Jennifer Capriati, Australian Open 2002

By Suzi Petkovski, Tennis Week, February 2002:

Rarely does the sequel beat the original. Jennifer Capriati was mindful of that as she returned to the Australian Open, site of her fairy-tale first Slam win 12 months before.

“It’s pretty tough to top last year,” Capriati conceded. “I mean, that’s the best I’ve ever played.”

But Capriati had cause to reconsider after her courageous 4-6 7-6(7) 6-2 comeback victory over Martina Hingis in a dramatic 2002 Australian Open final played in brutal heat.

“I don’t know which one was better, winning last year or this year,” beamed the 25-year-old after an arduously successful first Grand Slam defense. “I don’t know what there is to come. But definitely, this is the most unique victory.” Jen, we’re, like, really stoked for you and stuff.

Capriati recovered from a 6-4 4-0 deficit and stood a point from 5-1. She stared down four match points in two separate games, as well as the tiebreak, in the second set. For the first half of the match, the American’s play had been inhibited; a contrast to the blazing winners of last year. But on those critical match points, Capriati was a lion. Not for 40 years has a woman overcome match points in a Grand Slam final; no one has ever survived four.

All this was achieved in horrific heat that turned the Australian Open final into the Australian Open furnace. Temperatures in the stands hit 90°F, but on court the mercury was a brain-frying 107°F.

“It was just really hard to breathe; the air was just so thick and so hot,”

said Capriati of the toughest on-court conditions she’d ever endured. A big call coming from a Floridian.

For all the 130 minutes of the final, the capacity 15,000 crowd wasn’t watching a sporting contest so much as wincing at a form of cruel and unusual punishment. In between long, searching points both players sought relief by taking the seats of line judges, slumping exhausted over the courtside slock, leaving the court several times, and in the case of Hingis, donning an ice vest. During the 10-minute break at the end of the 66-minute second set, both women were packed in ice in the locker room – “quite a sight,” Martina related.

As a Hingis backhand floated wide to give Capriati the tumultuous second set, the Swiss Miss hurled her racquet from baseline to coutside seat. She sensed she’d thrown away her last chance for victory. And so it proved. Hingis dreaded the thought of going back into the inferno. “I didn’t really believe in it anymore.” When they returned, the 21-year old was running on fumes. She’d been on court for a three-set doubles final victory the previous day, also in scorching heat, and fooled no one when she made the first break of the decider to go ahead 2-1.

“My head was all over the place,” recalled Martina. “I knew I probably wouldn’t last if I really needed to.”

Hingis’ physical collapse was as painful as it was inevitable. On her penultimate service game, the spring gone from her step, she foot-faulted to hand the break to Capriati. Finally, on the Hingis serve, Capriati clinched consecutive Aussie crowns with a forehand return winner on her first match point. Having won just four of the first 14 games, Capriati hammered out 13 of the next 17.

Physical strength and staying power, so impressive a feature of Capriati’s triumph in 2001, again proved decisive. This year, a new face joined Capriati’s travelling troupe: trainer Chantal Menard, a Milan-based, former world kickboxing champion. But even more impessive was Capriati’s mental steel. “The whole time, even though I was coming from behind, I thought I could still win this,” Jennifer revealed. “I never really thought of myself as being defeated out there.”

Indeed, Capriati was indomitable in the face of many mental battles: the strain of defending a Slam for the first time, the jolting loss to Alexandra Stevenson in her first match at Sydney, and she strained hip flexors that she carried into the tournament. She came back from a break down in the third set against Greek newcomer Eleni Daniilidou and staved off a set point against Rita Grande in the fourth round. Agasint the erratic Amelie Mauresmo in the quarters, Capriati was ruthless, winning 6-2 6-2, and in a semifinal of fierce, primal hitting against Kim Clijsters, she broke free 6-1 in the third.

But the most perilous test came in the final against Hingis. “I had a lot to deal with out thee,” Capriati reflected.

“Just being the defending champion, trying to keep the No.1 status, dealing with the conditions, and I didn’t feel like I was playing my best tennis in the beginning. So it means a lot to me that, as long as you just stay in there and try your hardest and fight, it can win you matches and that’s exactly what I did today.”

Monica Seles and Anke Huber, Australian Open 1996

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.
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John Newcombe, Australian Open 1975

From John Newcombe’s autobiography Newk:

I was really in no mood to play in the 1975 Australian Open, which began in the last week of ’74 at Melbourne’s Kooyong. I wanted to relax and have fun with family and friends over Christmas, and for some time, I’d been arguing the point with the organisers of the Open. Many players were skipping the event because they refused to sacrifice Christmas. I argued that if only it could be put back a few weeks, till the end of January, there’s be a stellar list of competitors.

I told tournament director John Brown that I wouldn’t be playing. I was jaded, I wasn’t motivated, and not having played in a tournament for nearly two months I was rusty and about 4 kilos overweight. I told Brown that the only thing that could make me reconsider would be if Jimmy Connors was competing – and I was sure he’d be giving the Open a miss. Then, 11 days before the tournament, Brown rang me and said that Connors had decided to play, and asked whether this changed my decision. ‘Give me an iron-clad guarantee that Jimmy is definitely going to be there, and I’ll sign up right now,” I replied. Jimmy was coming, and it was on: the tennis championship of the world.

I struggled throughout the early rounds of the Open. In spite of my training regimen, I was uninspired and inconsistent. My fans despaired as 19-year-old German rookie Rolf Gehring took me to five sets in the second round. I was not playing well, but I was winning.
At the end of the first week, there was some rain, so the second half of the Open was concertinaed into three days, with the final of the singles to be played on New Year’s Day. I played Geoff Masters in the quarterfinals and he had me down two sets to one before I beat him 10-8 in the fifth. Then I played a doubles quarterfinal with Tony Roche, which we won, and the next day I had to face Tony in the singles semifinal. This was a gruelling program, so before I played Rochey, I went to see Stan Nicholes, our old Davis Cup trainer, and he massaged my legs for two hours, pushing all the lactic acid out of them, and when I squared off against Tony I felt good.

I needed to because this match was probably one of the hardest I ever played. As mentioned previously, Tony and I had a habit of going all out against each other, and this was no exception. Again, the match went to five sets. At one point in that deciding set, Tony had me 5-2 down. Then, somehow, I finished up beating him 11-9 in what became a marathon.
To this day, I have no recall of that fifth set. I was so physically and mentally exhausted I played on instinct alone. At the end, as the 12,000-strong crowd gave Rochey and me a standing ovation, Channel 7’s on-court commentator, Mike Williamson, came to interview me. I have no memory of that either, but he says I sat there on my chair with a towel over my head staring glassily ahead, reminding him of a boxer who’d just copped a 12-round hammering. Apparently I managed to quip:

‘I can certainly think of better ways to prepare for a final against Jimmy Connors. I feel as old as Ken Rosewall right now.’

But really, all I wanted to do was cry. That exhausting semi had taken me somewhere my brain and body had never been before.
Later, after I’d showered, I sat for a while with Tony and said:

‘Mate, I’ve got to play Connors tomorrow in the final. I can’t play in the doubles. Can we default?’

Like the true friend he is, Rochey didn’t hesitate to let me off the hook. Next, I returned to Stan and he pummeled my legs for another two hours. After that, I had the quietest New Year’s Eve of my life.

On 1 January 1975, I woke feeling fresh and not hurting too much, considering. I jogged 2 kilometres to loosen up, then went to the courts to play Jimmy Connors.
I wasn’t intimidated by him. Perhaps I should have been? The man who had been likened to boxer Joe Frazier – ‘he keeps coming at you’ – had waged a brilliant Open campaign, thrashing all comers on his way to the final. He was an unbackable favourite with the bookies, but not the crowd.
Throughout, his brashness had annoyed local fans, especially when he arrogantly dismissed the 37 Australian players in the tournament. ‘I don’t care how many they are,’ he boasted. ‘Bring them on one after another. I’ll beat them all.’

Connors and I played probably the greatest, certainly the most intensely fought, Australian Open final ever. It was a blazing hot day, the flies were terrible, the atmosphere electric and the crowd noisy and parochial, yet of my life so focused was I that I could have been playing on the moon. I knew I was in for the fight against a skilled and implacable opponent who’d destroyed everyone who’d crossed his path. Also, at 30 years of age and having just played that killer match against Tony, I wasn’t sure if my body could take it. I had to put myself into the zone and be in tune with everything that was happening inside me.

Against all the predictions, and to the delight of the fans, I won the first set 7-5, which led one character in the crowd to yell at Connors ‘What happened Mouth?’ Jimmy then broke me in the second set and easily held his service to win 6-3.

In the third I broke him, then he broke me, then I broke him again to win 6-4. That first break has gone down as a memorable moment in Australian tennis history. With Jimmy serving at 0-15 and me leading 3-2, three contested line calls in a row – the third one an ace – gave him a 40-15 lead. I was angry, and the crowd was angry, booing and catcalling at the injustice they reckoned I’d copped. Then Jim did an odd thing: he deliberately double-faulted in an attempt to pacify the crowd. It worked. The fans, so against Connors right through the tournament, suddenly cheered him for his good sportmanship. But he’d let me back into the game and I took ruthless advantage of what I considered was his patronising and overconfident benevolence. I couldn’t believe what he’d done. I’m all for playing fair, but not to the point of martyrdom. Every player gets bad calls and you have to live with them.

In the fourth set, I was on top 5-3 after a few aces (I served 17 in that final) and was serving for the match. At this stage I had some energy left but I was starting to feel totally buggered. Normally I’d train two to three months for a Grand Slam event and, having put in the hard work, my condition would always see me through. But this time, with just 10 days training under my belt, I was way underdone. From the first point of the final, I conserved every ounce of energy. I didn’t smile a lot, didn’t show much emotion. Between points I walked slowly and calmly and breathed deeply. I knew Jimmy would take me to the wire and I prayed I had enough left to accomodate him.

Connors didn’t disappoint me. At 3-5 down in that fourth set, when many other guys would have packed it in, Jimmyplayed like a tiger to try to save the match. He pulled off an unbelievable game to break me, clouting some tremendous winners. Racing around the court like a dervish, he got me to a tie-break. First I went ahead, then he went ahead and served for the set at 6-5 in the tie-break. I battled to tie the score 6-6, then Connors went ahead 7-6. Finally, I finished off his brave flurry: he lost three points in a row and I ended his agony with a serve to win the set 7-6. […]

After the match I was euphoric, and embraced Angie and the kids. It was an emotionally charged presentation at courtside, and not only because of the classic match Jimmy and I had played, or Evonne Goolagong‘s win over Martina Navratilova so soon after the death of Evonne’s dad, Ken, in a car accident. Just a week before the fianl, Cyclone Tracy had levelled Darwin, and the nation was bruised and hurting? I auctioned my racquet for $1400 to benefit Darwin’s homeless and then, even though I was wrecked, I played a fundraiser exhibition match at the Hodern Pavilion to raise more money.

By Alan Trengove, World of Tennis, 1984

The evolution of Mats Wilander as a formidable grass-court player was undoubtedly the most significant feature of the tournament. After an unimpressive opening match, in which he was taken to five sets by Ben Testerman, the Swede beat Roscoe Tanner, Paul McNamee, defending champion Johan Kriek, John McEnroe, and, in the final, Ivan Lendl. His greatest asset was his return of service, particularly off the backhand, but it was his volleying, improving with every match, that was the eye-opener. By the end of the fortnight he was moving confidently to, and at, the net. And though his volleys weren’t as decisive as they might have been, he kept opponents under pressure with good, deep first volleys.

McEnroe gave no early warning of his semi-final débacle. He began strongly against Wilander, who had beaten him on the only two other occasions they met in 1983 – in the French Open and at Cincinnati – but after going to a 5-2 lead in the first set was lucky to scrape out of it, 6-4. Wilander realised that McEnroe’s service held no terrors for him, and either because of the Swede’s accuracy, or the wind and glare, to which McEnroe was unaccustomed after two months of indoor tennis, or, of course, the pressure, the New Yorker’s touch steadily deserted him. He hit many backhands out of court, misjudged volleys, and finally allowed Wilander to dictate strategy. “Shocking” was how he described his performance, but he was gracious enough to say Wilander was a great player…

Lendl was playing a pretty fair brand of serve-and-volley tennis with his usual overpowering serve and groundstrokes. But once again in a final he did not do justice to his ability. It was the first ever Australian final between two players from Europe, and Wilander was to become the first non-British European to capture the title since Jean Borotra did so in 1928. The first four games resembled a match at Roland Garros, with one rally extending to 29 shots and lasting 95 seconds. From the outset, though, Wilander showed the most willingness to go to the net, and when he broke for 3-1, Lendl’s game fell away. Lendl led 4-2 in the second set, only to double-fault twice in the next game and drop his service. Once more, he lost his grasp, and what had seemed likely to become a titanic, all-court battle faded into a rout. Lendl became completely intimidated by Wilander’s double-handed backhand, and either over-hit in desperation or played tentatively.

Stefan Edberg, Australian Open 1987

From Pat Cash’s autobiography Uncovered

Losing the final of a Grand Slam tournament is hard enough; doing it in your home city is even worse. And the sensation that your shoulder is just about to drop off hardly adds to the feeling of well-being. But walking back into the locker room at Kooyong after being defeated by Stefan Edberg in the final of the Australian Open, I had to contend with something extra: the spectacle of Edberg’s agent, Tom Ross, shouting, screaming and leaping all over the place like some pubescent kid.
Ross worked for the management company that was responsible for Edberg, but in my excuse that was no excuse for this juvenile, unpofessional behaviour, even Edberg looked embarassed by it. I have always believed that the players’ locker room should be reserved for the sole use of the contestants themselves, their coaches and their physiotherapists, and no one else. Unfortunately, agents are allowed to ply their trade in the players’ lounges and restaurants, but certainly not the locker room.[…]

Returning to Kooyong was always going to be an extremely tough call, barely three weeks after the triumph of winning the Davis Cup final in such heroic manner. Many Australian fans believed it was a forgone conclusion that I would just carry on where I left off against Pernfors, and win the title with ease. But Neale Fraser, who had a better idea of the realities of the situation, has since admitted that he thought I would struggle to recapture my best tennis so soon after such an emotionally draining experience.

I almost proved dear old Frase wrong, and maybe I only came up short against Edberg in the final because of the intensive physical work I had put in beforehand. Seeded 11th, I got a bye in the first round, and then beat the Italian Claudio Pistolesi in four sets. A couple of Americans, Ben Testerman and Paul Annacone, should both probably have been dispatched more quickly than they were, but I made it through to the quarter-finals to face Yannick Noah.
Then midway through the match, I miss-hit a couple of shots and felt a jolt of pain in my right shoulder. Immediately I saw the danger signs flashing, because I had been working had on my serve and the joint had been taking a pounding. Fortunately I beat Yannick, ounding off the win to love in the fourth set; but I knew I was in trouble. The problem was simply over-use, and all it required was a week or so of rest. But of course that’s not possible in a Grand Slam tournament.

My shoulder was killing me as I faced Lendl in the semi, and the fact that I won remains one of the miracles of my career. I only managed to serve at three-quarter pace thoughout, and I got through to my first-ever final of a major because I volleyed so well; the grass court was dry and the ball bounced high, so just rolling my arm over generated sufficent pace.

I couldn’t practice at all on the day before the final. My trusty physiotherapist David Zuker tried loosening up the troublesome muscles, but the shoulder was shot – and Edberg was in no mood for sympathy. I’m sure he felt a revenge for revenge after the Davis Cup final, and he was playing me off the court. By courtesy of my half-paced serve, he rapidly took a two set lead.
Stefan knew the route to the title at Kooyong, having lifted the trophy two years previously. Throughout the tournament he had been in supreme form and had only dropped one set on his way to the final, in his opening match. Miloslav Mecir only managed to take nine games off Edberg in the quarter-final, Wally Masur fared just marginally better in the semi, and it appeared that I was next in line for the treatment. But somehow I managed to get myself back in the match, and levelled the score at two sets all.
However, I knew I was undoubtedly still the underdog. The shoulder pain became unbearable, and serving for the fourth set, I hit three successive double faults. There was no pace or stick on my delivery, and as I tried to find a little extra power, I lost my rythm altogether. I managed to grab the set after losing my serve, but I had lost the momentum. Edberg broke early in the fifth, and recaptured the title he’d won as a teenager. My hopes of a perfect Australian summer had fallen at the last obstacle, and my dreams of Grand Slam glory were forced back on hold.

After the match I was not in the best of moods – I defy anyone to be a good loser in those circumstances. Even before being infuriated by the sight of Ross in the locker room, I’d got myself into trouble on the awards podium. As is normally the case at the Australian Open, the runner-up is asked if he would like to make a short speech before the winner is presented with the trophy. Naturally I said well done to Edberg, because I’ve always viewed him as one of the finest players ever to grace a grass court. Then I said something along the lines of ‘I’m supposed to thank a load of people like the sponsors Ford and all that junk. But I won’t do that, I’ll leave it to Stefan.’

Mats Wilander, Australian Open 1988

By Rex Bellamy, The Times, January 25, 1988

Mats Wilander took four hours and 28 minutes to beat Pat Cash 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 yesterday in an exhilarating climax to the first Australian championships played in the new National Tennis Centre at Flinders Park. Wilander became the first player since Ken Rosewall to win the men’s title three times and the only overseas player ever to do so. The final was a great match. It also had a satisfying, if slightly peverse outcome. A week ago most people fancied Wilander’s chances less than those of Ivan Lendl or Cash – the men who, with Stefan Edberg, grabbed last year’s Grand Slam titles. “It’s a long time”, Wilander said, “since I saw the four top guys so intense about winning a Grand Slam tournament.” And when Cash beat Lendl in a semi-final for the second year running, it seemed that the dramatic convention would insist on an Australian champion in the brave new world of Flinders Park. It almost happened. Cash came within two points of winning.

But Wilander fooled them all: and did so with a beautifully-crafted, unflinchingly resolute performance. Nor did the public seem to mind. They were mostly behind Cash, a Melbourne man, whose fighting heart accepts no compromise between a VC and a blanket. But they like Wilander, too, partly because he has a more engaging, less peevish personality and partly because of his tennis. They know him well. They should do – this was the fifth consecutive Australian title won either by Wilander or another Swede, Edberg.

Wilander also had a noisy and demonstrative following: young Swedes with faces daubed in the national colours. Australians responded in kind. The sunlit, packed stadium raised images of some tribal festival. The roars of 15,000 voices rang and rang across the Yarra River, the Melbourne cricket ground, and the tower blocks of the city. Even the silences were punctuated by the strange sound of wind gurgling through the amplifying system.

Yes, it was windy. Often cloudy too. And the match was twice interrupted by rain: for 33 minutes when Wilander was 4-1 up in the second set (which he lost) and for 18 minutes when Cash had a break point for a 4-0 lead in the fourth set. Yet those breaks added fuel to the excitement rather than dousing it. They were conversational pauses in a feast we had no wish to finish.

For the first set and a half (and often thereafter) Wilander played what he thinks may have been the best tennis of his life. Cash was not serving well enough to earn himself easy volleys. Wilander’s service returns were superb – they remained so – and with nimble cunning he contained, teased and frustrated the net -rusher. Often Wilander went to the net himself, once startling the incoming volleyer by advancing to meet him. Wilander’s technical soundness and tactical variety were exemplary. One spectator kept shouting “Get him, Pat.” He might as well have asked the fish to hook the fisherman. There was nothing Cash could do from the baseline, especially with a shaky forehand, and for a time there was not a lot he could do from the forecourt. Then came the first break, in which the rain transformed the court into a shining green pool.

When play resumed, Wilander volleyed too often – and not well enough to avoid damaging counters. By contrast Cash began to serve well and also found a better length with his approach shots. That meant he had higher volleys to play, and plenty of chances to exploit his astonishing quickness in the forecourt. At times his racket seemed impassable. What a match we had then. Each man in turn moved from the shadows into the sunlight and back again. They were cold-eyed, almost baleful, emitting waves of willpower before every point. Cash took the second and third sets but Wilander, who served consistently well, then won eight games out of nine. Cash seemed to be tiring. Wilander was probing his forehand and Cash was no longer as quick to respond.

Urged on by the crowd, Cash somehow pumped himself up again. The fifth set was a marvel in that, having given so much for so long, the players produced a set gloriously dominated by dazzling, hard-won points – rather than errors. The crux came when Wilander, with incredible physical and mental resilience, kept himself in a rally he twice seemed to have lost. That gave him a second chance, which he seized, to break 7-6. He held his service to love for the match.

“I played pretty well”, Cash said, “but Mats was too good on the day.” Somebody asked Wilander if he felt he had ruined an Australian party. “Such a great match,” he said, “couldn’t ruin anything.”