Epic encounters from Down Under

Blockbuster matches are nothing new Down Under. We take a look at three of the most memorable in Australian Open history.

Connoisseurs: Even if unpredictable Nick Kyrgios, fast-rising teenager Alex De Minaur, or athletic Ashley Barty don’t snap Australia’s home Grand Slam title drought this year, beer-guzzling fans at the Oz Open, nicknamed “The Happy Slam”, will have a rousing time.   -  AFP

From the inaugural Australasian Championships in 1905, which gave the winners 10 guineas, to the 2018 Australian Open, which awards $3 million to the singles champions, the season’s opening Grand Slam has featured epic duels, historic rivalries, stunning comebacks, and passionate fans. During the Golden Era of Australian tennis from 1950 to 1979, Aussie men captured a sensational 62 out of 121 Grand Slam tournaments. Their women pitched in with a fabulous 40. Sadly, for this tennis-loving nation, the last Aussie men’s and women’s singles champions at their home major were Mark Edmondson way back in 1976 and Chris O’Neil in 1978.

“No worries, mate,” as the Aussies say. Even if unpredictable Nick Kyrgios, fast-rising teenager Alex De Minaur, or athletic Ashley Barty don’t snap the title drought this year, beer-guzzling fans at the Oz Open, nicknamed “The Happy Slam”, will have a rousing time. They relish great tennis and embrace the stars, especially long-time favourites Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who rewarded them with a classic final a year ago. To show how much they appreciate Federer, Aussies voted him the most popular athlete in all of Australia, just last February.

Blockbuster matches are nothing new Down Under. Here are three of the most memorable in Australian Open history.

Who says real men don’t cry?

As the 2009 season dawned, 22-year-old Nadal was seriously challenging 27-year-old Federer’s reign. King Roger led 13 to 5 in major titles, but he trailed head-to-head 4-2 in Grand Slam finals and 12-6 overall in their intense but friendly rivalry. The 2008 Wimbledon final, still widely considered the greatest match in tennis history, had marked a turning point. The Mighty Fed had captured four straight Wimbledons before rampaging Rafa outlasted him 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. A month earlier, Nadal had trounced Federer, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 on clay, Nadal’s favourite surface, for his fourth French Open title in a row.

Could Nadal take down Federer in three Grand Slam finals on three different surfaces within eight months? Or would Federer reverse the trend and tie Pete Sampras’s all-time record of 14 Grand Slam titles?

“Their rivalry is the best in sports, period,” asserted Patrick McEnroe, then U.S. Davis Cup captain. “The records of both speak for themselves, and their games and their personalities are so strikingly effective yet totally different.”

Nadal versus Federer epitomised contrast, which made their rivalry engrossing even for casual tennis fans. Lefty vs. righty. Two-handed vs. one-handed backhands. Humility vs. confidence. Intensity vs. nonchalance. Muscles vs. litheness.

The Spanish matador displayed his competitive ferocity and vicious topspin against another Spanish left hander, Fernando Verdasco, to reach his first AO final in 2009. In a semifinal smorgasbord filled with brilliant shot-making and ferocious scrambling, lasting a tournament-record 5 hours, 14 minutes, Nadal finally prevailed 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 at 1:10 a.m.

To his credit, in the quarterfinals and semifinals the Swiss maestro quickly and efficiently earned an advantage over the exhausted Nadal by outclassing both uncompetitive No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro and determined No. 7 Andy Roddick. What Federer did not earn or deserve, however, was an extra day of rest, due to the outrageously unfair Australian Open scheduling.

Nadal set the tone for the final by breaking Federer’s serve three times to take the opening set, 7-5. It was a stunning result given Federer had held serve the previous 38 times. Going for his fourth Australian title, Federer rebounded to win the second set, 6-3, by standing closer to the baseline and hitting his groundstrokes more aggressively.

The third set proved pivotal. Nadal escaped three break points at 4-all and three more at 5-all to force a tiebreaker. Federer had won their previous five tiebreakers, prompting ESPN analyst Darren Cahill to say, “This is a do-or-die set for Rafa.” Error-prone and tentative, Federer double faulted on the last point to give Nadal a 7-3 tiebreaker.

Federer then showed his resiliency by staving off five break points at 2-all to grab the fourth set, 6-3.

After four fluctuating sets filled with breathtaking winners often conjured when returning each other’s apparent winners, the boisterous but bipartisan fans screamed “Roger” and “Rafa.” Would Nadal’s almost superhuman stamina finally run out in the fifth set? Or would his pummelling Federer’s vulnerable backhand with wickedly spinning forehands and swerving serves pay off?

True champions: Australian tennis fans relish great tennis and embrace the stars, especially long-time favourites Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who rewarded them with a classic final a year ago. Here Nadal consoles Federer after an epic final in 2009.   -  AFP

 

The answer came soon. Two Federer backhand errors gave Nadal a service break and a 3-1 lead. In the last game, a nervous Federer completed his self-destruction by making three backhand errors, two on service returns. “Game, set, and match, Nadal, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2,” intoned the chair umpire.

Nadal fell on his back, his trademark victory celebration. Federer looked dejected. Nadal had once again thwarted Federer’s quest to equal Sampras’s hallowed record. If the deciding set proved anticlimactic, the trophy presentation proved tennis is far more than shots and statistics.

With his idol Rod Laver looking on, Federer sobbed uncontrollably, and in a quavering voice, said, “God, it’s killing me.” With empathy and grace, Nadal put his arm around Federer and tilted his head against Federer’s to console him. Then Nadal told Federer and the crowd, “Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now. It’s really tough. Remember, you’re a great champion.” The crowd roared its appreciation.

Reflecting on Federer’s crying during the ceremony, the compassionate winner said, “It was an emotional moment, and I think this also lifts up the sport, to see a champion like Federer expressing his emotions. It shows his human side. But in these moments, when you see a rival, who is also a comrade, feeling like this, you enjoy the victory a little bit less.”

Guts and Glory

Billie Jean King called the semifinal thriller between Rod Laver and Tony Roche at the 1969 Australian Open “the greatest match I ever saw.” Laver rated it “the longest match I ever played and by far the hardest.”

Laver’s 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 marathon victory in 1969 was also the most significant in his successful quest for a still-unequalled second Grand Slam. In 1962, he had captured a Slam — the ultimate feat in tennis — by winning the Wimbledon, United States, French, and Australian titles against the leading amateurs.

Yet perfectionist Laver, whom many experts then considered the greatest ever to play the game, wasn’t satisfied. Indeed, after turning professional, he admitted that “my self-esteem was at stake” because he had been beaten regularly during 1963−64 by pro stars Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, and Pancho Gonzalez.

The arrival of Open Tennis in 1968 truly gave Laver the chance “to prove it” against all the best players.

The unassuming redhead with a freckled face grabbed the first Open Wimbledon in 1968. In 1969, the first full year of Open competition, he was determined, even at age 30, to conquer the Big Four events again.

Unfortunately, not everyone welcomed the Brave New World of Open Tennis. “The old guard of Australian tennis had been dragged kicking and screaming into the Open Era, and at the [1969] Australian Open tournament, their animosity was obvious,” wrote Laver in his 2016 autobiography. “The tournament was hardly promoted and this was reflected in poor crowds. The facilities for spectators and players were Dark Ages standard. The court surfaces were uneven and patchy…. The player seedings defied belief…. There were not enough officials to go around.”

Neither the poor tournament organisation, the small crowd of only 2,000 spectators, or the scorching 105-degree heat and 95-percent humidity deterred Laver or Roche, a solidly built 23-year-old, seeded No. 4. Roche had knocked off Laver the week before the Australian Open in a magnificent New South Wales final. “Tony believed firmly that my time as No. 1 was over and that his had arrived,” recalled Laver. Roche would win five of their nine encounters in 1969, but Laver always prevailed when it mattered most.

To combat the oppressive conditions in tropical Brisbane, Laver brought three sun hats, and both players took glucose tablets and salt pills before the match to keep dehydration at bay. At least half the spectators were forced to leave before the four-hour and 35-minute marathon was over, as these two warriors from the Australian Outback battled for 90 gruelling games in a test of character and endurance as much as athletic skill.

“We were at each other’s throat from the opening serve,” recalled Laver. “Rocket,” as Laver was nicknamed, broke Roche’s serve four times to take the opening set 7-5.

Both lefty shot-makers had huge chances to close out the incredible marathon second set—Roche with three set points at 7-6 and Laver with two at 12-11. Neither converted them. In those pre-tiebreaker days, it took two hours and five minutes before Laver finally pulled it out 22-20.

In the third set, the underdog Roche fought back courageously and lifted his game, while Laver struggled with his serve. Roche eked it out, 11-9.

The 10-minute break for a quick shower seemed to revitalise Roche more than Laver. “Before I knew what was happening,” recalled Laver, “he was blitzing me with heavy serves and stiff volleys.” Roche ran off five straight games to take the fourth set 6-1 and even the match. “I decided to conserve my energy and go for broke in the deciding fifth,” noted Laver.

Entering the climactic fifth set, Roche had momentum, but Laver had the edge in experience. “As I learned to do as a pro, I would give away nothing and battle for every single point as if my life depended on it,” Laver said.

Laver kept tightening the screws by holding serve — as did Roche — all the way to a 4-3 lead. Although “Rocket” wasn’t known for temporizing his potent shots, since both combatants were exhausted, he decided, “It was no time for pride and flamboyance. I was going to scratch and dig and bloop the ball over any way I could.”

A bad line call against Roche — long before the Hawk-Eye electronic technology arrived — gave Laver a 15-40 lead. Several spectators with a good view later swore Laver’s shot was out by 10 centimeters. “Rocket” then unleashed an explosive backhand passing shot to break serve for a 5-3 lead. Roche, anguished and angry yet still competing hard, offered only token opposition as Laver served out the match.

“They displayed every shot in the book, often in the same point,” Billie Jean King rhapsodised in World Tennis magazine. “We saw drop volleys, spins, fantastic baseline exchanges, great overheads, and superb retrieving…. It is one match I will never forget.”

Neither would the protagonists. Laver romped past ninth-seeded Andres Gimeno 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 in the anticlimactic final to win the first leg of his second Grand Slam. Laver knew that the contentious line call was the turning point of the match, and as it turned out, of his quest to repeat his amateur Slam against “all the best players.”

“If that line call had gone Tony’s way, as it so easily could have,” Laver recalled, “1969 could have panned out rather differently for me than in fact the way it did.”

A Legendary Rivalry Produces a Classic Match

“The ultimate rivalry in all of sports was Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova,” averred Arthur Ashe. Indeed, no two champions have ever faced each other so often, for so long, and so memorably as America’s sweetheart and the supremely athletic Czech who defected to the United States in 1975.

From 1973 to 1989, when Evert retired, these all-time greats collided 80 thrilling times (Navratilova won 43) and in 14 Grand Slam tournament finals (Navratilova won 10). “Not only did we bring out the best in each other, but we brought it out for years longer than if either of us had been alone at the top,” Navratilova said in 1989.

One of the most dramatic episodes in the enduring “Chris and Martina Show” came at the 1981 Australian Open. In those days, the tournament was played on grass at Melbourne’s Kooyong Stadium in early December. As the season’s last major, it could decide the No. 1 ranking, and that year it would determine the nine-month, 31-tournament Toyota Series bonus-pool race, worth a first prize of $125,000 and a new car. Entering the Australian, Chris Evert Lloyd — she was then married to John Lloyd, a British pro — held a slim 30-point lead over Navratilova in the Toyota points race.

Turnaround: Martina Navratilova holds the trophy high after beating Chris Evert Lloyd 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 to win the Australian Open in Melbourne on December 06, 1981. Navratilova had not only turned this epic duel around but also, in retrospect, her underachieving career. From 1982 to 1986, she dominated her archrival (20-4) and the entire women’s tour.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Although the Australian Open had suffered from weak field in recent years, this star-studded AO attracted 17 of the top 20 women, including French Open winner Hana Mandlikova, Wimbledon champion Lloyd, and US Open titlist and teen queen Tracy Austin.

Besides the No. 1 ranking and bonus prize, both 12-time major champion Lloyd and two-time major titlist Navratilova had another big incentive: neither had yet won the Australian Open. That gap in their resumes wasn’t due to failure. Rather, because the tournament had dropped in prestige and the journey there takes 24 hours by plane, Lloyd skipped it the past six years and Navratilova entered it just once during the previous five years.

Although 25-year-old Navratilova, the most formidable serve and volleyer in history, was the favourite on grass, she surprisingly hadn’t captured a Grand Slam title in 28 months. The soon-to-turn-27 Lloyd, a smart, gritty, and consistent baseliner, was tough to beat on any surface.

The backdrop to the historic match provided as much intrigue as the sharp contrasts in their playing styles, appearances, national backgrounds, personalities, and sexuality. Three months earlier, Navratilova cried in joy when she received a thunderous, two-minute standing ovation after she choked to lose a heartbreaking 1-6, 7-6, 7-6 US Open final to upstart Austin. As she would later explain, “They weren’t cheering Martina the Complainer, Martina the Czech, Martina the Loser, Martina the Bisexual Defector. They were cheering me.”

In the New York Daily News story that “outed” Navratilova, Lloyd said, “Her tennis isn’t going to get straightened out until she straightens out her life.” Navratilova knew Evert was right. Evert, however, didn’t know how rigorously Navratilova was training. She had hired hard-driving basketball star Nancy Lieberman to toughen her mentally and physically, getting her body fat down to 8.8 percent. Dr. Renee Richards, a transsexual ophthalmologist who, controversially, was allowed to play on the women’s tour in 1976, also joined Team Navratilova. Dr. Richards honed her strategy and technique, adding topspin to her backhand and power to her serve.

Lloyd, though renowned for her steely on-court concentration, also had off-court distractions. Her far-less successful husband was depressed by his floundering career, which took another hit when Jimmy Connors, Lloyd’s former fiancé, crushed him 6-0, 6-0, 6-2 at the US Open. Chris had to talk him out of retiring.

Both players had momentum and confidence going into the final. Navratilova disposed of eight-seeded Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 6-1 and sixth-seeded Pam Shriver 6-3, 7-5 in the quarters and semis, while Lloyd stopped fifth-seeded Mandlíková 6-4, 7-5 and seventh-seeded Wendy Turnbull 6-4, 7-6.

This 45th duel — Evert led 29-15 but only 4-3 at majors — marked one of the last Grand Slam finals where both players wielded old-fashioned and less powerful wood rackets. Nonetheless, Navratilova attacked relentlessly, rushing to net either behind serves, solid forehands or low-bouncing slice backhands. Evert parried that attack with pinpoint passing shots and deadly lobs, while minimizing her unforced errors with high-percentage shot selection.

Evert, the superior pressure player, showed it by reeling off the last three points to win the first-set tiebreaker 7-4. Navratilova reversed Evert’s momentum with a service break to lead 3-2 in the second set. But the poker-faced Evert parlayed accurate serve returns to break right back and even the score at 3-3. Two service holds later at 4-4, Navratilova took charge. She surrendered just two points in the next two games and clinched the set emphatically with an ace.

Energized by her second-set rebound, Navratilova surged ahead 2-0 in the deciding set. But in the third game, Evert stubbornly staved off six break points to hold serve. Navratilova kept going for her aggressive shots and raced to a 5-1 lead. But she’d blown big leads before. “She goes from arrogance to panic with nothing in between,” was how long-time WTA Tour impresario Ted Tinling described the mentally fragile Navratilova.

This time, Navratilova kept her nerve. But Evert boldly amped up her shots to seize four straight games and even the match at 5-5. Years later, Evert recalled, “Shots were hitting the lines, and I was connecting with the ball as well as I could have.” The crowd roared in appreciation for the spirited comeback.

About Evert’s third-set recovery, Navratilova later admitted, “I was as nervous as I’ve ever been. I thought, ‘Here she comes.’ When she gets rolling, she doesn’t stop. But I tightened my game. I was mad at myself for giving the lead away.”

But the new and improved Navratilova didn’t panic. She won a rare net duel with a backhand putaway volley to break serve and lead 6-5. Then, on her second championship point, a clutch half-volley elicited a rare forehand passing shot error from Evert. Navratilova had prevailed 6-7, 6-4, 7-5.

Navratilova had not only turned this epic duel around but also, in retrospect, her underachieving career. From 1982 to 1986, she dominated her archrival (20-4) and the entire women’s tour. No longer fragile, Navratilova captured an astounding 70 of 84 tournaments, but more important, 12 of her career 18 Grand Slam titles.

Evert also wound up with 18 major titles, but getting dethroned as the Queen of Tennis hurt. “Being number one is an ego thing — I mean, you’ve got to be frank about it,” she confided in the 2005 book, ‘The Rivals’. “It’s a power thing. You’re the woman of the hour. And then, all of a sudden, when you’re on top and somebody starts taking it away, it’s difficult.”

Will this year’s Australian Open serve up another classic match with uplifting stories we’ll remember and savour decades from now?