Last Australian to win home Grand Slam: How Edmondson achieved the greatest upset of all time

In 1976 a man who had been working as a window cleaner weeks earlier beat the great John Newcombe in the Australian Open final. Mark Edmondson talks to Paul Newman about the day when a player from 'the riff-raff circuit' came good
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some of the local aficionados will no doubt recognise the 52-year-old tennis court builder from Sydney. However, plenty of other spectators who see him on one of the outside courts in the seniors tournament at the Australian Open will no doubt need the help of the scoreboard.

Perhaps the face will become more familiar come the second Friday of the season's first Grand Slam tournament, which begins here next Monday. In a ceremony in the Rod Laver Arena on Australia Day, Mark Edmondson will become the latest inductee into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame. A bronze bust will be unveiled and placed alongside those of Lew Hoad, Margaret Smith, Laver and other Australian greats in Garden Square at Melbourne Park.

Edmondson's name tends to be recalled these days as much for what followed - or, to be more precise, what did not follow - his finest hour as for his actual achievement. In 1976 he pulled off one of the greatest shocks in the sport's history by beating his fellow countryman, the great John Newcombe, in the final of the Australian Open on grass at Kooyong. Edmondson had been working as a window cleaner shortly before the tournament and remains the lowest-ranked player - at No 212 in the world - ever to win a Grand Slam event.

Yet just as remarkable is the fact that he is the last Australian to win the men's singles title in Melbourne. In 1976, given the apparently endless flow of Australian talent, few would have predicted such an outcome, and even if those players that followed never quite lived up to the reputations of their predecessors it is still remarkable that the likes of Pat Cash and Pat Rafter never lifted their home trophy. Even the current standard-bearer, Lleyton Hewitt, has yet to add the Australian crown to his Wimbledon and US Open titles.

Indeed, the subsequent saga of disappointments is a stick with which the country's ruling body is regularly beaten. While Tennis Australia points out that Aussies have won other Grand Slam tournaments and enjoyed Davis Cup success, critics of its development programme point to the fact that Hewitt (world No 19) is currently the only Australian man ranked in the world's top 100, while Samantha Stosur (27) and Nicole Pratt (72) are the only women. It is a far cry from the days when Australia vied with America as the world's most powerful tennis nation.

While Edmondson was growing up, Laver, Newcombe and Roy Emerson were dominating the game, continuing the work of Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Neale Fraser. As luck would have it, Charlie Hollis, Laver's coach, came to live in Edmondson's home town of Gosford in New South Wales. "I just did everything he told me to," Edmondson said. "I thought: 'If that's what his coaching did for Laver then it will do for me'."

Having enjoyed some success as a junior, after leaving school Edmondson decided to try his luck on the tennis circuit. He took odd jobs between tournaments in order to raise enough money to play abroad.

"It wasn't necessarily with the goal of becoming a full-time professional," he said. "If you did well you might stay abroad for six months, if you didn't maybe it would be only three months because you'd run out of money. Even when I was the No 3 junior in Australia I didn't get any financial help from Tennis Australia. They just didn't have the money."

In the build-up to his Australian Open win Edmondson could not afford even to fly around Australia on the domestic circuit. "I decided I would stay at home and practise, get a job and try to put another 500 dollars in my pocket, which would be my air fare for another trip to Europe.

"My sister was working at a local hospital and I went in there and said: 'I can clean windows and polish floors.' It was just a casual job. But two days into it I got a call from Tennis Australia. They couldn't get enough players to go to the Tasmanian Open and asked if I would go if they paid my air fare and accommodation. I jumped at it and told the hospital I could only work till the end of the week.

"I won the tournament, but I didn't have an Australian ranking at the time. They only ranked players down as far as No 15 and I was probably just outside that. However, I did have an ATP ranking, which I'd got by qualifying for the previous Australian Open, for Wimbledon - where I won a round - and for the Sydney indoor tournament.

"I think I only had 11 ATP points, but there were only about 240 people in the world with ATP points. I was ranked No 212 and I was one of the last acceptances into the Australian Open thanks to people dropping out. I don't think the general public knew about me. Nor did some of the players. The top guys were playing in the world's biggest tournaments, but I was playing on the riff-raff circuit."

However, as Edmondson made steady progress at the Australian Open some of the other players started to take notice. "I'd watched John Newcombe hundreds of times on television but I'd never actually met him," Edmondson recalled. "I actually first spoke to him on quarter-finals day. He asked me if I wanted to have a hit.

"At first I thought: 'Isn't that wonderful? Here's the great John Newcombe asking if one of the youngsters wants to go and have a hit with him.' But he was probably being very professional and thinking: 'He's in the other side of the draw to me and if he gets to the final against me I haven't got a clue what he plays like'."

Edmondson reached the final by beating Rosewall in four sets. Newcombe, with seven Grand Slam singles titles to his name, was the overwhelming favourite, but at 31 he was giving Edmondson 10 years in testing conditions. The match started in 42C heat. The first two sets were shared, but in the third the umpire suspended play due to a sudden storm.

The match resumed in a fierce wind. Newcombe led 6-4 in the third set tie-break but missed an easy volley after failing to allow for the wind and lost the set with a double-fault. Edmondson went on to win 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1.

"I think the crowd probably wanted Newc to win, but they were applauding me as well, although I was oblivious to it all," Edmondson said. "I was used to playing in front of two dogs and a cat - and maybe an umpire. Playing in front of several thousand people like that on centre court was all new to me, so I had to try to block it out. I just concentrated on what I thought I might be able to do - and, unbelievably, it worked.

"We shook hands at the end. I think he just said: 'Well done.' He probably sat down and thought to himself: 'How could I lose to that guy?' I was very raw, though I'd played a lot and won a lot in the previous six months. I'd won six tournaments back-to-back in Europe on clay. I was learning how to win. I had nothing to lose, and while I'd watched Newc a lot he hadn't had a chance to figure me out.

"We didn't socialise after the match, but I got to know Newc pretty well over the next few months. We actually flew together the next morning to Tasmania to play in a Davis Cup match. All the Australians of that era were good blokes, though I think like most top professional sports people we were all pretty self-centred."

The Melbourne prize-money paid for Edmondson's travel for the next year and meant he did not have to go back to cleaning windows. His ranking rose to No 56, which earned entry into most of the world's biggest tournaments.

The closest he came to another Grand Slam singles crown was in 1982, when he lost in straight sets to Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon semi-finals. "If I could play one match in my life again that would be it," he said. "I got it wrong tactically because I'd hardly seen Connors play."

Edmondson helped his country to win the Davis Cup in 1983 and went on to win a further five singles titles, reaching No 15 in the world rankings. He enjoyed greater success as a doubles player, becoming world No 3 and winning 34 titles, including Roland Garros and Melbourne.

"My goal at the start of my career was to play well enough to enable me to travel the world for a few years," he said. "I was one of the few players who would go sightseeing. I always thought: 'I might never get the chance to come back here.' I thought it was a wonderful privilege to play the game professionally. I just thought it would be pretty good if I could finish my career and have enough money to buy a house with a tennis court, a pool and a view of some blue."

Today Edmondson lives in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney, where he builds tennis courts and supplies artificial sports surfaces. He will have a hip replacement operation next month, but that will not keep him away from the seniors tournament at Melbourne Park. "I won't be running around too well, but I'll enjoy it," he said.