AS WE GET ready for two weeks of top-class tennis down under, this week’s Magnificent Seven looks back at some very special moments from the Australian Open.
1. Edmondson’s victory against all odds
Mark Edmondson def. John Newcombe, 1976 Australian Open Final
If there’s one thing that sports fans love more than a hometown hero, it’s an underdog story.
Mark Edmondson’s victory at the 1976 Australian Open ticks both boxes.
Though he had been ranked as Australia’s third-best junior player as a youngster, by 1976 the 21-year-old had drifted on to what he has dubbed the “riff-raff circuit”, holding down a day job as a window-cleaner in order to save up for his travel costs and tournament entry fees.
Despite being rated at number 212 in the ATP world rankings, Edmondson took some stunning scalps on the way to the 1976 final at Kooyong, not least that of four-time Australian Open champion Ken Rosewall whom he dispatched in the semi-finals.
While one such victory could be dismissed as a fluke, Edmondson faced an even tougher test in the final. His opponent, fellow Australian John Newcombe, had seven Grand Slam titles to his name and was widely expected to add to his haul with ease.
However, aided by some bizarre weather conditions and by the fact that he was ten years his opponent’s junior, Edmondson went on to record a famous 6-7 6-3 7-6 6-1 victory, making him the lowest-ranked player ever to win a Grand Slam, a record which he holds to this day.
1976 would mark Edmondson’s only major victory as a singles player, though the Aussie did go on to become a successful doubles player, racking up 34 tournament victories including five Grand Slam titles.
2. A fitting farewell to Kooyong
Stefan Edberg def. Pat Cash, 1987 Australian Open Final
As the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on a hard-court surface, the Australian Open is regarded as a unique type of test. For many years, however, the tournament was contested on the grassy surface of the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club prior to its relocation to Melbourne Park in 1988.
The last final to be contested at Kooyong proved to be a fitting tribute to the venue which had hosted the tournament since 1972. Seeking to become the first Australian to win a major on home soil since Edmondson’s shock triumph 12 years earlier, Pat Cash was eventually beaten by reigning champion Stefan Edberg in a five-set thriller.
The battle between the 21-year-old rivals lasted almost four hours and is still widely recognised as one of the most intense and gruelling Grand Slam finals ever to be played.
After Edberg raced into a two sets to love lead, Cash needed to dig deep to drag himself back into the contest. The Aussie quickly turned the match on its head, winning the third set by six games to three and taking a 5-1 lead in the fourth.
With Edberg on the ropes and Cash preparing to level up the match, the challenger let the champ off the hook, allowing him to win four games on the bounce to tie the set.
Though Cash would eventually go on to win the dramatic fourth set 7-5, the momentum had shifted and both players knew it. When Edberg returned to the court for what would be the final set, the spring had returned to his step. A 6-3 victory quickly followed and the Swede was champion for a second year.
The following year, Cash would once again fall short in his attempt to end the Australian drought, missing out to a Swede on this occasion as well, Mats Wilander.
3. “Do It For Your Coach”
Pete Sampras def. Jim Courier, 1995 Australian Open quarter-finals
During a changeover in the final set of his 1995 tie against countryman Jim Courier, American tennis giant Pete Sampras sat in his courtside chair, weeping inconsolably into his towel.
As the world sat watching, a wave of suppressed emotion flooded over the American. Days earlier, as Sampras was preparing to go on court, his coach Tim Gullikson had collapsed in his dressing room and was diagnosed shortly thereafter with four brain tumours.
In the days that followed, Sampras’s performances had taken on an added significance. He was no longer winning for himself. Rather, he was winning for his coach.
Having dropped the opening two sets to Courier, it was this determination, this driving need to win, which gave him the strength to fight back, producing some huge serves to level the match at two sets apiece.
Sampras’s challenge faltered, however, as he lost the first game at the start of the fifth set. In an attempt to drive him on, a shout from the crowd exhorted him to “do it for your coach”. That was the tipping point. Seconds later, the tears were rolling down the defending champion’s face.
Courier was very much aware of the emotional pain that his opponent was going through. The previous evening, just before Gullikson had been flown home for further treatment in America, he had eaten with Sampras, Gullikson and the rest of their team.
Now, watching Sampras vainly struggle to hold it together, he called across the court, offering to postpone the conclusion of the match until the following day.
For Sampras, stopping would be every bit as bad as losing. Punctuating his aces with tears, he refused Courier’s offer and rallied bravely in the final set, sealing a memorable 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win.
Though he overcame the challenge of Michael Chang, the emotionally exhausted Sampras was unsurprisingly beaten by Andre Agassi in the final.
It would not be his final opportunity to pay tribute to his coach, however, as the American went on to seal memorable Grand Slam victories at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows prior to Gullikson’s death in May 1996.
4. Sweet 16 and Already a Champ
Martina Hingis def. Mary Pierce, 1997 Australian Open final
At 16 years and three months old, Swiss star Martina Hingis became the youngest ever Grand Slam singles winner when she saw off Mary Pierce to claim the 1997 Australian Open title.
Though remarkable, Hingis’s success at such a young age surprised few. After amassing a bevy of junior Grand Slam titles, she had made her professional debut just two weeks after her 14th birthday in October 1994. By the summer of 1996, the 15-year old had already picked up her first major title, partnering Helena Suková to victory in the women’s doubles at Wimbledon.
It appeared that the unseeded Pierce would be no pushover for Hingis. Although the young Frenchwoman had failed to reinforce the early promise which she had shown in winning the tournament in 1995, she hit her stride early and accounted for a number of highly-rated opponents on her journey to the final, including a straight sets victory over fifth-seed Anke Huber.
Hingis had not dropped a single set to that point, however, and was not about to begin now. She lost only four games in the final, easing to a 6-2 6-2 win and making Pierce look rather ordinary in the process.
Victory in Melbourne was only the beginning for Hingis that year, earning her first Wimbledon crown with victory over Jana Navotná before going on to beat another rising star, Venus Williams, in the final of the US Open.
5. Agassi and Sampras Go Toe-To-Toe
Andre Agassi def. Pete Sampras, 2000 Australian Open semi-finals
This one was all about the fourth-set tiebreaker .
When the two bitter rivals met in the Melbourne semi-finals in 2000, Agassi was a man on a mission, seeking to become first player to reach four consecutive slam finals since Rod Laver back in 1969. In an era before Roger Federer made such an achievement seem remarkably, Agassi sensed the history books beckoning.
As a tight match neared its finale, tied at 6-6 in the fourth set, Agassi was on the brink. His record against Sampras at such clutch moments was poor to say the least. The last time he’d beaten Sampras in a tiebreaker was five years previously.
Not only that but he’d already seen his achilles’ heel exposed once already that evening, losing the previous set on a tiebreaker in which he had failed to register a single point.
It was a trend which surely gave Agassi’s camp cause for concern. Two sets to one down, if he lost this one, it was over.
As Agassi battled to stay in the match, Sampras appeared to shift into a higher gear, powering home second-serve aces with a remarkable degree of accuracy as well as producing a remarkable running forehand winner to deny Agassi a point which he had done more than enough to deserve.
Yet, every time Sampras produced something special, Agassi would bounce back immediately. The greats stood toe-to-toe, slugging it out with every shot in their arsenal, each driving the other on.
Although Agassi’s eventual 7-5 victory in the tie-breaker was only enough to level the match at two sets each, it was as good as any match-winner. Sampras had given it his all to seal victory in that fourth set and had come up short.
The final set was little more than a formality, as Agassi closed out the match with a comprehensive 6-1 win. Not only did he get to make history by contesting the final, he went on to win it, beating the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov in four sets.
6. Safin defeats “invincible” Federer
Marat Safin def. Roger Federer, 2005 Australian Open semi-final
No man has defined the recent history of tennis in the same way that Roger Federer has. His sixteen victories on the greatest stages which the sport have to offer speak for themselves.
Over the years, Federer has produced high-end performances with such amazing regularity that on those rare occasions when he is beaten, it takes something special.
Marat Safin’s gripping five-set victory over him in 2005 was precisely that - special. So special that tennis fans now regard it as one of the greatest matches ever, speaking of it in the same whispered tones as the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon epic of 1980.
That day, Safin played as if he was out to atone for the fact that he had never followed up his victory over Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open with a further Grand Slam victory. Unsurprisingly, Federer was his equal.
Leading by two sets to one, Federer even had a match point at 5-6 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. When he produced a trademark drop-volley, it seemed as though the gig was up for Safin.
Yet somehow the Russian managed to flick the low-bouncing ball back over Federer’s head to rob the point. The champion’s chance was gone. He would not get another.
By the time Federer slipped at the end of the fifth set, allowing Safin to finally seal victory, there was a sense that he had done everything in his power to preserve his invincibility. Having already saved six match points in that final set, number seven proved to be a step too far.
7. “God, It’s Killing Me”
Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer, 2009 Australian Open final
We never like to see our heroes falter.
No matter which side of the Federer-Nadal divide you find yourself on, there was something incredibly moving about Roger Federer’s tearful response to his four-set defeat at his rival’s hands in the 2009 final.
For a start, there was a something intensely human about the whole situation.
Here was a committed winner, one of the sport’s all-time greats, reduced to tears by the bitter reality of defeat.
A rival, worn out in pursuit of another remarkable success of his own, sharing a touching moment of genuine consolation with the man he just given everything to beat.
And a packed-to-capacity arena that wished to pay homage or, at a more basic level, simply say thank you.
The unspoken thought which underpinned the sadness of that night was that this might be the end of an era. That the tennis rivalry of recent years was coming to an end. The king was vacating his throne, the young pretender now ready for his moment in the limelight.
Not only was Federer’s period of dominance drawing to a close, but it was doing so at the most inopportune moment. Sampras’ record of fourteen Grand Slam titles, the benchmark against which all the greats were measured, had not been surpassed.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end of an era. Not just yet anyway. Wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2009 followed by a happier return to Rod Laver Arena last year have shown that Federer cannot be dismissed as a force just yet.
If you thought it was tough to watch him cry, however, imagine just how painful it will be when the time does come for the king to finally say goodbye.
Read more of Niall Kelly’s Magnificent Seven series >