Martina Navratilova, Australian Open 1981

Extract from The Rivals by Johnette Howard:

“The first three majors of 1981 had been divided among Hana Mandlikova, Evert and Austin. Navratilova‘s Grand Slam title drought, meanwhile, had extended to twenty-eight months.

Yet as Navratilova and Evert walked out onto the court at Kooyong Stadium in Melbourne for the 1981 Australian Open final, Evert felt that “Martina had the momentum” – an odd remark considering that Evert hadn’t dropped a set. But Evert noticed that Navratilova had begun to display a fiercer edge, a more resilient confidence during her tournament run.

At times Evert felt sure she had struck unreachable shots – “Against anyone else they would’ve been winners” Evert said – only to see Martina somehow run down the ball or snare it at full stretch and crack back a volley winner.
“She would be on top of the net so quickly I would have to hit a perfect passing shot”, Evert said.
aEvert was magnificently up to the challenge. In the brillantly played first set, Evert and Navratilova were even at 5-5, then 6-6, then 4-all in the tiebreaker before Evert captured three set points to win it. Evert inched away to a 4-3 lead in the second set too. But Navratilova produced her best game of the match to hold at 4-all. Then Navratilova allowed only two points in the next two games, and the seesawing match was level at a set apiece.

Navratilova, seemingly exhilarated by her comeback, bolted off to a 5-1 lead in the final set, only to see something stir in Evert that was beyond fear and closer to self-loathing. It was that same stomach-turning thought that often drove Evert: the galling idea of having to make nice at the net with her overjoyed opponent after a loss. In that instant, the details faded and Evert quit thinking about how Navratilova’s net-smothering play had demanded almost impossible precision from her. Like Navratilova, Evert began playing on row emotion now.
“At that point you are so mad, you just find yourself going for your shots more subbornly”, Evert said. “My shots were hitting the lines. I was connecting with the ball as well as I could have.”

For the next six or seven games, she and Navratilova were like two fighters deep into a fifteen-round bout, weary but willing. Evert stormed back to 5-all. The tension was thick. Each rally had now become a test of nerve. Yet again, Evert didn’t feel safe. When Evert searched Navratilova’s body language or eyes right then for any familiar hint of tightness, none was there.

In this, their forty-fourth confrontation, Navratilova was suddenly an opponent Evert did not quite know. “Martina didn’t panic”, Evert said.
Evert was serving now at 5-5. With the score knotted at 30-all, Evert blasted a forehand long to give Navratilova a potentially decisive break point. Hoping to surprise Navratilova, Evert rushed the net first – only to end up in an eyeball-to-eyeball exhange of volleys that Navratilova won.

For the third time now, Navratilova began a new game serving for the match. Evert struck one last passing shot – long – and her shoulders sagged.

Navratilova had won the Australian Open 6-7 6-4 7-5. Her career total of major titles had finally ticked up to three.”

In 1974, Jimmy Connors captures his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open defeating Phil Dent (Taylor’s father) in the finals. At that time, the tournament was played on grass at the Kooyong Stadium over Christmas and New Year’s and Jimmy Connors was engaged to Chris Evert.
1974 was the only year Bjorn Borg played at the Australian Open, losing in the third round to Phil Dent. In the women’s draw Evonne Goolagong in her fourth-consecutive Australian Open final appearance, defeated Chris Evert 7-6 4-6 6-0.

Jimbo’s road to the title:
1st round: def Jean-Louis Haillet (FRA) 6-1 7-5
2nd round: def Graeme Thomson (AUS) 6-4 6-2 7-6
3rd round: def Syd Ball (AUS) 6-4 5-7 6-3 6-4
Quarter finals: def Vladimir Zednik (TCH) 3-6 7-5 6-3 6-4
Semi finals: def John Alexander (AUS) 7-6 6-4 6-4
Finals: def Phil Dent (AUS) 7-6 4-6 6-0

From Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography The Outsider:

“Australia in December is stupid hot and at times the weather matched my mood. The facilities were basic, to say the least – the Kooyong Stadium had a tiny locker room with a single shower and one toilet cubicle – but that didn’t bother me. No, what pissed me off was the partisan crowd, screaming approval at every hometown player and abuse at every foreigner. Guess who was their main target?

I took the brunt of it; three of the five matches I played to reach my first Grand Slam final were against Aussies. Every time I beat a local the fans roared their disapproval. Who was this upstart American brat hell-bent on ruining their party? Hearing the crowd booing was one thing, but was the hell was the deal with those flies? Where were they breeding those things anyway? They looked like B-52s coming down on me.

Spencer and Chrissie did their best to calm me down, and I know that without them I would have imploded and been on my way home long before I met another Australian, Phil Dent, in the finals.
But even Chrissie was getting on my nerves. Nobody was safe. With the organizers usually scheduling me on the court after Chrissie, I would go along to support her, sometimes bringing a sandwich and a Pepsi for my lunch. Chrissie didn’t seem to like that one little bit. If she noticed me eating and not paying attention during her match, she would throw me a look, which wasn’t hard for me to read: “If you’re not going to watch me play, then get out of here.” That pissed me off even more than the hostile Australian fans, because it was embarrassing; I thought everyone in the stadium could see what was going on. Run along, Jimmy, do what you’re told. […]

Phil Dent took the full force of the frustation and aggression that had been building in me from the first day of the tournament. Fortunately, I managed to channel it into my game. The super-dry, well-worn grass of Kooyong reminded me of the armory floorboards, and I adopted the approach Mom had taught me back in St Louis, moving forward, taking the ball early, blasting it down the lines and across the court. Even with the crowd cheering their countryman on, he didn’t stand a chance.
I took the first two sets, and although he managed to rally in the third set, taking it 6-4 and putting on a show for his fans, it was just a momentary setback. I regrouped, ignored the lynch mob in the stands, and won the fourth, 6-3, to capture my first Grand Slam title.

I was ecstatic, even if, to be brutally honest, the Australian Open in the 1970s didn’t draw the number of top players that it should have. The long flight and the unfortunate timing of the tournament limited the field. But it was still a Grand Slam and an important win in anybody’s book.
If the scheduling had been like it is today, I would have gone to Australia more often. But I played the Australian Open only twice in my career, winning it in 1974 and losing to John Newcombe in the finals the following year, and I thought that was good enough. I don’t regret any of the decisions I made, but who knows; if I had played the Australian a few more times, would I have won more majors? Your guess is as good as mine.

Between 1974 and 1979, I also didn’t play in the French Open so there was a long period of time where I was competing only in Wimbledon and the US Open.

So get this – in my career I won eight Slams and was in the finals of seven others, basically playing only two majors a year. Take it for what it is worth.

Getting that first win in the Australian Open was huge. That victory did set me up perfectly for what was to become the most extraordinary single year of my career: I would win 15 tournaments and lose only four matches out of 103. I also saw it as a launchpad that would catapult me toward the French Open and Wimbledon. I was partially correct.”

Kinda ironic to read Connors complain about the crowd don’t you think? Really would like to know his opponents’ thoughts on playing against him and the crowd at the US Open…

From Rod Laver‘s autobiography A Memoir:

“I’m proud to say that the 1960 Australian championships men’s singles final between Neale Fraser and me is remembered as one of the geat matches in Australian tennis history. Many who where at the match say they have never seen a crowd so emotionnally involved, with the possible exception of the legendary Lew Hoad-Tony Trabert Davis Cup singles match in 1953 when 17 000 spectators went crazy at Kooyong and most of the nation turned on the radio.

My match with Neale was a tense and brutal five-setter, played and in incendiary January heat in font of 8 000 wilting but highly excited fans wearing fun hats and zinc cream on their noses and fanning themselves with their programs. Most were barracking for the local boy, yours truly.

Neale and I made each othe venture to places neither of us had been before. It was a match in which all the things that I prided myself on, that Charlie Hollis and Harry Hopman told me would be the making of me – my fitness and stamina, my refusal to be beaten, my array of shots – clicked in … in the last three sets, anyway. Neale overwhelmed me 7-5 6-3 in the first two, and to many my cause must have seemed hopeless. At my flighty, erratic worst, I had been sacrificing accuracy for speed and power in my serves, and committed way too many double faults.
However in the third set I steadied the ship, got my serve back under control and, aware that Neale, who at 26 was five years older than me, was beginning to struggle in extreme heat, I upped the pace. I won the third set 6-3. Being the champion he was, Neale came back at me hard in the fourth, which, if he’d won it, would have given him the match.
It was match point against me in the 10th game of that set but I battled my way out of trouble by scrambling madly to retrieve Neale’s shots and level at deuce, then, having snatched back the momentum, I went on to win 8-6.

As we crossed over before the fifth and deciding set, Neale and I, good mates and merciless rivals, stood together for a moment in the shade of the grandstand. (Unbelievably, and shamefully, in those days in amateur tennis there were no chairs for the players at courtside, though plenty for the officials in the hospitality tent.) Whew , said Neale ‘how bloody hot is this!’
In the final set, we went hell for leather, and though we were both exhausted, physically and mentally – Neale’s legs were actually buckling, like a drunk’s – we played some thrilling rallies and each scored with excellent passing shots, and the crowd cheered itself hoarse with every one.

At one stage, Neale lobbed over my head and I raced back and gave the ball an almighty crack with my backhand and it driftd high and wide. Neale volleyed it with his backhand and fluffed the shot. That was the catalyst that swung momentum back my way.
Emmo, who was watching in the stand, went to Neale afterwards and said, ‘Frase, that ball would have gone out by 15 yards if you hadn’t hit it!’
Neale saved six match points. Afterwards he couldn’t remember anything about that set. In the end, luck was with me and I won the set 8-6.

At 21, I was the Australian champion, and only the second Queenslander to achieve that honour.

1973 Australian Davis Cup team

From Rod Laver‘s autobiography The education of a tennis player:

“The ITF, in a rare burst of sense and forgiveness, announced in 1973 that all pros were now eligible for Davis Cup. She’ll be apples! That’s an old Aussie expression for good days ahead.

And I got the Davis Cup itch again after years of feeling it was no longer for me. Why not? But, realistically, I was 35, not at my very best, and for a very long time hadn’t been involved in the most stifling of tennis pressure, Davis Cup – yes, greater than a Wimbledon final. Especially in Australia where so much success had raised expectations to the clouds. I hadn’t been on the team for 11 years, a lark, overrunning Mexico in 1962. But I was getting itchy to prove myself since the 1960-61 Cups were also romps, over Italy. The lone tough encounter of my four winning teams was the U.S. in 1959, and I lost both singles, to Barry Mac-Kay and Alex Olmedo. Only the presence of Neale Fraser, winning both singles plus the doubles with Emmo, saved us.

Now I had to talk to Fraser, the successor as captain to Hopman. A good friend, but very practical. Was I up to it? And how would the other guys feel about a newcomer at this stage? They had won two series to lift the team to the semis. Happily, I was accepted by my mates: Newcombe, Rosewall, Geoff Masters, Ross Case, Mal Anderson. They just wanted to win for Australia. If I could help, fine.
But could I? Fraser wasn’t at all sure. The acid test prior to the semifinal against Czechoslovakia was the Australian Indoor Championships in Sydney. Captain Fraser made it clear that I’d have to do well to have any chance to play against the Czechs.
I worked my bum off to get fitter than I’d been in almost a year. The lineup of would-be Laver-flatteners was daunting. In the quarters, it was Raul Ramirez, the quick, sharp-volleying Mexican, and I got him, 6-3 6-4. Next, world No. 6 Rosewall. Where did they find him? I barely escaped, 6-4 3-6 8-6. Finally, it was No. 2 Newcombe, in a roaring five sets, 3-6 7-5 6-3 3-6 6-4.
Captain Fraser shook my hand with, “Rocket, welcome to the team.”

It couldn’t have been a nicer setting after gloomy, rickety Hordern Pavilion, site of the Indoor. We were in Melbourne for the semi, plenty of November sunshine heralding the onset of summer on the famed grass courts of Kooyong. The Czechs would have preferred clay, but Jan Kodes, a future Hall of Famer, could handle the lawn. He’d won Wimbledon and was finalist to Newcombe at Forest Hills only months before.
For the last time, my parents saw me play, and fortunately I didn’t let them down. Or Fraser and the country. It was extremely difficult, though. After I stopped Kodes, 6-3 7-5 7-5, Jiri Hrebec, wildly erratic, put it all together to stun the crowd as well as Newcombe – on grass! – 6-4 8-10 6-4 7-5. Now Rosewall and I were on the same side for a change, and we needed each other in a long, demanding go-ahead doubles over Vladimir Zednik and Kodes, 6-4 14-12 7-9 8-6. That left it up to me to tame Hrebec (seldom heard from again) 5-7 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-4 settling it.

We were on our way to Cleveland, a quartet called, by my co-author, “Captain Fraser’s Antique Show”Rosewall, 39; Laver, 35; Mal Anderson, 38; Newcombe, 29. Rosewall had been away from Cupping for 17 years, Anderson for 15, Laver, as I said, for 11, Newcombe for six, Fraser for 10. Never been anything like it.

We were old enough to go out alone, but nobody wanted to in the December chill of downtown Cleveland. What a place for a Cup final. Old, vast, drafty Public Hall, attracted few people to see us do our stuff: a 5-0 triumph that ended the U.S. streak of five years and a record 15 encounters. A terrible promotion. Some writers were calling us the greatest of all Davis Cup teams, yet nobody wanted to see us (maybe 7,000 for three days) or the home heroes.
It didn’t matter to us. We wanted Yank heads to show that the, shall we say mature, Aussies were still breathing. And we got them on an overly drawn out Friday night and a brief Saturday afternoon. Newcombe led off with a mixture of uncharacteristic spins, soft stuff, plus his usual muscle to overcome Stan Smith in five 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Then Tom Gorman and I went at it furiously, charging the net, serving and-volleying for five more sets. A bit of revenge for Wimbledon ’71 was mine, 8-10 8-6 6-8 6-3 6-1.

Fraser decided he wanted two forehands down the middle plus troublesome serving in picking me and Newc to conclude the assignment. We fast-finished the Yanks, Erik van Dillen and Smith, 6-1 6-2 6-4. How pleasant to have the company of our old friend, the Cup, again, and swill victory grog from it. Long time no guzzle for all of us. My Davis Cup itch had been unexpectedly scratched.”

Watch out Australia’s winning team of 1973 reflect on their famous 5-0 victory over the United States in Cleveland.

It would have been only fitting had Pat Cash won the last Australian Open staged at Kooyong. The year was 1987, and so far it had been good to Cash, who’d won Wimbledon back in July. But there”s something special about winning your hometown championship, and Cash had grown to love the so-called “home of the wildfowl” since his days as a little boy watching his parents being coached there.

On a sunny afternoon, the centre court stands were full of nostalgic success-starved local fans as the Melbourne lad and Sweden’s Stefan Edberg staged a gripping display of serve and volley tennis until Edberg emerged a narrow winner, 6-3 6-4 3-6 5-7 6-3.

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