THE SECOND HALF of January in Australia means one thing: tennis. Each night the nation collectively tunes into watch one of the best reality TV dramas you could ever hope to see, featuring a cast of flamboyant, talented, temperamental, attractive, athletic and dedicated characters.
It’s easy to get seduced by the high-stakes drama, underdog tales and comeback stories and be inspired by feats of endurance, stamina, mastery and precision. Over the years, the first grand slam of the year has served up a raft of memorable moments that keep us up at night and provide fodder for water cooler moments at the office the next morning—already today, I’ve remarked to a colleague about Novak Djokovic’s fiery exchange with an abusive fan during his four-set victory over Aussie, Alexei Popyrin last night (sadly there wasn’t a water cooler in sight).
Here, we look back on some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Australian Open.
1 Djokovic outlasts Nadal – 2012
This one was a five hour and 53 minute humdinger that left many of us bleary-eyed at work the next morning. This match is in the conversation as one of the greatest grand slam finals of all time and is certainly the longest, as two of the game’s GOAT contenders traded baseline blows all night, culminating in a monster 31-shot rally that caused Djokovic to fall on his back and sent Nadal stumbling to the sidelines.
“I was just thinking of getting some air and trying to recover for next point… ,” Djokovic said afterwards. “Thousand thoughts going through the mind. Trying to separate the right from wrong. Trying to prioritise the next point. I’m playing against one of the best players ever—the player that is so mentally strong. He was going for everything or nothing.”
In the end, Djokovic would finally prevail at 1.37 am, tearing off his shirt and roaring towards his team in a moment anyone who saw it will never forget.
2 Cash comes up short, again
This one is digging into the archives a little bit but back in 1988 Pat Cash was on a roll. The charismatic pin-up boy’s mullet and chequered headband combo were a symbol of Aussie pride. Cash was hot off a Wimbledon triumph the previous June after succumbing to Swede Stefan Edberg in a five-set thriller at the Australian Open the year before. This time another Swede, Mats Wilander, lay in his path to Aus Open glory, as the two engaged in a heart-stopping four-hour epic that saw Wilander triumph 8-6 in the fifth set and caused dads all over the country to throw tinnies at their TV screens.
3 Agassi denies Rafter – 2001
Rafter, a back-to-back US Open champion in 1997-98 and a two-time Wimbledon finalist, had never managed to break through to an Australian Open final. In 2001, in what would be his last appearance at Melbourne Park, the Queenslander met all-time great Andre Agassi in a semi-final for the ages. In cauldron-like conditions the players made each other work in long, drawn-out baseline rallies.
Agassi recently told MH it was his most memorable Aus Open encounter: “It was like the biggest sporting event down here, maybe historically. Him having me two sets to one. And I just remember having to go into the locker room at the end of the third because we were just dripping. The roof got closed. It was so hot and humid and we both were losing so much fluid. And my stuff is like, soaked. I had to change everything. Shoes, socks and my head was ringing because you don’t realise how loud something is until you actually have quiet and when I got in the locker room it was like you’re sitting in the worst place in a concert where your ears are just ringing. And I went back out there and, you know, obviously everybody wanted Rafter to win. But as we got deep into like the warrior zone, it was incredible how fair they were to just two honest gladiators. They cheered us as we deserved for what we were doing, regardless of who was winning the point. That really endeared me for a long period of time. I felt Aussie too.”
Unfortunately for Rafter, he would be hampered by cramp as the match wore on as the Las Vegas showman smelled blood, coming back to win 7-5 2-6 6-7 6-2 6-3.
4 Barty has her party – 2022
Ash Barty already had two grand slams under her belt but had yet to win at home. While not an epic by any means, Barty did have to rally from 1-5 down in the second set against her opponent, Danielle Collins, to triumph 6-3 7-6. But the victory was memorable in other ways, for it made Barty the first Australian, man or women, to win the Australian Open in 44 years. The victory would assume even greater significance less than two months later when Barty shocked the nation by retiring at just 25.
5 McEnroe loses it – 1990
Mac the brat, had largely cooled off from the early ’80s when he regularly lashed out at fans and officials with tirades and invective that have entered the vernacular: “You cannot be serious” stands as an all-time great response to a partner’s request that you do the dishes, while “Answer the question. The question, jerk!” is unparalleled as a mode of enquiry to a younger sibling. But in 1990, in the twilight of his illustrious career, the then world No.9 was disqualified in his fourth-round match against Mikael Penfors and ejected from the tournament after receiving three code violations for unsportsmanlike conduct and intimidation against a line umpire. Mac was also fined $6,500 USD for the ear-bleeding outburst.
6 Federer outduels Nadal – 2017
By 2017, even the most diehard fans of the two founding members of ‘The Big Three’ would have thought it unlikely that the two great rivals and icons of the game would meet in another Grand Slam final. Both came into the match having endured a torrid run with injuries. Rafa had not made the quarterfinal of a major since Roland Garros in 2015. Federer, who was 35 at the time, hadn’t won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012.
Of course, the match went to five sets. Federer landed the first blow, taking out the first set 6-4. Nadal responded with 6-3 in the second. Federer went up a gear in the third, running his opponent ragged in a 6-1 masterclass. He looked to have the momentum but Rafa never lies down and he didn’t here, coming back 6-3 in the fourth. He then got an early break in the fifth to take a 3-1 lead but Federer dug deep to reel off five straight games and secure a 6-3 win.
Afterward the sentimental Swiss wept as he hugged his idol Rod Laver, a moment that made chests swell and bottom lips quiver across the country. He further tugged on the nation’s heartstrings with a heartfelt tribute to his great rival: “Tennis is a tough sport, there’s no draws. But if there was going to be one I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa. Really.” Fed: classy and cheesy, as always.