Given the tennis world’s current focus on the Australian Open as the tours cranks itself into a new year, let’s remind ourselves of what was going on at the Australian Championships 50 years ago (the term ‘Open’ was first used with the arrival of ‘open’ tennis in 1968, i.e. open to amateurs and professionals alike).
A few background matters need to be mentioned first. Unlike the three other Grand Slam locations at the time (Roland Garros, Wimbledon and New York (Forest Hills), the Australian Championships’ venue varied from year to year. In 1963, it happened to be in Adelaide (in South Australia, the home state of the great cricketer, Donald Bradman). Other locations from year to year were Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. In the very early years, even Christchurch and Hastings, New Zealand (when ‘Australasia’ played as one entity in, for example, the Davis Cup) hosted the Championships. It was only in 1972 that the Australian Open finally settled in Melbourne (at Kooyong) , later to move to its current location at Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park).
Australia was already a ‘major player’ in the international game, having produced many excellent players in the decades particularly since the 1930’s. Along with the Americans, they had asserted their dominance in the international game. During the 1960’s with players like Laver, Emerson, Rosewall, Newcombe, Roche and Stolle, they were to make the decade theirs (the US amateur game was particularly decimated by the haemorrhaging to the professional game in the 1960’s). It was no surprise, therefore, that two Australians captured both singles titles at the Australian Open in 1963 – something that would certainly upset the form book were it to happen in 2013.
To distinguish the 1963 Australian Championships further from the current era, they were then played on grass, as were the two other Grand Slam events (the US and Wimbledon) with the French at Roland Garros being the sole clay event.
Looking at the draw in both the men’s and women’s events in 1963, one sees a heavy preponderance of home-grown participants. This was also the case in the other (amateur) Grand Slam events at the time, something which the amateur game was able to lend itself to in a way not possible in the more competitive professional era. The idea was to give home-grown talent the opportunity to play against the best in the world in their domestic national championships. This ‘home element’ was also reflected in the playing out of the final stages of the tournament that year.
As the chart below shows, all the participants in the Men’s and Women’s Singles finals were Australian. All four participants in the Women’s Doubles finals were Australian as were all four in the Mixed. In the Men’s Doubles, three out of the four participants were Australian. However, the fourth, Bob Hewitt who had become a naturalised South African, was originally from Australia. This says as much about Australian strength and prowess (both Court and Emerson were at the top of the world game) as about the inclusion of a ‘local’ element in most national and Grand Slam events of that era.
Australian Championships 1963
Roy Emerson defeated Ken Fletcher 6–3, 6–3, 6–1
Margaret Court defeated Jan Lehane O’Neill 6–2, 6–2
Bob Hewitt / Fred Stolle defeated Ken Fletcher / John_Newcombe 6–2, 3–6, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3
Margaret_Smith_Court / Robyn Ebbern defeated Jan Lehane O’Neill / Lesley Turner Bowrey 6–1, 6–3
Margaret_Smith_Court / Ken_Fletcher defeated Lesley_Turner_Bowrey / Fred_Stolle 7–5, 5–7, 6–4
The ‘heroes of the hour’ (or fortnight) in 1963 were Roy Emerson and Margaret Smith Court, both Australians and both later to build impressive careers with multiple Grand Slam wins to their name. International travel back then was beginning to surge, but it was not as easy and sophisticated as it has now become. This meant that far away locations like Australia were often outside the orbit of many players (although many of the best world players did travel, if not every year, at least on a significant number of occasions during their careers).
The two Singles winners that year are worth focusing upon. Both had prodigious track records in Grand Slams.
Emerson won 28 Grand Slam finals (12 Singles and 16 Doubles) putting him among those at the top of the record book. Admittedly, most of these were won during the pre-Open era when many of the world’s best had been lost to the amateur game, but that said, it was a very impressive achievement. In 1963, Rod Laver (also Emerson’s regular doubles partner) had just turned professional, thus paving the way for Emerson’s victory at the Australian. Emerson then went on to win 6 Australian singles finals in the 1960’s, a record held still to this day. To add to this record, he also won the Singles at Wimbledon (twice), Roland Garros (twice) and the US (twice). His doubles record was even more prolific with 6 wins at the French, 4 at the US and 3 apiece at Wimbledon and the Australian. These are all achievements players in the current era would find hard to match (in part due to the absence of most of the best men from doubles events in the current era).
Margaret Court, the Women’s Singles winner in 1963 was without doubt, the best woman player Australia ever produced. She won her home Australian Championships on 11 occasions and in every year of the 1960’s decade bar two (1967 and 1968). She also won 5 French and 5 US Championships singles and 3 at Wimbledon. Most notably, she shares with only two other women players (Maureen Connolly and Steffi Graf) the achievement of having won a Grand Slam (four GS final wins in one year). This is an achievement matched by only two men in the history of the game (Don Budge and Rod Laver) – to put Court’s success in perspective. To add to her impressive singles record, she also won 19 Grand Slam doubles and 21 mixed doubles finals.
For both Emerson and Court, their 1963 Australian wins were part of a momentum that had been in train for a number of years previously, but both went on to develop their games further, scaling the very heights of the game.
Perhaps, the main contrast between the 1963 event and that of 2013 is the absence from the former of the professionals. These were the best players of their era, but were barred from competing in the main events, all of which were amateur. Nowadays, we would conclude that this certainly took the gloss off many of these events, but they were still played for with a fierce competitive spirit and even though there was no prize money, the glamour and distinction of winning a Grand Slam event was (and still is) unmatchable.
1963 was the year JFK was assassinated, the year the Beatles recorded their debut album, the year of the Great Train Robbery and the year of the first broadcast of the BBC series, ‘Dr. Who’. It seems light years away from today’s world.
Tennis back then was still mainly an amateur game, most tournaments insisted on attire ‘tout en blanc’, wooden racquets were in vogue and players didn’t argue with umpires and linespersons. Other changes over the years have been alluded to such as fitness (mental and physical), tournament winnings/sponsorship levels and the status of women, to make for a very different game now. Yet, the core of the game remains the same. To their credit, championships like the Australian Open, while evolving over time, still carry on faithfully the long history and traditions of the game, traditions to which all tennis players and fans owe homage.