Along the Yellow Brick Road

Sunday, January 12, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

A fair amount has been written here and elsewhere about the Australian Open’s resurgence since those dark days when it was a Grand Slam in name only. Initially, during the amateur and early pro era, logistics had a lot to do with the tournament’s failure to attract top talent.

Commenters have defended the integrity of the Australian Open results in the period when Margaret Court won the tournament for seven years running (starting in 1960), with the argument being that if the Australian players could make the trip to Wimbledon and New York for the U.S. championships, players from those places could have made the trip Down Under. Fair is fair.

Unfortunately, fair is also not necessarily realistic. The fact is that before jet travel became easy and cheap, and before money began to flow into the game, the Australians were at a seemingly unfair but irremediable disadvantage. They had to go to the tennis; it wouldn’t come to them but once a year. Other players could happily skip Melbourne and still get plenty of Grand Slam tennis.

That began to change early in the Open era, but the new period of burgeoning opportunity (and prize money) created a somewhat different set of problems. If you were a typical pro from the Americas or Europe—i.e. the vast majority of pros—when would you take time off? The most logical time was the northern hemisphere winter. The allure of rest and spending the holidays among family and friends trumped the pleasures of the Australian summer. 

As well, the Australian tennis establishment was slow adapting to the new pro era. Their national Open was played on grass at Kooyong, a private club that was a shadow of Wimbledon. The venue reflected the Anglo culture and habits shared by Australia and Great Britain, but Kooyong was not Wimbledon—not in any meaningful way beyond the local snob appeal associated with membership in the club. 

Can you imagine players at Wimbledon complaining that the Centre Court is sloped, as it was at Kooyong, requiring players at one end to run uphill to get to the net?

Neither the venue, the holiday-season timing, nor the prize money on offer was particularly attractive in the early Open era, although both the men and women supported the event in the late 60s and early 70s. But as big money began to flow into the game—the turning point probably was at the start of the Evert-Connors era—playing at Kooyong became less and less appealing. The bleak period for the tournament was the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s fun to poke around in the record books to see just how bad it was, yet it wasn’t as bad as it may appear from the roll of champions.

In 1976, the men’s winner was Mark Edmondson, a player who worked in a butcher shop but used an atomic serve to catch fire that enchanted year like few in the history of this sport. 

Despite being ranked No. 212 (it was the third year of the ATP rankings), Edmondson won the Australian Open, and he remains the lowest-ranked player ever to win a major. It may surprise you to learn that his win had nothing to do with the apathy that would soon cripple the event. The top two seeds that year were Aussie icons Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe; the field included the likes Stan Smith, Tony Roche, and Charlie Pasarell.

Edmondson’s title-match defeat of John Newcombe in four sets still may be the greatest upset in the history of tennis. 

There were two Australian Opens in 1977 (and there would be none in 1986), as the tournament moved more or less laterally, from a January to a December date. In January, Roscoe Tanner prevailed over a solid field including Arthur Ashe, Roche, and an aging Rosewall to take the title from an upstart who hadn’t yet become a clay-court grinder—Guillermo Vilas.

The December version was won by Vitas Gerulaitis, who bested John Lloyd in the title match, 6-2 in the fifth. While many of the old guard (like Roche, Rosewall, Smith) played the event, the top three men (Connors, Vilas, Bjorn Borg) all skipped it in ‘77. This was a good move by Gerulaitis, who was No. 4 in the world that year, for his record against the top players was horrible. In spite of that, I wouldn’t underestimate the way Gerulaitis handled the pressure of being the top seed in a field with numerous players perfectly capable of beating him.

The following year, top-seeded Vilas won the title, his forehand and backhand flatter than they would later become, and his serve less of a liability on slick grass. The field contained some excellent players (among them, No. 2 seed Jose Luis Clerc, Arthur Ashe, and ageless Aussies Rosewall and Roche), although the losing finalist was relatively unknown John Marks. Conspicuous absentees included Connors, Borg, and a very young John McEnroe.

Vilas defended successfully in 1979, but as the tournament continued to lose cache, the subsequent winners were Brian Teacher (1980) and Johan Kriek (1981-82). But a turning point was fast approaching.

In 1983 the ITF intervened and demanded that what is now Tennis Australia (then it was still the LTAA, or Lawn Tennis Association of Australia) find a more appropriate place than Kooyong to hold such a prestigious event. That started the ball rolling, and ’83 also heralded the return of some rising, elite players. Mats Wilander took the title from Ivan Lendl, but there still was one shortcoming that needed to be addressed: The awkward dates.

The final piece fell into place in 1986, by which time Australian officials had absorbed the lessons in the USTA’s bold move in 1978 from a private, grass-court club (Forest Hills) to a sprawling, purpose-built, hard-court “National Tennis Center” in a less exclusive neighborhood of the New York borough of Queens. Plans already were underway in Melbourne to emulate the USTA by then, the result of which would be the present Melbourne Park venue.

But the great significance of 1986 is that it was the year that there was no Australian Open at all—a 12-month respite dictated by the decision to move the tournament out of the holiday season and make it the first Grand Slam of the New Year.

The last tournament at Kooyong was played in 1987 (Stefan Edberg d. Pat Cash in the final) and the first champions in the new venue in 1988 were Mats Wilander and Chris Evert. In that year, the tournament conclusively regained its Grand Slam heft—and tilted the balance of power in the battle of surfaces to hard courts.

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