It’s a typical Friday night, and as my group of friends have gathered for dinner, we’re going around the table bragging about who stayed up the latest the night before.
One claims they were up until 12:30 in the morning, another says they made it to one, while proudly, another says they were up well past two, until their eyes could no longer stay open.
While it may sound like we’re a group of nine year-olds showing off about who has the latest bed time, but in reality, we’re in our early twenty’s, working out who managed to stay up the longest to watch the Andy Murray vs Thanasi Kokkinakis match.
While die hard tennis fans in Australia are no stranger to being glued to the TV late at night to watch matches around the world, due to our less than ideal time difference, this group of friends wouldn’t fall into that category.
In fact among the six people there, tennis isn’t any of their favourite sports, yet for two weeks every year, they become infatuated with the Australian Open, to the point where they’ll happily stay up late on a week night and show up to work exhausted, just so they can watch it live.
My friends aren’t alone though. For the two weeks that Melbourne hosts the open, tennis becomes the talk of the town, headlines all of the newspapers and websites and becomes a major attraction.
Over the course of this year’s tournament, 839,192 people filled up the many tennis stadiums across Melbourne park, while hundreds of thousands more watched from home.
That figure alone is impressive, but when you factor in that this is the first January since 2020 that worldwide traveling has been freely allowed, as well as several big name players missing the open this year, such as Nick Kyrgios and Naomi Osaka, an attendance that big shows just how popular the open was.
While for those two weeks in January everyone is a die-hard tennis fan in Australia, for the remaining 50 weeks of the year, it seems as if those casual fans quickly fall off, and the momentum that tennis had, fades away.
That being said, if an Australian player has a good tournament, then the momentum does get picked up very quickly. For both of Ash Barty’s French open and Wimbledon triumphs the whole country was well awake in the early hours of the morning to watch it live. Even when Kyrgios, who divides Australian’s like few can, made the Wimbledon final, there weren’t too many Australian’s going to bed that night.
However, as much as we hope for one of our own to excel at the majors, outside of Barty’s period of dominance and Kyrgios’s final appearance, Australian tennis players haven’t made too many deep runs in the majors, leaving to those more casual tennis fans not taking as much of an active interest.
Obviously the biggest barrier is the time difference. Any fan of international sports in Australia knows the weekly struggle of having to stay up late to watch their favourite team/ athlete play live, only to turn around and face a day of work off limited sleep.
It’s not ideal by any means, that being said, fans were more than willing to sacrifice sleep to watch the late night matches at the Australian open. Similarly, while the FIFA World Cup only happens every four years, the nation was well and truly awake at all hours of the night to watch not just the Socceroos, but as many games as possible.
Time difference will always impede on people watching tennis in Australia, but ultimately it isn’t a complete roadblock.
So what can be done to maintain the interest in tennis for all fans in Australia?
One of the most popular methods to attract interest in sports over the last five or so years has been the use of documentaries.
The Netflix Drive to Survive series recruited so many new fans to the sport of Formula One racing that cults ought to copy their recruiting methods. Amazon has countless All or Nothing series, giving unprecedented access to teams across all different sports, while ESPN’s 30 for 30 series looks back at some of sports most historical moments.
So with Netflix having launched a similar styled series for tennis in Break Point, will that draw in new fans, as well as hold captive some of the casual fans throughout the year?
While the first five episodes opened to mixed reviews, and may have put a “curse” on those players that feature in the series, it certainly attracted viewers.
Personally, I know several people who I wouldn’t call die hard tennis fans, who tuned in to the series. Even one of my friends, who has refused to watch a long list of cinematic classics I’ve given her, was quick to hit play on Break Point. Maybe if The Shawshank Redemption stared Matteo Berrettini instead of Morgan Freeman she’d give it a watch.
Love or hate them, there is no denying these style of documentaries, when done correctly, can easily draw a crowd. Only time will tell how much of an impact Break Point will have, but I feel confident in saying that there will be at least some new fans to the sport as a result of the series.
Another simple way for Australia to carry over the surge of momentum the Australian open provides to the next major, is to dedicate more coverage to the game. Instead of media outlets giving in depth reports about pre-season AFL training, or ranking players purely based off opinion, they can allocate some time to cover not just Australian tennis players, but the sport as a whole.
The real question however, is do the die-hard fans of tennis in Australia actually want to increase the popularity of the sport?
I’m sure they would love to head into the office in the middle of July and be able to make water-cooler chat about tennis, but the adoption of new fans can also have its downside.
Just ask F1 fans, before the Drive to Survive series, the Melbourne Grand Prix to many was a loud nuisance that made driving around the Albert Park aera impossible, now over the course of four days in 2022, 419,114 people attended. Gone are the days where getting a ticket was hassle free, now they sell out in minutes or you have to pay ridiculous resale prices.
Would die-hard tennis fans want that to happen to the Australian open? Due to arena capacity, tickets to the matches later in the tournament are already pricey, as well as availability being limited.
The reality is, while sports is one of the most inclusive things in the world, die-hard fans can at times, be quite territorial.
Nothing highlights this like in Nick Hornby’s iconic book Fever Pitch, which is practically a 240 page love letter to Hornby’s beloved English Football team in Arsenal, where he goes into his relationship with the team over his lifetime.
Having talked his girlfriend into reaching the same level of passion for Arsenal that he possess, the possibility of having a child soon arises, where his girlfriend suggests that they’ll have to take turns in going to the games if they were to have a child.
Hornby suddenly regrets introducing her to Arsenal and envies those with partners who don’t share sports as a common interest. Quickly, he believes that because he has been following them for longer, child or no child, there’s no way he should be the one missing the games for her benefit.
While not all die-hard fans are this protective, the idea of fresh fans coming in might frighten some, however as the saying goes, “the more the merrier”, and ultimately, the growth of support for tennis in Australia, all year round, would probably benefit tennis.
Tennis is and always will be one of the most popular sports in Australia, and while it definitely peaks in January, every year it does feel like it gets more popular. Only time will tell whether that popularity leads to more tired and weary red eyed workers in offices, who have stayed up half the night watching tennis during the other majors, but slowly, it sure is becoming more of a possibility.