Australian Open: Five surprise winners since the turn of the century
In theory at least, the Australian Open should probably produce more shock winners than it does. It’s so close to the start of the season that no one can go into it with any real form or match sharpness and players’ fitness levels can vary at that time of the year too.
That said, it is still one of the more unpredictable majors, as the following surprise winners this century have shown.
Jennifer Capriati 2001
If there are two things that all tennis fans seem to love most of all, it’s a breakout teenage star and a brilliantly storied comeback. Jennifer Capriati had already given us the former, and at the 2001 Australian Open she delivered the latter too.
Capriati was just 13 when she made her professional debut as a tennis player, which was remarkable in itself. The fact that, just a year or so later, she was winning WTA titles and reaching Grand Slam semi-finals was even more incredible.
Understandably, it all took its toll on such a young woman, even to the point that for a couple of years in the mid-90s it looked like tennis had lost her. She withdrew from the WTA Tour, playing just one match in two years and was still ranked outside the top 100 two years into her attempted comeback.
By the end of 2000, though, she was flying and looking like a serious contender again. She reached the Australian Open semi-final, had beaten Serena Williams at the Miami Open, and was back in the WTA Finals for the first time in seven years. Just a matter of months later she was a Grand Slam champion in Australia, beating Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis along the way to cap a brilliant comeback.
Thomas Johansson (2002)
Thomas Johansson was a perfectly good tennis player, but it would be fair to say that he wasn’t on many people’s list as a Grand Slam-winning one.
The Swede arrived at the 2002 Australian Open as the 16th seed and was one of those players that no one saw winning it – but no one really wanted to play either. The classic banana skin, if you like, that could trip up a top player if they weren’t careful but shouldn’t pose too significant a problem otherwise.
Johansson had won six career titles by that point, but five of them had come at ATP 250 level. A pair of US Open quarterfinals were the furthest he’d been in a major and he’d never got past round three in Melbourne.
The draw opened up for him, though. Shock early defeats for Gustavo Kuerten, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman and Sebastien Grosjean meant he didn’t have to play a top ten player until the final. When he eventually did, few gave him much of a chance against Marat Safin, especially when the Russian took the first set. It just felt like Johansson’s year, though, and he emerged an unlikely Australian Open winner.
Amelie Mauresmo (2006)
Tennis really does appreciate a trier. Sure, the serial winners and their awe-inspiring dominating talent are great in other ways, but it’s tough not to root for those who never let disappointment puncture their determination.
For many years it looked like Amelie Mauresmo was always going be the one to miss out. She reached the Australian Open final in 1999 but was well-beaten by Martina Hingis. Nine more Grand Slam quarterfinal defeats followed, as well four semi-final heartbreaks in the following six years.
When she arrived at the 2006 Australian Open, she did so as one of the favourites. She was the third seed and had reached at least the last eight at nine of her previous ten majors. That she did well shocked no one. However, her winning it was a definite surprise, simply because we all thought she was pre-destined never to.
It was just a shame she was denied her championship-point moment, with opponent Justine Henin retiring injured during the second set of the final.
Stan Wawrinka (2014)
We look back at the career of Stan Wawrinka now with an almost romanticised gloss, mainly due to the fact that he, as well as Andy Murray, was able to break up the monotonously relentless dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The truth is that you can condense the Swiss’ career down into a brilliant four-year spell when he was as good as anyone – and it all started with the Australian Open 2014 title.
Wawrinka had just produced his best ever performance at a major, going to the semi-finals of the US Open before losing to Djokovic. Had he beaten him, he still would have needed to get past Nadal too in the final, so even then he didn’t feel all that close to winning a major.
When he moved into the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals, he found both Djokovic and Nadal in his path again. Roger Federer was supposed to be the only person even remotely capable of emerging from that with a title. Wawrinka, though, proved otherwise.
Sofia Kenin (2020)
Winning a major is supposed to be the culmination of years of slow progress that edges you ever closer to the big prize. You’re supposed to do it the way Amelie Mauresmo, Andy Murray and Dominic Thiem did it by paying your dues with disappointment and heartbreak. Sofia Kenin decided to do it another way.
Kenin was far from an unknown when she won the 2020 Australian Open. She came to Melbourne on the back of a good 2019, winning WTA 250s in Hobart, Mallorca and Guangzhou. They were, though, the only three titles of her career at that point.
She wasn’t being even remotely spoken about as a potential Australian Open winner, though, and with very good reason. She had never been further than the fourth round at a major before and, with the exception of an autumnal French Open final the same year, she hasn’t since.
She didn’t do it the easy way either, beating Coco Gauff, Petra Kvitova, Ash Barty and, finally, Garbine Muguruza. She has just finished the 2022 season ranked 240 in the world and has only won one Australian Open match since.
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