The Australian Open wasn't normal 50 years ago, either

The Australian Open wasn't normal 50 years ago, either

The season's first Grand Slam tournament was on the endangered list. It had always been the least prestigious of tennis’ four majors, owing to its distance from Europe and the U.S., to the January start date, to its small, shallow draws.

The good news was that Australia’s players ruled the world.

Rod Laver had closed out the 1960s by winning all four majors. Margaret Court had her own calendar-year sweep in 1970—the same year John Newcombe captured the first of two straight Wimbledon titles, and the ageless Ken Rosewall won the US Open at 35. Tony Roche and Kerry Melville were contenders; veterans Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Mal Anderson remained dangerous. And just blossoming was a silky-smooth Aboriginal teenager, Evonne Goolagong.

But at the same time, Australia’s Grand Slam tournament was on the endangered list. It had always been the least prestigious of tennis’ four majors, owing to its distance from Europe and the U.S., to the January start date, to its small, shallow draws. Even in the Open Era, the Australian Opens won by Laver and Court in 1969 and 1970 had fields of only 48 and 43, respectively.

Within Australia, it was difficult for the tournament to generate traction. From 1922 to 1971, its location changed annually, rotating between Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne.

“It was nice to play in these different places,” says Emerson, “but there really wasn’t a lot time for it to be promoted.”

Having just completed a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1970, Court was at the height of her powers. (Getty Images)

The advent of Open tennis magnified the tournament’s shortcomings. The garden party-like events held at cozy clubs suddenly faced new demands from sponsors, television and the burgeoning pro circuit. Everything from locker rooms, food, accommodations and transportation was in vast need of an upgrade. But nowhere was tennis’ schism between old-world amateurism and new professionalism more vividly revealed than the matter of compensation. Total prize money offered at the 1969 US Open was $125,000. Various accounts of that year’s Australian Open estimate the player purse as no more than a third of that amount.

In January 1970, committed to a circuit that was more lucrative and player-friendly, Laver, Rosewall, Emerson and Stolle skipped the Australian Open. Played that year in Sydney, the 48-player men’s event was won by Arthur Ashe. Soon after, to accommodate the new professional events that were blossoming, the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia decided that the 1971 tournament would take an unprecedented step and be played in March.

All the great Aussies would now be competing at their home major.

An article published in the April 7, 1970 edition of The Canberra Times reveals that as of February, Melbourne was set to host the 1971 Australian Open. But the same article announced the LTA’s acceptance of a $125,000 offer from Dunlop to stage the tournament in Sydney. One reason Melbourne was bypassed was the concern that such events as football and the Moomba festival, a longstanding community event, made it difficult for the tennis tournament to thrive there in March. So Sydney it was, site of what was now rechristened the Dunlop Australian Open. The singles fields remained small: 48 men and 30 women, and it would be held at the historic White City Tennis Club.

“White clothes, white balls, a big clubhouse at the top of the hill and rows and rows of grass courts,” says Marty Mulligan, who grew up in Sydney and became a Top 10 player in the 1960s.

Stolle, another Sydney-raised great, recalls, “It was beautiful, but there was also a good chance it was going to be windy.”

According to Laver, winner of the title there in 1962, “It was pretty dry, a bit slippery and shiny.”

A first-round bye put Laver in the round of 32, where he handily beat Australian Colin Dibley. But then tennis’ Superman came across his Kryptonite.

“I didn’t like playing lefthanders,” says Laver, “and for five years, as a pro, I didn’t play any, so that didn’t help either.”

Hopes were high for a Rod Laver-Ken Rosewall final. (Getty Images)

In two of his prior Aussie title runs, Laver barely squeaked out five-set epics against lefties Neale Fraser and Roche. On this occasion, the insurgent southpaw was a smooth stroker from Great Britain, Mark Cox. At night, amid damp, heavy conditions, Cox emerged the victor, 6–3, 4–6, 6–3, 7–6.

“The pressure was on Rod, not me,” Cox was quoted in the New York Times. “He couldn’t get his first serve working.”

Other Aussie hopefuls also fell early. Third-seeded Newcombe was upset in the round of 16 by Marty Riessen. Roche, seeded fourth, lost at the same stage to Cliff Drysdale. Perhaps the two were weary from a demanding February of indoor events in Richmond, Philadelphia and London.

Rosewall, nicknamed “Muscles” for his slight frame, was far less battletested, having lost early in Richmond and Philadelphia.

“But with Rosewall it didn’t matter how much or how little tennis he’d had,” says Stolle. “While there was the slight chance that Rod might be off, that was never, ever the case with Muscles.”

Much like another master of longevity, Roger Federer, Rosewall’s extraordinary discipline, footwork and balance allowed him to stay razor sharp for decades. He’d won the title as an 18-year-old in 1953 and earned a second two years later. Why not a third, at 36?

On the women’s side, Court was the only member of the Top 10 in the field. That same month, thousands of miles away in the U.S., seven others, including Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey, were competing in the first calendar year of the Virginia Slims Circuit. But at least there was Goolagong, a happy-go-lucky net-rusher who’d grown up in Barellan, a country town 325 miles west of Sydney.

Goolagong and Court each won three matches without losing a set to reach the final. Youth appeared primed to ascent when Goolagong took a 5–2 lead in the third set.

In the Aussie communal tradition, Court was a mentor of sorts to Goolagong. As she wrote years later, “I had stressed to Evonne the importance of never giving up, of fighting for every point. Now I gave her a practical demonstration of what I meant.”

Just a few months after the 1971 Australian Open, at 19, Goolagong would win the Roland Garros title. (Getty Images)

Court won five straight games to take her tenth Australian Open. It was also her sixth consecutive Grand Slam singles title, a feat only equaled in the Open Era by Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf (who skipped one tournament during her run).

With trademark efficiency, Rosewall reached the final without losing a set, which included a win over Emerson in the quarterfinals. His opponent was Ashe, who’d dropped four sets, including one to Stolle in the round of 16, en route to his fourth final Down Under.

Though Rosewall had beaten Ashe in three of their four meetings, Ashe’s win happened at a major, in the 1969 US Open quarterfinals.

But on this occasion, Rosewall was in control from start to finish, winning 6–1, 7–5, 6–3.

If Ashe was perhaps nervous about trying to defend his title, he was unquestionably aware that Rosewall owned the best return of serve in tennis. The American double-faulted 13 times. For the win, Rosewall took home $10,080.

Ashe, 1970 Australian Open champion. (Getty Images)

“Regrettably, however, the event was not a major success, with organizers suffering a $110,000 loss and only 45,000 spectators attending the 10 sessions of play (over seven days and three nights),” according to the book Muscles, a collaboration between Rosewall and historian Richard Naughton.

This was the last of Sydney’s 17 times as an Australian Open host city. Melbourne became the permanent location a year later. But over the next decade and beyond, the Australian Open continued to struggle. Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club was enchanting, but hardly fit to stage a big-time pro tennis event. The tournament’s location on the calendar bounced in many directions; from 1977-85 it concluded the tennis year. There were even years when the women’s and men’s events were played at different times.

Finally, in the 1980s, Tennis Australia and the Australian government joined forces to build a new, proper facility. The National Tennis Centre, now known to the world as Melbourne Park, opened in 1988; the tournament’s center court was renamed Rod Laver Arena in 2000. At the turn of the century, Australia’s era of dominance had long subsided—but its Grand Slam finally had a facility worthy of the country’s deep and distinguished tennis heritage.