Reference point: Barty replaces O’Neil as last Aussie winner
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — It underlined an identity issue when one player’s name was incorrectly spelled on the scoreboards as the competitors warmed up for the 1978 Australian Open women’s singles final.
An extra “l” was added to Chris O’Neil’s family name on the two manually operated scoreboards at Kooyong, the former home of the Australian Open, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Clearly, the innocent error didn’t unsettle the 21-year-old O’Neil, who beat American Betsy Nagelsen in straight sets on the grass court in her finest hour.
Until top-ranked Ash Barty’s 6-3, 7-6 (2) triumph over American Danielle Collins on Saturday at Melbourne Park, O’Neil was the last player from the host nation to win the Australian Open singles title. In those 44 years, she had disappeared from the tournament scene.
Fittingly, she was a guest of Tennis Australia for the final and she had the honor of welcoming the singles trophy, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, on to Rod Laver Arena before the match.
O’Neil grew up in Newcastle, an industrial city north of Sydney, and had previously won only one match in five previous attempts in the Australian Open that was played at Kooyong from 1972 until it moved permanently to Melbourne Park 16 years later.
She retired from tournament play in her late 20s and managed a tennis complex near her home, giving lessons to local players.
Now 65, she no longer plays following surgery for two hip replacements and a knee replacement.
A tall player with a long reach and solid all-court game suited to the faster grass surface, she was No. 110 on the WTA’s computer rankings and only qualified for the 32-player draw that year at the Australian Open because of a weakened field.
The Federation Cup was played in Melbourne a month earlier but most of the top international players left to spend the end of the year at their homes and prepare for the start of a lucrative women’s tour.
Britain’s Sue Barker was the top seed and Czech player Renata Tomanova was the second seed. Four of the top seven seeds had lost after the first three days.
O’Neil, who was not even ranked among the top 20 Australians at the time, had to get past only one seeded player, American Beth Norton in the second round, on the way to the final. She eventually conceded only 31 games in five rounds on her way to the title.
The mistake by the scoreboard attendants probably stemmed from Australia having veteran player Jan O’Neill in tournaments around that time.
While the unlikely 1978 champion slipped back into tennis anonymity, the women’s draw was bolstered in 1980 when it increased to 64 players, headlined by Martina Navratilova.
Czech player Hana Mandlikova, later to take out Australian citizenship, won that title in 1980, beating home favorite Wendy Turnbull. That was the last time in 42 years that Australia had a finalist in the women’s singles event.
At the news conference following Barty’s drought-breaking win, tournament director Craig Tiley made mention of the contenders for the title 44 years earlier.
He noted that Nagelsen, a former coach of Danielle Collins, lost to O’Neil by the same score.
“I guess it was destiny,” Tiley said said to Barty. “Congratulations, incredibly proud of you. You’re a great champion, not just on the court but everything you do in life.”
Barty said it felt “absolutely incredible” to finally break the drought and credited a host of former Australian Grand Slam winners for paving the way for her win.
“I think as Aussies, we’re exceptionally lucky to be a Grand Slam nation,” Barty said. “To get to experience to play at home is really special, and to be here as a champion of the tournament is really exciting.”
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