Without taking anything away from Steffi Graf—who was expected to win her third consecutive Australian Open, and did—the two most dramatic moments of the tournament came in matches that ended prematurely. The men's final came to an abrupt stop in the third set on Sunday when Stefan Edberg, hampered by a pulled abdominal muscle, walked up to the umpire and said, "I've had enough," and then left the court at the National Tennis Center in Melbourne. That gave Ivan Lendl an unsatisfying 4-6, 7-6, 5-2 win and made Edberg the first men's Grand Slam finalist to retire in midmatch since H. Roper Barrett did so at Wimbledon, in 1911. Edberg's walkout was preceded by another work stoppage the Sunday before, when John McEnroe's mouth got him defaulted from his fourth-round match with Mikael Pernfors (SI, Jan. 29).
However, anyone who thought McEnroe's early exit meant the end of hot blustery winds in Melbourne was wrong. This tournament was afflicted by a succession of tribulations of almost biblical proportions. First, swarms of flies descended on the courts. Then came the winds, which reached 35 mph. "It was like playing in a wind tunnel," said David Wheaton of the U.S. after losing to Edberg in the quarterfinals.
But the flies and winds were nothing compared with the stifling heat that plagued most of the tournament. On Jan. 23 the temperature on court reached 140°, and more than 50 spectators were treated for heat exhaustion. "It's not a nice way to play," said Lendl.
The heat also inspired some strange flights of imagination when it came to headgear. Lendl led the parade, showing up in a makeshift French Foreign Legion-style hat, which made him look as if he had just stepped off the set of Beau Geste. "I've got a supply," he said. "They'll be a hit in Manhattan."
February 5, 1990
As trying as the natural hazards were, the worst peril was man-made. The Rebound Ace surface, a mix of asphalt and mulched tires, got increasingly sticky as the temperature rose. When players tried to cut, they found themselves sticking to the rubbery surface like cartoon characters adhering to flypaper.
The results, however, were not amusing. Second-seeded Gabriela Sabatini left the court in a wheelchair after spraining her left ankle during a third-round match. She was followed by Australia's Mark Woodforde, who suffered a similar injury. "His foot just grabbed," said Wheaton, who was playing Woodforde. "It never came off the court."
The manufacturer of Rebound Ace, A. V. Syntec of Australia, defended its product, but that didn't appease the players. Said Boris Becker, "The court is very sticky, and when you're a little tired and just hanging in there, that's when your ankle can go. I'm taping everything I have to tape."
One player the conditions didn't seem to affect was Graf, who won her eighth Grand Slam title in her last nine tries. The last time she lost before the finals in a major championship was at the 1986 U.S. Open, where Martina Navratilova defeated her in the semis. Still, Graf wasn't sharp in Melbourne, but that's because she had not played a tournament in eight weeks. She needed three sets to subdue Helena Sukova in the semifinals, and while that was the only match in which she dropped a set, she trailed 5-2 in two other matches.
Graf didn't have an easy time beating 18-year-old Mary Joe Fernandez 6-3, 6-4 in the finals, either. Fernandez attacked Graf's backhand, forcing her into 14 errors off that side in the second set alone. But after leading 4-1, Fernandez missed an easy overhead in a game that would have put her ahead 5-2. Blowing such a simple shot seemed to take the punch out of Fernandez, and she didn't win another game.
Nevertheless, Fernandez's play against Graf was a revelation—at least for those who hadn't followed her quiet climb into the Top 10. Fernandez was 14 when she won the 18-and-under title at the 1986 Orange Bowl tournament, a major international junior event. She turned pro that year, but played only part time until her graduation from the Carrollton School in Miami last June.
Fernandez skipped graduation ceremonies to play in the French Open, where she reached the semis. Then she sought the guidance of Henry Hines, a conditioning coach who was a world-class long jumper in the '70s. Hines, who worked with Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg, helped Fernandez develop strength and explosiveness to bolster her already impressive repertoire of pinpoint ground strokes.
The untimely end to the men's final was especially disappointing. Lendl and Edberg had played almost flawless tennis in the semis, beating Yannick Noah and Mats Wilander, respectively, both of whom were making comebacks. Wilander's decline, though far briefer than Noah's, was more precipitous. After winning all the Grand Slam events except Wimbledon in 1988, Wilander did not win a tournament in '89 and fell from first to 16th in the rankings. When Wilander dispatched Becker last week in straight sets in the quarterfinals, he looked like the Wilander of 1988. But then Edberg converted an astonishing 80% of his first serves in eliminating him 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.
Noah had not advanced further than the quarterfinals of a major championship since winning the French Open at 23 in 1983. Undertrained and often injured, he seemed bent on proving that he could stay at the top by dint of his immense talent alone. Last year, after his ranking had fallen to 25, he decided to take another tack. In February he visited a witch doctor in his native Cameroon, who treated his tendinitis-afflicted knees by beating them with a panther tail. Since then, Noah says, his knees haven't bothered him.
More important, perhaps, in August he hired former U.S. Davis Cupper Dennis Ralston to oversee his training, and Ralston has done wonders for his game. Noah beat Lendl en route to winning the New South Wales Open the week before the Australian Open. Though Lendl reversed the result in Melbourne, defeating him 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, Noah's performance in Australia showed that he is again a force to be reckoned with.
The men's final was actually decided on the last serve of Edberg's match with Wilander, when Edberg felt a sharp pain on the left side of his abdomen. With that stroke Edberg reinjured a muscle he had first pulled in 1986. Despite a strict regimen of icings and anti-inflammatory pills during changeovers, his play began to deteriorate as the match progressed. "Once it gets into your head," he would say later, "it becomes psychological.."
Shots Edberg had missed by inches in the first set went wide by feet in the second. Still, he saved three set points in the 10th game and broke Lendl in the 11th to serve for a two-set advantage. But Lendl cracked four winners to level the set at 6-6. Edberg, now clearly handicapped by the injury, dropped six straight points in losing the tiebreaker. He finally called it quits with Lendl leading 5-2 in the third set. It was a strange but somehow fitting conclusion to a strange two weeks of tennis.