It happened forty-one years ago, in 1976. The Australian Open was still being played on grass, the Open era had only began, and the Australians had made a habit of winning the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, at home. But since Mark Edmonson’s victory that year, the locals have been desperate to win another edition of the tournament, and all his supposed heirs have failed to complete the mission.
Not even a second after having shot his two-handed forehand five meters behind the line, Lleyton Hewitt had taken off the white cap he was wearing backwards for the whole match. Marat Safin’s serve, measured at 209 km/h, had been way too quick. It was over. The Australian had tried a desperate return which was way too powerful, offering the giant Russian this 2005 Australian Open. A huge missed opportunity, as since his Australian Open in 1997, Hewitt had never been past the fourth round, and there he was, losing only one step away from the title. Especially as in order to reach the final, the Australian (then world number 3) had to go through a real obstacle course, consecutively defeating a very young Rafael Nadal in five sets, then David Nalbandian in five sets again, before knocking out Andy Roddick (world number 2) in the semi-finals. Against Safin, Hewitt had even won the first set 6-1, showing everyone that he was ready for a good fight. Three rapid sets won by the Russian after that, and the deal was closed, with Hewitt only receiving a silver medal, and the land of kangaroos desperately waiting to find Mark Edmonson’s heir, the last local winner of the Australian Open in 1976, almost 30 years before. More than four million Australians had sat in front of their TV waiting to see the achievement, and it remains one of the highest viewing figures of the decade.
A sweeper in Melbourne
Before Hewitt, other Australians had crashed. John Marks and Kim Warrick in the final. Pat Cash as well, who lost two finals in two consecutive years in the eighties. Patrick Rafter played one semi-final in 2001, but other than that, was always knocked out of the tournament pretty quickly. Philipoussis never went beyond the fourth round. Picking up Mark Edmonson’s torch truly is a hard mission. And if nobody managed to come after him, in 1976, nobody expected him to win, not even himself. As before the highlight of his career, Mark Edmonson was a real anonymous. A 21 year old young player ranked at the 212nd spot before the tournament, who made so little money with tennis that he had to have another job on the side. Used to improbable jobs, Edmonson was sweeping floors just before his triumph. « My sister was a nurse, he explained years after his victory. They needed people to clean up the hospital, so I was sweeping the floors and cleaning the windows. » Qualified with no special status for the 1976 Australian Open, and originally from Sidney, Edmonson arrived in Melbourne with no money to stay in a hotel, so he decided to stay at a friend’s house, and went to the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, where the tournament was being played, with the tramway, in order to play his matches. Almost like a tourist, in a competition which then was the Australians’ preserve. As in 1976, the Australian Open was the ugly duckling of Grand Slam tournaments. Too far, organized during the Christmas holidays (it started at the end of December and ended early in January), the Open was neglected by many of the best players, and was practically only won by locals, 51 times out of 63 editions played before Edmonson to be precise.
The cup on the floor
The 1976 edition was meant to be similar, as very few non-Australians had decided to take part in the tournament. Without panicking, Edmonson made the most of his physical strength and his game based on a powerful serve to go through the first rounds : « I was serving fantastically well, I could have aimed at a five cents coin. » He played on the central court for the first time for his quarter final against Dick Crealy, where he won his first victory in three sets in the tournament. In the semi-final, he faced Ken Rosewall, the legend who had won eight Grand Slam tournaments, and was still the world number 2 despite being 41 years old. But there again, Edmonson’s « nothing to lose » mentality triumphed and he qualified for the final where he met up with John Newcombe, the title-holder, who still hadn’t lost a single set. The media went nuts for Edmonson’s story, called him the « janitor », referring to his job. He changed sponsors at each round, receiving new offers after each victory. On the court, the day of the final, he offered Newcombe a good fight, despite loosing the first set in the tiebreak in awful weather conditions. Started under a temperature of 104 degrees, the match was interrupted because of incredible winds which blew away the spectators’ hats. But Edmonson remained focused and followed his plan : « I was only serving on his backhand. His backhand wasn’t bad, but his forehand was so incredible that I decided to play as if his backhand was awful ! » He finally won in four sets, and showed his amateur side in the post-match ceremony. « I bet you don’t have a speech ready » said the speaker. « No », answered the tall guy with the moustache before dropping the trophy. A cup which no Australian has managed to pick up since.