READY, SET. . . : Before the Australian Open Gets Going, the Players and Organizers Make Their Last-Minute Adjustments

Welcome to summer at Flinders Park, the home of the Australian Open Tennis Championships. In the next 2 weeks, the world’s best players will try to finish on top Down Under in the first Grand Slam event of 1989.

The day before the first round, electricity is in the air. Players are bustling about, making last-minute adjustments.

Some of the sights:

--Hovering over the practice desk, Yannick Noah seeks a vacant spot on the heavily booked practice sheet. Practice time is in demand as many of the 252 participants try to relieve pre-tournament jitters.


--Four persons share a court for 45 minutes during the practice, so Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina makes a mad dash for her court to avoid the risk of being late.

--At the draw sheet, Soviet players nervously scan for their name and their first-round opponents.

--Kerry Anne Guse, a 16-year-old wild-card entry, wanders in disbelief after being told she will face top-seeded Steffi Graf of West Germany in the first round.

--A subdued Stefan Edberg politely stops to sign autographs before heading for the locker room.

--Coach Tony Roche is on the the sidelines offering last-minute advice to Ivan Lendl.

--Electricians are high over the stadium for a final check on the retractable roof, a feature that would serve Wimbledon well.

The season’s first Grand Slam is ready to begin, and its status has risen dramatically in the past few years.

Once, it was difficult to attract overseas players here.

The prize money was small, the fast Melbourne grass was unfavorable to many competitors, and a 24-hour flight was burdensome for players who wanted to be closer to their families during the Christmas holiday.

An increase in prize money, a new site and new dates have turned the tournament into a Grand Slam comparable to its counterparts--the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The $2,400,000 in prize money makes the long trip worthwhile.

In 1978, the U.S. Open relocated from the old site of Forest Hills, N.Y., to Flushing Meadows.

In 1988, this tournament made a similar type of move. It left the elite Kooyong Tennis Club for the $70-million facility near the heart of Melbourne. It may be one of the world’s great tennis centers--at least the players think so.

Rain is no longer a concern here. Graf’s final against Chris Evert last year was delayed by rain with the score, 6-1, 2-1, then was continued under the retractable roof. The closing of the roof may have been more exciting than the final as fans sat in the rain to watch the gap of dark sky disappear in 23 minutes.

The lights came on, the water was mopped off the court, and the match became the first Grand Slam final played indoors.

In the 20 years of playing, I never thought I’d find myself competing on melted rubber tires. Sounds like something from a run-down neighborhood park, but it is the official surface here. And this innovation, called Rebound Ace, was applauded by the players last year.

You would have expected some flaws when running an event at a new complex, but last year’s tournament went smoothly. I never heard a player complain and a lot of them now prefer to compete here than anywhere else outside of England and the United States.

Mats Wilander and Edberg, the two who have dominated the Australian Championships in the last 5 years, think so.

Wilander, a three-time Australian Open winner and defending champion, is the odds-on favorite. Wilander, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, will be hard put to upstage a brilliant 1988 season.

Boris Becker may have the best chance of unseating Wilander. Becker has been playing well lately. He won the Masters tournament to end last season, and led West Germany to a Davis Cup victory over Sweden in December. Becker has been working with Australian coach Bob Brett for the past few weeks.

Lendl also arrived early this year. He has prepared intensely in the seclusion of Roche’s resort outside of Sydney, and views this tournament as his first step toward recapturing the No. 1-ranking he lost to Wilander.

“If if did not expect to win, I would not have come down here,” Lendl said.

Don’t be too surprised by Australia’s Darren Cahill, Mark Woodforde and Jason Stolenberg, who played well at the U.S. Open last year. If they can withstand the publicity of playing at home, they could revive Australia’s strong tennis tradition of the John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall era.

The Australian leader, however, is 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who is coming off a 4-month layoff from injury. He lost last year’s final to Wilander. Although he has a much-improved serve, he may lack the match practice needed to challenge here.

Then again, perhaps the Americans will shine the way the Australians did in last year’s U.S. Open.

The Flinders Park surface will certainly favor some of the hard-hitting Americans such as Aaron Krickstein and Pete Sampras.

From first-hand experience, I also cannot overlook the possibility of young up-and-comers who could possibly gain a major upset. A few years ago, I played a 14-year-old West German, ranked No. 180 at the time, in a qualifying match at Australia. I lost, 7-6, 6-4, and left the court infuriated, depressed and disappointed that I could lose to an unknown player 9 years my junior.

Later, Steffi Graf would emerge from the shadows of obscurity to achieve her current status as the world’s No. 1 player.

Today, I would be elated with such a close match.

So, although it is not easy to predict the men’s winner, Graf appears to be the overwhelming women’s favorite.

Graf, who won the four Grand Slam tournaments and an Olympic gold medal last year, has been so dominant that the real question perhaps is who will reach the final against her.

Sabatini, who could become the world’s No. 2 player, has proven she is not intimidated by Graf. Sabatini and Graf potentially will meet in the semifinals.

Martina Navratilova also is back this year. I can’t forget last year’s second-round match in which she defeated me on court No. 1. I was unintimidated before walking onto the court, but that feeling soon dwindled after finding Martina a few times stronger and faster than I had anticipated.

But now the tournament is about to begin, and anticipation is high. They all want to be the man and the woman who will raise the coveted trophies in the end.