Watching unseeded Johanna Konta of Great Britain book a final four berth at women’s singles this year at Australian open brought back memories of similar surprise finalists/semi-finalists at the Open. Somehow Australian Open has thrown more than its share of surprises over the years. Many of them never replicated their one-off golden run at this event or anywhere else. A short list in no particular order.
American Jordan was an accomplished doubles players having won five grand slam doubles titles (with at least one title at each major). In singles her success was much more limited and the only time her chance came was in the 1983 Australian Open where she defeated 6th seeded fellow American Zina Garrison to make the final. In the finals Kathy came well short against Martina who won her 2nd Australian Open title with a straight sets win. This was German legend Steffi Graf’s first Grand Slam tournament.
Mecir who had played and lost his first Grand Slam final at the US open as an unseeded 22 year old in 1986, put together a good season starting from Wimbledon 1988 where he handed Swede Mats Wilander his only defeat at the Slams in 1988 (Wilander won Australian , French and US open that year) in straight sets. Then he defeated Stefan Edberg and Tim Mayotte in consecutive matches to win an Olympic Gold at Seoul the same year. In 1989 Australian Open, Mecir benefited from a weak draw to reach his second grand slam final. In the finals Lendl played a tactical match (he later admitted to the tactics and even apologized to the crowd) to cramp Mecir’s stroke play and won in straight sets. Mecir’s career fell sharply thereafter, primarily due to injuries. He retired in 1990 aged just 26.
Along with Jenifer Capriati, German Anke Huber was considered the teen sensation of the 1990s. While Capriati’s career tanked spectacularly in the early 90s (and rose equally spectacularly in the late 90s) Huber never scaled the heights everyone expected her to reach. Her only singles final appearance was at the 1996 Australian open finals where Monica Seles, returning from a two and half year hiatus from tennis (forced by the injuries sustained when a crazed Graf fan stabbed her), defeated Huber to win her 10th and last Grand Slam title. Huber became Germany’s no 1 woman player after Graf retired in 1999, however she too hung up her racket in 2001.
Rios who is perhaps the least popular world no 1 player ever, achieved his best results in 1998. He began by taking advantage of the weak draw to advance to the finals. In the finals, most unexpectedly, he faced Czech Korda instead of Pistol Pete Sampras but lost meekly. He won just 6 games in three sets and handed Korda his first (and only) Grand slam title. Rios chased Sampras through the year and even knocked him off the perch to become world no 1 for a brief period. Sampras wrested the spot soon enough and Rios finished the year ranked behind him. After 1998, Rios was unable to reproduce his success and dogged by injuries to the back and ankle had an indifferent career till 2004 when he retired from the game aged just 28.
- Petr Korda- Won the 1998 Australian Open men’s singles title
The eccentric left hander from Czech Republic was a runner up at the French open in 1992 before going all the way in 1998. He was assisted by Pete Sampras’s loss in round of 16 to Karol Kucera and an otherwise weak field. Korda’s act went downhill fast from there and after his loss to Tim Henman at Wimbledon. The same year he was handed a 12 month ban from tennis for using banned steroid nandrolone. He retired from tennis soon thereafter.
- Thomas Enqvist- Lost the 1999 men’s singles final to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in four sets.
The tall Swede who at one point of time was touted as the inheritor of Borg, Edberg and Wilander never quite lived up to the expectations. A career high ranking of 4 in singles and the final appearance at AO 1999 were his best results. In that tournament he took out a pair of local hopes Rafter and Phillppoussis in the 3rd and 4th rounds. He started very strongly in the final against Kafelnikov before running out of steam and losing in four sets. Enqvist never went past the last 8 stage in any Slam thereafter and retired in 2006.
- Thomas Johansson- Won the 2002 men’s singles titles
Johansson had a combination of factors in his favour and he turned them to gold. Agassi, who had won the previous two editions, did not return to defend his title due to injury. Johansson’s draw required him to go past 4 unseeded players and two others ranked in the 20s to reach the finals.Seeded 16th himself he was expected to lose to the higher ranked Safin. Against the odds, Johansson relied on his trademark grit and battled from a set down to win the title in four sets.
The heavyset German had a memorably run at 2003 Australian open when he took out Argentian David Nalbandian and American Andy Roddick in back to back matches to make his maiden Grand Slam final. In the final against Andre Agassi who was probably in the best shape of his career, Schuettler came up well short and won just five games to lose in 69 minutes. The closest he came to replicating that run was at Wimbledon in 2008 when he lost to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.
The charming Cypriot reached the final at Melbourne riding a wave of fan support (the large base of Greek origin Australians) and some inspired tennis. He took Andy Roddick out in the 4th round and then in the semi-finals came back from the dead (two sets to love down) against Argentinian David Nalbandian to make the finals. In the finals he started strongly and won the first set. When he went up a break of serve in second, we thought a Cinderella story might just come true. Federer had other ideas. The 2004 champion regrouped in an exemplary manner and took Baghdatis out in four sets. The Cypriot who obviously thrived in attention, had another memorable match at the US open that year where he lost to 36 year old Andre Agassi in a brutal five setter. The match left both players writhing in pain from cramps and was the last professional tennis match won by the great American.
- Fernando Gonzales- Lost the 2007 men’s singles finals to Roger Federer in straight sets.
After Rios, the lanky Gonzales was the finest player produced by Chile. He also holds the distinction of having won all three medals at Olympics (gold in doubles and bronze in singles at Athens 2004 and Silver in Singles at Beijing 2008). His best run at a grand slam came in 2007 when he defeated Del Potro, Hewitt, Nadal and Haas to book a spot against Federer. Even though he lost in straight sets, all three sets were fairly close and the match was not exactly one sided. Gonzalez had a 4th round loss to Nadal in 2009 and a semi-final appearance at French open later the same year where he was up 4-1 in 5th before allowing Swede Robin Soderling back in the match.
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