Growing up on Long Island, I spent many a cold January night staying up to watch Australian Open coverage on television. The brightly-colored courts and creative fan costumes certainly have their appeal from afar, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the “Happy Slam” nickname the tournament had acquired over the years: whether it was all hype or something players could truly feel as they moved through the Melbourne Park major.
In search of answers, I sought insight from former world No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova, who never missed the Australian Open in her nearly two decades on tour.
What, I asked the Slovak player-turned-analyst, was so damned happy about the “Happy Slam?”
“Well, it helps that it takes place in the beginning of the year, so everyone is super pumped to be on the court again,” Hantuchova says. “The food is amazing; if you’re trying to eat healthier, Melbourne is the place to be. Everyone in the city is very active. You can get up in the morning and go for a run along the Yarra River, and you end up seeing other players, coaches, and commentators doing the same thing.
“Everything is just very easy," she adds. "Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia, and his entire team works hard to listen to the players and account for their requirements. If it’s in their power, they do their best to accommodate it.”
Roaring into the women’s and mixed doubles finals Down Under back in 2002—winning the latter with Kevin Ullyett—Hantuchova reached the quarterfinals in singles the very next year. But she subsequently struggled for consistency as a young up-start before returning to Rod Laver Arena in 2006 to take on defending champion Serena Williams in the third round.
“I think the most important thing was that it came after one of the best pre-seasons I’d ever had, I was in Cape Town with Nigel [Sears], and it was harder than we’d ever worked before. Flying to Australia, I was feeling really confident.”
Despite losing three previous matches to the future 23-time Grand Slam champion, Hantuchova blitzed through the opening set and channeled the enthused Aussie energy into a stunning 6-1, 7-6(5) upset—one that put her back into the second week of major tournament for the first time in three years.
“I always believed I was capable of beating anyone. Serena, of course, has incredible power and an amazing serve, so she presented an immense challenge for me, but winning or losing, our matches always gave me the most because it showed me what I needed to work on. Every time I had a chance to play against her, I was so grateful.
"It’s one of those days in my career that stayed with me forever.”
Hantuchova immediately built on that result, returning to the Top 10 and making it all the way to the Australian Open semifinals two years later. Though the global pandemic will prevent her from analyzing the action on-site in 2021, the two-time BNP Paribas Open champion looks forward to returning to Australia for her annual dose of “Happy.”
“There’s such a nice vibe about Melbourne. There are so many restaurants; I have great memories from incredible dinners I got to have. It’s just the overall lifestyle during those two weeks. You train well, get up in the mornings, work hard, and eat well, and I would say the entire experience was always amazing.
“No matter how well or badly I played, I always left Australia feeling really happy.”