The Australian Open, one of tennis’ four grand slam events, is one of the shiniest jewels on our sporting calendar. But as time has worn on, standout performances from Aussie-bred heroes have become fewer and farther between. As Ash Barty and (cough, cough) Nick Kyrgios gear up to end a long home-grown drought in Melbourne, we’re reliving the greatest moments produced by Australian players at the year’s first major.
Laver claims first Open-era total (1969)
Still in the G.O.A.T conversation half a century after his heyday, Rod Laver spent six years in the grand slam wilderness as a professional before the Open era brought the world’s best all back under the same umbrella. Rockhampton’s finest won two Australian Championships as an amateur, and became the first Australian Open champion of the Open era with a straight-sets victory over Spain’s Andres Gimeno.
The tournament is best remembered for Laver’s semi-final marathon against fellow Aussie Tony Roche; in a time before tie-breaks, the pair played a staggering 90 games across five sets. It was the first instalment of the grand slam the 30-year-old Laver went on to complete in 1969, repeating his historic effort of seven years earlier. No man has done it since ‘Rocket’.
Old man Rosewall goes back-to-back (1971-72)
Ken Rosewall won Australian Championships in 1953 and ’55 as an amateur before turning professional in 1957. He was still charging when the Open era kicked off, however, and defeated defending champ Arthur Ashe 6-1 7-5 6-3 in the 1971 final in Melbourne. Rosewall created a still-standing record as the oldest grand slam winner ever at the 1972 Australian Open at an ancient-by-athlete-standards 37 years and two months.
For context, Roger Federer turned 37 in August (for further context, this writer turned 37 three days before Federer and recently pulled a hammy mowing). The diminutive Rosewall hung up his well-worn racquet in 1980.
Evonne breaks through (1974)
After losing three straight Australian Open finals to compatriot Margaret Court, 22-year-old Evonne Goolagong snared her first title in Melbourne with a 7-6 4-6 6-0 triumph over world No.1 Chris Evert. Court won a staggering 11 Australian Opens but her homophobic tirades have turned off non-bigoted sections of the public – Goolagong will always be the people’s champ.
The Indigenous sensation won three of the next four Australian Opens (among a career total of 11 grand slam victories), including in 1977 just months after returning from a maternity break.
‘Bewdy Newk’ (1975)
Beloved Aussie veteran John Newcombe clinched the last of his seven major titles by outlasting American twerp Jimmy Connors in four sets. Connors was the defending Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open champion when he rolled into Melbourne, annoying most with his trademark brand of stroppiness. But the moustachioed ‘Newk’ – arguably the manliest-looking tennis player of all time – prevailed 7-5 3-6 6-4 7-6 (9-7) in a classic final.
Newcombe had earlier saved match point in his semi-final against countryman Tony Roche.
Bolter Edmondson triumphs in all-Aussie decider (1976)
Newcombe appeared destined to make it back-to-back Australian Open crowns in ’76 when he was pitted against little-known Gosford product and style copycat Mark Edmondson. Ranked No.212 in the world, Edmondson had rolled top seed Rosewall in the semis and produced another boilover in the final, coming from a set down to stun Newcombe 6-7 6-3 7-6 6-1 in a gripping handlebar duel.
Semi-final appearances at the Australian Open (1981) and Wimbledon (1982) were Edmondson’s next best efforts in a major. He remains the lowest-ranked player ever to take out a grand slam tournament, while no Australian man has won the Australian Open since. Edmondson went on to win four Australian Open doubles titles in the 1980s.
O’Neil cements a place in history (1978)
Chris O’Neil’s surprise triumph in the women’s draw in 1978 – downing eighth-seeded American Betsy Nagelsen 6-3 7-6 in the final – extended the Australians’ dominance of their home major to 9 wins in 10 years. No one would have predicted that more than four decades later we would still be waiting for the next Aussie to salute in Melbourne.
Newcastle product O’Neil, who achieved a modest career-best ranking of No.80 and never made it past the third round of another grand slam event, remained the only unseeded Australian Open women’s champ until Serena Williams in 2007.
Cash edged by Swedes in back-to-back classics (1987-88)
There wasn’t much for Aussie tennis fans to get excited about during the 1980s – until mullet icon Pat Cash burst onto the ATP scene. The Melbourne lad, whose dad Pat Cash Sr played for Hawthorn in the 1950s, reached his first grand slam final aged just 21 in his hometown in 1987.
Cash was beaten by fellow phenom Stefan Edberg in a five-set epic, coming from two sets down before succumbing 6-3 in the fifth. The charismatic Cash returned to the Australian Open a year later as the defending Wimbledon champion, but another Swede, Mats Wilander, subjected the crowd favourite to further home final heartbreak. Wilander finished off a four-hour marathon – regarded as one of the finest Australian Open finals ever – 8-6 in the fifth set.
Cash beat top seed Ivan Lendl on his way to both finals, but quickly faded into the background as injuries took hold.
‘Woodies’ grab doubles glory (1992 and 1997)
All-Australian duos won all but four men’s doubles titles from 1935-83, but the tournament was dominated by American, Swedish and South African combinations for the best part of the next decade. Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge – affectionately known as the ‘Woodies’ – redressed the balance in 1992 when they blitzed the field to earn their first grand slam title at the Australian Open.
The popular pair, who won five straight Wimbledon doubles titles, triumphed in Melbourne again in 1997. Would they have been as successful had their names not been similar, thus denying them an erection-themed moniker? Doubtful.
Sampras destroyed by ‘Scud’s’ missiles (1996)
Armed with a terrifyingly fast serve, towering 19-year-old Mark Philippoussis caused the upset of the 1996 Australian Open in the third round when he shocked world No.1 Pete Sampras in straight sets, 6-4 7-6 7-6. A star was apparently born, though Philippoussis crashed out to compatriot Woodforde in the next round. ‘Scud’ was a perennial Australian Open disappointment – three subsequent fourth-round appearances were his best showings – but he was a finalist at the US Open (1998) and Wimbledon (2003).
Woodforde goes it alone (1996)
After accounting for Philippoussis, doubles specialist Woodforde produced a historical nugget that remains in the record books today. The 30-year-old upset seventh seed Thomas Enqvist to make the semi-finals in his 38th grand slam appearance – the longest time taken to reach the semis of a major for the first time. Woodforde went down to Boris Becker in the semis; it would be the Adelaide product’s only run beyond the fourth round at a major in a 16-year singles career.
Rafter comes up just short in last hurrah (2001)
The US Open champion in 1997-98 and a two-time Wimbledon finalist, Pat Rafter’s bid for an Australian Open final appearance proved agonisingly elusive. But the likable Queenslander and fellow veteran Andre Agassi produced a semi-final for the ages in 2001, which would be Rafter’s last Melbourne foray.
Rafter was on course to end the 14-year drought of a hometown finalist when he took a 2-1 set lead, but cramp set in and a dogged Agassi surged back to win 7-5 2-6 6-7 6-2 6-3 in just over three hours.
Hewitt downs Roddick for final berth (2005)
Lleyton Hewitt’s 20 straight Australian Open appearances were predominantly a tale of underachievement. But the Adelaide-born scrapper’s 2005 campaign was a glaring exception. In the only run of his career past the fourth round in Melbourne, Hewitt came from a set down to beat second seed Andy Roddick 3-6 7-6 7-6 6-1 – kissing the court after becoming the first Aussie since Cash in ’87 to reach the Australian Open final.
A historic triumph in the centenary Australian Open went begging, though, as Hewitt went down to Marat Safin in four sets after winning the first.
Wild Card Dokic’s stunning comeback (2009)
Jelena Dokic endured a tumultuous career, largely due to the tyrannical influence of her father, Damir, who was behind her switch of allegiance from Australia to Yugoslavia (later Serbia) in 2000. Damir was banned from the Australian Open after a typically nonsensical outburst in 2001 and Jelena did not appear at the tournament until 2006, after ditching her demented dad and returning to the Aussie fold.
She missed the next eleven grand slam events but staged a remarkable return at the 2009 Australian Open after gaining a Wild Card entry, beating the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and reaching the quarters – one of only two Aussie women (the other was Alicia Molik in 2005) to do so in the past 30 years.
Kyrgios underlines potential (2015)
The poster child for the paradigm that Australians will get behind a winner no matter how many times they carry on like a dickhead, the tempestuous Nick Kyrgios continues to tease us with his mouth-watering talent and as-yet-unfulfilled potential. Seven months after his breakout quarter-final run at Wimbledon, the 19-year-old reached the final eight of the Australian Open with a courageous five-set defeat of Andreas Seppi.
Kyrgios saved match point and clinched a three-hour-and-34-minute triumph by taking out the fifth set 8-6. Andy Murray accounted for the precocious youngster in a one-sided quarter-final. Kyrgios was the first teenager to qualify for the Australian Open quarters since 1990, and the first Aussie to make it that far since Hewitt a decade earlier – but he is yet to get past the fourth round of a major in 14 attempts since.