Monica Seles and Anke Huber, Australian Open 1996

Impressions from the 1996 Australian Open

By Claude England, Maryland Match Point

At first I thought it must have been the strong capuccino I had enjoyed after ou last dinner in Melbourne that was keeping me so wide awake, but as the minutes continued to tick by, I came to realize it as the sheer excitement of the past five days at the Australian Open that was still tingling through my body.
So many talented players, great matches, and the magnificent state-of-the-art Australian Open facility. Where to begin?

Mark Philippoussis opened up the center court action with a straight victory over Nicolas Kiefer, who would have, at that time, thought he would go on to upset Pete Sampras in straight sets, only to be thrashed in the following round by fellow Australian Mark Woodforde.
Next it was defending champion Andre Agassi who basically limped onto center court after having the misfortune of hurting a tendon in his knee during a fall on his apartment steps. Andre, wearing a pathetic bandage, somehow won this match against Argentine qualifier Gaston Etlis, who at one point was serving for the match, and at another time was within two points of perhaps the upset of the decade. It was a sad sight from both ends of the court. Etlis played brilliant tennis, showing no mercy for Andre’s inability to move around the court, hitting precision drop shots that the defending champion, instead of racing towards, could only stand and watch. But when it came to winning those final points, Etlis became even more creative in finding ways not to win, and Andre hobbled to a 6-3 in the fifth victory.

So the Australian Open had begun.
For the next week, we watched highlights, matches and scores on the box.

Mary Pierce, the defending womens champion, lost in the second round to Russian Elena Likhovtseva 6-4 6-4, while Seles, Majoli, Sanchez Vicario, Rubin, Hingis, Coetzer, Huber and Martinez advanced to the quarter finals. Amanda Coetzer, by the way, disposed of Likhovtseva 6-3 6-3 in the round of 16.

In the mens draw, Enqvist, Becker, Kafelnikov, Chang, Courier, Agassi – all seeded in the top eight – advanced to the quarter finals, with the unseeded players Mikael Tillstrom, who upset Thomas Muster, and Mark Woodforde, whom I mentioned before trounced Philippoussis, joined the seeded players in the final eight.

The singles tournament was now down to the nitty-gritty. The following day we’re flying to Melbourne to join the action live. But why not give us one last treat on television on our final night in New Zealand. We’ve just enjoyed a very pleasant dinner with family and friends at an outdoor cafe overlooking the beautiful Auckland Harbour, and we’ve dashed back home to watch the Agassi-Courier match, due to start at 9:30pm.
They began with a few highlights from the Chang-Tillstrom match, although with Chang winning 6-0 6-2 6-4, there weren’t too many to show. After a commercial or two it was back to the tennis with live action from the Sanchez-Vicario vs Chanda Rubin match. With Rubin up 4-1 in the final set and 40-15 on Arantxa’s serve. You could almost see the shadows of Agassi-Courier at the entrance of the stadium, eager to begin their slugfest. However, Rubin missed a costly overhead for a 5-1 lead, and that glimmer of hope was all a fighter like Arantxa needed to claw her way back into the match and extend it into the epic it became. Two hours and twenty-two minutes after the third set began, the winning stretch forehand volley of Rubin’s ended what has to be one of the greatest womens matches ever played, 16-14 in the third set. That’s why, in my opinion, tiebreakers have no place in deciding Grand Slam matches.

By now it was 1:00am in New Zealand and we had to be up at 6:00am to catch the next morning flight to Melbourne. As much as I wanted to stay up to watch the Agassi-Courier match my better judgement told me I needed some sleep, not to mention my eyes were barely saying open. Downstairs my nephew Ross, who’s a night owl anyway continued to watch the tennis. All I could hear was the ball going back and forth as if they were hitting against a blackboard from close ange. A major thinderstorm stopped play with Courier up 5-6 in the first set, so finally the echo of the tennis ball stopped and a few hours of sleep were had.

The short three-hour flight across the Tasman had us in Melbourne by mid-day and after clearing customs and getting situated at our hotel we were ready for our first live action, Seles had already advanced to the semifinals with a 6-1 6-2 victory over Majoli, and Agassi had fought back, for the fist ime in his career, from two sets down to defeat a dejected Jim Courier 6-2 in the fifth. Also advancing to the semifinals, Anke Huber defeated Conchita Martinez and Amanda Coetzer eliminated teenage star Martina Hingis, to complete the womens semi-final draw.

A severe thunderstorm had moved through the Melbourne area, forcing officials to close the roof on the Center Court for the remainder of the day, so our first look at this magnificent complex was an indoor arena. I know there are many arguments, both for and against the roof, but let me tell you, it guarantees that there will be tennis played on Center Court once the court has been dried off. Imagine travelinf all the way to Australia just to watch the rain come down. You would think, and perhaps hope, that the National Tennis Center in New York, where the US Open is held, would consider such a roof for people from all over the world to see the Open and are too ofter victims of inclement weather. Not to mention the TV audience who also loses out should the finals be rained out and moved to Monday.

So the evening session has Boris Becker vs Yevgeny Kafelnikov followed by Thomas Enqvist vs Australia’s own Mark Woodforde. Quite a treat – two mens quarter final matches in one night. Becker was all business from the very first ball. He did not take his usual set to get into the match, instead he was determined from the outset, serving a total of 28 aces during this impressive straight sets victory. Perhaps it was Kafennikov’s cocky remarks in the media that inspired Boris to stuff the kid’s mouth with all those aces. I had watched Becker play at the US Open last year defeating Patrick McEnroe in an exciting four set quarter final match, however, this was a different Becker. Instead of slicing many of his backhands, he was coming over the ball with great authority and his forehand was more precise from all areas of the court. The speed and placement of his serve was as good as I’d seen him hit, thus the 28 aces, and in backing up his serve, his volleys were crisp and rock-solid. After seeing this performance, Boris Becker looked like the player to beat.
Mark Woodforde continued the form that he displayed against Philippoussis, as he sliced and diced Enqvist into a thinly sliced Swedish sweetbread, to the tine of 4, 4 & 4.

Another late night.
By the time the tennis had finished it was after midnight. What made us stay to the end of this one-sided match? It was the atmosphere, folks!! The Australian Open comes as close to a World Cup Soccer game as any tennis event in the world. The crowd here are cheering and chanting in between points for their favorite players, holding flags, banners and colorful display cards, noise-makers are being twirled, faces have been painted displaying country support, yet when the next point was due to be played an eerie silence fell upon the court as the players prepared for the next point. Seldom did the chair umpire have to ask for “Quiet please,” which showed a very knowledgeable tennis crowd.

The Final Four!
It was a cloudy day again with the possibility of thunderstorms, but the roof is open for the beginning of the Seles-Rubin semi-final.
Rubin had played so well against Sanchez Vicario, could she repeat that performance right from the beginning? Rubin went toe-to-toe with Seles, displaying power (especially of the forehand) that had Monica stretched to her maximum. Rubin won the first set in a tie-breaker after some uncharacteristic errors from Seles. But, true to her reputation, Monica came pouncing back, shifting the momenttum of the match by quickly taking the second set 6-1. Rubin held serve for 1-0 when the thunderstorm arrived. The match was suspended and the roof was ordered closed.
Closing the roof totally takes about forty-five minutes. Why so long? I found out later that in order not to buckle the structure fof the stadium, the roof must close at a rather slow speed.
Upon resuming, Rubin’s power again was giving Seles problems, not to mention her all court game that was so impressive to see. SO many players are one-dimensional these days; it’s truly refreshing to see a young player develop both the baseline and net game. Rubin races out to a 5-2 lead and serves for the match at 5-3. She had gotten to this point by being aggressive, and the big second serve she went for, at 30-15, which took the net, followed by a volley that just slid wide of the sideline at 30-30 were all Monica needed to punch defeat on the nose, yet again.
However, I like the fact that Rubin was at net pressuring on Seles at 30 all. Most of the time, that volley may drop. From the development she has shown over the past three years, Chanda Rubin will her day. It wasn’t as if she stopped trying after losing that game, but you could see and feel the body language change, and it’s hard to stop a runaway freight train such as Seles when she gets that momentum rolling. Seles moved into Saturday’s final 6-7 6-1 7-5 in what was another most exciting and enjoyable womens match.
More impressive than Monica’s comeback, however, was the behavior of Karolj Seles, Monica’s father, in the stands. His appreciation for fine tennis was apparent to me as I observed him from close proximity. He constantly applauded Chanda’s great shots and I remember on one huge point when Chanda served a near ace, that Monica was unable to return, there was Karolj applauding again. He came to watch and enjoy tennis, and many a tennis parent could learn an invaluable lesson from the way this man conducts himself.

The roof is ordered open due to a more favorable weather report, and would actually remain open, as it turned out, for the rest of the tournament.
In the less dramatic, yet well played other semi-final, Anke Huber came back from one set down to defeat Amanda Coetzer, who absolutely crushes the ball for a woman of her size. Coetzer had the match poised for the taking midway into the second set, but maybe just didn’t quite believe that she could win and go through to her first Grand Slam final. For anyone who has played tennis, we’ve all been there.

To the mens semis.
The Agassi-Chang match never came close to its expectations. Earlier I mentioned how Agassi was lucky to survive the fist round, and two other five setters had definitely taken a toll on his body. He had no bounce to his legs and disappointingly had no fight to his game. Give Chang credit, however. Once Andre could not hust overpower Chang, he became very impatient, going for winners far too early in the point, thus self-destructing, with unforced errors. It was a miracle Andre made it to the semis anyway, flirting with defeat almost every round, yet sheer guts and determination kept him advancing as he tried to defend his title. If you saw this performance against Chang I can understand some negative Agassi comments. Agassi played his heart out earlier in the tournament and any time Andre Agassi wins tennis matches, tennis, in turn, wins. He may not be #1 each week on the computer, but he’s definitely our #1 promoter of the game ight now.

Boris Becker completely outplayed Mark Woodforde 6-4 6-2 6-0, squashing any hopes of an Aussie victory, an Australian Day itself. In his post-match interview, Woodforde was so impressed with Becker that he was willing to wager half of his prize money on Becker in Sunday’s final.

Super Saturday in Australia.
Different from the US Open Super Saturday where they play the Ladies final and both Mens semi-finals? Here it’s the Ladies Finals followed by the Mens Doubles Final, with the Ladies Doubles final completing the action.

The Ladies Final.
Seles and Huber traded stroke for stroke, and grunt for grunt, for the first eight games. Match tied – 4 games all. Perhaps the key game had already been played. With Huber ahead 3-2 and serving the ensuing 15 minute game, that Seles eventually won, was like a message going over the net to Huber, informing her that was walking on thin ice. Whatever Huber fired at Seles, Monica showed tremendous movement and determination to not only return Huber’s missiles, but to get there, set up, and hit winners at her own. Once Huber’s forehand hit he net to end the first set, Seles showed no mercy in closing the match 6-4 6-1 to win her fourth Australian Open title and to keep her unbeaten record at the Open intact.

Stefan Edberg and Petr Korda won the Mens Doubles in fine fashion, making Stefan a winner in his last appearance in Australia. He has announced his retirement at the end of 1996. Talk about the iron man of baseball. Stefan is the true iron man of tennis. Over the past twelve years, he has played in every Grand Slam event, traveling extensively throughout the world and showing his true dedication as a tennis professional. We’ll miss his grace and poise on the tennis circuit.

Stefan Edberg and Petr Korda, Australian Open 1996

The Ladies Doubles final saw Chanda Rubin and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario capture the title from Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez 6-4 in the final set, in a match that could have gone either way. It was fitting that Rubin came away with a title after having played such brilliant tennis during the fortnight.

Our last day in Australia would be a treat, the Mens Singles Final.
It was finally typical summer weather, blue skies, light breeze, 95 degrees, and the roof wide open. Becker and Chang took the center court after the Mixed Doubles final where Mark Woodforde and Larisa Neiland had defeated Luke Jensen and Nicole Arendt in an entertaining match.

Becker began the match putting all kinds of pressure on the Chang serve, breaking him twice for an early 3-0 lead. The constant pressure gave Becker a two set advantage before Chang got a rhythm in the third set. Early in the fourth, when Chang had probably his best chance to change the complexion of the match, Becker’s game went up that notch again.
With a true display of all-court tennis, Boris Becker proudly held above his head the Australian Open Mens Singles Trophy 6-2 6-4 2-6 6-2.

Boris Becker, Australian Open 1996

It was a wonderful five days of live tennis action and a magical vacation down under.

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