How do you sell out a tournament that doesn’t exist?
It takes a little imagination and a big heart belonging to a guy named Federer. So the Australian Open which hadn’t opened its doors was nevertheless overflowing Sunday with thousands of witnesses to a non-event.
Maybe you could call it Opengate, or a sudden Love-Haiti rush. Whatever the definition, 15,000 seat Rod Laver Arena was packed by people with a sport called tennis and a life-and-death tragedy called Haiti on their minds.
Could tennis help out? Might there be a pinch of feel-good in a gigantic feel-bad situation? Roger Federer hoped so. Federer, the best player on this catastrophic planet, “watched the devastation on TV all week and on Saturday morning, wondered what we [his colleagues] could do about it. Could we raise some [relief] money somehow? Play an exhibition?”
He started making phone calls, to the tournament boss, Craig Tiley, and other players including his chief rival, No. 2 Rafa Nadal, the champ, to get their reactions to playing an exhibition of some sort on Sunday. Trying to raise some money. They were all for it.
“It was unlikely,” smiles Tiley, who happily saw the unlikely come to pass as his management team pulled together a stunning victory – the biggest win of a two-week major championship that would not begin until Monday.
Tiley grins, “It was delightful. That’s the word for it. The first Sunday is always an empty day for practice and rest. The security force is pared way down. No spectators admitted. But in less than 24 hours our team was able to get everything back in place. And Roger got the players.
Millions of dollars of talent on the hoof gave their time: the two defending champions: Serena and Nadal, plus Kim Clijsters, Novak Djokovic, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Samantha Stosur and Federer himself. All other than Stosur hold major titles. They blended in a patchwork of dynamite shotmaking and good-humored slapstick – a rare unplanned show.
“What to charge?” Tiley wondered. “We settled on a ten-dollar donation, kids free. Not hard. Fifteen-thousand people – $ 150,000 right there. Maria Sharapova didn’t play, but gave $ 10,000. Then there were a few thousand people at our Garden Square, watching it on TV. We passed the cup.”
He shakes his head. “Where did they come from on such short notice? We tried to get the word around on TV and radio Saturday night, and I guess it got around. We probably could have used 15,000 more seats. There will also be donations from the ATP, WTA and the other Grand Slam nations. We won’t know right away how much we collected. But I think it bodes well for the tournament because of the spirit it raises.”
A year ago Tiley was troubled by fights involving immigrant groups who brought their Balkan feuding to Melbourne Park. That meant a need for greater security.
But today a warmth of feeling flowed through the 22-year-old ball park – and the tournament wasn’t even alive yet.
Blame the Swiss guy, Federer, whose thought soared like an Alp. Roger has won the Aussie three times (2004, 06-07), and may do it again. But nothing he does with a racket will top the shot he launched in the direction of a distant decimated Caribbean isle.