For tennis players, a home Slam is both an opportunity and a possible source of pressure. Australia’s Ash Barty will know that better than anyone right now, as she prepares for her Australian Open quarterfinal tomorrow against last year’s runners-up, Petra Kvitova. However, as Barty attempts to become the first Australian woman to win the Australian Women’s Singles title since Chris O’Neil in 1978, she can draw inspiration from both O’Neil’s extraordinary, against-the-odds triumph and the even more unlikely victory of Mark Edmondson, the last Australian man to win his home Slam, two years earlier.
Of course, in one extremely important respect, Barty is in a very different position to that of O’Neil and Edmondson. That is because she is currently ranked World No.1 and is already a Major champion, having surprised almost the whole of tennis by winning the French Open last year, when it had always been thought that her game was far more suited to the speed of grass and hard-court rather than the more attritional nature of clay. By complete contrast, O’Neil and Edmondson were both rank outsiders when they won the Australian Open in the second half of the 1970s.
However, O’Neil and Edmondson in the 1970s did have one advantage over Barty in 2020. Whereas Barty is now the last Australian woman or man left in the Australian Open, after Nick Kyrgios’s defeat earlier today to Rafael Nadal, there were many Australian women and men competing for the greatest prizes in tennis in the 1970s. Indeed, O’Neil and Edmondson were not even among the most fancied Australians to win a Major, as Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Ken Rosewall and Tony Roche were all already Grand Slam Champions. Consequently, while Barty is currently having to compete under the pressure of being the sole Aussie of either gender who is still left in the tournament, and even from the start of the tournament was the only realistic Australian contender to win a Singles title, O’Neil and Edmondson were never really fancied to match their more successful compatriots and so could go under the radar to a large extent, even at their home Slam.
Far from being seeded No.1 for the tournament, as Barty is in 2020, Chris O’Neil was actually unseeded, which made her eventual victory all the more incredible. In fact, she became the first unseeded woman to win in Melbourne since tennis had become fully professional just a decade earlier.
It must be acknowledged that in the 1970s, as for much of the 20th century, the Australian Open was not quite the hugely and spectacularly successful tournament that it has undoubtedly become in the 21st century. Indeed, if anything it was always the poor relation of the four Majors, largely because Australia remained rather separated from the rest of the world until the advent of far faster and even direct flights to the country at the end of the century. Not all the best players from outside Australia competed in Australia, and so the Australian Open (and the Australian Championship, as it was called before 1968 and the advent of the Open era in tennis) always enjoyed a higher proportion of home winners, in both the men’s and women’s events, than the other three Majors in the US, France and England.
That was probably one of the major reasons why O’Neil did so well in 1978. Having seen both Goolagong Cawley and Margaret Court win in Melbourne on multiple occasions in the previous decade, she would certainly not have been under the same intense scrutiny and pressure that Barty is currently experiencing in Melbourne. Indeed, a testament to the enormous strength in depth of Australian women’s tennis in the 1970s is the fact that in 1977 there had actually been two Australian Opens – one in January and one in December, in just one of the scheduling quirks that saw the tournament move around the calendar until it finally settled on a January start in the mid-1980s – and all four of the women who made those finals were Australian: Kerry Melville Reid beat Dianne Fromholtz in straight sets in the January event; while Evonne Goolagong beat Helen Gourlay, also in straight sets, in the December version.
As a result of this domination of their home Slam by her compatriots, O’Neil would certainly never have felt that it was completely impossible to win in Melbourne. Nevertheless, because she was an unseeded player and so many of her fellow Australian women were seeded, it was still a considerable shock when she made it through to the 1978 Final against Betsy Nagelson of America, and even more of a shock when she won in straight sets (6–3, 7–6 (7–3)).
If anything, Mark Edmondson’s victory in the Men’s Singles in Melbourne two years earlier was even more remarkable. In 1976, no fewer than 13 of the 16 seeds in the men’s draw were Australian, with the top three being Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, although, as with O’Neil’s triumph in 1978, it must be admitted that several of the greatest male players in the world, including the reigning French Open champion Bjorn Borg, did not travel to Australia. Nevertheless, the field was sufficiently strong for Edmondson, who at the time was ranked outside the world’s top 200, not to be considered even as an outsider for the title.
What followed, however, made a mockery of those rankings, as Edmondson showed all the trademark Australian qualities of grit, endurance and sheer bloody-mindedness to reach the Men’s Singles Final, beating Rosewall in the semi-finals and then beating Newcombe, the reigning champion, in four sets in the Final, 6–7, 6–3, 7–6, 6–1. And the unique nature of Edmondson’s triumph is proven by the fact that, nearly 45 years on from his victory at the 1976 Australian Open, he remains the lowest-ranked man to win a Major in the Open Era.
As acknowledged at the outset, Barty is, as it were, at the other end of the expectation spectrum, being the current World No.1 and a reigning Major Champion. Nevertheless, if she is to overcome Kvitova in the quarter-final and then go on to win the 2020 Australian Open, she would do a lot worse than trying to harness and channel some of the famous Aussie fighting spirit displayed by Chris O’Neil and Mark Edmondson more than four decades ago.