It highlighted an identity issue when a player’s name was spelled incorrectly on scoreboards as competitors prepared for the 1978 Australian Open women’s singles final.
An additional “l” has been added to Chris O’Neil’s last name on the two manually operated scoreboards at Kooyong, the former Australian Open venue, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Clearly, the innocent mistake didn’t faze the 21-year-old O’Neil, who beat American Betsy Nagelsen in straight sets on grass in her prime.
Until world-ranked Ash Barty’s 6-3, 7-6 (2) win over American Danielle Collins on Saturday at Melbourne Park, O’Neil was the last player from the host country to win the singles title Australian Open. In those 44 years, he had disappeared from the tournament scene.
Fittingly, she was invited by Tennis Australia for the final and had the honor of receiving the individual trophy, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, at the Rod Laver Arena before the match.
O’Neil grew up in Newcastle, an industrial city north of Sydney, and had previously won just one match in five previous attempts at the Australian Open which was played at Kooyong from 1972 until moving permanently to Melbourne Park 16 years later.
He retired from tournaments in his early 20s and ran a tennis complex near his home, giving lessons to local players. Now 65, he is out of the game after undergoing two hip and knee replacements.
A tall player with a long reach and solid all-court play suitable for the faster grass surface, she was ranked No. 110 in the WTA computer rankings and only qualified for the 32-player draw that year at the Australian Open due to a weakened field. .
The Fed Cup was played in Melbourne a month earlier, but most of the top international players were home for the end of the year, preparing 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.
Not even ranked in the top 20 Australians at the time, O’Neil only had to get past one seeded player, American Beth Norton in the second round, en route to the final. He eventually conceded just 31 games in five rounds on his way to the title.
The scorers’ mistake was probably due to Australia having veteran player Jan O’Neill in tournaments at the time.
While the unlikely 1978 champion fell back into tennis anonymity, the women’s draw was strengthened in 1980 when it grew to 64 players, led by Martina Navratilova.
Czech player Hana Mandlikova, who later obtained Australian citizenship, won that title in 1980, beating local favorite Wendy Turnbull. That was the last time in 42 years that Australia had a runner-up in the women’s singles event.
In the press conference following Barty’s victory, tournament director Craig Tiley mentioned the title contenders 44 years earlier.
He pointed out that Nagelsen, Danielle Collins’s former trainer, lost to O’Neil by the same score.
“I guess it was fate,” Tiley told Barty. “Congratulations, incredibly proud of you. You are a great champion, not only on the court but in everything you do in life.
Barty said it felt “absolutely amazing” to finally break the drought and credited a host of former Australian Grand Slam winners for paving the way for his victory.
“I think as Australians, we are exceptionally fortunate to be a Grand Slam nation,” Barty said. “Having the experience of playing at home is really special, and being here as the tournament champion is really exciting.”