When Margaret Court won her first major title at the 1960 Australian Championships, the wonder isn’t that she broke through as a 17 year-old. It’s that she remained standing at all.
The news coverage ahead of the final praised Court’s game and foresaw great things for her future, but it also predicted a win for her opponent, 18-year-old Jan Lehane, who had beaten Court 6-1 6-0 in the 1959 juniors final. While Court (then unmarried, playing as Margaret Smith) had posted a more recent win over her rival, the issue that led the pundits to favor Lehane was scheduling. Court had barely stepped off the court for two weeks.
That’s where my title comes from: A preview of the final claimed that the teenager had played 451 games in 10 days. Unlike Lehane, who entered only the adult singles event, Court played singles and doubles, as well as girls’ singles and doubles. She reached the finals in women’s doubles and girls’ singles, as well as the semi-final in junior doubles.*
** one news report claimed she reached three other finals, but I have a score from the girls’ doubles semi-final showing Court and her partner, Val Wicks, as the losers.
She lost her first two finals, including the junior singles to another future tour stalwart, Lesley Turner, which suggested that fatigue was a factor. Making matters worse, both of those championship matches went three sets.
In those days, the Australian Championships were a more modest affair than the present-day Australian Open. The field was mostly Australian, though in 1960, two elite foreigners, Brazilian Maria Bueno and Britain’s Christine Truman, made the trip. Bueno and Truman won the doubles, while Bueno lost to Court in their singles quarter-final, and Lehane saw off Truman in the semis. Still, the singles draw was only five rounds.
Since early-round matches were often blowouts (Court won her opener 6-1 6-0), I struggled to come up with those 451 games. Here’s a quick rundown of Court’s known matches in the tournament:
- Women’s singles (89 games): R1 d. Dorothy Linde, 6-1 6-0; R2 d. Jan Shearer, 6-3 6-2; QF d. Bueno, 7-5 3-6 6-4; SF d. Mary Carter Reitano, 7-5 2-6 6-2.
- Women’s doubles (97 games): R1 bye; QF d. Turner/Noelene Turner, 5-7 10-8 8-6; SF d. Lehane/Reitano, 4-6 6-0 6-3; Final vs Bueno/Truman, 6-2 5-7 6-2.
- Girls’ singles (83 games): R1 d. Heather Ross, 6-2 6-2; R2 d. Helen Gourlay, 6-0 6-0; QF d. Wicks, 6-1 6-0, SF d. Jill Blackman, 6-0 7-5; Final vs Turner, 2-6 6-2 6-2.
- Girls’s doubles (23+ games): Early rounds unknown; SF loss to Blackman/A Plummer, 0-6 6-4 6-1.
Sum it up, and we have 292 games, plus the total from two more probable rounds of girls’ doubles. (It’s also conceivable that there is one more early round of junior singles, though it seems unlikely that the juniors draw would be bigger than the adult field.) But even in the pre-tiebreak era, a few doubles matches probably didn’t account for more than 150 games.
One event is not enough
Just like today, the top players of six decades ago carefully managed their schedules. For instance, they might play only doubles in the week before Wimbledon. But in January 1960, Court was not a top player, and her schedule was largely at the whim of her state federation.
For Australian juniors, the few days before the Championships were given over to the Wilson Cup, an interstate team event. (Boys played a parallel Linton Cup event.) The 1960 Wilson Cup was a Fed Cup-style round robin among six Australian states, with each tie consisting of two singles and one doubles match.
Court, representing Victoria, got her fair share of warmup matches. I’ve found results from three days of Wilson Cup play. (There were likely five rounds, partly because that is the logical number in a six-team round robin, partly because the first day of results I found are listed as the “third round.”) Here are Court’s results:
- Jan 19th vs New South Wales: singles d. Lehane, 6-1 6-3; doubles loss to Lehane/Dawn Robberds, 6-3 6-2.
- Jan 20th vs Tasmania: singles d. Gourlay, 6-0 6-0. (Court didn’t play the doubles rubber.)
- Jan 21st vs South Australia: singles d. Felicity Harris, 6-0 6-0. (I didn’t find a doubles result, and several matches that day appear to have been unplayed or unfinished due to rain.)
That’s 57 more games. A post-Wilson Cup note reported that Court dropped only eight games in her singles matches. If she played one more match, that’s another 16 games (say, a 6-2 6-2 win); if she played two, it’s 28 (for instance, 6-0 6-1 and 6-3 6-0). It also seems likely that she participated in another doubles match or two. Wilson Cup play started on the 18th and the “third round” took place on the 19th, so it’s possible that she three or four matches on the first day alone.
A fortnight to remember
While I can’t account for all 451 games (plus 20 more in the women’s singles final), we do have records of Court playing 13 singles matches, almost definitely 14, and possibly 15. We have scores for 5 doubles matches, almost definitely 7, and possibly as many as 10. We can be confident of a total of at least 365 games, with several more scores unaccounted for. All of this happened between the opening of the Wilson Cup on January 18th and the adult singles finals on February 1st.
I have no idea if this is a record. One challenger immediately springs to mind: The John Isner–Nicolas Mahut match totaled 183 games, but Mahut lost his first-round doubles with another 46 games played. (Isner withdrew from doubles, and neither played mixed.)
Another contender is Martina Navratilova‘s 1986 Wimbledon campaign. As she tells it, rain forced her to play a whopping 17 matches in the second week alone. Yet despite reaching the finals in women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles, she played “only” 333 games over the fortnight. (Her per-day rate in the second week might have surpassed Court’s.)
At least Court had the good sense not to enter mixed.
I don’t have a comprehensive doubles database, and junior records are even more sparse, so it’s not an easy record to confirm. A man, playing best-of-five in singles and (for many years) best-of-five in doubles, would be more likely to reach 400 or 500 games at a single major. It’s also possible that Navratilova tallied more games at a different major with fewer memorable scheduling problems; her 1986 effort easily cleared 300 games despite every match being settled in straight sets.
As for Court, she celebrated with a well-deserved break … of about one week. Within ten days, she was in New Zealand, where she lost to Ruia Morrison (a Maori tennis great, and a good story for another day) in another final. The national federation didn’t send her abroad that year, so she played a modest schedule for the remainder of the season. With our modern understanding of the importance of recovery, it seems like that was an excellent idea.