Serving up a grand plan to help Australians win the slam

IT MIGHT not help Samantha Stosur shake that expectation this year, but the redevelopment of Melbourne's tennis precinct could be just the thing to help an Australian win our grand slam tournament in the not-too-distant future.

The state-of-the-art National Tennis Centre is the centrepiece of new facilities that will be on show to the public during this year's Australian Open and was built unashamedly to help this country regain its standing in a sport it used to dominate.

The centre, which features eight indoor and 13 outdoor courts, cameras on every court and video analysis facilities, is an academy to Australia's brightest tennis prospects and their coaches, giving them a training base unmatched in the world. Nothing has been left to chance: eight courts feature clay imported from Italy that will give young players an idea of what to expect on the European circuit, while an indoor sprint track in the gym comprises different hardcourt surfaces.

That is the future. For now the centre is a practice environment for the world's best players, who on Monday focus in on trying to win the first grand slam of the year.

The redevelopment works also comprise plenty for the public. A public plaza linking the National Tennis Centre to Hisense Arena will give fans a bird's-eye view of players as they practise, while the oval between Hisense Arena and Rod Laver Arena has been enhanced as a public area.

The works - which also include a footbridge that runs over Olympic Boulevard that has been named after Edwin Flack, Australia's first Olympian and both a champion athlete and tennis player; more car parking, a massive water tank underneath the oval and more seating on one of the outdoor courts - represent the

first stage of the long-term redevelopment of Melbourne Park.

Stage one cost $366 million, most of it from the state government, but will ensure the Open stays in Melbourne until 2036. Future works, which include a roof over Margaret Court Arena and a lightweight roof over the public areas will follow over the next eight years.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, also the director of tennis at Tennis Australia, said the works, which began less than two years ago, had made Melbourne Park the biggest of the major tennis precincts, and arguably the best for visitors. Expected heat aside, there is every incentive for the world's best players to be in Melbourne.

''They are hopefully going to be very happy. We've raised the overall prizemoney to $30 million and now with all of this, we believe nothing in the world compares to it,'' Tiley said.

''This has taken it all to another level. I don't think anything matches this from what I've seen.''

So now it's up to the players. No Australian has won their home major since Chris O'Neil won the women's title in 1978, and the sport has in recent times experienced a decline in participation among children.

At least those at the top cannot claim they don't get the support.

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