Throughout the 1970s and most of the ‘80s, the Australian Open struggled to keep up with the other three majors as far as importance to the players went. Scheduling was often cited as a problem, as well as the traveling.
Going into 1988, though, it would be a new and revitalized tournament that kicked off the Grand Slam season.
First, the venue was moved from Kooyong to Melbourne Park. And, more dramatically, the surface was changed from grass to the new Rebound Ace, a softer hard court that played relatively slow compared with the average concrete surface.
What players would take advantage of the new conditions?
On the women’s side, the top seed was Steffi Graf. The 18-year-old German had won her first major in 1987 at the French Open, and reached the final of Wimbledon and the US Open to propel her to the top spot.
On the other side of the draw was two-time champion Chris Evert. Her record in Australian Open final matches would drop to 2-4 as Graf won the title in straight sets for her second career Grand Slam. She also became the first German to ever win a singles title at the event.
Ivan Lendl was expected to thrive on the new court. Like Graf and Navratilova, he was also bidding for his fourth major final in a row, winning the 1987 French and US Opens and losing at Wimbledon to Pat Cash.
In Melbourne, Lendl was once again denied by Cash in the semifinals. Cash reached the final of his home Slam for the second year in a row as he finished runner-up to Stefan Edberg in 1987.
His opponent this time would be another Swede who thrived in Australia, Mats Wilander.
Wilander was a two-time champion on the grass at Kooyong. One of the youngest men to ever win a major when he claimed the French Open title in 1982, Wilander was in a Grand Slam title drought, as his most recent one came at Roland Garros in ’85.
Like Graf and Evert’s match, the men’s final was played under the retractable roof. Those conditions are often favorable to the attacking player, like Cash. In this instance, though, Wilander—who had made some distinctive adjustments to his game—wore Cash down, winning 8-6 in the fifth set. The victory made Wilander only the second man at that point in history to win Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces after Jimmy Connors.
The Australian Open was a hint of what was to come for both champions in 1988: Graf would go on to win the “Golden Slam,” all of the majors and the Olympic gold in one year.
The tournament’s undergone some more shifts since then—such as the removal of Rebound Ace—and dominant champions have emerged over the years. The changes made 30 years ago at the Australian Open have had a lasting impact on the game.
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