When you find yourself at the Melbourne-Tullamarine airport glaring into the summer sunshine after what was most likely 24 hours on a cramped plane, you’ll be relieved to know that getting to Rod Laver Arena is really easy. If you don’t want to Uber or take a cab, just get on the SkyBus. It’ll cost you 18 Australian dollars and it operates 24/7 from three airport terminals. In just 30 minutes the SkyBus gets you to Southern Cross Station in the very heart of Melbourne’s city center. Take a moment to walk around before hopping on a tram to Melbourne Park. The city is filled with great food options and there’s an obsession with Nutella, evident at nearly every corner shop (you’ll spot Nutella donuts, burgers, milk shakes and more).
Getting around Melbourne is incredibly simple. There are free trams within the city center, and the (also free) Route 70 or 70a will take you right up to Melbourne Park’s front door. If you’re feeling more adventurous on an off day from the action, take the Route 35 (City Circle) heritage tram for a historic tour of the city, or make a reservation on the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, which is just what it sounds like: great food on a great route.
The Australian Open Festival
Since 2016, the Australian Open Festival set up just a few steps outside Melbourne Park in Biarrarung Marr. Operating for all 14 days of the tournament, here you’ll find fun activities for children in the Nickelodeon playground (complete with bouncy castles and slip-n-slides), a bunch of food and drink options, people picnicking along the river, mini-tennis courts set up for games and competitions, and a huge, grassy slope with cozy bean-bag chairs set up in front of a massive big-screen TV showing the tournament. Best of all, it’s open to the public for free.
It should come as no surprise that the “Happy Slam” takes the fan experience very seriously. There’s free public wifi all over the grounds, and the connection is perfect from anywhere. In 2015, more than 77,000 devices connected to the public wifi, and the official Australian Open app was downloaded 1,199,509 times. If you’re low on battery, you’ll find charging stations scattered around Melbourne Park.
Garden Square is filled with drinking and dining options, but it’s the Heineken Beer Garden and Live Stage where you’ll find the best atmosphere. The tournament organizers designed it like a music festival and filled the stage with phenomenal rising talent (on Australia Day last year, The Rubens performed and won the Hottest 100 countdown, and this year's talent includes Peking Duk and Jimmy Eat World). Fans set up camp on the folding chairs lined up in front of the big screen, or at the picnic tables scattered on the grass. Some fans purchase grounds passes just to hang out here, a testament to how great the festive vibe is.
The first Grand Slam of the season has done a lot to set itself apart. All three of its stadiums are equipped with retractable roofs, and Margaret Court Arena boasts the fastest roof in the world (taking just five minutes to close). Both Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena have new digital walls wrapping around the court with alternating ads (it’s the first major to roll out such a feature). The National Training Center opened in January 2013 with eight indoor and five outdoor courts, and eight red clay courts for more practice options for the players. Bright, blue Plexicushion appeared in 2008 to replace the Rebound Ace, and more shading was put in on the outside courts two years ago.
For years, the Australian Open has been known for its brutally hot conditions. Last year, the temperature was more akin to a cool, spring day, averaging around the 60’s and low 70’s (although here the locals speak in Celsius). This week started with some scorching temperatures, but dropped off quickly. There’s always a chance of sudden thunderstorms that can disrupt play on the outside courts and leave you drenched in less than a minute. At the end of the day, the weather is a refreshing change from other parts of the world buried in snow.
If you stick around the stadiums long enough you’ll notice the birds. Pesky sparrows like to test their luck flying low to the court and seagulls often just settle in on top of the roof like they own the place. A flock of them appeared for the 2016 women’s final when Serena Williams was down 2-5 to Angelique Kerber, and the screeching is distracting for everyone, let alone players fighting for championships. If you look closely at night you’ll even spot a few bats. To deal with the pest problem, the Australian Open brought in a Wedge-tailed eagle named Oorik.
While you won’t see koalas and kangaroos hanging out in the city, you can still get your fuzzy fix with a bit of effort. There’s the nearby Melbourne Zoo, but go early because the Eucalyptus-leaf munchers take their longest naps in the afternoon. The best place to get up close to the wildlife is at the Healesville Sanctuary (about an hour outside of Melbourne) or on a day tour to Phillip Island. Healesville brings in kangaroos and koalas for the players to cuddle with so that explains how they end up with so many animal selfies.
If you want something more local, just head to St. Kilda (it’s just 15 minutes away from the city center by tram). St. Kilda is a famous harbor known for its beaches, nightlife and dining, but a hidden gem is the wild mini penguins. Every night without fault the Fairy penguins appear on the rocks along the end of the pier, and it’s nothing short of magical.
Melbourne has got a lot of charm and a lot of quirks. With the trams and water views it feels a little like San Francisco, but once you hear the locals speak you’ll remember where you are. Jaywalking is illegal here, despite the urge to stroll across the streets whenever it seems safe. Seat belts are enforced even in the back seats, even in taxis. Smoking is allowed in Melbourne Park but not in any covered areas or inside stadiums. You’ll hear people refer to the Australian Open as “the tennis,” which sounds a bit pompous at first. But Melbourne embraces the Australian Open with open arms. You’ll see ads supporting it all over the city, restaurant TV’s tuned into the tournament at all times, radio stations screeching about upcoming matches and people chatting about it everywhere.
The main takeaway is that you've got nothing to lose, and everything to gain by going to Melbourne, so start planning for 2018 right now.