For all the past Australian Open women’s champions who have become part of the tennis lexicon – Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King, Margaret Smith Court – there is one name that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.
In fact, when Australian officials held a ceremony to honor past champions a few years ago, someone forgot to invite 1979 titlist Barbara Jordan. She didn’t find out about the slight until much later, but now finds the whole thing kind of funny.
Jordan may be one of the most unlikely of Grand Slam champions in history, but 30 years after her 6-3, 6-3 defeat of fellow American Sharon Walsh, the former Australian Open champion still savors the biggest title of her career.
“Back then the tournament was held right around Christmas, so most of the Americans went home and didn’t play,” says Jordan, now 51 and an attorney for the city of San Jose, California.
Jordan, a three-time All-American at Stanford, joined the circuit after finishing college in 1979, when the Australian Open was the fourth and final major on the yearly calendar.
“It was my first full season as a pro and I had lost first round at the French and Wimbledon before I finally got to the third round at the U.S. Open,” she said of her year leading into Melbourne. “It didn’t feel so bad to be so far away for the holidays, especially because back then we housed with families. So I wasn’t alone for Christmas dinner.”
It’s hard to imagine that the Australian Open, which today draws all the world’s top players and hundreds of thousands of fans, was once the forgotten stepchild of the Grand Slam season. But after unheralded Australian Chris O’Neil won the tournament in 1978, Jordan felt she had reason for optimism, even given her low (No. 68) ranking.
After upsetting second-seeded Hana Mandlikova (an eventual two-time champion) in the quarterfinals and another Czech, third-seeded Renata Tomanova, in the semis, Jordan ousted Walsh, the fourth seed, for the championship. Her win made her the only American to win the Australian Open women’s title during the 1970s, though she was hardly a tennis celebrity going into the final.
“I remember they had different locker rooms and they put the big stars in one and I was put in the crummy one,” Jordan says with a laugh. “But I also remember that [Guillermo] Vilas won his second straight Australian Open and became a big hero. The people in the stands were going crazy and we had to go out on the stadium right after that. I remember standing in the locker room while the TV commentators were saying that we still had a match to play. After I won it was like being ‘star for a day.’ It was huge.”
Along with her championship trophy, Jordan was awarded $10,000, by far the biggest single payday of her career. (Compare that with the roughly $1.1 million check this year’s singles winners will take home.) She promptly went out and bought her first car, a metallic brown Honda Civic. But the memories are worth more than anything.
“I know I did it,” says Jordan, who also won the 1983 French Open mixed doubles title with fellow American Eliot Teltscher, but never won another singles tournament. “It’s cool to have those titles and to know that I was a champion of those two events. I remember I was at a WTA board meeting the next year and we were talking about the Australian Open. Chris Evert was saying how she hadn’t won there [yet]. I just looked up and said, ‘Yeah, that’s no big deal. I’ve done that.’ Chrissie really laughed hard at that one.”
Jordan, who lives in Northern California, was recently inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame along with her sister, Kathy, a former Top 10 player. Barbara and Kathy are Stanford Hall of Famers as well. But Barbara doesn’t dwell on her days as an Australian Open champion.
“I’ve never been back there as a spectator,” she says. “I used to be the trick answer to a trivia question at a bar there, at least when the tournament was back at Kooyong. The question was ‘Who won the women’s title in 1979?’ If you knew the answer you won a drink. I don’t think too many people, other than my friends, ever got that free drink.”
Cindy Shmerler is a Contributing Editor at TENNIS magazine. She started covering the sport in 1979, the same year Barbara Jordan won the Australian Open.