares to serve or while the ball is in play - even if the odd involuntary gasp or groan is inevitable. And no matter how great your enthusiasm, it's poor form to applaud an opponent's double-fault. Or to spend too long trying to placate a crying baby. Just get out of earshot as soon as possible. The MCG this ain't.
Naturally, abuse of any kind will not be tolerated, with a well-staffed security force ready to eject patrons who overstep. The players, too, are guarded closely, but that doesn't mean those spectators leaning over the railings or hovering near the gate on an outside court can't still ask for an autograph as players head back to the locker-room. Just stick with the winners. Their mood will be better.
Hungry? Grand Slam Oval, or the area between Rod Laver and Melbourne Arenas, is HQ for food and entertainment. The 2020 theme is "Best of Victoria", split into Eastside, Countryside and Northside, and pop-ups include Lomah, Mr Myagi, Biggie Smalls, Cacao and Mamasita. There are other options throughout the precinct, including around Garden Square, the posh nosh likes of Nobu and Rockpool on River Terrace, or head across the road to 56 By The Glasshouse, billed as "a culinary showcase of local produce" and home to the AO Chef Series.
Like the queues, tennis days can be long and, unlike most sports, there is no certainty of a finish time. The best-of-five-set men's format may now exist only at the majors, but, while it does, there's always the chance of play continuing on the outside courts well into the evening - or, inside, until the early hours of the morning. The big screens at Grand Slam Oval cater to the thousands who attend purely for the party, and - like many a spring carnival race-goer who doesn't get within a few furlongs of the horses - will never see a single ball hit live.
New for 2020 is the evening option called "late", a cocktail jazz bar with skyline views on, well, L8, of multi-story Tennis HQ and open from 8pm to midnight. Back at Birrarung Marr on the AO Live Stage, Jessica Mauboy will headline the "Girls Day Out" concert on tournament eve, with Billy Idol, the Veronicas, Bastille, Max Frost and Kate Miller-Heidke among the international and local acts confirmed for the following 14 days. A ground pass or arena ticket grants entry.
Nearby, around the official hotels - Accor is the current tournament partner, but also Crown, the Grand Hyatt and others - you'll likely run into a few dinner-bound athletes and their entourages. A final tip: the players, typically, will be the tall, trim types whose suntans stop at their feet.
FRENCH OPEN (MAY 18-JUNE 7, 2020)
Having ended years of debate by preferring continued residence at Roland Garros to a shift to a roomier venue, by far the most compact of the four grand slam homes is also close to the heart of Paris. Just 5 kilometres from the Arc de Triumph and even less from the Eiffel Tower in the posh 16th arrondissement, the Metro ride to Porte d'Auteuil is among the best public transport options. In 2020, Ash Barty will be attempting to defend her first major title on the trademark red European clay, where only Sam Stosur excelled before her fellow Queenslander over recent decades. For the calendar and details for ticket sales, which open to the general public in March and include a "last-minute" stash for purchase from May 6, see tickets.rolandgarros.com/en
WIMBLEDON (JUNE 29-JULY 12)
The hardest part is getting entry to the world's most prestigious tournament, as evidenced by the overnight campers hoping to be near the front of what even The Championships officially called The Queue. The other ways into the All England Club (take the Tube to Southfields or Wimbledon then walk/bus/share a taxi) are via the wildly oversubscribed online Wimbledon Public Ballot (which closed for 2020 at the end of November - to be eligible for 2021 join myWIMBLEDON at wimbledon.com/en or via Ticketmaster, and through corporate hospitality. But a tip for those who have entered with ground passes: early departees from Centre/No.1/No.2 Courts are encouraged to return their ticket for re-sale, with proceeds aiding the Wimbledon Foundation.
US OPEN (AUGUST 31-SEPTEMBER 13)
Arthur Ashe Stadium (capacity 23,771) is the world's biggest tennis venue, and the US Open is home to the noisiest, most chaotic and in-your-face atmosphere of the sport's Big Four. Think heat, humidity, hot dogs, celebrities and Labour Day festivities at the last slam of the year, played at Flushing Meadows in Queens. The best way to get there is on the subway (the Number 7 train to the Citi Field stop) from Manhattan. Tickets go on sale in early June, also via Ticketmaster, but for general information, see usopen.org