Thursday, 15 January 2015

1984 Australian Open Tennis

This week I am reviewing the 1984 Australian Open; a tournament that ended the Grand Slam hopes of Martina Navratilova, saw another chapter written in the success story of Sweden and Mats Wilander, at a location which was nearing the end of its time as a major championship venue.

A different era

Back in 1984, the Australian Open was a different tournament completely to the one we witness in the modern era. Played at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in Melbourne on grass courts that many of the players criticised, the timing of the event was far from ideal, sitting right at the end of a long and tiring season in November and December. Some players avoided Australia completely - Bjorn Borg only appeared in the 1974 Australian Open, and Jimmy Connors played in just two - and as the 1980s progressed it became apparent that a change was in the air.

That change was announced during the 1984 Australian Open. From 1987 onwards the tournament would move to a new £50 million complex at Flinders Park, Melbourne, on a yet undecided surface (the hard court Rebound Ace as it would transpire, and the move was delayed until 1988), and a shift in scheduling to January was also pencilled in. It would be a decision that would help shape the tournament in the years to come.

There had been signs that the Australian Open was beginning to make a mark in the previous year though, with the likes of Mats Wilander, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl turning the tournament into a classic, and with ESPN covering the fortnight for the first time in 1984, at least things were moving the right direction for the last major of the year.

McEnroe pulls out

However, the tournament was served a massive blow when just a few days before the start, John McEnroe was forced to withdraw due to a wrist injury. McEnroe picked up the injury during training in California, and was ordered to rest for two weeks and was a major doubt for the forthcoming Davis Cup final against Sweden (he eventually made the team).

McEnroe had seen very little action in recent weeks due to a 21 day ban after an extraordinary outburst at the Swedish Open had taken him over the $7,500 season fine barrier, but there could be no doubting that his absence left a gaping hole in the men's draw.

How to replace the current Wimbledon and US Open champion? The tournament organisers tried desperately to persuade Connors to change his mind and make the journey, yet he did not budge, meaning that the rest of the field were nudged up the seedings.

Reigning champion Mats Wilander was seeded second behind Ivan Lendl, with local hope Pat Cash fifth. With no Australian winner since Mark Edmondson in 1976, the pressure was on the 19-year-old Cash to end the drought, and as the country tried to get over the shock of Kim Hughes' recent tearful resignation as Australia's cricket captain, the country needed a lift from a sporting point of view.

Brits abroad

What a difference a year had made in the career of Jo Durie. In 1983 she had reached the last eight in Australia, and made two semi-finals in the French and US Opens, yet even though Durie had made it to the quarter finals at Wimbledon in 1984, the rest of the season gave us an indication of which direction her fortunes were heading. A second round exit for the number thirteen seed was not totally unexpected, French teenager Pascale Paradis coming back from 3-1 down in the decider to earn the right to lose to Chris Evert-Lloyd in the next round.

Paradis had actually been practicing with Virginia Wade, who at 39 was coming to the end of her time in the sport, and Wade's second round exit to number eight seed Andrea Temesvari came on a day when all British interest in the two main events ended. Sara Gomer and Annabel Croft had already suffered first round defeats, with Steve Shaw, John Lloyd and Colin Dowdeswell losing in the second round.

For Dowdeswell it completed a miserable year for the man who had switched allegiance to Britain after previously representing Rhodesia and Switzerland. Winning only six Grand Prix matches all season, Dowdeswell had slumped from number 32 in the world to outside the top 100, and he was probably cheered up no end when his winning opponent Joakim Nystrom delivered a damning verdict on his approach: "He has a strange game. He came in all the time and gave me easy targets".

Croft did at least provide a boost by winning the junior title and would reach world number 21 a year later, yet her career would be another tale of British disappointment during the rest of the decade. During the Australian Open, the Lawn Tennis Association announced pre-tax profits of £2,106,699, a £1 rise in Wimbledon tickets on certain courts (it was a lot back then, trust me), and plans made by Paul Hutchins to employ a foreign coach to work with the top players. Something had to be done, but even with the vast amounts of money swishing around the LTA coffers, the future was hardly bright.

Evert-Lloyd v Navratilova

As ever in the 1980s, the women's tournament appeared to be a straight battle between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert-Lloyd. Both had fine records to maintain, and other ones to potentially create. Navratilova had won the last six Grand Slam singles titles, was unbeaten on the tour since January 1984, and was in search of the calendar year Grand Slam. Evert-Lloyd was in pursuit of her 1000th match win, and had won at least one Grand Slam singles title every year since 1974.

Evert-Lloyd's new training programme centred around a great deal of gym work in order to bring herself closer to Navratilova in terms of fitness. "It's not enough to be a great player must be a top athlete too," Evert-Lloyd stated as she breezed past her first round opponent Kim Shaefer. "When she was beating me I changed my game to fit in and now that I'm winning she's changed to my way," replied Navratilova. As the 1984 Australian Open developed it looked inevitable that the two would yet again renew acquaintances in the final.

Cash out of pocket

Maybe it was the weight of expectations on his shoulders, or simply due to his youthful bravado, but Pat Cash was certainly an angry young man at times during the Australian Open. A dramatic third round clash with Switzerland's Jakob Hlasek saw Cash win in five sets after three and a quarter hours of gripping tennis, but it would be an incident in the fourth set that would make the headlines. Slamming his racquet into the ground, Cash almost hit a lineswoman with the offending article (it ended up in the crowd), with The Times reporting that Cash needed a bodyguard to leave the court due to his antics.

After the match, Cash was fined $250 and at the conclusion of the tournament he was forced to pay out an extra £1600 after abusing tournament director Colin Stubbs. It proved to be an expensive year for the Australian - he had also been fined $2000 for hurling a racquet at the US Open - probably all part of the growing up process.

On the court, Cash's hopes were ended in the quarter finals as the 1981 and 1982 winner Johan Kriek easily brushed him aside, with the 19-year-old apparently irritated by hecklers in the crowd as the match drew to a conclusion. Hardly the ideal end to a season that had provided Cash with a lot of hope for the future.

Lendl crashes out

The biggest shock in the men's singles resulted in Ivan Lendl suffering a straight sets defeat to South Africa's Kevin Curren in the fourth round, although in fairness, a torn stomach muscle restricted the Czechoslovakian greatly. "By the end of the third set, I couldn't serve," Lendl admitted. "It worried me most when I had to serve". Curren complained throughout relating to the time Lendl took over the injury but managed to stay focused enough to knock out the number one seed.

Lendl's demise looked to have cleared the way for Wilander to successfully defend his title, although the Swede had hardly made smooth progress to the latter stages. Losing the first set of his second round match 6-1 to New Zealander David Mustard and then trailing 5-2 in the third, Wilander recovered to win in four sets, but he required the same number of sets to defeat Australian Dale Houston in the next round, and had to come back from 2-1 down to see off his practice partner Stefan Simonsson to make the quarter finals.

Wilander would win the all Swedish battle against Stefan Edberg in the last eight, but any hopes of a repeat in the final were dashed when number three seed Nystrom lost unexpectedly to America's Ben Testerman, capping a poor day for the Swede, as he also discovered that he had not been selected for the Davis Cup final against the US. Testerman would go on to defeat a bright young prospect by the name of Boris Becker in the quarter finals, the German having knocked out Tim Mayotte and Guy Forget on his way, indicating that he was one to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Sukova ends the dream

If Lendl's demise was perhaps understandable under the circumstances, then the exit of Navratilova from the women's singles at the semi-finals stage was a bolt from the blue. Fresh from her first tournament win in Brisbane just three weeks before, Helena Sukova ended the calendar Grand Slam ambitions of the seemingly invincible Navratilova - the defeat was her first loss in 74 matches - and probably made a few people smile back home in Czechoslovakia after Navratilova's defection to the US.

Sukova had given a warning that she would be no pushover, beating Navratilova's doubles partner and number three seed Pam Shriver in the previous round, yet all looked to be running to script as Navratilova took the first set 6-1. But in the next set Sukova's return of serve and passing shots rattled the world number one and took the match into a decider. Sukova surged into a 3-0 lead but was dragged back to 5-5 by a determined Navratilova, as the experience of the older woman looked to be paying off (Sukova at just 19 was giving away nine years to her opponent).

Sukova refused to go away though, breaking Navratilova in the eleventh game, and in a nerve wracking conclusion involving five spurned match points she finally got over the line and shocked the tennis world. No record seventh successive Grand Slam title for Navratilova, and no calendar Grand Slam.

Navratilova would get to all four major finals in 1985 and 1987 (in fact she would reach the next eleven finals, with no Australian Open being played in 1986 due to the date switch), but she would never come so close to the conventional Grand Slam as in 1984. There was still time for Navratilova to complete the doubles Grand Slam with Shriver, but the big one got away.

"It hurts, but I'll get over it," Navratilova admitted. "If I'd have won, I'd have done it all. If I lost I had to start from scratch. Both are hard to cope with". After the tournament, Navratilova vouched to go on a four week break to recover from her lengthy season which had taken its toll physically and mentally. For now though, her exit had opened the way for Evert-Lloyd to keep her own Grand Slam singles record going.

Curren's comeback

Far from resting on his laurels after his victory over Lendl, Kevin Curren made it all the way to the final, yet his dramatic semi-final victory over Testerman came at a price. An easy win over American Scott Davis had set up the meeting with Testerman, but as Curren slipped two sets behind, all seemed lost, even more so when at the start of the second set he slipped awkwardly and aggravated an old ankle injury. "It's just the way the court slopes," Curren commented. "Maybe it's a mental thing, but I have a lot of trouble serving, and the balls are very heavy. So I would say that in Australia you do not have ideal conditions".

Curren gritted his teeth though and began to put the pressure back on his Testerman, breaking him once in each of the final three sets to prevail 2-6 4-6 6-3 6-4 6-4. But doubts remained as to whether his injury would prevent him from playing in his first Grand Slam final. "I'll have to see, but I've come this far and it may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I have to take that into account. There's not much I can do at this stage. It's just a case of icing it and resting it".

Fortunately Curren would make his final date, to take on Wilander, who in contrast could not have wished for an easier semi-final. A straight sets win over Kriek was completed in just 66 minutes of destructive and awesome tennis, as the Swede only allowed his opponent to win 45 points throughout. "That guy is the most deceptive grass-court player I have ever seen," said a stunned Kriek. "The guy looks like he can't play on grass, but he is great. He plays like Bjorn Borg. These Swedes go out there and have a milkshake and it's all over. It's too cool for me".

Evert-Lloyd maintains the record

Chris Evert-Lloyd's progression to the final had been relatively serene. After only dropping three games in beating Shaefer and Myriam Schropp, Evert-Lloyd was pushed to three sets against Durie's conqueror Paradis (her 1000th singles match win of her career), but from that point on it was very much normal service resumed. Straight sets wins over French qualifier Sophie Amiach, and Australian Wendy Turnbull, coupled with Navratilova's surprise defeat, saw Evert-Lloyd enter the final against Sukova as the firm favourite, as she hunted for her second Australian Open and 16th Grand Slam singles title.

Both players were broken immediately in the opening set but with no other breaks, Sukova took the tie break 7-4 to put her within sight of another major shock. Whereas Navratilova had served and volleyed, Evert-Lloyd continued her aggressive baseline approach, and soon it started to pay dividends. In a second set lasting 29 minutes, Evert-Lloyd broke Sukova twice to take it 6-1, and the tone was now set for the rest of the match. "Chrissie just started to pass me so much better," Sukova stated. "She just hit so many passing shots down the line or just a couple of inches away from the line". It looked as if Sukova just couldn't find a solution to the problems Evert-Lloyd was posing.

The final set was just as emphatic. Evert-Lloyd raced into a 5-1 lead, and although Sukova broke back, it was just delaying the inevitable outcome. Evert-Lloyd's 6-7 6-1 6-3 win ensured that she had maintained her enviable record of winning at least one Grand Slam singles title every year since 1974. "I felt I was struggling throughout the first set. But as soon as I got a break up in the second set, I felt more comfortable," a delighted Evert-Lloyd related, her husband John looking similarly pleased in the crowd.

Even though Navratilova would come back a year later to take her Australian Open title, Evert-Lloyd's remarkable winning Grand Slam run would continue until 1987, before time started to catch up with the American, and Steffi Graf arrived on the scene to dominate the world of women's tennis. Evert-Lloyd would end her career with 18 Grand Slam titles, fittingly the same number as her great rival of the 1970s and 1980s.

Wilander retains his title

To the relief of both Curren and the viewing public, the South African was able to take his place the other side of the net from Wilander - Curren one of the last to reach a Grand Slam final using a wooden racquet - as the two battled it out for the final major of the season. The first set saw no breaks of serve, but when Wilander squandered a 4-0 lead in the tie break to go a set down, it looked as if the Swede would have a fight on his hands to retain his title.

Wilander levelled the match in the second set though, a single break of serve enough to take it 6-4, yet the pivotal moment of the final would take place in the very next set, which in total contained six breaks of serve. At 5-3 Curren served for a 2-1 lead, but was broken, allowing Wilander to take the set to another tie break, which this time he took 7-3. It was a crucial phase of the match, Wilander admitting as much afterwards. "I lost control a little, and when he served for the set, I thought I was in trouble. But after the tiebreaker, I thought I should win it".

Curren's missed opportunity proved costly, as Wilander easily took the fourth set - breaking his opponent in the fourth and final games - for a 6-7 6-4 7-6 6-2 win, bringing with it his third Grand Slam title at the age of just 20. For a man supposedly not that suited to grass court tennis, Wilander was slowly proving himself and some of his doubters wrong.

"I've certainly changed my attitude to grass. I know I can play pretty well on it now, and my serve is effective because I keep it fairly low". Just a week later, Wilander would help Sweden win the Davis Cup on clay against the US, capping another fine year for him individually and for Sweden as a tennis nation. With Stefan Edberg lurking in the wings, the new Swedish love affair with the Australian Open was set to continue.

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