January 3, 1979, was a momentous day for 22-year-old Christine O’Neil and Australian sport. In front of a boisterous crowd at Kooyong, the 110th ranked O’Neil shocked the world by defeating American Betsy Nagelson to claim the 1978 Australian Open and become the first unseeded winner of a Grand Slam crown. The seventh consecutive title won by an Australian and the 18th victory in 21 years, perhaps more surprising than O’Neil’s unseeded triumph is the fact that it remains the last time the Australian Open was won by a home-grown champion.
O’Neil and Nagelson had been promising youngsters on similar paths when winning their respective country’s junior open championships in 1973. In the intervening years, Nagelson was the more accomplished of the pair, which her seeding at eight reflected, but 1978 had seen her fall from a career-high ranking of 26 to 68th by the time of the Australian Open Final.
Despite reaching her home Grand Slam Quarter Final at her first try in 1971, with limited support and resources it was a much tougher pathway to the 1978 Final for the Newcastle born and raised O’Neil. Her first trip to Wimbledon in 1974 was only possible due to an 18-month stint working a parcel delivery job.
“I’ve been working all my life,” O’Neil told the Herald Sun in 2008. “It was very much just travel and do it yourself.” Her hard work was rewarded with a third-round finish at the All-England club, but four years later the grind of life on the tour had taken a toll with thoughts of retirement at the front of the 22-year-old’s mind.
Deciding instead to focus on practice, training and fitness, O’Neil received a fillip at the beginning of her Australian season with a victory at the Queensland Open. While O’Neil’s attention was on her own game, the thoughts of local tennis commentators were instead on the long list of players who would not be in Melbourne for the last Grand Slam of the year.
Kerry Reid is swimming down at Somers, Dianne Fromholtz is sunning herself in Sydney and Wendy Turnbull is on a beach near Brisbane.Bruce Matthews in The Herald colourfully describing the absence of Australia’s finest players from the 1978 Open.
Given the status the Australian Open now holds at the beginning of International Tennis calendar year, it is difficult to understand the disregard many of the world’s best players gave the tournament in the 1970s. Even in 1978, despite the Fed Cup having been held in Melbourne earlier in the month and had brought the best women players in the world with it, there was a long list of absentees when the Australian Open draw was announced.
The absence of the superstars merely gives others the chance to win a major title and after all the Australian Open is still part of the Grand Slam.John Brown, Australian Open Tournament Director – The Herald December 1978
The Herald’s Bruce Matthews explained the reasons for the weakened field. “Most of the world’s top women players refused to come for three reasons,” he wrote. “The low prize money, Christmas, and commitments to the start of Avon circuit in the US.” While acknowledging the reasons behind the absence, Australian Open Tournament Director John Brown was adamant that commitment from the players was required for them to be resolved.
“We can’t rebuild the women’s event until we get the participation and cooperation of the players,” Brown told The Herald ahead of the tournament in December 1978. “With the women, you would expect at least one of either Billie Jean King, Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova,” he explained. “But Billie Jean and Chris wouldn’t even stay on in Australia for the Toyota Classic which was worth $75,000 (in comparison the Prize Money on offer for the Australian Open was $35,000). I do understand the girls’ reasons for not playing but I don’t always agree with them.”
This mattered little to the 32 women who assembled in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1978 with hopes of taking ownership of the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. While Superman with Christopher Reeve was playing in cinemas, Bert Newton agreeing to stay with Channel Nine was big news, Rodney Hogg was having an Ashes series to remember and The Bee Gees were ruling the airwaves, Chris O’Neil began her quest for her place in Grand Slam history.
With quick victories over Leanne Harrison and third seed Beth Norton, the big-serving six-footer from Newcastle found herself the Quarter Finals. Despite only deciding late to take part in the Australian Open, Nagelson was similarly unchallenged on her way to the last eight. Yet with the American’s place in the Quarter Finals coming with a showdown against Number Two Seed Renata Tomanova, it would take an upset for her tournament to continue.
In a thrilling contest, Nagelson moved from Quarter-Final underdog to tournament favourite, with her victory followed closely afterwards by the upset defeat of Top Seed Susan Barker to Dianne Levers leaving her the last seed standing. Australian Qualifier Christine Matison provided a stern Semi-Final test but the 22-year-old Eighth Seed proved too strong and booked her place in the Final.
For O’Neil, despite not having dropped a set through the tournament, she did not feel she had played her best tennis until the Semi-Final. “The first set (which she won 6-0) was the best I’ve played all week,” she told reporters post-match. As dominant as she had been, it wasn’t until she woke up on the morning of the final that she dared dream that she might walk away with the prize.
If it took the Novacastrian that long to realise herself a chance, it would be fair to say it may have taken officials at Kooyong a little longer, with the 22-year-old walking out onto centre court with her name misspelled on the scoreboards. While the scoreboard attendant mightn’t have known who she was before the match, less than 35 minutes later it was their task to record O’Neil taking the first set off of a clearly nervous Nagelson.
The second set was a see-sawing affair with the Chicagoan recovering from her early yips and jumping out to an early 3-1 lead. Yet just as Nagelson looked set to drag herself back into the match, the home-grown hero won the next four games to stand on the brink of victory. With O’Neil serving for the match, the set took another turn. “At five-three I choked on my serve,” was how O’Neil succinctly explained how the set went from almost within her grasp to the lottery of a tie-break.
She wouldn’t let a second opportunity slip and 80 minutes after having been credited with an extra ‘L’ on the scoreboard, it announced her the 1978 Australian Open Champion. Overcome with emotion upon her victory, O’Neil acknowledged the strength of the field that she had left in her wake. “The tournament was definitely not as strong as in past years,” she told the assembled press. “Nevertheless there were still some highly ranked players in it.” Having dealt with the elephant in the room, she allowed herself a moment to bask in the fact that she had joined a list of champions like Margaret Court, Evonne Cawley and Kerry Reid. “I feel very proud. I am very honoured to have my name in with the other greats.”
Never truly enjoying life on the international tennis circuit, five years after writing her name into history, O’Neil’s tennis career was over. Surprisingly, given her dominant run to the title in Melbourne, and a distinguished career on the doubles circuit, the Australian Open would remain her only singles tour title.
Speaking with the Port Macquarie News in 2014, she admitted she was comfortable with her unique place in tennis folklore. “It’s pretty cool. I’m a good trivia question,” she joked. She has admitted a desire for another Aussie to take her title of most recent homegrown winner. “I just say it every year, I would absolutely love another Aussie to win it and take it over,” she told the Herald Sun in 2008. “If I had said that 30 years later it would still be standing . . . well I wouldn’t have thought that,” she said. “It’s about time.”
Another decade on and O’Neil, like the rest of Australia, are still impatiently waiting.