Mark Edmonson is the last Australian man to win the Australian Open singles; he also set a tennis record that stands to this day.
In 1976, the Australian Open was in a precarious position.
First held in 1909, the tournament was well established. But in comparison to other major tennis tournaments – Wimbledon, the French and US Opens – it had a diminished status; it was often referred to as, ‘the poor man’s major’.
Australia’s geographical location was a factor: it was hard to get leading international players to travel so far, and to play for prize money that was lower than the other big tournaments. Scheduling did not help either; the Open usually began right after Christmas, and players were reluctant to travel at that time of year.
Its venue, the Kooyong tennis club in suburban Melbourne, was modest.
Tennis itself was in a state of transition. Previously played at the top level only by amateurs, the sport had turned pro in 1969; the beginning of what is called, ‘the Open era’.
Professionalism brought TV broadcast rights and sponsorship, which increased prize money and the sport’s profile. Players would train and compete year-round on one of a number of professional circuits, which raised the standard of play.
Official rankings were introduced in 1972, meaning players could also chase the coveted ‘Number 1’ position.
But this new era did not solve the Australian Open’s problems. The organisers now had to negotiate with the professional circuits, who signed the top players to exclusive agreements.
One of these was ‘World Championship Tennis’ (WCT), who had the majority of the Top 10 under contract. Formed at the start of the Open era, WCT operated a shifting roster of around 20 tournaments a year, featuring their star players.
In 1971, the Australian Open was a WCT event, and featured a strong international field; the following year, contract negotiations broke down and the tournament was left off the WCT schedule, diminishing the player pool.
Grappling with these issues each year, the organisers would sometimes revert to luring individual big names. American star Jimmy Connors was one of these, and he appeared at both the 1974 and 1975 Opens, making the final each time (winning in 1974).
In 1976, WCT again decided against including the Australian Open. Leading players, Connors among them, were pressured into an unofficial boycott of the event, hoping to improve the circuit’s negotiating position in future.
The tournament that year would be dominated by Australian players. Among the field was an unknown 22-year-old named Mark Edmonson.
Edmonson was born in Gosford, New South Wales, in June 1954.
A sport lover, he began playing tennis as a child, and quickly impressed observers with his natural ability. Tall and strongly built, as a teenager he developed a powerful game, built around a particularly heavy serve.
In 1972, Edmonson won the Australian junior championship, underlining his promise. Grasping the opportunities of the time, he turned professional the following year.
But he initially struggled to make his mark on the professional circuit. Edmonson’s serve was a powerful weapon, but it could be erratic; when it was astray his results suffered.
In 1975 he qualified for both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but lost in the second round at both tournaments. As the 1976 Australian Open rolled around, his career was at a crossroads.
Kooyong is a well-to-do suburb in Melbourne’s east, a few kilometres from the city centre. Its Lawn Tennis Club was the regular host of the Australian Open when it was held in Melbourne (it had sometimes been staged elsewhere), as it had the city’s best grass courts.
Centre court was open to the elements and modest by modern standards, although still had a capacity of 8 000.
1976 would be a significant year for the tournament in several ways. The final had been televised the year before for the first time, more matches would now be broadcast. Another innovation was electronic line sensors on the service lines, also used for the first time; a high-pitched tone would sound if a ball was out.
The singles draw had 64 players, and three rounds of matches before the quarter finals; one less than today, which has an extra round. The top men’s seed was Australian veteran Ken Rosewall, with defending champion John Newcombe seeded # 2.
Only 21 players in the men’s draw were from overseas. The highest ranked was American Stan Smith: a former Wimbledon and US Open champion, although no longer in the Top 10.
With the WCT players absent, the draw was not thought strong.
Despite the light field, Edmonson was not an automatic entrant. His ranking had slipped to 212, and he had taken a job as a cleaner to make ends meet.
‘My sister was a nurse at the time, and she said, we’re always looking for cleaners at the hospital. So I was doing some floor polishing and window cleaning.’
– Mark Edmonson, interview in the ‘New York Times’
Weeks before the tournament he received a call from Tennis Australia, who contacted him to see if he was interested in qualifying.
Qualification would be based on performance in one of several lead-up tournaments. Encouraged, Edmonson took a week off work and flew to Tasmania, securing his spot by winning the Tasmanian Open.
Money remained tight. While most of the non-Victorian players stayed in up-market hotels during the Australian Open, Edmonson would crash at a friend’s house, and commute an hour each way on the tram to play or practice.
The 1976 Australian Open actually began in 1975, on Boxing Day; it would conclude in the first week of January. Edmonson’s first round match was against Austrian Peter Fiegl.
Fiegl was an unspectacular player with a solid game, who carved out a ten year career on the circuit. More of a doubles specialist, his best result in singles would come at the 1978 Australian Open, when he defeated Ken Rosewall to make the quarter finals; the last professional match of Rosewall’s career.
Edmonson fell two sets to one behind the Austrian before he got his serve going; he eventually won in five tight sets.
His next opponent appeared much tougher. Local player Phil Dent was considered one of the top chances to win the tournament; seeded 5th he had made the final two years before, losing to Jimmy Connors.
But Edmondson had a surprise in store. With his confidence boosted by his first-round comeback, he produced a thunderous opening set, dominating his better credentialed opponent with big serves and groundstrokes, and taking it 6-0.
While Dent fought back and won the third set, he was beaten comfortably in four.
Still not highly regarded among the press or his opponents, Edmonson could feel his self-belief growing. In the next two rounds he would account for two further seeds – Brian Fairley and Dick Creely, the 1970 finalist – setting up a surprise semi-final against Rosewall.
41 years of age in 1976, Ken Rosewall was already a legend of Australian tennis.
Winner of eight majors, Rosewall played a precise, all-around game, with no obvious weakness. Adept on every surface, he had appeared in the final of all four Grand Slams multiple times, and won them all, except Wimbledon.
Slight and well turned out, with neatly trimmed hair, Rosewall’s dapper appearance matched his play. Edmonson was a contrast in every way.
While Rosewall’s style recalled earlier times, Edmonson’s power game was of a sort that became synonymous with modern tennis. Sporting long hair, a big moustache, and a bright gold shirt, his on-court persona was intense and aggressive; one member of the press remarked that he seemed more like a footballer than a tennis player.
It would be a clash of styles and personalities. Edmonson started as a massive underdog.
Similar to his early upset of Phil Dent, Edmonson came out strongly against Rosewall; with his serve firing he whipped through the first set 6-1.
But the veteran rallied and used his tactical nous to win the second equally easily, 6-2.
The latter part of the tournament was played during a heatwave, and in the era before night tennis, all of the matches were played in the afternoon. In sweltering conditions, which perhaps favoured the younger player, Edmonson turned the tables again, and won the third set 6-2.
He then took a tight fourth set 6-4, to cause an enormous upset; the world # 2 had been knocked out by the world # 212. Reflecting his lowly status, one headline the next morning read, ‘Janitor beats Rosewall’.
Riding the tram home that evening, Edmonson was congratulated by the other passengers, many of whom had watched his victory.
John Newcombe was now all that stood between Edmonson and an unlikely Australian Open title.
‘Newc’, as he was called by everyone, was much closer to Edmonson in style and temperament. He fashioned himself as a likable larrikan; easy going, good sense of humour, a knockabout type who liked a beer or three.
He and Edmonson even shared a similar moustache.
One area where they differed was Newc’s love of celebrity. While reporters complained that Edmonson was barely available during his run, Newcombe thrived in the spotlight.
On the eve of the final, he even used the press to try and get in his challenger’s head.
‘He beat Ken today, but he doesn’t realise he’s got to play John Newcombe tomorrow.’
– Newcombe, interview in the local media
Edmonson saw the quote and was furious; he would later say he thought Newcombe ‘bloody rude’, but that the comment also helped motivate him.
The 1976 men’s final was held on January 4. This was another hot day, with the afternoon temperature in the mid-30s and the potential for unsettled, even stormy, weather later on.
The first set was tight, with Edmonson serving well but unable to make any headway against his opponent. It went to a tiebreak, where Newcombe capitalised on a few minor errors to go one set up.
The defending champion had predicted Edmonson would be nervous, but he now showed a steely resolve. With his own serve holding steady, Edmonson broke Newcombe and claimed the second set 6-3.
As the third set started, the weather suddenly took a dramatic turn. Gusts of fierce wind blew across the stadium, knocking over chairs and causing the players and officials to run for cover; in the flurry, Newc threw himself dramatically on the ground, and put his arms over his head.
After a thirty minute break, the weather settled and the match resumed.
Play was again even, and the set went to another tie-break. Edmonson fell behind 4-2, but this time Newcombe faltered; a couple of unforced errors let his opponent off the hook, and Edmonson then served the breaker out, to take a two-sets-to-one lead.
The finish line was now in sight.
With his serve booming – Edmonson was not broken throughout the match – and Newcombe perhaps ruing his missed opportunities, the fourth set became a rout. Edmonson took it 6-1 to claim the title.
After the match, waiting for the presentation, he sat with a towel over his head, scarcely able to believe what he had done. Showing his shock, he would drop the tournament trophy when it was handed to him.
It is often called the biggest upset in tennis history: Edmonson remains the lowest ranked player ever to win a Grand Slam tournament.
His prize money was $7 500.
Edmonson would never win another major singles tournament or make another final.
In 1977 he was back at the Australian Open as defending champion and was knocked out in the quarter finals. His best result subsequent was a losing semi-final appearance, in 1981.
But he enjoyed a successful 13 year professional career, reaching his highest singles ranking of # 15 in 1982. He also found great success as a doubles player, winning five major tournaments, including four Australian Opens.
Edmonson was inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007. He is the currently the last Australian man to win the Australian Open singles; both Pat Cash (twice) and Lleyton Hewitt have been losing finalists since.
The Australian Open would eventually establish itself as one of the world’s premier tennis tournaments.
1976 was the last year the tournament would start right after Christmas; from the following year on, it was moved to a more player-friendly slot in mid-January. In 1988 it was relocated to the National Tennis Centre in central Melbourne, a more accessible location with better facilities for players and fans.
Its popularity with both has grown steadily since.
In 2024, the Open saw more than 1 million people attend for the first time. The prize money for the singles winners, $3.15 million, was roughly double what Edmonson earned in his entire career.