by Randy Walker
Mark Edmondson took firm hold of the pine-handled mop and dipped it into the soap-frothed bucket that lay in front of him.
It was 11:15 at night and the halls of the hospital were mostly abandoned, patients sleeping in their infirmary beds in their rooms and the nurses, one of them his sister, sitting quietly at their desks at the end of the hall.
Mark pulled the mop out of the bucket, the soapy water dripping off the yarn like the sweat off his brow during this humid Australian summer night.
He sloshed the soaking wet mop onto the tile floor and surveyed the hall at the task ahead. He moved the mop back and forth, not unlike how moved along the baseline of a tennis court, his other, more preferred, vocation.
Mark was a professional tennis player – at least that is what he considered himself even though his world ranking did not even rank him in the top 200 in the world. His tennis earnings were so paltry that he just took up a part-time as a cleaner at the hospital, on recommendation from his sister, just so he could pay his bills. You have to earn money to be a considered a “professional” tennis player. He was not looking to mop hospital floors for long, only until he could rustle up enough money to return to the tennis circuit to chase his athletic dreams.
No one could have imagined that in a matter of weeks, Mark would go from mopping hospital floors, to, in meteoric fashion, being the most unlikely men’s singles champion at any major tennis championship. The story of Mark Edmondson and his triumph at the 1976 Australian Open has all the makings of a Hollywood screenplay.
To date, Edmondson, the burly, mustached baller from Gosford, New South Wales, is the last Australian to win his national men’s singles title. In the semifinals, he took out the top-seeded legend Ken Rosewall in four sets and in the final defeated the defending champion – and three-time Wimbledon champion – John Newcombe in four sets.
Edmondson’s singles ranking at the time was No. 212 – making him the lowest-ranked man to ever win a major singles title, a distinction he still holds. This would be the equivalent if this week’s No. 212, Taiwan’s Ti Chen, would go on to win the Australian Open title in a few weeks at Rod Laver Arena.
Tennis is indeed a much different landscape now than when it was back in 1976. The Australian Open was then held on the grass courts of the Kooyong Tennis Club in Melbourne over the Christmas holiday, preventing many of the world’s top players from making the long trip “Down Under” to compete. The men’s singles field at the 1976 Australian Open featured only 64 players, 39 of them from Australia. Rosewall was the No. 1 seed – and the only top 10 player in the field – followed by Newcombe at No. 2. Missing from the field was world No. 1 Jimmy Connors, world No. 2 Guillermo Vilas, world No. 3 and reigning French Open champion Bjorn Borg, world No. 4 and reigning Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe and world No. 5 and reigning US Open champion Manuel Orantes.
Edmondson didn’t exactly fall into oblivion after his long-shot victory. He went on to win five other ATP singles titles and 34 doubles titles, including four at the Australian Open. He also reached the Australian Open semifinals in 1981 and the final four at Wimbledon in 1982, losing to Jimmy Connors. He also helped Australia win the Davis Cup in 1983.
The following is the summary of Edmondson’s triumph Down Under from the January 4 chapter of the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, www.TennisHistoryBook.com)
1976 – Twenty-one-year-old Mark Edmondson, who worked as a janitor three months earlier to supplement his tennis income, becomes the lowest-ranked player to win a major singles title when, ranked No. 212, he registers one of the biggest upsets in major tournament tennis in defeating fellow Australian and defending champion John Newcombe 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1 in the final of the Australian Open. Says Edmondson after the final, “I’m suffering from shock and exhilaration or something. It is just too good to believe. I think I might have a couple of bottles of bubbly tonight.” The two-and-half-hour final is delayed for 30 minutes due to a severe weather conditions which, according to the Associated Press, features 45 mile-per-hour wind gusts and a temperature drop “from 104 degrees in 79 in five minutes.”