There are famous sporting droughts, endless times where it seems that a player, or team, will never again taste success. In tennis, perhaps the most famous of these droughts was at the home of the sport – Wimbledon. For 77 long, fruitless years, Britain waited for a native son to again hoist up high the most famous and revered trophy in the game. And until Andy Murray finally broke through in 2013, the last time that had happened was before the advent of World War 2. Before the rise of atomic weapons and the Cold War. Before humans set foot on the moon, before the computer revolution, before today’s interconnected online world – and so many more of the changes which have defined life in the 20th and 21st centuries.
But what of the other Grand Slams? How have other local players done at their own home showpieces? The last American man to win the US Open was only a mere 15 years ago, with Andy Roddick triumphing in 2003 (however, given the historical strength of US tennis, and especially after the 1990’s golden era of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the like, this length of time probably feels closer to 150 years for fans of American men’s tennis). Frenchman Yannick Noah lifted the French Open’s La Coupe des Mousquetaires back in 1983, and with the level he exhibited in his swashbuckling play to capture his only ever Slam that year, he certainly did honour to the 4 legendary French tennis Musketeers of the 1920’s and 30’s.
And that brings us to Australia, and Mark Edmondson in 1976. It seems scarcely believable that, come the start of the 2018 edition of the Australian Open, it will have been 42 years since an Australian man has claimed victory. There have been other local finalists in the intervening years – John Marks, Kim Warwick, Pat Cash on 2 occasions, and Lleyton Hewitt – but nobody has taken the final step.
But who, exactly, is Mark Edmondson, and what were the circumstances of his win?
Well, let’s rewind to 1976. In those days, the Australian Open was played on the grass courts of the Kooyong Stadium – a very different event (in more ways than one) from today’s Australian Open, held on hard courts in the modern Melbourne Park arena a few kilometres away. Interestingly, the name Kooyong itself derives from an indigenous word thought to mean resting place – quite appropriate, as for over 4 decades the tennis hopes of a nation have not been allowed to move on from Kooyong, and the events of that Melbourne summer of 1976.
Back then, unlike today, the Australian Open was seen as the least prestigious Grand Slam among the 4 tournaments that comprise the most important in tennis. In fact, it was often skipped over by most top players. Incredibly, Bjorn Borg attended only one Australian Open in his entire career, despite finishing his playing days with 5 Wimbledon Championships, and being hailed as one of the greatest grass court players of all time. On the grass of Kooyong John McEnroe ever only played 2 editions of the tournament. Jimmy Connors also only entered twice, winning it all in 1974, and losing the 1975 final to local favourite John Newcombe.
Furthermore, in those years the Australian Open field was comprised of not 128 entrants like the other Grand Slams, but a mere 64 – such was the diminished status of the event. And just as incredibly – unlike the other 3 Slams which required players to win 7 matches to win the tournament – the Australian Open champion only required 6 wins. After the 3rd round, players moved into the quarterfinals rather than play a 4th round match!
A huge issue which contributed to the event’s woes was scheduling. Unlike present times, the Australian Open didn’t begin at the end of January, but instead kicked off one day after Christmas. Few players from afar were willing to give up their Christmas and New Year holidays for the tournament. If one also considers other problems such as the sheer distance foreign players needed to travel, along with the relative paucity of the prizemoney on offer, one can very easily begin to see why the Australian Open was viewed in such a lesser light, and was largely neglected in relation to its other Slam siblings.
Thus, when the 1976 edition of the Australian Open began, an incredible 9 of the top 10 players in the world had elected to skip the event. In fact, the only top 10 player in the draw was Ken Rosewall – a true legend of the game, but no less than 41 years of age. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that all 8 quarterfinalists that year were Australian born. In fact, if one digs into the history books prior to the 1976 event, it is revealed that Australian men had won 30 of the last 35 Australian Open tournaments contested, and had indeed finished runners-up on the other 5 occasions!
So, why is Mark Edmondson’s victory unique then? He was, after all, an Australian playing in an at-the-time Australian-dominated home Slam. Well, for starters he entered the tournament with a world ranking of 212 – and to this day remains the lowest ranked man to win a Grand Slam event in history. A relative unknown in a country full of tennis idols, he was working various jobs leading up to the summer of 1976 to save money for overseas tournament travel the following year. Only 7 days into a new stint working as a cleaner at the same hospital where his sister worked as a nurse, he received a call from Tennis Australia. The organisation was having difficulty finding entrants for the Tasmanian Open, held just prior to the start of the Australian Open. At the time, the top 15 ranked Australian players were offered a chance to play in the Australian Open through participation in various state tournaments. Edmondson, accepting his invitation to play in Tasmania after several top players declined, duly won the event. With the win, he suddenly found himself with one of the very last entry places available for that year’s running of his home Slam.
A rank outsider, Edmondson began his Aus Open campaign against Austrian Peter Feigl, coming through a tough match 6-1 in the 5th set. Taking down his next 2 opponents with more ease, the burly Australian outsider from Gosford in New South Wales was suddenly among the last 8 players left in the draw. Facing fellow Australian 13th seed Dick Crealy in the quarterfinals, Edmondson tamed his compatriot’s big serve to move into the semis. Interestingly, as the tournament ran for only a 10 day period in that era, quarterfinal, semi-final and final matches were all played on consecutive days.
This was an impediment to the outsider. Edmondson was still short on cash, and had to commute by public transport for an hour to and from the tournament venue each day while staying at a friend’s house, as he could not afford to stay at a nearby hotel. But with a game built around a powerful serve, and tailor made for grass, nobody could belittle his place among the final 4, even if only few fans knew who he was.
However, facing Australian legend Ken Rosewall – he of the picture-perfect backhand – would surely be the undoing of the upstart. Or would it? Rosewall was that year’s top seed, and a 4-time Australian Open champion. Despite the odds being greatly stacked against him, Edmondson used his serving prowess and a quick-strike, go-for-broke game plan to cause a huge upset and make headlines, defeating Rosewall by the score of 6-1 2-6 6-2 6-4 in brutally hot conditions. After John Newcombe moved into the final in straight sets, the concluding stage for the next day was set. On the tram ride home after his semi-final triumph, a fellow passenger remarked to Edmondson that he had ‘little chance of defeating Newcombe’ in the championship match. Newcombe himself stated in a press conference words to the effect that ‘Edmondson would be out of his league in the final’. Edmondson rightly felt disrespected, and determined even further to use every fibre in his being to prove the naysayers wrong.
Dubbed ‘The Battle of the Moustaches’ by the press, the final began in dry and stifling conditions, with the temperature gauge hitting 42 degrees Celsius. Newcombe squeaked out the first set, winning it in a tiebreak, before Edmondson bounced back and won the 2nd set 6-3, serving as brilliantly as he had in his semifinal match against Rosewall, and using his age advantage in the torrid conditions. In the early stages of the 3rd set a fierce wind storm blew in, causing play to be interrupted for half an hour, and dropping temperatures by over 15 degrees. On return both players continued to hold their serves all the way to the conclusion of the set, as Newcombe took a 6-5 lead in the ensuing tiebreak. However, a missed backhand volley and a double fault allowed Edmondson to sneak the 3rd set away. With a swell of rising belief – Edmondson later stated that after taking that set “The inner confidence came – that my game was OK” – Edmondson stormed through the 4th set, winning it 6 games to 1 and entering tennis folklore. Such was the level Edmondson displayed on his serve that day, John Newcombe didn’t manage to break even once.
Edmondson was the new Australian Open champion, having carved his way through the field as the ultimate underdog, en route defeating the top 2 seeds in consecutive matches in the semis and final. After the trophy ceremony, just like on every other day of that year’s event, Edmondson took the tram back home. His magical run meant he now had earned enough money to travel the tour for at least another year, and his ranking was up to number 56, which meant he could gain direct entry into most of the world’s big tournaments. Unfortunately his triumph was also tinged with sadness, as Edmondson’s father had passed away 2 years earlier from cancer, and could not witness his son’s finest tennis moment.
Edmondson never again tasted Grand Slam glory in singles, though he went on to reach a career high ranking of 15 in the world, won a further 5 singles titles along with 5 Grand Slam doubles titles, and was a member of the victorious 1983 Australian Davis Cup squad.
His historic win marked the end of the golden era of Australian tennis dominance. And while things have changed enormously in the world of tennis – and indeed everywhere else – since those days, one fact remains the same.
Mark Edmondson is still the last Australian born player to conquer the Australian Open.