The past is a different country, as the sage once noted. Twenty-five years ago seems like a different universe. E-mail and the internet were the preserve of a small coterie of techie ‘insiders’ and twitter meant to mutter inconsequentially (one might ask has anything changed?!). Microsoft released its 2.1 version of Windows (something which, for most people in 1988, you opened in order to let air in), the Iran/Iraq war resulting in over 1 million deaths ended and the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing disaster took place. Kim Philby, the spy and Roy Orbison, the singer died in 1988, while Juan Martin del Potro and Rihanna were both born in that year.
1988 was also the year of the infamous Seoul Olympics (notable for the Ben Johnson doping scandal). Seoul in the autumn of 1988 was also the location of Steffi Graf’s unprecedented ‘Golden Slam’ (her winning of the Australian, the French, Wimbledon, the US and the Olympic titles)
In 1988, the Australian Open moved to its current location (then called Flinders Park, now Melbourne Park) establishing a reputation as one of, if not the very best for facilities and general amenities of any tennis venue in the world. The year 1988 was also in the very early years of the transition to the use of new racquet technology and the adaptation of styles of play to capitalise on that technology. We have seen the fruits of those innovations in recent years.
The Men’s Champion at the Australian Open that year was Mats Wilander and the Women’s Champion, Steffi Graf, he coming down from the peak of his career, she on the way to a stellar one. Both were on the top of their game.
Wilander beat local hero Pat Cash in the final in five sets: 6–3, 6–7(3–7), 3–6, 6–1, 8–6. In another sense, Pat Cash in 1988 was anything but a local hero to the Australian fans. He had to face a barrage of abuse from local fans over his decision to play in the South African Open (still in the apartheid era). Indicating the delicate line of emotion dividing politics from sport, Wilander, the Swede was, for many Aussies, the preferred winner to the home-grown boy. Their final was an epic, however, that see-sawed dramatically from set to set. Many refer to it as one of the best seen at the Australian.
On his way to the final, Wilander beat fellow Swedes, Anders Jarryd and Stefan Edberg in the quarters and semis respectively. Cash beat Dutchman Schapers and Ivan Lendl, the man intended by the seeding system to win the event.
In the Women’s singles final, Steffi Graf beat another icon of the game, Chris Evert 6-1, 7-6. This was just the first of a series of five Golden Slam titles she was to win that year – setting her in the most exclusive of exclusive clubs. For Evert, this was to be her last Grand Slam final appearance after an outstanding career at the very top of the game.
On her way to the final, Graf beat Czech, Hana Mandlikova and fellow German, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch in the quarters and semis respectively. Evert beat the German, Claudia Porwik in the quarters and long-time friend and rival, Martina Navratilova in the semis. Graf’s 6-1, 7-6 win was only her second Grand Slam final win and her first Australian. For Evert, it was a proud and dignified exit from a career that along with many other successes and plaudits, included 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 3 doubles.
In the Men’s Doubles, the Americans, Leach and Pugh beat Bates of Britain and Lundgren of Sweden in straight sets, 6-3,6-2, 6-3. In the Women’s Doubles, Navratilova and Schriver beat Evert and Wendy Turnbull 6-0, 7-5. In the Mixed, Novotna and Pugh beat Navratilova and Gullickson in three sets – a battle of two Czech women and two American men.
The 1988 Open was also noteworthy for the availability and use for the first time of the retractable roof, a rare innovation in those years, but since replicated at other venues. It was used during the Women’s final that year, something that Evert remarked on later as being an ‘eery’ experience – something similar to the initial reactions initially to its introduction on Wimbledon’s Centre Court recently.
Unlike the Australian championships of 50 years ago, the final of 25 years did not have the pervasive involvement of home-grown Australians, except for Wendy Turnbull’s participation in the mixed. This was as much due to the relative decline of Australian tennis at the top of the game as to the rise in standard elsewhere and the fact that all the top players in the world now included Australian on their tour itinerary.
That said, young Australians totally dominated the junior events in 1988, winning each of the Boy’s and Girls’ Singles and the Boy’s and Girls’ Doubles. A winning participant in the Boys’ Doubles of 1988 was none other than Todd Woodbridge, who went on to great things in the doubles game.
Perhaps seen unfairly as the ‘poor relation’ of the four Grand Slam events before then, the new and impressive Flinders Park in 1988 definitely laid down a marker for the international game. It said: ‘Australia meant business’. The facilities at its national tennis centre (strongly supported by public funding) were to be the set standard for future tennis developments. Melbourne Park continues to provide the ‘gold standard’ of facilities to this day – a standard acknowledged by players, officials, fans and the media. And it all started 25 years ago.