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David Cox looks at some of the greatest players to have won the Australian Open title in the Open era.
‘Rocket’ Rod Laver won his first two Grand Slam titles as an amateur but in 1969 he got the chance to compete in Melbourne as a professional for the first time and it kicked off his second ‘calender Grand Slam’ which ensured he’d go down as an all-time great of the game. He didn’t have it easy though. Conditions in Melbourne were still just as oppressive as they are for competitors these days and Laver had to beat Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson in 24 hours in the face of extreme humidity before he got the chance to play for the trophy.
Laver’s status as a legend of the game was cemented in 2000 when Melbourne Park named their new centre court stadium in his honour.
Swedish great Wilander achieved a special feat in the 1980s, becoming the first man to win the Australian Open on both grass and hard courts. He won his first title in 1983, at the tender age of 19, incredibly honing his serve-volley game during the course of the two weeks and beating John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl to claim the title. He defended it a year later but then he had to wait four years until his third and final success in Melbourne. By then the tournament had switched to a new location with a new surface – the Rebound Ace hard courts. Wilander wasn’t really regarded as a serious contender in 1988 but he confounded expectations to beat Pat Cash in a five set final.
The Las Vegan earned a special place in the hearts of Aussie tennis fans with his haul of four singles titles, most of which came after he turned 30. And Agassi may have won far more if he hadn’t waited until 1995 before entering the event. The medium paced hard courts suited his high intensity, pressing game style down to the ground and he won the tournament on his first appearance, defeating defending champion Pete Sampras in the final.
Agassi may have coloured his reputation slightly with his revelations that he tanked his semi-final with Michael Chang in 1996 but he’ll still be fondly remembered for his other three successes in 2000, 2001 and 2003, even if he did ruin the hopes of Aussie favourite Pat Rafter in the 2001 semis.
Federer’s Australian Open career may yet have a few twists and turns left in store. The Swiss will hope to become the first man in the Open Era to win five Australian Open singles titles before he retires. It was in Melbourne back in 2004 when most of the tennis world realised Federer would probably dominate the game for some time.
Having announced himself at Wimbledon and the ATP World Tour Finals the previous year, the new maestro swept through the draw to claim his second Grand Slam title. Title number two came in 2006, a moment famous for Federer’s tears of joy when Rod Laver stepped up to present him with the trophy and he defended his crown a year later, becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win a major without dropping a set. And in 2010, Federer confounded the critics who said he was past it by dispatching Andy Murray in straight sets to claim his 16th slam.
But it’s Federer’s many near misses in Melbourne which will also live long in the memory. His semi-final defeat to Marat Safin in 2005, was an all-time classic encounter with Federer famously throwing away match point in the fourth set tiebreak by attempting a crowd pleasing through the legs shot. And who can forget his tears in 2009 after losing another gut-wrenching five setter to Rafael Nadal.
David Cox writes for Bettingpro.com