The 2022 instalment of the Australian Open certainly had its ups and downs. Yet, after what might be described (understatedly) as a rocky start, the two weeks to follow, turned into an absolute dream scenario for tournament organisers.
The darling of Australian tennis, Ash Barty, won the women’s singles, perennial favourite, Rafael Nadal somehow clambered back from the abyss to take Slam title number 21, and to top it off, Kokkinakis and Kyrgios tore the doubles draw apart to lift more silverware for Australia.
Added to all this, the face of the Australian Open for years, Dylan Alcott, bowed out of tennis. While not the fairytale ending we all desired, his presence, humility, and willingness to engage with anyone and everyone, was clearly on display.
Special mention also has to go to Max Purcell and Matt Ebden, who turned the men’s doubles into an all Aussie affair, as well as Sam Stosur finishing up her brilliant singles career.
Overall, what a fortnight!
Yet as I look ahead to 2023, I can’t help but feel there are some concerns for the tournament, at least on the marketing and promotional side.
Aside from the positives I mentioned above, the last three instalments of the tournament have been plagued by negativity…think Novak, Covid restrictions and quarantine, bushfires and air quality, etc.
Now, the Australian Open has lost its two most popular faces. Its best marketers. Its most successful Australian competitors in decades.
So who do we have to put up as the face of the Summer of Tennis next year? Who can help push tennis back into the forefront of the Australian public? No Ash. No Dylan.
Kyrgios is an obvious contender, especially after his doubles success. Let me rephrase that…Kyrgios was a contender up until his Miami meltdown. He was seemingly in a good headspace, and was winning back a lot of the Aussie tennis public, including myself. But all that was undone with his childish display against the cool, calm, 18 year old, Jannik Sinner.
I don’t see any way that the Australian Open could sell Nick as the face of the tournament after abusing an umpire in the manner he did (and to be frank, has on numerous occasions), which is a shame.
Who does that leave?
Kokkinakis perhaps? No doubt a favourite amongst many, and again, following the doubles success, his profile has risen after having a lot of time off through injury.
However, with a current singles ranking in the 80’s/90’s, you would think this needs to come down a bit, before we start rolling him out as the publicity guru. Plus, I personally want to see him stay fit and play great tennis before we add extra pressure on his shoulders.
Alex De Minaur? On paper, Australia’s highest ranked player, and a definite chance. Alex is inoffensive, a popular guy, and clearly a great player. I’m just not certain he’s one of the best public speakers to sell and promote the sport during what is always a packed summer landscape. That’s not necessarily a criticism of him; simply a factor when deciding who to parade in front of the cameras during summer.
The dark horse could be Daria Saville. Daria has always been a popular figure in Australia and has the personality to really shine a light on the 2023 tournament. If she continues her recent form, her ranking might also be high enough to give her a genuine chance at making another charge into the second week.
Unfortunately, there really aren’t any other current male or female players with a high enough profile in Australia, to cut through to the casual, summer fan, which has to be a concern for TA after the last handful of glorious years, when Ash and Dylan could be relied on so consistently.
Does this mean we put the weight on the shoulders of an old favourite, Lleyton Hewitt to drum up publicity? Credit where it’s due, he’s always been a massive supporter and promoter of Australian tennis, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him play a major part.
Possibly, the way to go next year, is to bring out all the old Australian favourites from the last 30 years, to do a media blitz in the weeks leading up to January. Hewitt, Rafter, Philippoussis, Cash, Dokic, Molik, Pratt, etc. The load could be shared, and we could get regular coverage throughout different regions of the country.
It feels like next year more than ever, is when TA need to create a genuinely positive atmosphere for the tournament, and drum up some real excitement. Possibly leaning on some older, wiser heads, would be a safe option in the current climate.
Adding to the conundrum, when in doubt about who to put front and centre on trams and banners throughout Melbourne, the perfect fallback would be to have your nine time champion plastered across the city right? Errr…a little awkward this time. TA would be extremely reluctant to have Novak as its poster child so soon after the debacle of 2022.
But if you think it couldn’t get harder for TA, think again. Just recently, it has come to light that Ash Barty’s retirement could cost them millions of dollars in TV rights, with networks not willing to fork out big bucks without the lure of Aussie prosperity. Again, highlighting the need for Australian tennis to find more success, and fast.
All this, means I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if TA are frantically organising extra physios and masseurs to Roger and Rafa’s house over the next 8 months. To have both of them play again at Melbourne Park would go a long way to hiding the stark reality that Australian tennis is really struggling to have a current local player, or players, who can help sell our biggest product to the public.