From the Archives, 1988: Melbourne’s state-of-the-art tennis centre a triumph

First published in The Age on January 12, 1988

Melbourne's state-of-the-art tennis centre is a knockout

We are a race of knockers. When our Government proposes anything as ambitious as the new tennis centre by the Yarra, vested interests quickly rise up to fling all the mud they can reach at it. But this time, let's admit it, the Government got it right — and the knockers got it wrong.

The National Tennis Centre taken just prior to the first Australian Open played at the venue. Credit:Sebastian Costanzo

The National Tennis Centre is a triumph. Its first day of business yesterday left the spectators, players, officials and observers of the tennis world wandering through it in a state of wonder at the scale, beauty and excellence of the facilities.

Is it the best tennis complex in the world, as the Premier, Mr Cain, said euphorically yesterday when he arrived to open it? "It's pretty close," nodded Chris Evert, president of the Women's International Tennis Association. “I think it's been beautifully built for the players and the spectators."

All it needed, she said, was a few years to develop the warmth of tradition you feel at Wimbledon or Roland Garros, to "get the coldness out of the buildings". But the facilities for players were terrific, the centre court stadium was beautiful, and the Australian-made Rebound Ace court surface ideal for everyone.

Paris, London, New York, Melbourne: of the four stops on the tennis world's Grand Slam circuit, Melbourne now finds itself in the improbable position of having the most attractive and functional complex of them all. If it can't yet match the first two in atmosphere, none the less in Flinders Park it has the state of the art.

An artists impression of the National Tennis Centre published in The Age on June 27, 1985.Credit:The Age Archives

There are facilities that the others cannot match: the massive rollover roof that allows centre court play to continue through rain, tempest and nightfall; the three stadium courts with combined seating for 24,000: the privacy and comfort of the players' areas, allowing them passage to any of the stadium or practice courts without the stress of fighting through the crowd; the air-conditioned stadium offering comfort for fans; and so on.

The centre court is superlative. With 15,000 seats, it holds more people than Wimbledon or Kooyong, and with much more legroom and comfort. Yet somehow it is more intimate than either, you feel close to the action wherever you are. And unlike Flushing Meadow, the tennis fans have the best seats while the corporate boxes are up at the top.

Court One, scene of yesterday's four-hour thriller between Yannick Noah and Roger Smith, is a minor gem in itself, as is its little brother next door, Court Two. Compact yet spacious, free of shadows and with 6000 and 3000 seats respectively, they are so much better than their counterparts at Wimbledon and Rushing Meadow that there is no comparison.

Yesterday exposed minor problems with Flinders Park. The plastic seats were as hot as Hades by midday, especially the dark-green ones (take a cushion). The choice of food was pretty awful, with only pies and the like available after 2 pm (take a picnic lunch). There were only four public phones visible (take a car phone), and the scoreboards were often hard to read.

There is also a big gap between the state-of-the-art design of the three stadium courts and the decidedly more downmarket state of the 13 back courts to which the lesser players have been assigned. Jammed up next to the railway lines, they are a bit more spacious than your average club court, but nothing more.

But the real gem of Flinders Park goes back to the thing that made it so controversial: its site by the Yarra. It is a perfect setting, an environment that opens you up to Melbourne's scenic assets, whether gliding down to the centre on the shuttle tram, sitting on the concourse overlooking the Yarra parklands, or looking out from the outer stadiums to the city, the MCG, Olympic Park, the Sports and Entertainment Centre and the river.

The knockers said it would desecrate the Yarra parklands. Far from it. It is a design of subdued, almost modest beauty, whose oyster-green exterior and white lacy roof not only blend into the parklands but enhance them. It is an exceptionally beautiful building, its massive structure disguised by aesthetic tact and good neighborliness.

New York built its new tennis centre the American way: as quickly and cheaply as possible, on an old rubbish dump miles from town. The result, Rushing Meadow, is a financial success but a tennis disaster, ugly as sin and covered in shadows from early afternoon. It still has no character after 10 years.

Melbourne's tennis centre took longer and cost more, and it was built in the city's central parklands. The result, Flinders Park, is just what we should be doing with our parklands: making them something this city will be proud of for decades to come. For once, we have become the world-beaters.

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