Ili Baré’s Riveting Documentary Australia’s Open Explores Politics and Patriotism on the Tennis Court

As witnessed in August 2023 where 11.15 million Australian-based viewers tuned in to watch the Matildas compete in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, little unites the country more than a global sporting event where the nation’s pride is on the line. It’s with sports of all codes that Australian culture is truly defined: where a national level of adoration, dedication, and some cases, addiction reflects a sense of ‘mateship’ that has typified what it means to be ‘Australian’. Naturally, that skewed version of equality is not one that is reflected outside of the sporting arena where issues of gender and racial inequality, amongst other societal divisions, are a foundational aspect of day-to-day life.

It’s within Ili Baré’s riveting documentary Australia’s Open that our national obsession with sport is examined, exposing the best and the absolute worst of what Australian culture is capable of. Baré, alongside writers Chelsea Watego and George Megalogenis, delves into the history of the Australian Open – one of the world’s four tennis Grand Slam events (with the others taking place in Paris, London, and New York), in a detailed and exhaustive manner. Via such they ultimately answer the question of just why there is such a strong national interest in sports. As noted by journalist Tracey Holmes, “Sport is our […] national love language.”

Australia not just a tennis nation: we’re also a football nation (AFL or otherwise), a rugby nation, a cricket nation, a netball nation, and then, every four years or so, we turn into fanatical, know-it-all diehards for swimming, canoeing, skiing, basketball, and all other manner of competitive sports when it comes to the Olympics. Collectively these sports help create our moment in the global spotlight. While Australia has rivalries in cricket (England being the natural adversary) or rugby (our friends in New Zealand being our greatest foes there), there’s a truly international vibe that comes with tennis, making each opposing nation a genuine foe to conquer.

Australia’s Open shows the origins of when the competition was formally located in Kooyong, Victoria, after the event had previously annually toured around the nation’s capital cities. At that stage, the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club’s courts existed with an uneven mess of grass, leading players like John McEnroe to rage about the quality of the venue after slipping on the patchy turf. This suburban court was simply not of the standard that was expected for an international event, with a level of audience attendance that could simply be described as ‘apathetic.’

It’s frequently made clear throughout the film that Australia’s ‘tender’ of the Open is not an ongoing guarantee, with the events of the seventies highlighting that a change needed to take place to ensure that Australia was able to retain the event. This notion helped inform state government decisions that ushered in the construction of Melbourne Park, a sports venue that is a generous overarm serve away from the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and since 1988 it has become the home of tennis in Australia.

That search for an identity within the sport of tennis lead the Australian Open to transform into becoming the ‘anti-Wimbledon’ event. In a montage that you can smell the sweaty summer air amidst the aroma of a freshly cracked can of beer, we see a catalogue of white blokes with suntans and women in bikinis, mixed in with the bicentenary 1988 nationalistic celebrations, all the while Greg Norman bleats on about how America ought to come and visit Australia. With a touch of eighties larrikinism that is straight out of Paul Hogan’s handbook, replete with the obnoxious strine tone of his voice uttering ‘fair dinkum’, we’re informed about just how distinctly Australian the sporting event would become. The 1988 colonial bicentennial celebrations, alongside the spotlight on the sport, gave Australia the chance to put itself on the map as a tourist destination and as a sporting powerhouse while also attempting to pivot itself as being an equal to the major nations like America or England. In this moment, we get to see just how Australia wants to present itself: a land of sun, relaxation, fun, and mateship.

The reality is that eighties Australia was more akin to Leisure Island from Pinocchio than the idealistic beach resort that has been presented in tourism ads over the years. We witness this in moments of obliviousness where Aussie crowds yell abuse, support, and condemnation amidst a chorus of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi” chants, all the while cameras beam the footage of the behaviour that author Geoff Dwyer calls “boorish and moronic” around the globe. It’s a form of support that continues to this day, as Nick Kyrgios comments, “I don’t know what I’ve done to this crowd because you guys are like a zoo right now, it’s out of control,” after a smashing set where the spectators whinny like horses during a match, rather than respecting the etiquette of the sport. Equally so, when players talk about being booed only to be met with more boos, it doesn’t help with the sense of pride for the sport or endear players to come here. It is something akin to football hooliganism in a supposedly genteel sport.

Additionally, by making the Australian Open a global event, that also meant that Aussie players were less likely to win at home. Pat Cash reflects on the pressure of being an Aussie and playing at home after having triumphed at Wimbledon. The crowd sighing after he loses a set becomes a mental weight that he needed to shift his point of view on; a reality that becomes even more difficult when the stadium is full of a sea of green and gold, with a banner held high saying “We’re PATriotic Aussies,” hinting at the nationalistic fervour that would come in the subsequent years. The media equally probes and pushes into his personal life, forcing Cash to demand privacy. Cash responds to the extremely personal manner that Australians consider the sports folk we follow by saying, “They’re not representing your country. They’re individuals.”

Australians would love to think that we could keep sports and politics separate, but the reality is that it’s through major events like a tennis match that our politics and our national identity are given the clearest space to be exposed on an international level. In this regard, the Australian Open is a perfect avenue for Baré to explore just what makes us Australian. While we carry a sense of pride for our sports people, our prejudices as a nation are exposed, as shown in an archival clip where Evonne Goolagong Cawley is asked overseas, “How much do you really feel that you are Aboriginal?” to which she responds “Only when I’m overseas do I think about what sort of race I am, because I know I’m the only Aboriginal overseas playing tennis. And you feel really great about it to know that you’re the only real Australian that’s there.” Commentator Shelly Ware, a Yankunytjatjara and Wirangu woman, talks about how the story of Evonne’s success was shared by her father over the years before outlining the impact of colonisation on Australia.

This naturally leads into the discussion about the Margaret Court Arena, and whether (or rather, when) it will be named after Evonne. On paper, Court is clearly a force to be reckoned with having won twenty-four Grand Slam tournaments which lead her to be considered one of the greatest tennis players ever. With that knowledge, it’s possible to sustain a level of respect for her as an athlete, as doubles champion Rennae Stubbs once did, however it’s when Court’s homophobic rhetoric and criticism of lesbianism is given airtime that we’re forced to ask that if its within sports that we define our national identity, then how do we reconcile with having Margaret Court as such a pivotal figure?

In 2017 Australia held a plebiscite to question whether marriage equality should be made legal, and during that noxious national debate, commentators both domestically and internationally questioned whether we could separate the sport from the views of the player. The clear answer is no, you cannot. With Baré’s immense catalogue of footage from across the decades, it becomes clear that over the years Tennis Australia would love nothing more than to have the ability to neatly split the politics and players fractious rhetoric from the sport itself. After all, the result of a sporting match is a quantifiable thing where you can point at a result and tangibly say that this person is better than that person, whereas politics is so deeply personal and informed by life experience and world views that you simply cannot compare the two, no matter how deeply entwined they may be. The more that issues arise from the players actions or views, the more you feel Tennis Australia struggling to push against their actions and maintain the notion of a civil sport. The diplomacy that’s required to run a tournament must be acknowledged, but also, the manner that Tennis Australia handles itself equally deserves questioning.

The debacle of Novak Djokovic’s vaccination exemption during the height of a locked down Melbourne is a prime example of the welcome scrutiny they deserve. In the lead up to the 2022 Australian Open, Djokovic had been granted a visa to enter Australia by Tennis Australia and the Department of Health in Victoria based on a medical exemption. A grand debacle unfurled as Djokovic’s visa was cancelled by the Australian Border Force mid-flight, who determined that he did not meet the entry requirements as an unvaccinated traveller. This was a period where Australia endured the tenure of sports mad prime minister (Scott Morrison) who also had a penchant for demonising refugees, creating a perfect blend of politics and sport.  

Djokovic was shuffled into a Melbourne hotel where he and his team quickly engaged in a court case to try and get the decision overturned. As the world watched on, Djokovic’s story unexpectedly shone a light on Australia’s cruel treatment of refugees, many of whom were trapped in the same hotel that he was and had been for years on end awaiting a decision for their future. As the CEO of Tennis Australia, Craig Tiley, explains, the sport, and by association, the Australian Open, was grappling with the genuine fear that due to the pandemic the future of tennis in Australia would be in jeopardy, with the media spotlight on Djokovic causing further stress for the organisation.

Admittedly, it’s a little hard to feel sympathy for Tennis Australia, given the accommodations that they received during the pandemic with tennis players being considered ‘essential workers.’ Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews comments about the economy relying on the event also carry an air of questionability. Tennis Australia clearly wanted to ‘both sides’ the situation, but by allowing an extremely talented player like Djokovic to participate in the tournament because of his bona fides, even though he was clearly unvaccinated and wished to flout the rules put in place due to the pandemic, they stumbled once again.

Throughout Australia’s Open we see this commonality take place with Tennis Australia seeking to celebrate a player’s abilities while choosing to ignore their sociopolitical beliefs or actions. However, it is the players, and not the organisation, who answer the question of ‘what does equality look like?’ It’s Dylan Alcott, blitzing the sport and being aired on national TV to a captive audience. It’s seeing two Black sisters – Venus and Serena Williams – dominate the predominantly white sport, playing off against one another in a match for the ages.

It’s Ash Barty triumphing in a match that united a nation. Yet, even with a crowd adorned in yellow Barty-mite tops, and having an Indigenous woman win the Australian Open, it doesn’t mean that the issue of inequality has finally been solved, it just highlights how much more needs to be done to support Indigenous folk here and abroad. Renaming a sports arena after another legend would be a start.

While the sport has become a public arena for politics to play out, the court itself has become a literal melting pot as the impact of global warming sees players attempting to compete in 39-degree Celsius matches, where the temperature of the surface of the court can reach over 60-degrees Celsius. Footage of players attempting to compete with toxic air quality due to the bushfires of 2019-2020 further raises the question of just how sustainable the sport truly is going forward when player and crowd safety is not a guarantee.

With these many competing and conflicting themes it’s impressive that Australia’s Open never feels overwhelming or as if any of the topics have been skimmed over. Ili Baré and editor Alex Archer masterfully ease the audience from one subject to the next, following a mostly linear timeline, with the film reaching a natural and thrilling conclusion with the 2022 Open which includes Ash Barty’s monumental win. The archival sporting cinematography frequently sways into a level of artistry that many filmmakers would yearn for and when paired with Chiara Costanza’s pulsing score, it creates a tangible excitement that reminds why on a purely visceral level we’re addicted to watching sporting events. Baré equally knows when to pull back Costanza’s score, letting the silence of the crowd during a match give way to the amplification of the players vocal expressions, ultimately creating a Zen-like experience.    

When it comes to the question of the Australian identity as presented through sports, Baré is cautious to never call attention to the way that Australia has shifted as a society over the decades, all the while structural aspects, such as gender and racial inequality have barely shifted at all. Again, sport is, theoretically, the great equaliser, where the one versus one opposition formed by the pure skill and ultimate stamina of the players puts people on a level ground; but while women are cheered on for ‘representing Australia’ on a soccer field or a tennis court, they’re still routinely disadvantaged elsewhere, especially in relation to pay and the prize money for winning.

As with Baré’s previous film The Leadership, the documentary format is used to explore the foundations and machinations of society. To paraphrase one commentator, the Australian Open became ‘almost like a person in itself,’ and it’s in this notion of personification that Australia’s Open truly shines, as Baré treats the narrative of tennis as less of an examination of the sport, and more of an exploration of the personality of the event. For those who are sports-agnostic, or even atheistic to the point that you like to throw the term ‘sportsball’ around as a pejorative statement, then rest assured that Australia’s Open is a genuinely compelling and riveting experience that engages on a level grander than the mere spectacle of the sport itself.  

Director: Ili Baré

Featured Subjects: Pat Cash, Tracey Holmes, Rennae Stubbs

Writers: Chelsea Watego, George Megalogenis

Producers: Charlotte Wheaton, Nick Batzias

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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