• Rewind to 2002

Johansson picks through tumbling seeds

ESPN staff
January 17, 2013
Thomas Johansson comfortably beat the final favourite Marat Safin to win the 2002 Australian Open © PA Photos

ESPN looks back 11 years to when the slight frame of Thomas Johansson tore up the form book and swept to grand slam glory.

Wimbledon's old No. 2 Court, known as the graveyard of champions, earned its popular moniker by providing the setting for tennis' minnows to knock seeded players off their perch.

Household names from John McEnroe and Pat Cash to both Williams sisters and the fabled Pete Sampras all tumbled there as the graveyard was consistent in its service to the underdog's cause; up until it was renumbered and then demolished to make way for new courts at the 2011 championship. But its existence was testament to the fact that sporting cults, in the tennis world particularly, are established over years and decades rather than weeks.

Which explains why the 2002 edition of the Australian Open was never franked with a colloquial title to set it apart as the major when seeds didn't so much fall, as tossed out of the competition at a rate of knots. But nickname or no nickname, that fortnight from the 14th-27th of January stands as one of the deepest purple patches of sporting improbability.

The first requirement for any tennis major hoping to catch the world's eye was ticked off in the first round when the No. 1 seed Lleyton Hewitt went out in four sets to rank outsider Alberto Martin from Spain. At the time Hewitt was not only Australia's best hope of a winner of their home tournament for the first time since 1976 but he was world No. 1, having won his first major at the US Open four months earlier, beating none other than Sampras in the final.

Alberto Martin hits a forehand in his win over Lleyton Hewitt © PA Photos

Needless to say it came as a shock to the Australian public that their latest world beater had crumpled so completely at the first hurdle, in front of his own countrymen and women. But if their interest waned after Hewitt was out, the world's was just stirring as all five of the top seeds were weeded out before the third round.

Second seed Gustavo Kuerten joined Hewitt in being dumped out in the first, fourth seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov made it to the second but lost in straight sets while seed No. 5 Sebastien Grosjean put up more of a fight in his second round but lost in five sets. Meanwhile third seed Andre Agassi, the reigning champion, trumped them all by never even getting started because of a wrist injury.

There is, of course, a missed opportunity for British tennis mixed in with all this first-week drama. Tim Henman became the highest seed left in the draw by round three and when he beat Greg Rusedski in four sets, the British press were agreed that this time Tiger Tim might just do it. After all, who was there left with a game consistent enough to stop him? Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman is the answer to that question. And for the third successive year Henman went out in the fourth round, 6-2 7-6(6) 6-4. Bjorkman's reaction after the match gives an indication as to what went wrong on this occasion for our Tim. "I thought he would serve with greater power because he knows I return well, but he was more tentative than I thought he'd be," Bjorkman said. So another case of the yips then for Henman?

Although the first week turned the tennis world upside down, not all results were what they seemed on paper. Hewitt's loss was almost solely down to him contracting chickenpox two weeks prior to the tournament, rather than any Henman-esque choking. The 20-year-old stormed through the first set 6-1 but then his all-action game, a workmanlike precursor to Rafael Nadal's never-say-die style, disappeared and he lost 1-6 6-1 6-4 7-6(4) to become the first top seed to exit in round one of the Australian Open since 1968.

What happened to the ladies?

  • At polar opposites to the men's singles, the women's tournament steadfastly adhered to the form book.
  • Aside from Serena Williams, who withdrew, all the top eight seeds made the quarter-finals and the No. 1 seed Jennifer Capriati beat Martina Hingis in the final but only after surviving four championship points against her.
  • The biggest surprise was probably Australian wildcard Cindy Watson making the third round, which remained the best result of her career.

The draw was therefore wide open in the second week. The likes of Tommy Haas, who had beaten Roger Federer in the fourth round, No. 9 seed Marat Safin and former world No. 1 Marcelo Rios were all in the same half of the quarter-final draw. The punter picking a winner from the last eight would not have given the other half of the draw a second glance.

The undercard for the quarters featured a Swedish play-off between Bjorkman and Johansson and a match between Austria's Stefan Koubek and Czech Republic's Jiri Novak. The last match-up particularly was more 'who on earth are they?' than a 'who's who' of grand slam pretenders. Yet it was from this unlikely group that the eventual winner came, in the shape of No. 16 seed Johansson. His quarter-final with Bjorkman was hardly the homage to Sweden's previous grand slam champion Stefan Edberg which, presumably, Swedish tennis was crying out for and it was all over in four simple sets. However it preserved Johansson's energy for the exertions to come against Novak in the semi-final.

To look at the scoreline - 7-6(5) 0-6 4-6 6-3 6-4 - it seems a match played in reverse with the tightest set coming first. Neither player had any prior experience of competing at such a late stage of a major singles tournament. It showed, too, as Johansson needed four match points to seal his spot in the final, later admitting he was almost shaking as he gripped his racket and saw the match home.

But brave campaigns from outsiders in grand slams are two-a-penny in the history books. If Johansson were to go further than the likes of Cedric Pioline and Pat Rafter had managed at Wimbledon in the contemporary recent past, he would have to get past the broody Russian Safin. Already a grand slam winner at the US Open in 2000, and ex-world No. 1, Safin was still the bad boy of tennis but the perception was that at some stage he would come good and could even dominate the sport. Yet he too was taken to five sets in his semi-final against Haas and what's more, he had to dig deeper for victory than Johansson did.

Lleyton Hewitt returned to form at Wimbledon, comfortably beating David Nalbandian in the final © PA Photos

The four-hour-and-28-minute match would have come as a serious shock to the Safin system following his quarter-final against Wayne Ferreira - which lasted just 28 minutes before the veteran South African pulled out with an abdominal strain. So going into the final the Russian was certainly tired (and yet still possibly short of practice) whereas Johansson had been tested but not overly pushed. It proved to be a formula for Swedish success as the 26-year-old continually frustrated Safin by being fit enough to change the pace of a rally when he wanted. Once he had weathered his opponent's power play in the first set, he slowly stretched away to win his first slam at the 25th attempt by a score of 3-6 6-4 6-4 7-6(4).

The 22-year-old Safin blamed nerves for the result but Johansson's preparation must also have had his heart beating into overdrive after his coach forgot to book him a car to take him to Melbourne Park and he had to hail a taxi to take him to the stadium. Yet Johansson's timing in other departments could not be beaten and if sportsmen could buy their luck by mail order they would go to him for advice on when, and where, it should arrive. But Johansson's victory was no trick. He simply played the most ruthless and consistent tennis of his career at a time when the rest of the tennis world were seemingly on vacation.

"These two weeks, they've been the best two weeks in my life. It was unbelievable and I don't have words to say how happy I am," he said. "I never thought that I was going to be a grand slam winner…I played my best tennis in almost every match."

What happened next?

Johansson became the world No. 7, his career high, in June that year but lost the second half of his season, and most of 2003, to a knee injury. In 2005 he made the Wimbledon semi-finals where he lost to Andy Roddick and he retired in 2009 after 15 years on the ATP Tour.

Hewitt returned to form in time for Wimbledon where he blew away the opposition and only dropped two sets on his way to the title. He ended the year exactly as he started it as the world No. 1, only without chickenpox.

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