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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The tale of Barbara Jordan and her non-existent Australian Open crown

When Barbara Jordan won the tournament in 1979 after beating fellow American Sharon Walsh in the final, the Australian Open was the final major of the season and a largely ignored stepchild.

By: New York Times | Updated: January 20, 2020 3:58:53 pm
Barbara Jordan won the Australian Open in 1979. (Source: Twitter)

by Cindy Shmerler

On a staircase landing in Barbara Jordan’s Northern California home, encased in a wide glass frame, is a round silver platter, largely tarnished by age. In simple arced engraving, the plate reads, “1979 Australian Open, Women’s Champion, Barbara Jordan.”

But the memento is a fake, made by her parents to commemorate their daughter’s achievement because, in those days, winners did not take home a trophy.

“They were appalled that the tournament never gave me a trophy,” said an amused Jordan, now 62. “So, they found a silver platter at an antique auction and had it engraved for me.”

When Jordan won the tournament more than 40 years ago, the Australian Open was the final major of the season, not the first, and a largely ignored stepchild. It has since become a major event, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators and top players.

But with the tournament starting, it has been overshadowed by the devastating bushfires that have ravaged the continent, killing people and animals, driving residents from their homes and destroying millions of acres of property.

Smoke from the fires extended to the cities hosting Australian Open warm-up events and prompted concern over the air quality. Australian Open officials were forced to consider contingency plans, including moving matches indoors and altering start times.

Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director, and Tennis Australia’s chief executive, said in a statement that they have “committed substantial extra resources” to monitor the air quality.

“Assessing the likelihood of smoke-induced interruptions is a bit like how we treat heat and rain,” he said. “We have experts who analyze all available live data as specific to our sites as possible and consult regularly with tournament officials and, in the case of heat and smoke, medical experts.”

Players, including Nick Kyrgios of Australia, former champion Maria Sharapova and seven-time winner Novak Djokovic, have also responded, donating money for aces served during the Australian summer swing. Another Australian, Ashleigh Barty, who is No. 1 in the world, donated all of her prize money from the Brisbane International.

About 250 players are scheduled to compete starting this week, but years ago players often dismissed the tournament because, until 1987, it was held over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays; they passed on the extended flight to Melbourne in favor of time at home.

“I have a big family, and Christmas was important to us,” said Chris Evert, who lost to Evonne Goolagong in the 1974 final and didn’t return until 1981. “And back then, the Grand Slams didn’t hold the importance that they do today. It was all about the Virginia Slims tournaments, about us building a tour and proving ourselves. For us, it was more important to win 10 tournaments a year rather than one Grand Slam. Now it’s the opposite.”

For Jordan, a three-time All-American at Stanford, being away from her suburban Philadelphia home during the holidays was not such a big deal, especially because in those days, players stayed with host families while on the road, so she knew she would not be alone for Christmas dinner.

Despite losing early at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1979 and being ranked No. 68 in the world, Jordan was optimistic about the Australian Open. The year before, Chris O’Neil of Australia, ranked No. 111, had captured the title over Betsy Nagelsen of the United States.

“I had only recently turned pro, and the year before I had taken Martina (Navratilova) to three sets in my first Wimbledon,” Jordan said. “That was the only set she lost that year on the way to her first Wimbledon title. So I liked my chances at the Australian, which was also played on grass.”

There were only 32 women, including three Americans, entered in the Australian Open singles in 1979 — compared with the 128 draw this year — and Jordan was the No. 5 seed. After beating two Australians in the first two rounds, Jordan upset the second seed, Hana Mandlikova, a 17-year-old Czech who would go on to win the title the next year, and in 1987, and become a future hall of famer. Jordan then outlasted another Czech, the No. 3 Renata Tomanova, before beating a fellow American, the fourth-seeded Sharon Walsh, 6-3, 6-3 in the final.

“To be honest, I don’t remember anything about that match,” said Mandlkikova. “I guess I don’t want to remember.”

For Jordan, the win was one for the ages, especially because it was the only singles title she won. She played the Australian Open only one more time, losing in the first round to Mandlikova in 1983, and never again advanced beyond the third round at a major. Her highest career ranking was No. 37.

For her win, Jordan received $10,000 in prize money, in contrast to the $50,000 awarded to the men’s singles champ, Guillermo Vilas of Argentina.

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