The land on which Rod Laver Arena is built has long been used for recreational purposes. The western side of what is now referred to as Melbourne Park was known as Flinders Park. For many years Flinders Park was used for sports such as rugby and was sometimes referred to as the 'Circus Site' owing to the area being utilised until 1985 by Ashton's Circus.
The eastern side of Melbourne Park was once part of Yarra Park (now contained to the north side of the railway/Brunton Avenue). The first main playing field was established along with a pavillion in 1868 for the Civil Service Cricket Club. When the club struck serious financial problems it transferred their lease to Scotch College in 1879 for 1000 pounds. When the College moved to Hawthorn and no longer required the field, the occupancy was sold to the Melbourne Cricket Club. However, Old Scotch Collegians Football Club (est 1921) continued to utilise this fenced oval until 1992 when the field was essentially shifted to the current location ('The Oval') adjacent to Rod Laver Arena.
The site of Rod Laver Arena captured in the 1960's. Nothing but open sports fields.
From 1972, the Australian Open was played at the prestigious Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, along with other major tennis events such as the Davis Cup. Whilst Kooyong had its own charm, by the 1980's, it was clear the Australian Open lagged well behind the other Grand Slams in several critical ways, and a more modern facility was required to retain the event in the long term. The Cain Government gave the project and Tennis Australia full support, and the National Tennis Centre Trust was created via Parliament. The venue would also fulfil the government's plans to build a new entertainment facility, for the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre and Kooyong Stadium were burdened by limitations in capacity and amenities.
Having considered several locations, the Victorian Government set aside part of Flinders and Yarra Parks in 1985. The site was ideal - less than 1km from Melbourne’s Central Business District and easily accessible by public transport. The area had been used as amateur playing fields for many years, in fact the Scotch College Oval was established in 1851 when the masters of the new Scotch College had no space to pursue their love of cricket.
The brief from the National Tennis Centre Trust was to provide the State of Victoria with a world-class complex that could operate as a Grand Slam tennis venue and a multi-use entertainment centre. Peddle Thorp Learmonth, a Melbourne-based architectural firm, was engaged to design a multi-purpose venue according to the National Tennis Centre Trust's requirements for both tennis and mass entertainment. Architect Peter Brook was also commissioned to help with the design and project management.
Stage 1 of the $94 million development was completed in 1987. The finished Centre included a 14,820 seat centre court with a 700 tonne retractable roof, match court 1 with a seating capacity of 6,000, match court 2 seating 3,000, 13 outside match courts, 5 indoor practice courts, public concourse, public transport infrastructure and car parking facilities.
A vital design specification was a retractable roof that was reliable, strong and would not rust. The completed roof, its innovative design a world’s first, is formed by two rolling sections, each spanning the court with arched trusses that give the Centre its distinctive image.
The roof moves at 1.3 metres per minute, taking just 20 minutes to open or close. With Melbourne’s often inclement weather, ranging from blustery cold to blistering hot, the roof has proved a godsend for the Australian Open and vital throughout the year as Melbourne's go-to venue for concerts, arena spectaculars and other events.
After an extensive world-wide search and twelve months of intensive testing, the innovative Rebound Ace was chosen as the most appropriate surface for the courts.
Final stages of construction, the roof, and an aerial view from 1988 - note the old Jolimont railway yards at the rear.
The National Tennis Centre was officially opened in 1988, with the first tennis ball hit in January 1988 at the first Australian Open to be held at the venue. Steffi Graf and Mats Wilander became the inaugural singles champions, at a tournament witnessed by 266,436 fans - double the previous year's attendance at Kooyong. The Wilander / Pat Cash final was an epic encounter, still rated as one of the greatest Australian Open finals to date.
Following the tennis, the first concert was performed by AC/DC on 4 February 1988.
Also rocking the arena in the early days was Jeff Fenech, who defended his Featherweight World Title three times over 1988-89. Fenech loved to perform in front of the packed arena, quoted thus;
'It is an unbelievable stadium for boxing. There is just something special about it. There’s no doubt it’s my favourite place. It was an unbelievable feeling in there, the atmosphere was just fantastic, like nowhere else, I just loved it'.
With the increasing use of the venue for concerts and the growth of the Australian Open, the need for expansion became obvious.
Stage 2, a $23 million project that effectively doubled the size of Melbourne Park, was ready for the 1996 Australian Open. Changes to the venue included two new show courts – one seating 3,000 and the other 800, a magnificent function centre that can seat up to 1800, eight additional Rebound Ace match courts, additional car parking for 500 cars, and Garden Square.
Built on the old Jolimont railway yards, Garden Square (below left), the central lawn area on which the public could congregate, relax and watch the huge video screen at the Australian Open, has proved extremely popular.
The first ever National Basketball League game at Melbourne Park was on 3 April 1992 with Melbourne Tigers beating Canberra 112-104. Tigers' new import Lanard Copeland had an immediate impact on his debut with 27 points the 4th quarter - still an NBL record for the final term. Basketball exploded during this time in Melbourne with the two Melbourne Park tenants (South East Melbourne Magic and Tigers) facing off for the 1992 title, as they did again in 1996 and 1997, and at least one Melbourne team featured in every League Grand Final between 1991 and 2000.
A packed stadium of 15,366 watched the Magic and the Tigers in 1996.
In 1999 the Magic become the Victorian Titans, sharing the venue with the Tigers for the next 2 years. The last ever game was played in April 2000 when the Titans lost game one of the Grand Final against Perth. Tony Ronaldson played at Melbourne Park a record 163 times and the best ever scoring performance was by Townsville player Ricky Jones who posted 53 points against the Magic in 1993. Rod Laver Arena hosted 287 NBL games including NBL Championship deciders in 1992, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
The Melbourne Tigers at RLA and NBA legend Magic Johnson in 1995.
Rod Laver Arena - a dynamic arena of world renown
Variously known as 'Flinders Park', the 'National Tennis Centre' or 'Centre Court', the venue was renamed Rod Laver Arena on 16 January 2000, in recognition of Rod Laver's remarkable tennis career that saw him achieve the Grand Slam twice and cement himself as Australia's and one of the world's greatest ever male tennis champions.
In terms of sport, tennis brought worldwide recognition for the venue. The Australian Open, one of only four annual Grand Slam Tournaments, has been held every year at Melbourne Park since 1988. And aside from the Australian Open, Rod Laver Arena was the scene for Australia's last Davis Cup triumph in 2003, when the Aussies took advantage of the drop-in grass court to defeat Spain (below left)
As well as the tennis facilities and entertainment venues, Melbourne Park also houses administration offices for Melbourne & Olympic Parks, Tennis Australia and the Australian Open.
Rod Laver Arena's remarkable versatility has been evidenced in the amazing array of events over the years - from rodeos and dirt bike demonstrations, gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, family shows, memorials, concerts and of course, the tennis.
The 2005 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships (below middle) was followed by another major moment in the venue's history - hosting the gymnastic competitions of the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Meanwhile, one of the most memorable and technically outstanding transformations was the FINA World Swimming Championships in 2007 (below right).
Where stars shine brighter
Facilitated by consumate performer Justin Timberlake's 'in-the-round' stage mode, the record crowd for Rod Laver Arena is 16,183 for the female heart-throb's concert on 18 November 2007.
At this time the courts were being resurfaced prior to the 2008 Australian Open, the blue Plexicushion surface giving Melbourne Park a fresh new look. This coincided with a spike in attendances (just over 600,000), which has continued to grow with a record 686,006 attending the 2012 tournament. The 2013 event fell marginally short of the tournament record, however did record the Grand Slam one day record of 80,735 for the 6th day.
Concert events have defied the global financial downturn of recent times. Underpinned by P!nk's record breaking 17 show Funhouse Tour in 2009, Rod Laver Arena was the 3rd highest grossing concert venue in the world. Behind only Madison Square Garden (New York) and O2 Arena (London), 770,000 attended 84 concerts in 2009. In 2010, RLA maintained its world ranking of 6th for concert ticket sales with a total of 655,785 (a bumper December line-up contributing almost a quarter of that figure). In terms of gross sales, RLA dropped just one place in 2010 (4th in the world) but returned to the top 3 in 2011.
In total, over 1 million people visit Rod Laver Arena each year to view the Australian Open, and attend functions and concerts. The facilities are maintained at world class standards, giving Australian and overseas visitors exciting entertainment options in a safe and comfortable environment.
Thanks to Mark Slocombe for information relating to basketball and Geoff McCracken ('Early Days' history)