Thursday, 30 August 2012

1983 US Open: Jo Durie

There are certain sporting events of the past that I'm not sure will ever happen again in my lifetime: England winning the football World Cup; a Scotsman winning the 100m Olympic final; a team going through a whole season of top flight football undefeated. Of course, these things could occur in the next 60 years or so, but in my opinion they are highly unlikely.

However, anything is possible. What about a British female tennis player progressing to the semi-finals of a grand slam singles tournament? Hopefully this should happen before my innings is over, and Laura Robson's recent form is encouraging, but it is a full 29 years since a British female has reached the last four of a grand slam singles tournament. As the US Open began earlier this week, I decided to cast my mind back to Jo Durie's fine run to the semi-finals of the 1983 event, an achievement that appears to grow and grow as the years roll on.

Durie was in the form of her life during 1983. A run to the quarter final in the Australian Open was topped when, as an unseeded player, Durie reached the semi-finals of the French Open. And just prior to the US Open, Durie claimed her first singles title, winning the Virginia Slims event in New Jersey, after a three sets victory over Hana Mandlikova. The 23-year-old was surging up the women's rankings, now sitting at 14th in the world. Her chances in the US Open were greatly improved when fourth seed Tracy Austin withdrew from the event, leaving Durie's route to the semi-finals relatively trouble free.

Before Durie hit a ball in anger, a couple of players were in the news for doing just that. Unsurprisingly, John McEnroe lost his rag during his first round match, fined $1850 (£1233) for abusing a spectator, umpire and ball. Anne Hobbs, the British number four, was penalised in her match for ball abuse (no sniggering please) and time-wasting. Overall, the first round was as poor as expected from a British female perspective, with Hobbs, Annabel Croft, and Shelly Walpole all exiting the tournament. Only Virginia Wade would accompany Durie through to the next round, and after Wade's defeat in the second round, Durie was very much flying the British flag on her own.

Durie's first round victory over South African Ros Fairbank was just the start the British number one needed. Her 6-1 6-3 win in only 43 minutes, was emphatic, prompting Durie's coach, Alan Jones, to state: "I've never seen her play so well. For just over a set she was close to perfection." Heavy praise indeed, from a tough coach like Jones.

The second round saw Durie scrap to a 7-5 6-3 win over Japanese world number 77 Etsuko Inoue. It was a far less convincing performance than her previous match, with Durie admitting that "A year ago I would have lost that", adding that "I was close to panicking myself out of it in the first set." The 68 minute contest had given Durie a workout that she badly needed. Come the third round, and her battle with American Terry Phelps, her newly found toughness would once again be tested.

In sweltering conditions, Durie limped to a 6-4 3-6 6-2 victory over Phelps, but that only tells half the story. After taking the first set, Durie looked comfortable as she surged into a 3-1 lead in the second. Then things took a turn for the worse. Phelps rattled off the next five games, to take the set, and then broke Durie in the opening game of the decider.

Durie dug deep though, and managed to thwart the American uprising. Such was the effort that Durie had put in, that at the conclusion the Brit burst into tears and sobbed on the shoulder of Jones. Durie conceded that she had felt tired prior to the match, and her relief at winning was palpable: "I've never been so glad to get a match over." Jones added: "But she's learned how to win when not at her best and that's a vital lesson." Fortunately, the next two rounds for Durie would be much easier affairs.

Jo in action at the 1982 Wimbledon Championships

Durie's 6-3 6-0 demolition of American Anne White was as comfortable a last sixteen match as you could wish to have. And her quarter final was just as comprehensive. Durie took only 51 minutes to dismiss the Argentinian Ivanna Madruga-Osses, the only unseeded player still remaining in the competition at the time. In 110 degrees of intense heat, Durie's 6-2 6-2 win was just what the doctor ordered, and now Durie could turn her attention to the all together more daunting task of taking on six-time US Open champion Chris Evert-Lloyd in the semi-final.

If Durie was anxious at this prospect, then her interviews beforehand did little to indicate any tension. "The last time I played Chris I came close to beating her. If I do this time, I think I can win the title." The optimism of youth perhaps, but after experiencing a relatively easy passage to the last four, there would be no doubt that Durie would have to win the title the hard way from now on. If world number two Evert-Lloyd could be beaten, then the likely opponent in the final would be world number one Martina Navratilova. That Durie's name was being mentioned in the same breath as two tennis legends indicates the progress the 23-year-old had made in the last year.

Alas, the semi-final was one hurdle too far for Durie. There was no disgrace in her 6-4 6-4 defeat, but the jump up in class was telling. Durie did break Evert-Lloyd immediately in the first set, and led 2-0. This was as good as it got, however. Evert-Lloyd broke back immediately, and repeated the dose in the fifth game to lead 3-2. From this point on, the American was always in charge and, although Durie tested her and showed hope in her defeat, the match was over after 79 minutes. Durie had the consolation of £20,000 in prize money, and after her excellent 1983, the future looked bright.

The press were certain that Durie would soon be dining permanently at the top table of women's tennis. Ian Barnes, writing in the Daily Express after the Evert-Lloyd defeat commented: "23-year-old Jo can walk tall in the knowledge that she is on the brink of joining the very top class in women's tennis." Within the next year, Durie won the NSW Building Society Open in November 1983, moved to fifth in the world rankings in April 1984, and reached the quarter final of Wimbledon. Unfortunately, we didn't know it at the time, but Durie would never again hit the heights of 83-84.

A combination of injuries and loss of form saw Durie gradually slip down the world rankings, and she would only reach the last sixteen of three more grand slam events in her career, eventually retiring in 1995. But it would be churlish to end the blog on this note, as what Durie achieved in the 80s should be cherished.

We certainly haven't seen a British woman since Durie's heyday worthy of comparison, which only goes to highlight just how good the Bristolian was. I do hope that one day a British female will win a grand slam singles title, but if not, at least we have the memories of Jo Durie in the 1980s to warm our hearts.


  1. How many millions have been invested into the game since the 1980's and yet we can't produce anyone who can match Durie's feat. Why?

    1. It is frightening to think how much money we have thrown at tennis in recent years, and as you say, we still haven't had a female player who has matched Jo Durie. Is it down to the coaches, players, or the general system of discovering talent in this country?

      Belgium have produced Henin and Clijsters in the last decade, so how a country with our population hasn't even come close to producing a female star is beyond me. Let's hope Robson and Watson can prosper in the near future.

  2. Hopefully this should happen before my innings is over, and Laura Robson's recent form is encouraging, but it is a full 29 years since a British female has reached the last four of a grand slam singles tournament. tennis drills for free