Once upon a time, Thomas Johansson described himself as uninteresting. When he finally reached a Grand Slam final, on his 25th try, he was dazzling. He did everything well on a tennis court. In the 2002 Australian Open final he showed solid two-handed backhands and paced forehands.
He used a venomous combination of top spins and slices, effective return, especially off the backhand side, and heavy serves to ruin Marat Safin’s celebrations for his 22nd birthday. His maiden Grand Slam victory was the perfect epiphany of the craziest major in the modern era.
It all began with No.3 seed Andre Agassi, the two-time champion, who called a breakfast-time press conference to reveal that he had aggravated an old wrist injury in practice and that despite treatment he had to withdraw.
For the first time, Lleyton Hewitt came as the No. 1 seed in a Grand Slam event. Soon, the first Australian in that position in the home Slam after Ken Rosewall in 1976 became the first top seed to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament since 1990 when Stefan Edberg surrendered to Russia’s Alexander Volkov at the 1990 U.S.
Open. And he was not the only star to lose his debut match. Delivering 91 winners to balance his 50 errors, Julien Boutter upset an ailing Gustavo Kuerten, the three-time French Open champion and former No. 1 suffering from recurring hip pain, unable to manage a two sets lead.
“It’s already been eight months that I’ve been feeling this,” said Kuerten, who never advanced past the second round in Australia. “I prepared well, but I was still not able to compete on hard courts.” Kuerten has never advanced past the second round of the Australian Open.
“After the third set, I couldn’t move,” he said. “I feel like I couldn’t play my game. There’s a lot of pain and it’s no pleasure for me to play like that.” In the first two rounds, a total of 19 seeds were already out of contention.
Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic fell to Jerome Golmard. No. 4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the 1999 champion and 2000 runner-up, lost to qualifier Alex Kim, the Stanford Graduate that took a message on board more than any other when Todd Martin worked with him at a USTA training camp.
He had played a single Grand Slam match and was overwhelmed by Agassi at 2000 Us Open. But Martin persuaded him that "the top guys aren't that much better". No.5 Sebastien Grosjean, the recent Masters Cup finalist, woke up with a sore neck the morning before the Spanish Francisco Claved forced him to a decider before winning 6-4 in the fifth.
Grosjean will take a revenge five months later as he overcame Clavet in four tough sets in the Roland Garros first round. France lost also the Australian Open finalist Arnaud Clement while Andy Roddick withdrew while trailing 6-7(11), 2-3 against Ivan Ljubicic.
A-Rod had set point at 8-7 in the tiebreaker but he fell and landed awkwardly. He went over on his left ankle, aggravating the right ankle he had sprained in the first round. “That's the third or fourth time it's happened in the last six months," said Roddick.
The Rebound Ace, he added, was too sticky "A lot of injuries and cramping and stuff I think have been going down this week, so maybe that has something to do with it". Australian Open chief executive Paul McNamee obviously defended the tournament's courts.
"We've only had one ankle (injury) at this tournament," he said to The Age. "From 128 men, 128 women, you're going to get injuries, unfortunately. And that happens at every hardcourt tournament. It is going to happen early in the year, there's no doubt about that when they're coming off a break, that is a little bit of a factor.
Thomas Johansson quite comfortably reached the second week after beating Younes El Aynaoui in the third round. The 16th seed came back from losing a first set tie-break to beat Romanian Adrian Voinea 6-7(8), 6-2, 6-0, 6-4 and seal a berth in the quarter-finals.
In the big clash in the R16, Pete Sampras aimed to revenge the 2000 Us Open final beating suffered against Marat Safin. Just two days after winning his third-round match with Nicolas Escude at 1.45 a.m., Pistol Pete had to play further 3 hours and 33 minutes, in a match that ended at 12.25 a.m.
His ambition of a 14th Grand Slam win was frustrated again by the mercurial Russian who completed a 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(8) win after saving two set points in the crucial tiebreaker and discuss with Portuguese umpire George Dias towards the end of the third set.
“It would be easier to win the lottery than over-rule at over 200 km/h down the T”, he said. Johansson’s run continued as he beat his compatriot Jonas Bjorkman, running out of gas after defeating sixth seed Tim Henman.
Johansson, who had reached a career-high of No.14 before that tournament completed an efficient 6-0, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory that projected him to the first Grand Slam semifinal. “In the first set, I was playing maybe my best tennis ever,” Johansson told local television to celebrate a stunning performance punctuated by 1aces and a string of service winners.
And the best was yet to come. In the semifinal, the Swede fought back from an alarming mid-match slump to beat Czech Jiri Novak 7-6(5), 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. On his fourth match point, Novak pushed a forehand out after 2 hours and 51 minutes on the Rod Laver Arena.
Johansson, despite delivering 63 unforced errors, gradually fought his way back against 26th seed and clinched one of the most relevant win in his career breaking novak’s serve for the third time in the match in the final game of the match.
Playing in their first major semifinal, Novak and Johansson created a study in contrast and efficiency on serve. The Swede needed four match points to seal his spot in the final, later admitting he was almost shaking as saw the match vanish from his hands.
In the second semifinal, Marat Safin kissed the rain that gave him an essential 50-minute delay against Tommy Haas. At the restart, the Russian won 11 of the final 13 games to advance to his second Grand Slam final. “Thank God it started to rain,” said Safin, who was leading 1:0 in the 4th set when the rain came to give him more time to recover despite his quarterfinal match against Ferreira had lasted less than half an hour.
Safin, who benefited from a rain delay also in the 2000 Us Open final, won 6-7(5) 7-6(4) 3-6 6-0 6-2 as Haas committed a last, lethal double fault. “There was no excuse,” said the 1999 semifinalist. “It was more a physical thing at the end.
I don’t think my legs wanted to go any more. I don’t think the break helped me much. I had to start all over again and he came out on fire. That’s just the way it is”. Before the title-match, the finalists walked on court in different moods.
“Safin smiled and flashed a V sign (for victory) to a television camera” the New York Times reported while Johansson “kept his face down, his feelings to himself”. Safin broke Johansson in the very first game and tied his shoes at the change of ends just as he wasn’t completely ready for the match.
The first set went his own way, but it was a placid illusion, a quick evasion from reality. Safin, playing on his birthday, gradually left the initiative to his opponent who went on to became the first Swede to win a Grand Slam title since Stefan Edberg at the 1992 U.S.
Open. “These two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life and today was just a dream come true,” said Johansson after his seventh career tournament win. He became the second-lowest seeded player to win the Australian Open in the Open Era after the No.218 Mark Edmonson in 1976, and the first No 16th seed to clinch a Grand Slam crown in the professional era accompanied by a cheering band of blue-and-yellow-clad Swedes.
Their chant accompanied most of his 16 aces throughout the match: “We like it!”. After that win, Johansson became the world No. 7, his career high, in June but lost the second half of that season and most of 2003, to a knee injury.
He retired in 2009 but those two weeks, the best of his life, will be always remembered as the craziest Grand Slam in modern times.