By Randy Walker
It was 22 years ago today, January 11, that the Australian Open entered a new era. It was on this day in 1988 when the Australian Open moved to its new location – then called Flinders Park and now called Melbourne Park with the centre court centerpiece – complete with the retractable roof – that was later christened Rod Laver Arena. Gone were the grass courts and the charming, but out-dated, Kooyong Tennis Club. In came the hard courts and modern facilities that brought Australia back to proper Grand Slam status. The following is an excerpt from the January 11 chapter of my book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com) that outlines the historic opening day of play.
1988 – Play begins at the Australian Open at the new $60 million Australian National Tennis Center at Flinders Park in Melbourne with American qualifier Wendy Wood winning the first match played in the new stadium court, later to be known as Rod Laver Arena, beating No. 14 seed Dianne Balestrat of Australia. Wood, 23, from Lexington, Mass., defeats the top-ranked Australian woman 6-2, 4-6, 8-6, registering her first professional match victory after playing only two previous WTA Tour-level events. “I’m very nervous now. I’m not used to these kind of situations,” says Wood, whose father Wilbur Wood was a standout pitcher for the Chicago White Sox in the 1960s. “I knew I was going to be nervous, but I figured she had more reason to be nervous than me.” Balestrat, 31, and an Australian Open finalist in 1977, says she has some difficulty adapting to the court – the synthetic Rebound Ace hard court surface – used for the for the first time at the Australian Open after a switch from grass courts. Pat Cash, the No. 4 seeded Australian and reigning Wimbledon champion, plays the second stadium court match and is greeted with boos and shouts from a group of anti-apartheid protestors who, in protest of Cash playing in South Africa the previous year, also throw black tennis balls on the court before being escorted from the stadium. Cash is fined $500 for swearing at a linesman in the final game of his 7-5, 6-1, 6-4 win over 20-year-old Thomas Muster of Austria. Also on the day, Yannick Noah of France, the No. 5 seed, staves off two match points before overcoming Roger Smith of the Bahamas 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 16-14 in 4 hours, 51 minutes, the longest-recorded match at the time at the Australian Open. Says Noah, who saves the match points in the 16th game of the final set, “After I saved the match points, I felt much stronger.”