In 2000, Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero won a routine match against Roger Federer in the first round of the New Zealand Tennis Open, at Auckland’s Stanley Street courts. It was the sort of result that is typical of the tournament, meaning little at the time but vastly more significant in hindsight.
Federer was a scruffy Swiss 18-year-old who obviously had special talent – he was the world’s leading junior. But during his 6-4, 6-4 defeat he gave few signs that within four years he would become possibly the greatest player in history.
Both Federer and Ferrero have gone on to earn the world No 1 ranking, but in 2000 they weren’t among the tournament big names. The spotlight centred on Magnus Norman, who beat Michael Chang in a tight final, and also Goran Ivanisevic and Tommy Haas. What a strong field it was. Others in the draw included Gaston Gaudio, Marc Rosset, Albert Costa, Magnus Gustafsson and Nicolas Escude.
That has always been the way with the tournament, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. Occasionally – most notably in 1969 – the best in the world have shown up, but more often it’s a fair bet that the entry will include half a dozen players who will win Grand Slam titles over the next few years.
The international tournament was first held in 1956, when Stanley Street had grass courts, and lured just eight overseas players. In those days there were men’s and women’s events, and even a mixed doubles. Californian Bob Perry won the men’s singles and Australian Mary Hawton the women’s.
It was an exciting time for New Zealand tennis and gave our stars – Ron McKenzie, Jeff Robson, the emerging Lew Gerrard, Ruia Morrison and Sonia Cox the chance to get international competition.
Over the years the tournament established a reputation for friendliness and fun that enabled it to attract more stars than it had a right to expect. It wasn’t until 1959 that it got a naming rights sponsor, the Auckland Glass Company, of which leading tennis administrator Jack Redwood was part-owner and managing director.
Auckland association president Tom Childs, a witty, erudite man, welcomed the Australians that year, saying: “We can’t be accused of apheliotropism and I hope that your transpondone excursion proves enjoyable and successful.” How would such a speech go down now?
The 1959 tournament was significant for New Zealanders. Jeff Robson, that terrier on court, beat Roy Emerson, Bob Mark and Bob Hewitt, three leading Australian players, on his way to the title; and Ruia Morrison won the women’s singles.
Morrison is much underrated these days. The following year she beat Margaret Smith (Court), who has claims to being the finest women’s player of all time. Not to be outdone that year, veteran Ron McKenzie beat Rod Laver, Court’s male equivalent. These were staggering performances.
W D and H O Wills took over the sponsorship in 1963 and the name changed to the Benson and Hedges Open in 1969. That was the first time the tournament was open to professionals, and was the greatest year in the event’s history.
Tony Roche won the men’s singles, beating Rod Laver 6-3 in the fourth in the final. The most significant local result was the 4-6, 5-7, 10-8, 6-0, 6-3 quarter-final win of teenaged Brian Fairlie over Wimbledon champion John Newcombe.
There were other memorable matches. Stoic Russian Tomas Lejus pushed Laver to 7-5 in the fifth and self-styled South African hippie Ray Moore had a magnificent match with ageing Pancho Gonzales. Moore finally won 2-6, 12-10, 6-4, 5-7, 9-7. Gonzales scowled and grumped and on some Moore service games did not even try. He was on the wrong side of 40 and was conscious of shepherding his resources. They walked off the court to a standing ovation, arms around each other’s shoulders.
In the women’s singles, Ann Jones beat Karen Krantzcke in a lopsided final, but the star of the show was Madame Butterfly, Billie Jean King, even if Krantzcke did beat her in the semis.
That 1969 event was the most important tennis tournament in New Zealand history. It revealed the true breadth of international tennis and inspired youngsters like Russell Simpson and Chris Lewis to pursue the sport seriously. With admission only $1 for adults and 50 cents for children, it was value for money.
Since then, the open has always been a social and tennis highlight of the Auckland summer. Roger Taylor beat flying Dutchman Tom Okker in 1970, a year in which Phil Dent, Ray Ruffels, John Alexander and Niki Pilic also shone.
Lanky Wellingtonian Onny Parun became the hero of Stanley Street in the 1970s. He beat the entire French Davis Cup team – Bill N’Godrella, Georges Goven, Patrice Dominguez and Patrick Proisy – on his way to the 1973 title. In 1974, precocious 17-year-old Swede Bjorn Borg amazed spectators with his looping topspin and beat Parun in the final. But Parun then twice beat his great rival Brian Fairlie in long finals.
In 1975, the clothing requirement was white, but, so the tournament programme informed us, “at the discretion of the manager, pastel shades may be worn”.
Chris Lewis, the hot young New Zealand player, lost a nip-and-tuck three-setter to Parun in 1978, a match which drew an overflow lunchtime crowd. Lewis won the event in 1985, beating Wally Masur in the final. He remains one of only three New Zealand men to have won the title.
The outstanding player of the 1980s was the Big Cat, Miloslav Mecir, who befuddled his opponents with his disguised groundstrokes and never seemed in a hurry. Without seeming to raise a sweat, he won the 1987 title in grand style, and seemed more concerned with where he might fit in a spot of fishing.
By then the women had split off for their own professional event. The mixed tournament lasted until 1981. Such fine players as Margaret Court, Evonne
Goolagong, Jones, Rosie Casals and Kerry Melville won the singles crown.
Mecir returned in 1990, breaking officials’ hearts while delighting spectators by losing in the first round to underrated Wellingtonian Steve Guy. He wasn’t the only major drawcard to disappoint. In 1999, Marcelo Rios, the defending champion, arrived, took a heap of appearance money and defaulted his first-round match. The Chilean could play brilliantly, but wasn’t a popular visitor.
Over the past 15 years, the tournament, now sponsored by Heineken, has attracted big names, including Michael Stich, Emilio Sanchez, Thomas Enqvist, Greg Rusedski, Patrick McEnroe, Wayne Ferreira, David Nalbandian, Carlos Moya, Jim Courier, Guy Forget, Marat Safin, Todd Martin, Gustavo Kuerten, Alex Corretja and the latest tour sensation, Rafael Nadal.
The grass courts disappeared in 1978, replaced by hard courts that allowed for year-round play, and the tournament’s tag as the Little Wimbledon of the South Pacific lost its relevance.
However, it has remained a popular stop for even the best overseas players as they build towards the Australian Open. With courtside boxes that seem to be almost on top of the players, and a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, the tournament is a reminder to players and spectators that tennis is still a sport that can be enjoyed.