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Tennis – ‘the golden age’ of the 1960s–70s and beyond

Mark Woodforde, Doubles Champion 1989–2000

Australians dominated world tennis in the 1950s and 1960s in major events known as Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian, French and United States Open, and Wimbledon in the UK. This period was known as the ‘golden age’ of Australian tennis.

In the 1960s, men's tennis open titles were dominated by six Australian men: Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, and Fred Stolle. Between 1961 and 1970, Australian men's tennis champions won at least one Open Singles title every year at either Wimbledon or the French or US Opens, as well as the Australian Open titles. In men's tennis, the golden age culminated in 1969 with Rod Laver's second Grand Slam win, as well as four major titles in the same year.

Margaret Court, courtesy of Australian Open

In 1970, Margaret Court also completed the Grand Slam. Court is one of only three women ever to win four international tennis open titles in one year. Indigenous player Evonne Goolagong Cawley was also a strong force in women's tennis in Australia in the 1970s with wins at Wimbledon, the French and the Australian Opens.

The ‘golden age’ for Australian tennis players declined from 1969 when amateur players were joined by professionals. Also by the 1980s, the Australian Open synchronised its dates to begin in January in line with the European, UK and USA players events schedule, which greatly widened the pool of players.

Yet even following the decline of Australia's dominance in the Grand Slam tournaments, tennis remained popular in urban areas and the Australian Open grows in popularity as a spectator sport.

Early tennis development 1900s–1950s

The golden age of Australian tennis was built on the early successes of both men's and women's tennis with Grand Slam tournament winners: Norman Brookes in the 1900s to 1919, Jack Crawford in the early 1930s, and Harry Hopman from 1929–39. This was in tandem with the consistent wins and popularity of women's tennis from the 1920s to the 1950s. Daphne Akhurst reached the Wimbledon final in 1925 and won the Doubles in 1928. From the1930s to the 1950s, Nancy Bolton got to the USA Singles Open and won other titles with her doubles partner, Thelma Long. Bolton was ranked No.4 in 1947 and stayed in that position until 1949.

This series of wins in the amateur Grand Slam tournament titles of the 1940s and 1950s was made possible by extensive community and industry support, and investment in the development and administration of amateur tennis players.

Harry Hopman, courtesy of Australian Open

Harry Hopman was a captain turned coach of 22 Australian Davis Cup teams between 1939 and 1967. As coach Hopman guided Australian male tennis players to 15 Davis Cup victories in 20 years. Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgeman, John Bromwich, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Lew Hoad and Margaret Smith Court were all either trained by Harry Hopman or managed by Nell Hopman. ( The Hopman Era: Australia on the Rise)

Amateurs, tennis community and industry in the 1960s

By 1969 the game started to change. Professional players were invited to join the amateurs at the Grand Slam tournaments and prize money was offered for the first time, different tennis court surfaces and different game strategies emerged, and metal racquets were introduced.

Professional versus amateur

In 1969, the Australian Open Championships became 'open' to amateurs and professionals. This followed in the footsteps of the French Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, UK, and the USA Open. Rod Laver returned to win his second grand slam in 1969.

The advantages to amateur Australian champions who had enjoyed the riches of the Davis Cup endorsements soon disappeared with the advent of ‘open’ tennis. The end of the golden age was seen in the average age of the Davis Cup team, which was 35 years. It was another 18 years until Pat Cash, another Australian man, won the men's singles title at Wimbledon in 1987.

Balls and tennis racquet with carbon fiber reinforced polymer frame

Different surfaces – different game strategies, racquet evolution

Different surfaces require different game strategies, maintenance and care. Tennis was originally played on grass courts but in the 1970s many other surfaces were common. These included dried cow faeces (mainly in India), wood, synthetic carpets, anthill grit (in Australia), concrete, crushed brick, clay, asphalt, canvas, rebound ace and plexicusion, to name just a few.

In the 1960s and 1970s metal racquets were introduced. The next step in the evolution of the tennis racquet came with a material called graphite, which made the racquet lighter and stiffer. Soon after, a number of new materials were being used in racquets, including Kevlar, ceramic, and titanium.

Prize pool changes

It wasn't until the' introduction of truly ‘open’ tennis in 1968 that players were paid for their efforts on court. Prize money for singles titles has changed dramatically. In 1969 the Australian Open offered $4,500 (AUD) to the winning man and $1,750 (AUD) to the winning woman. The largest prize pool at this time was the US Open with the man taking home $15,068 (AUD) and the winning woman getting $6,457 (AUD).

However this is a small amount compared to prize money in more recent times. In 2009 both the winning man and woman at the Australian Open received $2,000,000 (AUD). This was also the highest amount given at the four Grand Slams that year.

The 'golden age' of men's tennis – the 1960s

In the 1960s, men's tennis open titles were dominated by six Australian men: Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Tony Roche. Ken Rosewall, and Fred Stolle. Between 1961 and 1970, Australian men's tennis champions won at least one Open Singles title every year at either Wimbledon, the French or US Opens, as well as the Australian Open titles.

Roy Emerson, champion 1959–71

Roy Emerson was Australian Singles champion in 1961 and then five consecutive times between 1963 and 1967. Emerson also won the men's singles titles in the French, US and Wimbledon Opens, winning each of them twice between 1963 and 1967.

His feats in doubles champions were extraordinary. Emerson won three Australian Open titles, five consecutive French titles from 1960 to 1965, four US titles between 1959 and 1966, and three Wimbledon titles between 1959 and 1971. Emerson came close to completing the Grand Slam in 1964 but fell in the French quarterfinals. Emerson played in eight winning Davis Cup teams, which was an incredible achievement.

Ken Rosewall, champion 1953–1972

Ken Rosewall, Courtesy of Australian Open

Ken Rosewall was a great singles champion, winning eight open titles between 1953 and 1972, Australian, French and US. He was one of the finest players to not win Wimbledon singles. Rosewall also won nine doubles champion titles, a total of 17 major titles, and achieved a career doubles Grand Slam. Rosewall, ‘Muscles’ to his friends, continued his tennis career into his 40s.

Ken Rosewall is known as one of Australia's greatest tennis players. When he was 17 years of age, Ken was selected to play for the Australian Davis Cup team, travelling with Davis Cup captain and coach Hary Hopman. This kick-started his career playing amateur, professional and open tennis. In 1953 he won his first Grand Slam title in the Australian Open Singles tournament and then went on to win 17 more titles during his career of over 30 years.

Fred Stolle, champion 1961–69

Fred Stolle won the French and US Opens in 1965 and 1956 respectively and was runner-up at Wimbledon three times (1963, 1964 and 1965) and twice at the Australian championships (1964 and 1965). Yet, Stolle won all four doubles opens, winning 15 titles from 1961 to 1969. Tall and competitive, Fred Stolle was known for his powerful serve, accurate volleys and fluid backhand.

Rod Laver, Grand Slam winner 1961 and 1969, and champion 1959–71

Rod Laver, no source

Rod Laver became the only Australian to win the Grand Slam twice in 1962 and 1969. Laver dominated Australian men's tennis in the 1960s although his competitors in Australia were also world champions. Laver won Wimbledon Singles titles four times – in 1961 and 1962 and in 1968 and 1969, the Australian Open three times, and the French and the United States Open twice each. Laver was Australian doubles champion four times, as well as winning at the French and Wimbledon titles.

Dubbed ‘Rocket’ Rod Laver by then Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, Laver ‘was a powerful left-hander who sent the ball hurtling over the net laden with topspin’. Laver was a driven competitor whose attacking play won him many titles, winning 17 of his 20 titles in this decade. Laver racked up a formidable 20-4 win-loss record in Davis Cup ties and was part of five winning teams during his career. In January 2000, centre court at Melbourne Park was named Rod Laver Arena in honour of Laver's achievements.

1969 Australian Open, Brisbane – Rod Laver and Margaret Court

The tournament was contested on Milton's grass courts in Brisbane between a men's field of 48 and a women's field of 32. Rod Laver's semifinal victory over Tony Roche was played in 105-degree heat. Their contest dragged on for more than four hours, 7-5 22-20 9-11 1-6 6-3, both players putting wet cabbage leaves in their hats to help them keep cool.

Laver went on to win the title, defeating Andres Gimeno of Spain 6-3 6-4 7-5, claiming $5,000 in prize money and the first leg of his second Grand Slam. Margaret Smith Court beat Billie Jean King 6-4 6-1 to take the $1,500 prize.
Australian Open History, 1969)

1970–75 – Australian Open men's draw depleted of players

In 1970 the Australian Open men's draw was depleted by the absence of Laver, Ken Rosewall, Andres Gimeno, Pancho Gonzales, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle. They were all professional players signed to a tour-specific contract with the National Tennis League and ‘they were banned from entering the Australian Open because the tournament's financial guarantees were deemed too low’. It was in this field, or lack of it, that Arthur Ashe became the first non-Australian to win the title since 1959.

Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong by Ern McQuillan,1971. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

In 1972, the gulf between professional players and amateurs widened with a dispute between the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) and World Championship Tennis (WCT) which impacted on players in events between January and July 1972. In a bid to subvert the ban, Australian Open organisers started their tournament on December 27. However, the December dates did nothing to attract European players who boycotted the Australian Open for another decade because of the clash with Christmas.

In 1973 there was only marginal competition from overseas players. Nine of 12 men's seeds were Australian with no.1 seed and defending champion Ken Rosewall losing in the second round to Karl Meiler of Germany. On the women's side all but three of the 12 seeds were Australians.

The Australian Open's timing, slap-bang in the middle of the holiday season, was a continued bone of contention with international players, the legendary Bjorn Borg boycotting the tournament saying, ‘I was trying to make a statement. My point was that a player requires some time to himself. He can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break.‘
Australian Open, history, 1973

John Newcombe (right) with American Jimmy Connors, 1974, Australian Open, Courtesy Courier Mail

Australian players like John Newcombe also objected to the event date in the December Christmas period. In 1975, Newcombe ranked as no 2, only entered at the last minute on hearing that the American Jimmy Connors, ranked as no.1, would be making the trip. It was the first Australian Open match televised in America, on CBS, and was Connors' last competitive match in Australia. Newcombe won 7-5 3-6 6-4 7-6.

John Newcombe, champion 1965–75

John Newcombe is best remembered for his 12 doubles open titles with Tony Roche, which was more than any other men's team in tennis history. Newcombe also won the singles open titles in 1973–75, Wimbledon in 1967, 1970–71, and the US in 1967 and 1973, winning all bar the French title.

As a player, John Newcombe was strong, athletic and a great competitor. His serve, volley and forehand were his most formidable weapons and he used them to devastating effect.

Tony Roche, Champion 1965–74, Courtesy of Australian Open

Tony Roche, champion 1965–74

Tony Roche (b. 1945) enjoyed startling success on the doubles court with his long-time partner John Newcombe. Between 1965 and 1974 the pair snared 12 major doubles titles together, including five Wimbledon championships, four Australian and two French Open titles, and one US Open title.

Roche possessed a difficult left-hand serve and was skilled in attacking his opponent with volleys. These skills helped him claim the 1966 French title, which was his only major singles win. He finished runner-up in the single titles on several occasions – twice at the French (1965 and 1967), twice in the United States (1969 and 1970), and once at Wimbledon (1968). After retiring, Roche became a successful coach and has mentored world no.1 players including Ivan Lendl, Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt, and Roger Federer.

Women's tennis

Women players made their marks in the 1960s and 1970s. Lesley Bowrey won 13 major titles between 1961 and 1967. After Margaret Court completed the Grand Slam in 1971, Evonne Goolagong Cawley dominated women's tennis in Australia in the 1970s winning the Wimbledon Singles title and the French Open in 1971, followed by four consecutive Australian Singles titles from 1974 to 1977.

Lesley Bowrey, champion 1961–67

Lesley Bowrey. Courtesy of Australian Open

Lesley Bowrey (b. 1942) from Trangie, NSW was the first Australian women to win two French Open Singles titles, in 1963 and 1964. Overall Bowery won 13 major titles including seven international doubles – the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the United States Open titles – as well as four mixed doubles champions in Australian Open and at Wimbledon between 1961 and 1967. She was a runner-up on 14 occasions in Grand Slam tournaments.

Bowrey participated in the inaugural Federation Cup competition in 1963 and went on to captain Australia's Federation Cup team between 1994 and 2000.

Margaret Court, Grand Slam, 1970 and champion 1960–75

Margaret Court nee Smith (b. 1942) is Australia's most successful women's tennis player on the world circuit. Court was dubbed ‘The Arm’ by Billie Jean King. Court amassed a list of tournament wins that is yet to be rivalled. She won:
  • the Australian Singles champion ten times,
  • the French Open Singles four times,
  • the United States Open five times; and,
  • Wimbledon three times.

Altogether, Margaret Court collected 62 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed. Her closest rival is Martina Navratilova with 56 titles. A strong player known for her heavy ground strokes and powerful serve, she was the world's number one seeded player three times – in 1969, 1970 and 1973.

In 1970, Margaret Court completed the Grand Slam, winning four international tennis open titles in one year. Court is one of only three women ever to complete this feat.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley, champion 1971–80

Evonne Goolagong, 1971, courtesy of Australian Open

Evonne Goolagong Cawley (b. 1951) dominated women's tennis in Australia in the 1970s with four consecutive Australian Singles titles from 1974 to 1977. Prior to this Goolagong Cawley won the Wimbledon Singles title in 1971, as well as the French Open in the same year and, the Wimbledon Singles again in 1980. Goolagong Cawley was ranked in the top 10 for nine years and climbed to the top of the rankings for one week in 1976.

Goolagong was a poster girl for aspiring country players in the 1970s, a darling of the circuit with a song written about her achievements and popularity.

A player renowned for her grace and speed around the court, Goolagong Cawley started playing as a young girl by hitting a ball against a wall with the paling from an apple crate board. Goolagong Cawley came close to completing a career Grand Slam in 1971 with a doubles win in the Australian Open but, the US Open title eluded her.

Wendy Turnbull, champion 1978–82

Wendy Turnbull (b. 1952) made the final of every Open except Wimbledon, achieving a top 10 year-end world ranking for eight consecutive years (1977–1984) and a year-end top 20 ranking for 10 straight years (1977–1986). Turnbull's Open titles were in Doubles – Wimbledon (1978), the French (1979), and the US (1979 and 1982). She was also the Mixed Doubles champion five times across the French, Wimbledon and US titles between 1979 and 1980. Turnbull was renowned for her foot speed around the court.

Australian Open 1980s–90s: a set venue and date but controversies

Davis Cup final at Kooyong, 1986. Courtesy of Herald Weekly Times Image Library

Whilst Melbourne's Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club had been the Australian Open's 'permanent' home since 1972, by 1980 there were suggestions that the Australian Open no longer deserved its 'big four' status. This was fuelled by the absence of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe who had won the previous three Slams between them and who were indisputably the top two players in the world.

It was not until 1986 that organisers decided to move the tournament away from the Christmas/New Year period, scheduling it in a new, permanent timeslot in January, hoping to attract international players.

In 1988 the Australian Open was held in a new modern Melbourne Park Tennis Centre, constructed with hard courts and a unique retractable roof over the centre court. However in 1995, the centre court's sliding roof was no match for Melbourne's weather, and rainfall during the Agassi – Aaron Krickstein semifinal flooded the arena, turning the stands into waterfalls. In 1996, the Australian Open benefitted from a facilities upgrade that effectively doubled the size of the venue. An investment of $23 million bought two new show courts, one seating 3,000 the other seating 800, and eight new Rebound Ace courts. The Centre Court was renamed the Rod Laver Arena.

Pat Cash, champion 1987


Pat Cash in action during the 1986 Davis Cup final at Kooyong. Courtesy of Herald Weekly Times Image Library

Pat Cash (b. 1965) won the men's singles title at Wimbledon in 1987 and made the final of the Australian Open twice in 1987 and 1988. Cash was renowned for his serves and volleys and his best games were played on grass.

Sportsmanship controversies – Cash pelted and McEnroe (USA) disqualified

Two issues, the truly open nature of sport and sportsmanship came to the fore in 1987 and 1990 at the Australian Open.

The open nature of sport, of having open selection trials and selecting representative teams, was an issue for international competition. In South Africa, the apartheid policies of the government and the sporting bodies deliberately excluded South Africa's non-white people from participating in representative sport. (ANC, International Boycott of Apartheid Sport, 25 May 1971, With special reference to the campaigns in Britain by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Paper prepared for the United Nations Unit on Apartheid in 1971)

Since the 1960s, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and internationally had campaigned to boycott international players and teams from participating in South African sports events until the government and sports administrators permitted open selection trails, mixed sports games and access to facilities. At the 1987 Australian Open, Australian Pat Cash was the reigning South African Open champion.

Cash … was booed by banner-wielding anti-apartheid protesters and pelted with black tennis balls at the seventh-game change of end. … Cash shrugged off the distraction to reach the final for a second consecutive year. He lost to Mats Wilander in a 6-3 6-7(3) 3-6 6-1 8-6 epic regarded as the best Slam decider of the season.
Australian Open, History, 1987

McEnroe disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct, 1990. Australian Open, still

Good sportsmanship is the 'golden rule' of sports. It means treating the people you play with and against as you'd like to be treated yourself. Good sportsmanship is seen to be demonstrated when players show respect for themselves, their teammates, and their opponents, for the coaches on both sides, and for the referees, judges, and other officials. Being polite, courteous and not losing tempers on the court is part of the practice of ‘good sportsmanship’. (What is sportsmanship?, Greater Brisbane Junior Tennis)

The question of what is acceptable sportsmanship was tested when John McEnroe (USA) disagreed with and swore at the umpire at the 1990 Australian Open. McEnroe was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, verbal abuse and tennis code violation. (McEnroe defaulted at Australian Open 1990)

In 1990 … umpire Gerry Armstrong and chief supervisor Ken Farrar putting a rocket under John McEnroe in his fourth round match, disqualifying him for unsportsmanlike conduct under the new ‘three strikes you're out’ rule.
Australian Open, History, 1990

1990s: Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, and Pat Rafter

Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde

Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, no source

Meanwhile in the men's doubles in 1992, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde won their first Australian Open and second Grand Slam title as a pair. Woodforde and Woodbridge formed one of the greatest doubles combinations in history. They won 11 Open doubles titles including the doubles champion in the Australian Open in 1992 and 1997, and five consecutive wins at Wimbledon from 1993 to 1997, as well as the French Open in 2000.

Known as the 'Two Woodies', they also won Olympic gold medals in 1996 at Atlanta, and silver at Sydney in 2000.

After 2000, Todd Woodbridge began a successful partnership with Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman which reaped a further five major doubles titles, winning Wimbledon in 2002, 2003, and 2004, as well as the US open in 2003. Woodbridge retired after the 2005 Wimbledon championships with a record-breaking 83 doubles titles. As a singles player, he reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1997.

Pat Rafter, champion 1997–99

Pat Rafter. Courtesy of Australian Open

Pat Rafter was the singles champion twice in the United States Open for 1997 and 1998, as well as the doubles champion in the Australian Open in 1999. Rafter was well known for his serve and volley style, which suited the grass courts of Wimbledon where he was a dual finalist in 2000 and 2001, and a semifinalist in 1999. He also made the semis at the Australian and French Open Titles.

2000s, a hundred years on: young and emerging champions

A hundred years after the first tournaments, television and live coverage have given tennis a boost as a spectator sport. The Australian Open has continued to grow and is now the most popularly supported Grand Slam tournament. In 2010, the Australian Open attracted a record crowd of 653,860 which included a daily Grand Slam record patronage of 77,043 over its series of courts.

Despite the controversy over the draw in the 1970s, with a great many Australian seeded players, Australians have been most successful in their home tournament. Up to 2012, the men have won 51 singles titles and the women 43 of the women's titles.

Lleyton Hewitt, 2001–2016

Lleyton Hewitt won his first Open title in 2001 with the doubles title at the US Open followed by the singles title at Wimbledon in 2002. He reached the semi-finals in the US Open, losing to Agassi. In 2004 Lleyton fell to eventual champion no. 1 Federer at the Australian Open (4th RD), and reached the quarter finals at Wimbledon and the finals of the US Open.

Samantha Stosur, 2006–

In 2012, Samantha Stosur (b. 1984) from Brisbane was ranked sixth in the world having won the 2011 US Open Women's singles for the second time after her first win in 2005 when she also won the doubles title with Lisa Raymond from the USA. In 2006, Stosur won the doubles title again with Raymond at the French Open, known as the Roland Garros Open. Stosur plays with a double-handed backhand.

Ashleigh Barty, 2011–

Ashleigh Barty

In 2012, Ashleigh Barty from Ipswich, Queensland at the age of 16 was ranked in the top five of the Junior Women players, drawing one of the wild cards to play on clay at the French Open. This was after her debut in the Australian Open earlier in the year. In 2011, Barty won the 2011 Junior Wimbledon and reached the semi-finals at the 2011 US Open. Barty plays right-handed but with a double-handed backhand.

2012 Australian Open Champion Luke Saville played for another Junior Open title when he defended his title at the Wimbledon Junior Championships.

Bernard Tomic, 2009–

Bernard Tomic won the 2009 US Open boys' championship. In 2008 he was the youngest player in history to win the Australian Open boys' singles title at the age of 15. He helped Australia win the Junior Davis Cup final against Argentina in 2007, and reached the semifinal of the boys singles at Wimbledon in 2008. In 2012 he was the top ranked player in Australia and has a world ranking of 20.

Matthew Ebden, 2012–

Second ranking Australian men's player is Matthew Ebden from Perth, where he is mentored by Australian Grand Slam champion Margaret Court. Ebden partnered Tomic in doubles.

Nick Kyrgios, 2013–

Nick Kyrgios. Courtesy of Nick Kyrgios

Nick Kyrgios won the Australian Open boys' champion in 2013 when he defeated compatriot and close friend Thanasi Kokkinakis to win his maiden grand slam juniors title on Australia Day. It was the first all-Australian decider for 19 years. (Australian Open Match Reports)

In May 2013, the teenager from Canberra made a remarkable senior grand slam debut, eliminating Czech veteran Radek Stepanek from the first round of the French Open at Roland Garros.

Kyrgios, an Australian with a Greek father and Malaysian mother, is mentored by Pat Cash who was his coach when Kyrgios played Junior Davis Cup tennis. In 2013, in the tradition of Hopman, Ashley Cooper, Frank Sedgman, John Newcombe, Thelma Long, Margaret Court, and Yvonne Goolagong, Kyrgios returned to his first coach in Canberra and ran a class for boys and girls under 12 years at the Ainslie Tennis Club.

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Last updated: 7 March 2016
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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