Saturday, January 15, 2011

Remembering the Australian Open

THESE days we call it the Australian Open, and celebrate it as one of the great tournaments of the world. But it wasn't always the Australian Open, and let's be honest it wasn't always a great tournament.

I remember; I was there. Fifty years ago, I strode the turf of Kooyong in what we then called the Australian championships, in the blazing hot summer of January 1961.

You don't remember Colebatch the tennis player? You're right: I was a ballboy. One of the dozens of little boys in white tennis shirts, shorts, socks and white-scrubbed sandshoes who were paid 10 bob a day (that's $1) to fetch the balls, pour the drinks, and work the scoreboards for our national tennis championships.

No one in January 1961 thought the Australian championships the equal of Wimbledon or the US titles. To us in Melbourne, they weren't even the equal of the Victorian championships, which were played in November, in the final lead-up to the real climax of the tennis year: the Davis Cup finals held each December.

The state championships were where the leading men of Australia and the final three challenging nations staked their claims for places in the Davis Cup teams. Each championship ran over 10 days, with everyone playing singles, doubles and often mixed doubles, in best-of-five-set matches.

The Australian titles seemed an afterthought, almost a nuisance. They came in late January, long after the main action was over. The other Davis Cup teams had gone home. They always ran at a loss, so to spread the losses, the championships were rotated around the four main cities in turn (Perth was then too small to count).

In 1961 it was Kooyong's turn. There was no prizemoney, no ATP or WTA points, no sponsorship. But in a daring move after squashing another bid to introduce open tennis the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia accepted an offer by Nestles to provide 3000 for players' expenses. In return, we ballboys handed out free green Milo sunshades to spectators.

There were no courtesy cars, no luxury hotels. Players from interstate and overseas were billeted out to stay in the homes of tennis lovers. The top foreign seed, Mike Sangster of Britain, found himself put up at the Eastern Hill fire station.

Today the Australian Open feels like Wimbledon. Back then it felt like a big country tournament. There were as many events as they could fit on Kooyong's courts: mixed doubles, juniors, seniors, even junior mixed doubles. Everyone wore white, with Fred Perry tennis shirts and Dunlop Volley sandshoes.

Only a handful of overseas players were there. The US and Italian Davis Cup teams had come to Australia in November to challenge for the cup, and played the NSW and Victorian titles. But American stars Barry Mackay and "Butch" Buchholz turned pro after losing to Italy's Nicola Pietrangeli and Orlando Sirola, who also went home after being routed by Neale Fraser, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. As for the women, overseas players came to Australia only when invited and that summer, none were.

But there was more concern when a knee injury forced out our No. 1 player: Neale Fraser, the reigning Wimbledon and US champion. His only appearance in January was to open Melbourne's first tenpin bowling alley.

I shared the organisers' dismay: I wanted to ballboy for my hero. Instead, the best I got to throw balls to were the double-handed teenager Jan Lehane, and a tall lanky young bloke from Sydney called Fred Stolle.

With Fraser out, Laver, 22, was the top seed, and Emerson, 24, second. Then came the other member of our Davis Cup team, the burly, intimidating Bob Mark, and the temperamental Bob Hewitt, just 21.

Only three foreigners were seeded: Sangster, Britain's rising star with a massive serve, Christian Kuhnke from Germany, and Italy's No. 3 Sergio Tacchini, who later showed his real talent was for designing tennis gear, not playing in it.

Women's tennis in Australia was then dominated by three teenagers. Margaret Smith (later Margaret Court), 18, had stunned the tennis world a year earlier by downing Wimbledon champion Maria Bueno to win her first Australian title. But at 17 she was thought too young to go abroad, so she had spent the winter in Melbourne working out in the gym and playing pennant tennis. Her great rival Lehane (later Jan O'Neill), 19, was the second seed, with future French champion Lesley Turner (Bowrey), 18, third.

There were hardly any spectators: only 300 on the first Saturday, and 2000 for the final on Australia Day. Officials blamed this on the novelty of TV coverage with channels Seven and Two both covering the event. But there was a second reason: the heat.

It was awfully hot. Lesley Turner fainted during a doubles match and had to be carried to the dressing rooms by her opponents. Ken Fletcher tossed in his quarter-final against Laver when the temperature on court passed 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49degrees Celsius). As a ballboy, I drenched my white floppy hat and tied a wet hankie round my neck before going out onto the court.

Bob Mark added to the casual atmosphere by getting married in Albury midway through the tournament and quitting the singles. He stayed long enough to win the doubles with Laver for the third year in a row, then sailed with his bride for South Africa, never to return.

(But Bob still had one more big title ahead. In September 1961, he teamed up with another Albury kid, Margaret Smith, to win the US mixed doubles title the only grand slam doubles title ever won by an Albury pair).

Bob Hewitt had bigger problems. He was hauled over the coals after his first round win over John "Doc" Fraser, Neale's kid brother. Spectators complained that Bob had not only sworn on court, but spelt it out letter by letter. Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman banned Hewitt from the team, and he, too, eventually migrated to South Africa, while winning 16 grand slam doubles titles.

Young men with attitude were a problem then as now. In Perth, the US Davis Cup team smashed up their dressing room with beer bottles after losing to Italy. At Kooyong, a Queensland junior was reprimanded after belting a ball over the railway line into Toorak.

While the players were going out in the early rounds, we ballboys worried about our own elimination rounds. Only half of us would be needed after the first four days. How would our finalists be selected? Was someone watching to see who threw the balls most accurately, who was least obtrusive on court, who was quickest on the new electronic scoreboards?

We needn't have worried. Those who were kept on were those who had chatted up the bloke in charge. Those of us who missed out instead won a valuable insight into adult life.

In the quarter-finals Fletcher forfeited to Laver, young South Australian Barry Phillips-Moore beat Kuhnke, Stolle defeated the sporting Sangster ("Too good!", he exclaimed as Stolle's drives ripped past), while Emerson thrashed unseeded John Pearce. Laver then beat Phillips-Moore, and Emerson outpointed Stolle to set up the final we all wanted.

After the obligatory rest day on Sunday the big upset came in Monday's final. Emerson used to wind up into his service like an eccentric corkscrew, but he would race around the court like an Olympic sprinter, and that day he wore down Laver over four sets to take his first Australian title 1-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

The women's championship was treated like a sideshow, attracting little coverage or centre court time. With Turner out, Smith and Lehane met in the final as usual and as usual, Smith won, 6-1, 6-4. Writing in The Age, Davis Cup great Adrian Quist hailed her as "a future world champion ... She played the first set as well as any woman player I have ever seen".

Amid all the action, no one paid any attention to the junior championships being played on the back courts. Had I been more prescient, I would have noticed a 16-year-old from Sydney who scattered his older opponents to win the boys' singles and doubles alike. But the name J. Newcombe meant nothing then, and without the moustache he did not stand out from all the other boys in white.