Once Was Flinders Park

My love affair with the Australian Open began in 1988 when I, aged 16, lost my mind (and lungs) screaming for Mats Wilander as he triumphed over Pat Cash to win an epic Australian Open Grand Final (6–3, 6–7(3–7), 3–6, 6–1, 8–6). It took place around my grandmother’s kitchen table and, while not my most patriotic moment, remains the single most impressionable sporting experience of my life. It was the kind of Grand Slam final we all hope for, in any sport, but are very rarely afforded.

Come 1989, and my parents deemed me mature enough to circumvent the television and attend the Australian Open with my friends over a series of days. We forked out $10 each for daily ground passes and were let loose at the then Flinders Park in its sophomore year. This was the start of our tennis time – although many others were lamenting the move from Kooyong, the championships’ spiritual Melbourne home – and we were buoyed with the enthusiasm of children being let out for the first time without chaperones.

Passing the turnstiles of Flinders Park was akin to slipping through the looking glass into a parallel universe. Apart from the unpredictable weather, Melbourne ceased to exist and we’d officially entered international waters. Unfamiliar Scandinavian accents replaced Australian ones, and the patrons came with the kind of impeccable tans that matched their shiny, golden hair. It was as if we were rubbing shoulders with Oscar statuettes.

While the Swedes were there to support the Wilanders and Edbergs, their nationalism was dignified; enough to make an impressionable 17 year-old wish she were a Swede too. We ate strawberries and cream together in a ceremonial nod to Wimbledon. We pushed our empty water bottles under the bathroom taps in a toast to avoiding exorbitant bottled water costs. We moved freely from court to court in our commitment to following (and honouring) the Norse tennis gods.

More than one article here on The Footy Almanac has lamented the passing of a sporting era and, while this may be another one, for me, those pre-Melbourne Park years were the halcyon ones of the Australian Open – a time when the Open fully realised its international Grand Slam status but still retained a level of intimacy. As with everything, it was destined not to last.

During that era, a visit to the Australian Open was an adventure, not a bunfight. Even without a guaranteed seat, we could float around courts according to our fancy, rather than just having found somewhere to plonk our behinds. We could unintentionally wander into the players’ area and have to flag down a security guard to find our way out – “Oh, you go over there and turn right,” he casually indicated, and let us find our own exit, unescorted.

The smaller courts would sometimes provide the most noteworthy experiences. My good friend, Kate, an avid Todd Woodbridge fan, was perfectly placed on one when a stray ball ricocheted off Woodbridge’s racket and hit her in the scone. “Are you alright?” he graciously asked (she was).

Centre court seats were a luxury – not a necessity – and afforded us the opportunity to cheer Mikael Pernfors in the quarterfinals after he controversially beat John McEnroe by default when McEnroe contravened a new code of conduct. The crowds seemed against Pernfors on that day, having been denied an opportunity to see the mighty Mac, but we had Pernfors’ Swedish back. And the tickets were still available that morning when we arrived at the ground so we stretched our budgets that extra $20.

But our centre court tickets were no matches for those of Danielle, our former school co-captain, who’d appeared to have snaffled the seats fitting for a girl of her privilege. We liked Danielle but that didn’t stop us grizzling about her access to opportunity. Oddly enough, when we said ‘hello’ to her, her sullen demeanour belied that of someone living the good life.

A few months later, the reasons behind this sullen demeanour become clear. We attended Danielle’s funeral after her body rejected the kidney given by her mum. She was 19. We might not have known it at the time but we’d been the lucky ones at the tennis that day. We had what money could not buy – our youth and our health. And we’re still here now, which means we can look back and ‘remember when’ with misty-eyed reverie.

Maybe today’s Australian Open does not resonate for me like those seminal years in the early nineties but, for a kid today brought up on the orgasmic grunts of women’s tennis and men’s serves that threaten to break the sound barrier, who knows? Each era offers its own memories and, with each passing, there is sentimentality for what has gone.

I really miss those Swedes.


Emma is a writer, reader and horror movie aficionado. When not having the bejesus scared out of her, she wrangles content creation for her company, Bakewood.


  1. Why a segment producer at Channel Seven didn’t come up with a vignette of the Swedish contingent at Flinders Park (players and spectators both) to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ in their halcyon days of the 80s and 90s, I don don’t know….

    “We come from the land of ice and snow,
    Where the midnight sun and the hot springs blow,
    The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands.
    To fight the horde, singing and crying
    Valhalla I am coming!’

    Saw Mats having a drink in the media centre circa 2010. He still had ‘it’.

  2. Philip Mendes says

    There’s a great interview with Wilander in Kevin Mitchell’s new book Break Point about the current tennis heroes. He has some very funny comments to make about Borg’s ill-fated comeback. Some of us have whilst travelling overseas have also seen the excellent weekly tennis show Wilander hosts I think on ESPN – not sure if it is available on ESPN here. But I’ve got to ask – how could you support Mats over our own Pat Cash who was seeking to become the first Ozzie to win the Open since Eddo in 1976? Tony Abbott would disown you from Team Australia.

  3. Team Australia will be knocking on your door Emma. I saw that Cash-Wilander final in the US on ESPN in the early morning. Great match – and a painful loss (for me if not for terrorists like yourself).
    Stefan Edberg is 49 today. Did you get a party invite?

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    You brought out heaps of memories here Emma. Jan 88. Just got my licence and was full of testosterone and invincibility in my light blue, deceased estate 1974 Corona.

    Steffi Graf or Shteffi Graahf as my German raised wife likes to call her was beginning to dominate and Evert and Navratilova were in their twilight but still competitive. As for Pat Cash, talented but humourless and spoilt…like most Hawthorn fans.
    Really enjoyed the piece. Cheers

  5. I completely forgot about getting sconed by Todd’s ball – maybe I wasn’t Ok!!!? So many good memories of the Open with my Emma; champagne in the sun, fits of giggles on centre court and that wicked sunburn from my shorts to my socks that left me looking like I was wearing pink leggings for the rest of the summer. And of course, Mats Wilander’s legs.

  6. daniel flesch says

    Phillip Dimitriadis wrote :” As for Pat Cash, talented but humourless and spoilt…like most Hawthorn fans. ”
    This is an unecessary , ungracious and generally crapulous comment this website could do without. Give it a rest , Phil.

  7. Emma Westwood says

    Phils & Peter – I know. Shameful, eh? But, let’s just say that Pat Cash wasn’t my favourite Pat when it came to the Aussie tennis contingent. And I’m not going to barrack for Aussies just because. I have standards, Tony Abbott!

    Steve – I think of Borg and the Mental As Anything song, ‘Berserk Warriors’:
    “Bjorn is just a viking
    He is very a handy with a sword
    He loves nothing better
    Than to cut and slash right through a horde
    Mutilation, jubilation
    Friendly muscles, in a tussle”

    Kate: You are my muse in pink sunburn leggings.

  8. Hi Emma,

    It is really interesting to read. Your love affair with tennis is like my one – I started playing tennis because I had liked girls at school who played tennis. It is just what happens at youth, isn’t it?

    As a Japanese and having visited Australia on holidays only in 2000s, I have no idea about your Mats, sorry…

    Are you still watching the Australian Open?

    Thanks :)


  9. Emma- great read. Well done, and I look forward to more of your stories. Lots of excellent imagery!

  10. Philip Mendes says

    Good player Cash. Killed me in a junior tournament with his big serve when he was only nine years old. He probably played his final one match early against Lendl in the semi final when he upset the then number one with a classic production of serve and volley. Seemed to get tired in the final after leading two sets to one.

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Daniel Flesch,
    You just confirmed the bit about humourlessness and I’m not even going to point out the irony of being ‘crapulous’.

  12. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Timely tale Emma, the good old days of Seven’s Summer of Tennis.

    But I’m bemused that you haven’t mentioned Lou Cailotto or Ron Fuller (sorry, gratuitous Adelaide football reference)

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great read thanks , Emma . Cash had similarities with , Hewitt didn’t quite unite every 1 like , Rafter enjoyed your story ! ( Gold Swish )

  14. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful tale Emma. I’ve only been to the Australian Open a couple of times but it sure is a fantastic event to attend. Steffi Graf was my version of your Wilander. Sat up and watched most of her Wimbledon and French Open finals. The only times I’ve ever supported Germany. As for not being patriotic tennis wise, that’s only been the Poo and Tomic for me.
    The Cash/Wilander Final is the first Grand Slam final I can remember watching. Not into tennis so much these days.

  15. Yes those Swedes were good for tennis & great sportsmen.
    It’s quite amazing how Players & their Country define eras.
    For example Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal &
    Novak Djokovic.

    Roger Federer has written an eloquent foreword to Rod Laver’s Memoir.
    ” From my earliest tennis memories, Rod ‘the Rocket’ stood above all
    others as the greatest champion our sport has known”.

  16. Emma,
    This piece sure brought back memories.
    I went to the last few Kooyong Aus Opens as a callow youth, but one always had the feeling that the Open had outgrown Kooyong. Who can forget the tediousness of those pedestrian traffic jams in that (one) corridor through the outside courts?
    You are correct: there was something exciting about the new flash Flinders Park in the early days.

  17. Emma Westwood says

    Thanks, guys. Glad the piece has been able to spark some good memories in all of you. Today’s style of tennis tends to leave me cold – I yearn for game play and smarts rather than speed and brawn.
    Luke – Steffi was the most elegant of all tennis players. Watching her was like watching a choreographed dance. Spectacular!

  18. Nice memoir Emma. Between being left on the side of the Western Hway to fend for yourself (a story you have told elsewhere) and released to the freedom of Flinders Park, you’d have to be getting a message re your parents: either very progressive (likely) or very busy.

    A couple of people made an important point (inc Yvette) when interviewed for a story about being a fan. Yvette said that going to the footy was one of her first acts of genuine adolescent/childhood independence as she and friends got on the train together and went off to the footy grounds.

    By the way, when did the Aust Open move to late Jan?

    My (happy Aust Open) recollection is of early-work years pre-Christmas hols: beach, lunch watching tennis, late-afternoon 18 holes, beers, dinner, reds, rums playing cards in front of more tennis or ODIs.

    First time seeing live tennis was in Adelaide watching Henri Leconte (I think) practice. He was trying to bounce serves into the front row of spectators at Memorial Drive.

  19. Georgie Howitt says

    Lovely story, Emma. The Swedes were definitely the mega spunks of tennis, and many a young girl’s first crush. My second ever crush (after Alice Cooper) was Roscoe Tanner, circa 1974. Despite later indiscretions, he seemed so lovely and wholesome, although even had I known what was to come, I think at six I would have forgiven him anything.

  20. Emma Westwood says

    JTH – you’re way too nice to my parents. I think they were naive more than anything.
    Georgie – you’ve always been a sucker for the bad boys.

  21. Legends Doubles – noon today – Thomas Johannson and Jonas Bjorkman (sigh) V Thomas Enqvist and Mats Wilander (double sigh).
    Wonder what Emma is doing this afternoon?
    Don’t expect her home early Steve.

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