1. Serena Williams and her knockers.
When Serena Williams arrived in Melbourne for the 2007 Australian Open, stories about the size of her bottom featured in the local press and on the television evening news. The American, who was a few pounds overweight, and ranked 81, beat Maria Sharapova in the final, and then to had this to say about her body-image: “Because I’m larger in some areas than other girls, that I don’t have a flat chest and a flat ass, people said I wasn’t fit. I was looking in the mirror and my waist is still 28 inches and I think it’s all because I have a large bosom and I have a large ass, excuse me. If I lost 20 pounds, I’m still going to have these knockers, forgive me, and I’m still going to have this ass. It’s just the way it is.” An emotional Williams dedicated her victory over Maria Sharapova to her half-sister, Yetunde Price, who was murdered in 2003 in a gangland shooting in Los Angeles.
2. Mark Edmondson goes from window cleaner to champion.
Only days before the 1976 tournament, Edmondson was cleaning windows and polishing floors in a hospital. Up until that stage in his career, most of Edmondson’s tennis had been on the “riff-raff circuit”, “in front of two dogs and a cat and maybe an umpire”, and the world number 212 was one of the last players to be accepted into the draw at the grand slam. Somehow the window cleaner went on to win the tournament, beating John Newcombe, a fellow Australian and a former champion, in the final, and he remains the lowest ranked player to be a grand slam champion, and also the last Australian man to win the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. It was to Edmondson’s advantage that the final was played in rough conditions, in 40-degree heat and on a day so windy that the umpire’s chair was in danger of lifting into the air. During the prize-giving ceremony, Edmondson dropped the trophy.
3. The Garden Square riots.
Just a day or so earlier, Roger Federer had been calling the Australian Open “the Happy Slam”. On the opening day of the 2007 tournament, more than 150 Croatian and Serbian supporters, male and female, were ejected from the grounds after attacking their opposing group with insults, fists, feet, bottles and flagpoles. Families with young children had been sitting on the lawns of Garden Square, watching the live tennis on the big screens, when the age-old Balkan rivalries came alive again. A spokesman for the police force, whose officers drew their batons to restore, said that the fans had been removed for their “unfamily-like behaviour”. There were further incidents in 2008, when the police charged into the crowd and used pepper-spray on Greek spectators because of the group’s alleged “offensive chanting” and “aggressive and threatening behaviour” towards the officers, and in 2009 when the Serbians and Crotians resumed where they had left off. The Aussie Open, someone noted, has a reputation for being The Fight Club of tennis.
4. John McEnroe is defaulted.
The crowd could not decide whether to boo McEnroe or to support him. McEnroe’s error at the 1990 Australian Open was that he had forgotten that the rules had been changed from four offences for a default to just three. McEnroe’s first code violation during his fourth-round match against Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors was his attempt to intimidate a lineswoman, for which he was warned. Then, after obliterating a racket, he received a point penalty. At that stage, he imagined that he had one step left – the one-game penalty – before he reached a default. For the first time, though, McEnroe had miscalculated, and when he used the f-word in conversation with an official, his tournament was over. That was a default, and game, set and match to Pernfors. “I don’t have anyone to blame but myself for not knowing the rules,” said McEnroe.
5. Marcelo Rios ‘tanks’ in the final.
Only once did the gifted Chilean, who held the world No 1 ranking, appear in a grand slam final and that was when he played Petr Korda for the Australian Open title in 1998. Rios put in a dismal performance,winning just six games; indeed, it was so dismal that some wondered whether the South American had ‘tanked’ or not given his best effort. Only Rios will ever know for sure.
6. Pete Sampras breaks down.
Someone in the crowd suddenly blurted out, “win it for your coach, Pete”, and all Sampras could think about was Tim Gullikson lying on a hospital bed. If there was one moment in Sampras’s career, a career that was otherwise characterised by his emotional reticence, that he formed a connection with a tennis crowd, it came in the quarter-finals of the 1995 Australian Open, just after Gullikson had been taken ill in Melbourne because of the tumours in his brain. The changeover after the spectator called out, Sampras sobbed into a towel. When he came to serve, Sampras only just avoided more tears. Courier shouted across the net: “You alright Peter? We can do this tomorrow, you know.” Despite the thoughts in his head, and those puffy pink eyes, Sampras regained his composure, he won the fifth set, and he went on to reach the final, where he finished as the runner-up to Andre Agassi. “I just cracked in that match against Courier,” Sampras would recall. “I just kind of broke down. Tim was such a great guy and didn’t have a bad bone in his body, and then he got four brain tumours. It just showed me how vulnerable we all are to things like that.” Gullikson died the following year.
7. Marat Safin’s Safinettes.
He once said that his reputation for being a playboy of the tennis circuit was “bull—-“, yet for every match of the 2002 Australian Open he had a group of three blondes sitting in his private box. There were insinuations that Safin was enjoying himself a little too much off the court during the tournament, and perhaps he was guilty of a little complaceny before the final as he was ‘only’ playing Sweden’s Thomas Johansson. The Russian lost the match and, during the post-final ceremonies, looked over at his Safinettes and said: “I have to say thank you to all my family sitting over there – I’m sorry I lost.” The next year, the locals could not help noticing that the only Russian female in Safin’s entourage was his mother.
8. Jim Courier jumps into the river.
On the morning of the 1992 Australian Open final, the local paper ran a front-page story about the dangerously high levels of contamination in the river which runs past Melbourne Park. Either Courier had not read that story, or he had, and he did not care. After beating Stefan Edberg in the final, the American dived into the Yarra. The local health department had calculated that the pollution levels in the Yarra were 18 times the acceptable limit, and Courier reported that the river was “really dirty”. “My coach said to me after the quarter-finals, ‘If you win this, I’m going to dive in the river’, and I said that I would follow right behind,” Courier disclosed. However unpleasant Courier’s victory swim might have been after he won the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for the first time, the following year he defeated Edberg in the final once more to retain his title, and again he went in the river fully-clothed.
9. Jennifer Capriati survives in the heat.
The Australian summer is the enemy at Melbourne Park, and on the day that Capriati and Martina Hingis played for the 2002 title, the on-court temperature inside the Rod Laver Arena touched 46 degrees Celsius. Both players were left struggling for oxygen, and Hingis was so dangerously over-heated and dehydrated that her head was “all over the place” and her body was covered in goosebumps. Between the second and third sets, the players were given a ten-minute break in the locker room to cool themselves with ice. And, during that third set, they were sitting down between points. From a set and 0-4 down, Capriati went on to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 in the “hot, thick air”. Hingis had been in a worse state: “I knew I probably wouldn’t last so I just tried to walk through to the end of the match. I was thinking when I was off the court, ‘no way I want to go out there again’.”
10. Lleyton Hewitt’s early-morning finish.
No tournament is closer to being a rolling, 24-hour event than the Australian Open, and in 2008 the staff at the Rod Laver Arena almost had to serve breakfast to the evening-session crowd. Hewitt’s third-round victory over Marcos Baghdatis did not finish until 4.34am, the latest conclusion to a grand slam in the history of the grand slam. Hewitt and Baghdatis were keeping the hours of junior doctors or nightclubbers. not tennis players. It had been approaching midnight before the match even started, and five sets, and almost five hours later, Hewitt fell on to his face on the Rod Laver Arena, a combination of relief and sheer exhaustion after one of the weirdest nights in tennis. “Playing that late is not easy for anyone – it throws your whole rhythm and clock out quite a bit,” said Hewitt, who lost in the next round to Novak Djokovic.