MELBOURNE, Australia — When the gates were flung open at the Australian Open today, organizers were confident a global economic recession would do little to keep record crowds away.
Like the other three gems in tennis' Grand Slam quartet, the Australian Open has seen its stature and attendance soar since the dawn of the professional era in 1968 — particularly in the last two decades.
Since relocating to Melbourne Park in 1988, attendance has more than doubled from 287,022 to a record 605,735 in 2008. Turnstile records also were set at the French Open and U.S. Open last year, and Wimbledon's attendance was a sliver below its all-time high.
That's great news for the Slams. But for some fans and observers, the crown jewels of the sport in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York have taken on a dose of literal meaning. Elbowy crowds, pricy tickets, long lines and a feeling of diminishing returns are making people feel increasingly slammed.
Interviews with dozens of spectators at the four majors during the 2008 tennis season showed that in some respects the majors are becoming victims of their own success. As growth outpaces the ability to expand, the fan experience can be compromised.
"It's annoying," groused Laura Phillips, a Londoner who had been waiting 30 minutes for a seat in a snaking line outside Court 13 at Wimbledon last July. "You feel like you're at a theme park. The crowds are worse than central London."
"There is a line everywhere — to watch, to eat, to go to the bathroom," complained Karen Torrent of Washington, D.C., while trying to peer over fans six-deep at an outside court during last summer's U.S. Open.
The Australian Open, once a Grand Slam afterthought, has seen more of a crowd explosion than the other majors as its prestige has increased. That has forced some fans, such as Karen Johnston, to learn hard lessons.
"You have to get in early and get a seat," said Johnston, who had traveled 125 miles to Melbourne last January with her three children to taste a bit of the action but sat outside Margaret Court Arena in the baking sun because she was unable to secure seats to watch the Williams sisters — in doubles, no less.
Despite these and other inconveniences, many fans without ticketed seats expressed satisfaction just to be on grounds hallowed by names such as Laver, Sampras, Navratilova and Graf.
"I don't mind it," Roger Kane said at the Australian Open last year. "The crowds just add to the atmosphere."
Popularity no problem
Officials at the four majors, and almost anyone connected with the sport, aren't exactly fretting about the surge of popularity.
"Isn't this a nice problem to have — too many fans," said American Bob Bryan, part of the second-ranked doubles team with twin brother Mike.
They say demand is up because the fan experience is strong. Jim Curley, who oversees operations for the U.S. Open, said 97% of fans surveyed at the 2008 tournament rated the experience as positive even if lines can get long and the facility is at near capacity.
For the players, the boom times at Slams have meant mushrooming prize money and vastly improved facilities. The 2009 Australian Open boasts a 12% increase in player payouts to more than $15 million, plus a new restaurant and gym for players.
"The Grand Slams are hustling to pump money back into their facilities, and they are," Mike Bryan says. "Each year we see improvements on the grounds and to the stadiums like new roofs and new players' lounges. When we first started the tour back in 1998, the U.S. Open was bush. The stands were like Little League stands — just little grey metal bleachers."
Those improvements come at a price, mostly to fans. The cheapest seat for the first evening women's final at Rod Laver Arena costs around $200, up from $123 in 2006, according to wire service DPA. Single session ticket prices have also climbed from 9%-29%.
Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Connors remembers when the Australian Open was an "also-ran" that he played just twice in his long career, winning in 1974.
"Now is it too big?" asks the five-time U.S. Open champ. "It's not big enough in my opinion."
Even with room to grow and a more electric atmosphere today, Connors says there is a downside to teeming crowds.
"The real, true tennis fan are the ones that are up now in the nosebleed sections," he says. "They're not the ones down there around the court that really are lovers of the game, and want to be a part of it. Tennis has become a corporate animal now."
Inadequate seating and 20-minute long bathroom lines are one thing. Though rare, safety has also become an issue, particularly Down Under.
Fans in Australia greeted by the anticipatory "thwap" of tennis balls launched by the world's most skilled players also have been subjected to the sounds of rival fans brawling and clouds of noxious capsicum spray.
Ethnic rioting between Croat and Serb fans forced the ejection of 150 spectators from the Melbourne Park grounds on opening day in 2007. Last year police Maced rowdy Greek fans, including some children, at an evening match that created a minor furor. Police will use capsicum foam instead of spray this year to avoid the ugly scenes that marred the 2008 event.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley says the tournament has "zero tolerance" for unruly behavior but admits there is a "balancing act in every event."
"We have to do a better job with our infrastructure to continue to make it fan friendly and accessible," he said. "You do everything you can to control (unpleasant behavior), but when you have the numbers that we have, it's a microcosm of daily life. Those things are going to happen."
Organizers of the four majors say they are working to balance demand while maintaining a safe, fan-friendly experience. Some are limiting the number of grounds passes sold. They employ extensive marketing research to track fan satisfaction. Most have added on-site entertainment for restless spectators that range from music to mega-screen TVs to Spiegel World, a burlesque circus show making its debut in Melbourne.
Others are actively exploring expansion. Last month Australian Open officials completed a $1.3 million study with the Victorian state government looking into growth areas for the 21-year-old venue. Last year's record attendance was the ninth consecutive year of crowds above 500,000.
"This facility is not the size it needs to be to cope with the crowds that we've got," Tennis Australia CEO Steve Wood said in an interview last year. "It's starting to create real issues for us, and we need to get an antidote to all of that."
French Open officials are likewise exploring expansion in the areas surrounding Roland Garros.
"We have tried all these past years to welcome more and more spectators," says Alain Riou, director of development for the French Tennis Federation. "But of course, it becomes more and more difficult, because the stadium is not organized for that, and we suffer for lack of space."
Some think they are losing the battle.
With 424,230 fans over 15 days last year, the French Open has 100,000 more fans than 15 years ago even though the venue is largely unchanged (Roland Garros added an extra Sunday in 2007). It is the smallest of the four majors in terms of acreage.
The main thoroughfare of Allee Marcel-Bernard can be like bumper cars. The flow is from every direction and attendees have to trudge along slowly dodging bodies or even suffer the occasional elbow and shoulder.
"It's chaos," Karyn Slatter of Leicester, England, said last June. She and her husband, Roger, said they were forced to argue with an attendant in order to reclaim seats on an outside court their friends had been holding.
"It's our first time to Roland Garros," Roger said, "and last."
USTA officials bill the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows as the largest attended sporting event in the world. About 720,000 showed up in 2008, more than any Slam.
In 1968 the former venue at Forest Hills drew fewer than 100,000 fans. The first year following its move to Flushing Meadows in 1978 total attendance was 275,300.
"It's become a monster, in some ways good and in some ways bad," says tennis historian Bud Collins, calling the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium "one of the most antithetical constructions to the feeling of tennis."
"I sometimes long for the old days at Forest Hills, where you could pick your seat until the last weekend and spread out with friends. Those days are gone."
Collins, who has covered tennis for five decades, feels most for ordinary fans that depend on seeing tennis the first week on outside courts.
"That can be pretty rough," he says of the struggle navigate the grounds and see matches.
Do tours get lost in crowds?
Views differ on whether the unprecedented growth of the majors has also hurt regular events on the ATP and WTA tours, which form the backbone of the tennis circuit.
Martina Navratilova, who played in four decades until she retired at age 50 in 2006, says the balance of power has shifted too far toward the majors.
"It's gone a bit off-kilter," says Czech-born Navratilova, the most prolific winner in pro tennis history. "Players are much more wiling to blow off the regular tour tournaments. I question their efforts in the smaller tournaments. That concerns me. It diminishes the tour, which are the body of tennis."
Others see the growth as benefiting all.
"I think a rising tide lifts all boats, and the better an individual Grand Slam tournament does, the better I think it is for the sport," says Larry Scott, CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. "The success of the Grand Slams has helped us leverage investment in the tour. We're getting huge investments from cities, countries, sponsors, because they want to replicate in some way what the Grand Slams have achieved."
Former pro and ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale speaks for many when he says he's against a return to the quaint days when he would sip a beer after matches at Roland Garros with writers and spectators or take the No. 7 subway out to Flushing with fans — which he did on his way to the U.S. Open final in 1966.
"There is nothing like the smell of success of crowds, excitement, kids trying to get autographs," he says of today's bustling Grand Slam events, which are now as cultural and entertainment happenings as tennis tournaments.
But remembering some of the wall-to-wall crowds he was forced to navigate last year, he adds, "We may well have reached the tipping point where the fan experience has to be considered, or more amenities have to be introduced."