By Diego Malano
If we look at the sheer domination of the great names in this current era of men’s tennis, we reach the unavoidable conclusion that we are seeing a level of supremacy – concentrated in the hands of only four elites – which tennis has never seen, nor is likely to ever witness again. Combined, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 51 of the last 56 men’s Grand Slam singles titles, a stretch that now runs all the way from the 2005 French Open through to the 2018 U.S. Open. What’s more, at least one of these four aforementioned players has featured in every single Grand Slam final deciding match during this period – bar only one tournament, the 2014 U.S. Open. And this is all still on the topic of Grand Slams – before we even begin discussion about general dominance of other important tennis metrics, such as time spent as world number one, Masters Series tournament wins, etc.
But let’s cast our minds back to 2002, a time when tennis was in a state of transition. The 1990s had given the world two all-time great players in Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, but by 2002 their era was fast coming to a close. Indeed, Lleyton Hewitt’s 2001 U.S. Open massacre of Sampras in the final was the surest sign that this grand American-dominated epoch was nearly over. Sampras would in fact go on to win his last-ever Slam at the 2002 U.S. Open, followed by Agassi’s final Slam win coming mere months later at the 2003 Australian Open. The game was in a state of flux, and in these circumstances, before Roger Federer and the rest of the titans arose, tournament results were never a forgone conclusion.
Enter one Karl Thomas Conny Johansson – more commonly called Thomas Johansson. An unassuming Swede with a dependable baseline game in the mold of many of his former countrymen, Johansson had turned professional in 1994, and had toiled in relative anonymity on the professional tour for years. In 1999, at the age of 24, he had won his first big title at the Canadian Open, but failed to light the world much on fire after that. So, as the 2002 running of the Australian Open got underway, the quiet man from Sweden, seeded 16th, would have been few people’s pick to become champion. In fact, not since Mats Wilander in 1988 had a Swede even triumphed at the Australian Open. On top of that sobering statistic, it had been nearly a decade since any Swedish male at all had been crowned a Grand Slam champion.
But that is why tournaments are held – to determine who the best player is for that particular edition. The 2002 Australian Open was to be a tourney with a staggering amount of upsets, as a stunning six of the top ten men’s players were to lose before the 3rd round had even begun. This list incredibly included that year’s top two seeds in Lleyton Hewitt and Gustavo Kuerten. In fact, such was the decimation of the highest-ranked players that one of those prematurely evicted men was gone before even hitting a ball in anger – two-time defending champion and number three seed Andre Agassi withdrawing just hours before the event started.
The net result of all of this top-seed carnage was that many potential roadblocks for lesser-ranked players were removed – but whomever was to take advantage of the unexpected openings in the draw still had to perform, and not let their golden opportunity disappear. Thomas Johansson was to be the player of destiny that summer, making quick work of his first two unseeded opponents and setting up a 3rd round encounter with Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui, the man who would be involved the following year in one of the all-time great Australian open matches, when he would lose a marathon five-hour quarter-final to Andy Roddick. Mercifully for Johansson, this battle with El Aynaoui only lasted 4 sets, as he honoured his seeding and moved into a 4th round encounter with Adrian Voinea instead of the man everyone had originally expected him to play, reigning French Open champion and number two seed Gustavo Kuerten.
Again triumphing in four sets, Johansson found himself suddenly in a Grand Slam quarterfinal for only the 3rd time in his career. Meanwhile, in the equally upset-affected top half of the men’s draw, the Russian 9th seed Marat Safin was rounding ominously into form, winning his first three matches in straight sets, and then dispatching American legend Pete Sampras in a high quality, four-set 4th round showdown.
As the quarterfinal match between Johansson and compatriot and good friend Jonas Bjorkman began, it was hard to pick between them. Not only did they hail from the same nation and play with similar styles based around sturdy two-handed backhands, but both men were also playing some of the best tennis of their respective lives. Indeed, Bjorkman had overwhelmed Great Britain’s hope Tim Henman in the previous round with alarming, straight-set ease. None of that mattered though as Johansson played what he later called “maybe my best tennis ever” in the first set, taking it 6-0. Bjorkman rallied hard in the second set, and helped by some nervous play from Johansson won that stanza relatively easily. From there though it was a return to first-set form for Johansson, winning in straightforward fashion to move into his first-ever Grand Slam semi-final.
Still, the safe money was on the champion emerging from the top half of the men’s bracket, as the aforementioned Safin followed up his awesome 4th round win over Sampras with a much easier time of it in the quarters, his opponent calling it quits with injury before the first set was even done. Indeed, once the semi-final line up was set, Safin, seeded 9th, would be playing Tommy Haas, seeded 7th – while Thomas Johansson, seeded 16th, would be taking on the even more unheralded Jiri Novak, who was sporting the lowly 26th seed. Haas was having the tournament of his life, having reached the semis by overcoming previous Australian Open finalists Todd Martin and Marcelo Rios, as well as prevailing in a 4th round five set marathon over a certain young player by the name of Roger Federer.
True to the tournament’s unpredictable nature that year, both semi-final matches were rollercoaster affairs. Marat Safin, trying to back up his first Slam win two years earlier, finally ended Haas’ charmed run in five tough sets, while Thomas Johansson also had to labour over five sets before finally sealing victory over Novak. Coming into the title match, which coincided with Safin’s 22nd birthday, few gave Johansson any hope. The consensus thinking was that he had taken the opportunity the open draw had afforded him, but that his luck would now end. Indeed, even the demeanour of the finalists seemingly reflected this, as on the day of the final Safin walked onto the court and flashed a ‘V’ for victory sign at a nearby television camera, while Johansson was quiet and non-expressive upon his own entrance.
The first set results seemed to reflect the men’s respective arrivals, as Safin broke Johansson’s serve twice to take it in quick fashion, six games to three. But gradually yet determinedly, Johansson started to change the match’s complexion. His level of play became better and better, his serve and backhand transforming into piercing weapons. The momentum had shifted, and to Safin’s great surprise Johansson wound up taking the next two sets by the scores of 6-4, 6-4. Displaying increasingly negative body language, Safin managed to keep the 4th set close, but the ensuing tie-break proved to be no contest as Johansson leapt to a huge lead before closing it out, seven points to four.
Later, Johansson would admit that he “never thought he would be a Grand Slam winner”. In contrast, Safin lamented that “I was a favourite and I couldn’t manage to win it”. But favourites don’t always triumph, and that adds to the thrill of the spectacle. Indeed, for Johansson perhaps the trickiest moment of the entire day occurred before the match had even started, as his coach had forgotten to book him a courtesy car to take him to Melbourne Park, leaving him to hail a taxi to drive him to the stadium and his date with destiny. Always modest, when asked after his stunning triumph if he thought he could win a second Slam, Johansson replied simply “I don’t know if I’ll ever win another Grand Slam”.
He never did taste that rare type of tennis success again, retiring in 2009 after fifteen years on the professional tennis circuit. Regardless, Thomas Johansson will always be remembered as a champion at the highest level of the game, and as a man who held his composure for those two crazy weeks in early 2002 while seemingly every other player in the Australian Open draw lost theirs. Unlikely as his victory was, an improbable Grand Slam champion is nevertheless still a Grand Slam champion forevermore.