In little more than a week, the Australian Open will enter its 27th edition at Melbourne Park, following a move from Kooyong in 1988. In advance of the tournament, Toby Reiner look’s back at some of the great performances at the new arena, listed in chronological order.
Stefan Edberg, my childhood hero, had a mixed 1989. On the one hand, he made the final of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and ended the season in triumph at the Nabisco Masters in New York, winning that event for the only time in his career. On the other, he won just one game in the first two sets of those finals, dropping the first set 6-1 against Michael Chang in Paris, and topping that by not even winning a game against Boris Becker in the opening set of the Wimbledon final. Although he did make each final respectable, he ended up losing both, and at the US Open he lost 6-2 6-3 6-1 against Jimmy Connors in the last 16. Connors was a great player, yes, but he was by then 37, and most world number 3s would hope to win more than six games in three sets against someone of that vintage. So, Edberg started 1990 with something to prove. He made it through the first four rounds without dropping a set, but in the quarter-finals was pushed hard by the young American, David Wheaton, eventually winning 7-5 7-6 3-6 6-2. Edberg would have expected to face Becker in the semi-finals in a rematch of their Wimbledon and Nabisco Masters finals, but fellow Swede Mats Wilander, who had been the world #1 in 1988, before dropping to #12 in a disastrous 1989, surprised Becker in straight sets in the quarter-finals, and seemed to be regaining championship-contending form. With Ivan Lendl, the world #1 and defending champion, thrashing Yannick Noah 6-4 6-1 6-2 in the other semi-final, Edberg had his work cut out if he were to end his run of near misses and pick up a first Slam title since Wimbledon in 1988.
In the event, though, Edberg put together the first great performance at Melbourne Park. The score line doesn’t quite say it all. Ted Tinling, long-time tennis fashion designer, said afterwards that this was one of the most beautiful things – not just tennis matches – he had ever witnessed. Edberg’s volleys were razor-sharp, but that was to be expected. Less reliable aspects of his game – the arched-back serve, the flashy one-handed backhand, the squash forehand – were all timed to perfection, and Wilander’s revival was stymied before it had really begun.
Well though Lendl had played against Noah, his chances in the final seemed dim should Edberg keep up that form. Unbeknownst to all, though, Edberg had torn a stomach muscle in the final service game of that majestic semi-final, just as he had when demolishing Pat Cash in the last 16 in 1989. Surprised by the severity of the pain, he dropped his opening service game against Lendl, before roaring back from 0-2 to take the opening set 6-4. When Edberg then broke serve at 5-5 in the second set, it looked as though he might win the title despite the injury, but Lendl noted Edberg’s increasing discomfort, dug in deep, and broke back, before taking the second set on a tiebreak. With Edberg in increasing pain, he eventually pulled out at 6-4 6-7 2-5, by which time he could barely stand up straight.
Edberg had then lost three of the past four Grand Slam finals, but he was to win his second Wimbledon title later in 1990, and end the year as world #1 for the first time.
Jim Courier was a very different beast to Edberg. Where Edberg was a throwback to a previous era, basing his game on timing and quick reflexes and playing with style, grace, and panache, Courier looked a lot more like the top players of today, running round his backhand wherever possible and relying on power, tenacity, and strength of will. He had unexpectedly risen to #1 in the world in 1992, winning both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, but entered 1993 under some pressure, having not picked up another title since Roland Garros in early June, and being soundly beaten by Pete Sampras in the semi-finals of the US Open and by Boris Becker in the final of the ATP Championships (the successor to the Nabisco Masters).
Courier, though, was born for the rebound ace courts then in use at Melbourne Park, which tended to be a little slower and substantially higher bouncing than the hard courts used in North America, but rather faster than clay. Going into the quarter-finals, he hadn’t dropped a set, but looked set to face his first real test in a rematch of the 1992 Roland Garros final against Petr Korda, who was to become the Australian Open champion in 1998.
In the event, this was a mismatch. From 1-1 in the first set, Courier won 13 straight games to open up a 6-1 6-0 2-0 lead and showcasing all the power and relentless consistency that had helped him dominate the tour during the first half of 1992. Although Korda managed to add a bit of respectability to the score in the third set, he basically seemed helpless, and Courier looked set to reassert himself as the world’s best player.
Courier went on to beat former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich 7-6 6-4 6-2 in the semi-finals, and then received an unexpected bonus when Edberg, despite wearing a back brace, beat Sampras, Courier’s nemesis, in the other semi-final. When Courier took the opening two sets of the final 6-2 6-1, he stood on the verge of becoming the first man to win a Grand Slam title without dropping a set since Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros in 1980. Perhaps Edberg’s back loosened up. Perhaps Courier tightened up. Perhaps Edberg’s pride saw him through. Either way, he was able to take the third set 6-2 and push Courier to 7-5 in the 4th.
Courier had the title and had reasserted himself as the world’s best player, but Borg’s record was intact, and would remain that way until Roger Federer swept through the Australian Open without the loss of a set 14 years later, in 2007.
My other choices of great performance were all straight-sets demolitions, but I also want to recognize Agassi’s achievement in beating Sampras in the semi-finals of 2000. I do this not because I feel that a four-time champion must have achieved one great performance, and not because this was one of the great matches at Melbourne Park (although it was). Rather, what was impressive about this result was that Agassi achieved it somewhat against the run of the conditions.
Let me explain. I said earlier that rebound ace was usually a little slower than decoturf, the hard courts used in North America. As the 1990s progressed, that became increasingly true. In 1997, when Sampras won the title for the second time, he did so against a field that would have looked more likely to grace the latter stages of Roland Garros. Besides him and Goran Ivanisevic, the quarter-final line-up comprised Thomas Muster, Michael Chang, Carlos Moya, and Albert Costa, all of whom won their only Slam title in Paris, as well as Felix Mantilla, whose favorite surface was certainly clay, and Marcelo Rios, who was perhaps equally at home on clay and on slower hard courts. The courts were equally slow during the next couple of years, but with a rising crop of Australian players who preferred faster courts, including Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis, and the young Lleyton Hewitt, this situation seemed inimical to home hopes. As a result, the courts were given a fresh coat of paint for the 2000 tournament, and all at once became one of the fastest courts in the world. Sampras noted early in the tournament that the courts were basically just as fast as those in use at Wimbledon, where he was all-but-unbeatable, and that he wouldn’t be hanging around the baseline.
Sampras often said that he preferred medium-paced hard courts to faster ones. At least against Agassi, though, both the results and their styles of play suggest that this preference was not in his self-interest. I say this not just because Sampras won the US Open five times and the Australian but twice, while Agassi won the Australian Open four times (despite never playing it until he was 24) and the US Open just twice, and not just because Sampras beat Agassi four times without reply at the US Open (and Agassi never even made it as far as the final set), while Agassi beat Sampras on the other occasion in which they played in Australia. But Sampras’s already dominating serve was just too much even for Agassi’s much-vaunted returns when the courts became that fast, while his go-for-broke returns and groundstrokes would overpower Agassi often enough to turn matches on faster courts decisively in his favor on most occasions. During the early rounds of the Australian Open in 2000, I discussed this situation with a friend who was a firm Agassi fan, who glumly expressed the view that the increased court speed would turn an Agassi-Sampras semi-final from a matchup that was slightly in Agassi’s favor on the old rebound ace courts to one in which Sampras was a very firm favorite. Bear in mind that, although Agassi had finished 1999 as the world #1, Sampras had beaten him in straight sets in the Wimbledon and ATP Tour World Championships finals, on a fast indoor hard court, and in straight sets in Cincinnati and Los Angeles, two of the faster US hard courts, in the second half of 1999.
On the plus side, for Agassi, his own serve was going to be harder for Sampras to break than normal. Even so, after they split the opening two sets, Sampras took the third set in a 7-0 tiebreak. At that point, Agassi knew that he would have to break serve again to win the match, and Sampras’s serve was looking impenetrable. However, noting that Sampras, after an injury-plagued 1999, was not quite in top shape, Agassi kept fighting and managed to turn the match decisively in his favor by winning the fourth set tiebreak 7-5. If you haven’t seen the match, I’d suggest at least taking a look at Agassi’s celebration on winning that tiebreak. He knew Sampras might wilt, and what an achievement it would be for him to beat Sampras on such a fast court. Sure enough, Agassi raced through the final set 6-1, and went on to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov relatively comfortably in the final for the second of his four titles at Melbourne Park.
After his losses in the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals, Roddick went into a mini-slump, but he enjoyed a run to the final of the 2006 US Open, and performed creditably against Federer in a four-set loss. After an easy win against Mardy Fish in the quarter-finals in Melbourne, Roddick looked ahead optimistically to his semi-final against Federer, who had been pushed hard by Tommy Robredo in the quarter-finals. Roddick claimed that the gap between him and Federer had been lessening. The head-to-head between them may have been 1-12, and Federer may have just put together a 92-5 match record in 2006, but Roddick would certainly not have been doing himself any favors had he publicly expressed doubt about his chances. With the other semi-finalists being Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Haas, Roddick knew that if he could somehow pull off the upset he would have a strong chance of a first Australian Open title, especially given his strong head-to-head record against Gonzalez, who beat Haas easily in that semi.
Yet Roddick couldn’t even get close. After the first set, this wasn’t even really a competitive match at all. A chastened Roddick noted in the press conference afterwards that the match was “frustrating…miserable…It sucked. It was terrible.” He added that, as he had been playing well coming in, he had certainly not foreseen such a thrashing, especially after he got to 4-4 in the first set.
I nominate this as the best single match of Federer’s Australian Open career mostly for the strength of his return that day. Breaking someone with Roddick’s serve six times out of eight is no mean feat. Using this form, Federer was able to withstand Gonzalez’s challenge and record a 7-6 6-4 6-4 win in the final (after Gonzalez had served for the opening set and had two set points on his own serve at 5-4 40-15) and thus end Borg’s record of being the last man to win a Slam without losing a set. I’d also take this as by far the most impressive tournament performance in Melbourne Park. He didn’t play particularly well in winning the event in either 2006 or 2010. 2004 was better, certainly, but 2007 surely the best.
My final great performance is more recent and most tennis fans probably remember it. Djokovic had beaten Federer in the semi-finals in 2008, en route to picking up his first and at that point only Slam title, and had repeated the feat in a five-set epic in the 2010 US Open semi-finals. In general, though, 2010 had been a disappointing year for him, and Federer had beaten him three times in a row since the US Open semi-final (in Shanghai, Basel, and at the ATP World Tour Finals), for the loss of just one set. Overall, Federer led the head-to-head 13-6, and although he had also had a disappointing 2010 by his standards, he had rebounded from the US Open defeat against Djokovic by winning three titles and making two other finals, with the crowning achievement a fifth title at the Tour Finals. When Rafael Nadal picked up an injury in his quarter-final against David Ferrer and ended up losing it, Federer became the tournament favorite, especially because he had demolished Stanislas Wawrinka in the same round.
But Djokovic was at the start of his epic 2011 and had already showed positive signs in the early rounds in Melbourne, beating Nicolas Almagro easily in the 4th round and then demolishing Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals. Now, that would be expected, but Berdych had beaten Djokovic in the Wimbledon semis, and had beaten Fernando Verdasco so easily in the 4th round that he must have gone into his match with Djokovic thinking he had a decent chance. When Djokovic won 6-1 7-6 6-1, he signalled that he’d come to play.
Sure enough, in the semis, Federer had no answers. Although each set was close, looking at the match as a whole, there’s no doubt that Djokovic was the sharper. Looking back, this match should be seen as a changing-of-the-guard moment, the occasion on which Djokovic announced that he had replaced Federer as one of the top two players in the world. Not officially, yet, but de facto. Djokovic made the top two by winning Indian Wells a couple of months later, again beating Federer in the semi-finals, and he has been there ever since.
Well, those are my picks as the top five performances in the men’s event at Melbourne Park. I could of course have chosen others: Ivan Lendl’s demolition of Miloslav Mecir in the 1989 final, or Edberg’s thrashing of Pat Cash earlier in that same tournament, or Federer’s easy win against Juan-Carlos Ferrero in 2004, or Nadal’s battling victory against Federer in the 2012 semis, or perhaps even Mark Philippoussis’s surprise win against Sampras in 1996. Looking back over the just over a quarter of a century of tournaments at Melbourne Park, which coincides almost exactly with my tennis-watching career, those were the five that I think stand out the most as great performances.
What does anyone else think?
 Now the ATP Tour World Tour Finals, and held in London.