Australian Open, 1976. The local boy John Newcombe loses in the final against his fellow countryman and absolute stranger to the public, Mark Edmondson, ranked 212th at the ATP Race. Since then, never has such a badly ranked player won a Grand Slam tourna

Australian Open, 1976. The local boy John Newcombe loses in the final against his fellow countryman and absolute stranger to the public, Mark Edmondson, ranked 212th at the ATP Race. Since then, never has such a badly ranked player won a Grand Slam tournament again. And nobody else has ever walked out on the court wearing red shorts and a cowboy hat.

 

There’s nothing more unpredictable than the weather. On this day, January 4th, 1976, as the temperature rises to 42 degrees C° over Melbourne, unexpected blasts of wind suddenly cool things down. On the central court of the Australian Open, the two finalists are forced to put their rackets down for twenty minutes. When they return, the temperature has dropped by at least thirty degrees. Not enough to trouble the local Mark Edmondson, who’s leading by two sets to none against his fellow countryman John Newcombe. Despite the loss of the third set, and a game that sometimes looks a bit confused and non-coordinated, Edmondson finally wins the match in four sets, and, at 21, lifts the first Grand Slam trophy of his career. A title, and a record also : ranked 212th at the ATP Race before the tournament, Edmondson remains to this day the player with the worst ranking to ever win a major tournament. He had only won a single Grand Slam match before his masterpiece. That was a year earlier, at Wimbledon. The reason behind this sudden awakening ? « I had nothing to lose. », he recalls on the website news.com. Not once did the Australian get flustered during the tournament, whether it would have been because of the high stakes, his opponents’ different status or the roaring crowd, despite the public success of this 1976 edition. Not even once ? « I’m suffering from shock and exhilaration or something. It is just too good to believe. I think I might have a couple of bottles of bubbly. » he, however, told the reporters, after his victory.

 

« I think he wanted to become a champion »

 

Coolness, or even casualness, probably the two characteristics which would fit the most the former player. Quarter-finalist at Roland-Garros in 1963, the frenchman Jean-Claude Barclay knows one thing or two about the guy. « He’s one of these hippie players who travel in groups. He doesn’t care about elegance and walks on the court wearing red shorts and a cowboy hat for instance », he describes in Tennis de France in 1976. « Last summer, he was living with two friends and the three of them were sleeping in a Volkswagen minivan. » The summer which Barclay is mentioning here is the start of Edmondson’s great adventure. Six months prior to the Australian Open, he decides to pay for a trip to Europe by washing the windows of the hospital employing his sister or being a salesman in a hardware store. His goal ? To improve his tennis, discover the joys of genuine comradeship on the roads of the Old Continent, but also stick himself to the rhythm of a professional athlete. And to become one, for the first time of his life. Jean-Claude Barclay : « I think he wanted to become a champion. You should have seen him during his training sessions in Douai or in Montana. He would start everyday at 8 in the morning and would never leave if the court wasn’t reserved for other people. He didn’t speak a word of french and as he was with his friends, he didn’t sympathise with the other players. Well, like any true Australian, a pint of beer never left him indifferent. » Months go by and the Australian Open is getting closer. A return home is possible, but seems complicated. At the time, on the circuit, around 240 players are awarded points. Edmondson, ranked 212th, is among them, but only counts eleven points. Not enough.

 

Golf buggy and hip replacement

 

However, to his own surprise, a series of forfeits will allow him to be called at the last minute. « I don't think the general public knew about me. », he concedes, in the Independent. His first steps would quickly reverse the trend. First, the Austrian Peter Feigl - « a decent-playing journeyman » according to Mark - in the first round, than a fellow countryman in the second, Phil Dent, against whom his serve is on point : « I was serving fantastic. I could hit a five cent coin wherever you put it. ». Then come the kiwi Brian Fairlie - « I don’t remember that match - Dick Crealy, the legendary Ken Rosewall, 41 at the time - « the only time I broke a racquet » - and, in the end, the illustrious John Newcombe, for a total of four fellow countrymen defeated during the fortnight. A great performance, for someone who wasn’t even considered among the top fifteen best local players at the start of the tournament. Since Edmondson’s consecration in 1976, not a single Australian has won it at home. A 40 year long dearth. How do you explain it ? Mark doesn’t have the answer. Or doesn’t want to give it. « I don’t really care, he cut short when a TV journalist asked him a few years ago, during of his last appearances in the stands of Melbourne. I haven’t touched a racquet in three years. » The consequences of four hip operations he underwent in less than twelve months. These days, Edmondson, 62, lives close to a golf course, in the coastal resort of Mona Vale, close to Sydney. He only gets around driving his golf buggy, and enjoys bathing in the sea on Sundays, as the golf course is only a few steps away from one of the nicest beaches in the world. The reward of a lifetime ? « My goal at the start of my career was to play well enough to enable me to travel the world for a few years, he rewinds.  I just thought it would be pretty good if I could finish my career and have enough money to buy a house with a tennis court, a pool and a view of some blue. » This time, the weather should leave him in peace.

 

By Victor Le Grand