The former home of Australian tennis – Kooyong in inner Melbourne – is being taken back to its original form, with demolition work now well under way.
The horseshoe-shaped arena is being stripped back to the low-line level of the early 1930s, removing upper echelons added in the 1950s.
Unlike the razing of the Sydney Football Stadium and major re-design of Sydney Olympic Park, Kooyong’s redevelopment acknowledges and celebrates its storied history.
Billed as “the spiritual home of tennis in Australia”, Kooyong is the nation’s most original major sports stadium.
Although pre-dated by the MCG, SCG and Adelaide Oval, for example, it retains more of the original structures than our most revered stadia.
Kooyong’s upper stands are being removed as part of an $18 million upgrade of the private tennis club’s facilities.
Built in 1926 and upgraded in 1934, Kooyong hosted 28 Australian Opens – the most before Melbourne Park took over in 1988.
Kooyong was the permanent AO venue from 1972 to 1987, as well as the post-World War II venue of choice for Davis Cup finals.
To make more space for car parking for club members, Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club has won council approval to demolish the upper western and southern stands.
They were added in the 1950s to cope with big crowds for Australia v USA Davis Cup finals.
That legacy lasted into the 1980s, culminating in Australia’s upset Davis Cup triumphs over then-superpower Sweden in 1983 and ’86.
The Australian Open at Kooyong was played on grass before its switch to a cushioned hard surface at Melbourne Park in 1988.
Demolition is expected to be completed by the middle of next month.
Only the northern upper four tiers, added in 1934, will remain.
Stripping the historic stadium back to its early form won’t affect the Kooyong Classic, which will continue as an exhibition tournament warm-up for the Australian Open.
The centre court will retain the Plexicushion hard court surface that replaced the Australian Open’s Rebound Ace cushioned surface in 2008, continuing the Kooyong Classic’s star-attracting alignment.
Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club has very limited room to move for its expansion, bordered by a train line, a main road and a waterway, hence the decision to pare back the 93-year-old edifice.
Completely demolishing the stadium would have been convenient, but the club recognises the historic value of the site, which was subject to a heritage overlay.
Until 1972, Kooyong shared the Australian Open alternately with White City in Sydney, Milton in Brisbane and Memorial Drive in Adelaide.
All have ceased as major tournament venues, with Milton and Memorial Drive modified beyond recognition, and White City in decay.
Kooyong’s tennis history is storied, which is why its survival is important.
It hosted 28 Australian Opens – second only to Melbourne Park’s 32.
Unfortunately, neither of Aussie legend Rod Laver’s record two Grand Slam sweeps of the world’s four major tournaments included Kooyong.
Laver’s first Slam in 1962 started with the amateur-only Australian Championships – in the pre-1968 professional era – at White City in Sydney.
‘Rocket Rod’ became the first and only men’s player to capture two Grand Slams in 1969 (Don Budge achieved it in 1938), when the Australian Open was played at Milton in Brisbane.
But American Maureen Connolly won the first leg of her 1953 Grand Slam at Kooyong, while Margaret Court (1970 – White City) and Steffi Graf (1988 – Melbourne Park) achieved the feat at other venues.
Kooyong’s grass centre court was famously slightly domed, making it difficult for shorter players to judge the limit of the service court at the opposite end.
Kooyong also hosted seven Davis Cup finals from 1946 to 1986, plus the women’s Federation Cup final in 1965 and 1978, as well as the men’s Masters final in 1974.
Australia won the Davis Cup at Kooyong on every occasion except 1946 against the USA.
Victories over Sweden in 1983 and 1986 were boilovers, upsetting the reigning superpower led by Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg.
The latter victory, anchored by a precocious Pat Cash, preceded his five-set defeat by Edberg in the epic 1987 final that ended the Kooyong era.
The last local victories in Australian Open singles titles were at Kooyong.
In 1976, journeyman Mark Edmondson triumphed over fading legend John Newcombe, and in 1978, Chris O’Neil upset American Betsy Nagelsen.
According to KLTC president Peter Carew, the club had to fight to gain council approval for the stadium’s partial demolition.
“It was subject to a heritage overlay,” Carew said.
“In fact, the council was opposed to it being taken down. So I spoke with all the councillors and made personal submissions to all of them, and ultimately they agreed.”
Carew pointed out that the iconic stadium no longer needed to accommodate more than 8500 for the Kooyong Classic, much less the 15,000 that attended in its heyday.
“For three or four days of the year, economically, it just didn’t make sense.” he said.
Carew pointed out that stage two of KLTC’s redevelopment was an extended clubhouse with enhanced corporately hospitality viewing of the lowered southern vista of the centre court, along with an upgrade of the stadium’s uncomfortable seating.
“The jewel in the crown is going to be to have a function area that looks both at the grass courts and into the stadium,” he said. “I think that will be a really very special space in time in the hearts of many.”
Carew said the demolition was environmentally friendly.
“All of the concrete is being recycled,” he said.
“It’s going to be used again, which is kind of delightful.
“Nothing will change internally. The lower concentric ring and the pillars on the Scotch (College north) side will remain.
Nothing’s being done internally at this stage. That’s for another time.”
KLTC wants to keep the Kooyong Classic going despite the Tennis Australia-backed inaugural ATP Cup, a 24-nation teams event replacing the traditional Australian Open lead-up tournaments in Perth, Sydney and Brisbane.
“Absolutely, that’s our intention,” Carew said. “We’re still working with the television stations and the sponsors to arrange it.
“This year we didn’t have any sponsor – no naming rights. We’re in the process of doing that. And the reason why we didn’t have a naming rights sponsor this year was because of the change of broadcasting rights for TA (from Seven to Nine).
“We fit in beautifully because we’re in the week before the Australian Open. I actually think it will become more and more popular.”
Kooyong looms large in the history of Tennis Australia. But the governing body is apparently lukewarm about preserving a pillar of its history.
“They don’t have a view one way or the other.” Carew said.
The modification of the Kooyong stadium is in stark contrast to the destruction of the relativity modern SFS and the expensive overhaul of the Sydney Olympic Stadium.
The MCG, SCG and Adelaide Oval have all been updated without destroying their intrinsic appeal.
Kooyong’s significance is that the green concrete bowl hosted many of Australia’s biggest international sports successes of the 20th century.
It also hosted sell-out concerts in the 1970s and ’80s featuring Elton John, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and David Bowie.
Historically, its preservation is as important as keeping iconic football/cricket and Olympic/Commonwealth Games stadia as monuments to our great sporting heritage.
Mark Fogarty was a prominent tennis writer and broadcaster in the 1980s and early ’90s. He is now editor of Auto Action, Australia’s pre-eminent motor racing publication