This week I have decided to take a look back at the 1988 Australian Open, a tournament staged at a spectacular new complex, involving epic matches, stifling heat, one final dart at glory for a past great, and the true beginning of a new era in the women's game.
A new beginning
Prior to the 1988 tournament, the Australian Open had always been seen as the poor relation of the grand slam events. Played at the Kooyong Tennis club on grass courts that had at times brought criticism from the world's finest players, the scheduling of the event - in December up until 1985 - also proved troublesome in attracting the biggest names, Bjorn Borg playing the tournament just once in his career, Jimmy Connors twice, and Chris Evert deciding not to play between 1975-1980.
A move to a new venue was desperately needed, so when the event switched to Flinders Park (Melbourne Park) in January 1988, the rest of the tennis world sat up and took notice. A spanking new £28 million "space-age" National Tennis Centre greeted the players and media on their arrival, with both suitably impressed by the facilities. "Australian tennis deserves to be congratulated," stated Ivan Lendl, with Martina Navratilova also bowled over: "From what I have seen so far, they have thought about everything".
It wasn't just the infrastructure of the new complex that brought compliments from the players. The playing surface, known as Rebound Ace - science bit: an acrylic surface cushioned by polyurethane rubber - was given the thumbs up by the vast majority of players. Seen as a compromise between standard hard court and indoor surfaces, Rebound Ace offered true bounce, and was perceived as not favouring either the baseliners or serve-volleyers; "the most neutral surface I have ever seen," according to the Times' Richard Evans. It was also a lot easier on the players legs, and with some of the gruelling matches in the tournament, this was a godsend.
And finally to the retractable roof on centre court. Designed to be used in extreme situations that would bring lengthy interruptions for the paying public and television audiences, the authorities were accused at times of closing the roof at the merest hint of rain, or "self-indulgence in playing with their wonderful new toy," in the words of the Times' Rex Bellamy. On one occasion the roof was closed as soon as light drizzle fell, and once play resumed indoors, all of the neighbouring courts were bathed in sunshine. It just didn't look right.
This led to a few murmurs of discontent. Many felt that the tournament should stay as an outdoor event, and the roof should only be closed if it was the last resort, with others pointing out that tournament organisers had television and the public to consider. It was a difficult balancing act. It certainly got everyone talking though, and you could hardly blame the Australian Open organisers in wanting to see their new toy in action. And it raised the prospect of something similar being considered at Wimbledon, with reports also mentioning a sports complex along the lines of Flinders Park at the proposed London Dome in the Docklands.
Flinders Park definitely worked for the Australian Open; 244,859 people attended matches at the venue, compared to 140,089 at Kooyong, with gate receipts exceeding £840,000. Very much a case of build it and they will come. Perhaps it is still seen as the lesser major of the four majors, but the tournament has not looked back since the change of location back in 1988.
The tournament had only just begun when the first whiff of controversy filled the air. Pat Cash's decision to play in the South African Open in the previous November had angered many in Australia, protesters voicing their disapproval at the recent New South Wales Open, with cries of "Pat Cash-blood money" heard throughout his matches in Sydney. The feeling of unrest continued in Melbourne, with an anti-apartheid group interrupting Cash's first round match against Thomas Muster, throwing black tennis balls on the court and shouting abuse. The protesters were removed, but the fallout continued.
It had been widely reported that the Tennis Australia President Brian Tobin had met with the Anti-Apartheid Movement before the tournament, and an agreement had been reached between the parties regarding how the demonstrators could peacefully protest. This angered Cash's father, who commented "Pat's pretty disgusted with this whole episode. I believe Brian Tobin should resign", with Navratilova also furious about the deal struck between the groups: "I just can't believe they made a deal with them. To condone violence of any kind is making a deal with terrorists. It is essentially, how far do you take it, how far do you allow it?" Tobin defended his actions, but admitted that the guidelines agreed to had been breached and the protesters would not be allowed in the stadium again.
The rest of the tournament passed by without any further ado, yet unbeknown to Cash, his coach and adviser Ian Barclay had been shielding him from threats made throughout the fortnight. Barclay's wife Jackie, detailed a phone call received that shocked the couple: "It was a well-spoken English voice who said Pat had 24 hours to send a letter saying that he wouldn't play in South Africa again. He mentioned that Pat's career would be cut short". Fortunately nothing came of the threats, and Cash continued on his quest to secure a second grand slam, yet for those supporting the Australian these were worrying times.
Australian Warren Jacques knew he had his hands full as head of British tennis, but just in case he was in any doubt, the results during round one of the Australian Open highlighted the task ahead. On day one alone, seven Brits exited the tournament, "with almost as much haste as the security forces dealt with the anti apartheid brigade", as the Daily Express' Malcolm Folley put it. In all, Andrew Castle, David Felgate, Chris Bailey, Monique Javer, Sarah Loosemore, Katie Rickett, Clare Wood, Annabel Croft, Teresa Catlin, Valda Lake, Sara Gomer and Julie Salmon were home before the postcards, as Tommy Docherty once said, Salmon's defeat at least assuring Jo Durie of a second round place (where she too would lose).
The two British men to reach the second round certainly made their presence felt. Jeremy Bates defeated 15th seed Kelly Evernden, but became embroiled in a slanging match with his opponent. Riled by Evernden's comments pre-match - apparently the New Zealander had openly declared that he could not of wished for a better first round match - Bates went on the offensive: "I'm just so happy I beat him here. He has been riling everyone with his arrogance". Evernden retaliated, calling Bates a wimp, and the row rumbled on until the pair had clear-the-air talks before they were pitted against each other in the men's doubles quarter finals.
Stephen Shaw's second round match was no less volatile. His defeat against the powerful Slobodan Zivojinovic was expected, but the two clashed throughout the encounter, Shaw angered by the unsportsmanlike behaviour of the Yugoslav. Things came to a head when Zivojinovic was heard to call Shaw "a son of a bitch", the tension continuing at the change-over, with Shaw bellowing "If you've got something to say, say it to me now". Shaw would lose in four sets, but he had certainly shown he had some stomach for the fight.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Brits. Castle, partnered by Argentina's Roberto Saad, defeated Grant Connell and Glenn Michibata in a five hour ten minute epic in the men's doubles quarter final, winning the final set 19-17 and saving nine match points along the way. Their semi-final proved to be one match too many, yet the fact that the loss was at the hands of Bates and his Swedish partner Peter Lundgren, at least guaranteed British representation in the final. Bates and Lundgren would lose to Rick Leach and Jim Pugh, but in a period of famine for British tennis, any crumb of comfort had to be consumed gratefully.
The heat is on
It was on the fifth day of the championships that things started to hot up. With temperatures reaching 100°F in the shade, and a whopping 135°F on centre court, it was little wonder that some players simply melted. After losing his third round match, Henri Leconte slept for an hour in a room allocated for coaches, a pounding headache a result of playing in heat that he had never experienced before. Leconte's opponent, Todd Witsken, also gave an account of the discomfort felt on court: "At the end my socks were soaking wet and sliding round in my shoes". Nice.
Australian Wally Masur indicated just how intense the conditions were, stating "When you took a deep breath you could feel the air burning your throat", and Ivan Lendl said that the court surface was so hot underfoot that he tried his best not to stand in one place for too long. Luckily temperatures dropped dramatically before any serious harm was caused, although some consideration was given to the idea of providing players with cover under umbrellas, just to give them a respite at change-overs.
Eventually the Extreme Heat Policy was introduced to the Australian Open (in 1998), preventing play from continuing on uncovered courts in extreme conditions. How the players back in 1988 could have done with this arrangement.
Chris Evert turns back the clock
Seeded third for the championships, Chris Evert was not expected to progress any further than the semi-finals. The American only dropped one set on her way to the last four, but there she would meet her old rival Navratilova, and predictably this would be where the story would end. Yet in one last performance for the ages, Evert proved that class is permanent, the Daily Express' headline of "Vintage Chris is a corker!" fully alluding to this.
In truth Navratilova was below-par - only 55% of her first services were good - but Evert, executing a number of passing shots and lobs, did not allow the favourite any breathing space. "This was a great victory for me. It meant a lot," stated an elated and slightly surprised Evert after her 6-2 7-5 win. Evert had reached her first grand slam final since 1986, and would now have the daunting task of trying to derail the 18-year-old German juggernaut Steffi Graf. Be afraid, be very afraid.
"I hadn't thought about playing Steffi but I'll have to think about it now, because I haven't found a way to beat her," admitted a refreshingly honest Evert. The final would go as expected, but Evert was not the first, and she definitely wouldn't be the last, who experienced the full force of Graf.
The German's route to the final highlighted just how ruthless she was. In her first four matches she lost just 13 games, before crushing defending champion Hana Mandlikova 6-2 6-2 in the quarter finals, and her compatriot Claudia Kohde-Kilsch in just 45 minutes in the semi-finals. Graf's second round opponent Janine Thompson summed up the general feeling of the field when describing her experience at the hands of the German: "We had played only one game when I asked myself 'What the hell am I going to do?'"
It had been almost two years since Evert had beaten Graf and their last four matches had resulted in straight sets wins for the 18-year-old starlet. So it wasn't all that surprising when the final - played under the closed roof after rain interrupted play after just three games, for a first grand slam final indoors - started to go in Graf's favour. After the rain came the storm for Evert, Graf winning eight games and only losing ten points in the process. At 6-1 and 5-1, Evert looked to be going the way of everyone else.
Perhaps with the finishing line in sight, Graf lost concentration, but Evert deserved great credit in fighting back, winning five games in a row before bravely losing the set and the final on a tie break. The manner in which Graf marched to her Australian Open title, demolishing all before her, showed that this was the start of something special. The start of a golden slam year as it would transpire.
A classic finale
The men's competition had gone as the seeding system had planned. Swedes Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, winners of the last four Australian Opens between them, met in the first semi-final, with number one seed Ivan Lendl taking on Cash in the other. Both matches went the distance, Wilander defeating Edberg in three hours and 19 minutes, Cash winning through after three hours and 55 minutes of high pressure tennis. Neither match got the ending it deserved however, the victors both winning the final-set deciders with ease. The real drama was just a couple of days away.
Despite suffering two rain delays - "conversational pauses in a feast we had no wish to finish," as Bellamy described it - the final was an epic. Wilander took the first set 6-3, and when the Swede raced into a 4-1 lead in the second, the final looked like being a damp squib. Luckily for Cash, the rain came, slowing the Wilander charge, and bringing with it a change of fortunes. Cash took the second set on a tie break, and the to and fro nature of the match had now been established.
Cash comfortably took the third 6-3, but back came Wilander, winning the fourth set to take the final into a deciding set after three hours and 15 minutes of action-packed drama. When Wilander broke Cash at the start of the decider - taking his streak to eight games out of the last nine - the title was there for the taking.
In a final set that took an hour and 14 minutes to complete, Cash broke back in the fourth game, as both players then took turns to demonstrate startling skills under the most intense pressure. Twice Wilander had to serve to stay in the match, and at one point he was just two points from defeat. But Wilander was made of stern stuff, and when he broke Cash in the thirteenth game, the decisive moment of the final had been reached. Wilander held his service game to love to win the marathon final 8-6 in the decider.
"If I ruined the party just a little bit, that's too bad," said Wilander, aware of the fact that Australians were celebrating the 200th anniversary of their country just two days after the final. "I played pretty well, but Mats was too good on the day," admitted Cash, both men deservedly taking the plaudits for their part in a classic final. A classic final at the end of a championship at Flinders Park which changed the image of the Australian Open for the better.