By Gabriel Tan
There's nothing quite like reigning supreme at any one of the year's four most eagerly-anticipated tournaments. Sure, everyone has their favourite Grand Slam. Wimbeldon lures some with its quaint traditions and fast-paced grass courts. The clay of Roland Garros attracts those with a taste for gladiatorial combat, while the US Open draws fans in with its razzmatazz and glamour.
Very rarely though would you hear anyone tell you their favourite major is the Australian Open. Understandably so. It's the youngest of all the 'majors', having been founded in 1905, and lacks the heritage and allure the rest possess.
So let me tell you why I like the Australian Open - simply because it heralds the start of a new year of tennis, bringing with it the promise of twelve months of scintillating action. Every January when the world's top players converge at Melbourne Park, the form book is genuinely thrown on the window. Apart from a couple of warm-up tournaments, no one has really had time to generate momentum, which often plays an integral role in Paris, London and New York.
In Melbourne each January, everybody starts with a clean slate. Which is why it's not surprising that the Australian Open has thrown up some of the greatest upsets in the history of the game. Here, ESPNSTAR.com takes a look at the tournament's five unlikeliest winners. Perhaps we'll get another this year?
5) Marat Safin - 2005
We start off with what some might call an odd selection, considering Safin had been a world No. 1 with the 2000 US Open title already to his name. However, one must realise that when the powerful Russian arrived in Melbourne for the 2005 Australian Open, it had been almost four years since he last topped the world rankings. Admittedly, his form had shown signs of improvement towards the end of 2004, after he had hired Roger Federer's former coach Peter Lundgren.
And Lundgren's positive effect was not lost on Safin, who later claimed: "I never believed in myself before at all, until I started to work with him [Lundgren]."
Safin got his campaign off to fairly comfortable start, seeing off then-unknown qualifier Novak Djokovic 6-0 6-2 6-1, before cruising past Bohdan Ulihrach in straight sets to set up a third-round clash with 28th seed Mario Ancic. Safin took four sets to see off the big-serving Croat, before he recovered from a one-set deficit to edge past Olivier Rochus in the fourth round.
A fairly comfortable victory over Dominik Hrbaty set up an epic semi-final encounter with defending champion Roger Federer, and with the Swiss' former mentor in his corner, Safin booked his place in the final with a 5-7 6-4 5-7 7-6 (8/6) 9-7 win, even saving a match-point late in the fourth set.
Up against local favourite Lleyton Hewitt in the final, Safin put in an inspiring performance, recovering from getting thumped in the first set to win his second Grand Slam title 1-6 6-3 6-4 6-4. Not the biggest shock ever in Australian Open history, but still a pretty impressive feat considering the players he had to overcome and the manner in which he did that.
4) Petr Korda - 1998
Heading into the 1998 Australian Open, there seemed to be only two men who had a realistic chance of claiming the title. Pete Sampras entered the tournament as the favourite, with ten Grand Slams already to his name, while a 26-year-old Pat Rafter entered the tournament fresh off his 1997 US Open win, and looked to be at the peak of his career.
However, after comfortable victories in his first four matches, Sampras shockingly bowed out to unseeded Karol Kucera in the quarter-finals. Rafter had long gone by then, losing in the third round to Alberto Berasategui. In total, twelve of the sixteen seeds that year fell at the third round or earlier.
Ultimately, it was Korda who managed to capitalise, seeing off Sampras' conqueror Kucera in four sets in the semis, before coasting to a straight sets win over Chilean Marcelo Rios.
Korda's victory proved a fitting finale to his career, as he failed to win a single title after that triumph, eventually retiring two years later.
3) Thomas Johansson - 2002
The Swede only managed nine singles titles throughout his career, but surprisingly, one of those was at Melbourne Park in 2002. Immediately after his victory, Johansson admitted: "I never thought I was ever going to be a grand-slam winner, but I played my best tennis here in every match."
Admittedly, it was a fairly weak field that year with Andre Agassi pulling out before the tournament, while the top two seeds Hewitt and Gustavo Kuerten bowed out in the first round. Likewise, fourth and fifth seeds Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Sebastian Grosjean only made it one round further, paving the way for one of the lesser lights to steal the show.
Not many would have tipped Johansson to be that man, especially as he was fairly unconvincing in his first-week victories over Jacobo Diaz, Markus Hipfl and Adrian Voinea, with his only impressive win coming in the third round over 21st seed Younes El Aynaoui.
Even in the quarters and semis, Johansson struggled to impress, overcoming compatriot Jonas Bjorkman in four, before battling from behind to beat Czech 26th seed Jiri Novak in a five-set thriller.
Yet when it really mattered in the final against Safin, Johansson was up to the task. Having lost the first set 6-1, the Swede could have been forgiven for giving up against his hard-hitting opponent. Instead he stepped up his game and overpowered Safin, taking the next three sets 6- 6-4 7-6 (7/4) to earn one of his nine - and undoubtedly his most prized - titles.
Even Safin was at a loss to explain how he Johansson managed to better him at his own game. "I just couldn't find my game," Safin said after the final. "He was overpowering me from the baseline, which is very unusual for me. I had no chance to come back. Not even close."
2) Hana Mandlikova - 1980
Long before the likes of Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova belied their tender years by cruising to Grand Slam titles, there was Czech Hana Mandikova, who lays claim to being the first-ever female junior world No. 1, after official rankings were introduced in 1978.
Two years later, a month shy of her 18th birthday, Mandikova stunned the tennis world by winning the first of her four Grand Slam titles. After comfortable straight sets victories in her opening two matches, Mandikova arguably faced her toughest test in the quarter-finals she took three sets to overcome Romanian 6th seed Virginia Ruzici.
Mandikova then sealed her spot in the final with a straight sets win over Mima Jausovec, where she then went on to cruise past local favourite Wendy Turnbull, who had vanquished Martina Navratilova in the semis, 6-0 7-5.
The Czech went on to win the 1981 French Open, 1985 US Open and 1987 Australian Open, before retiring in 1990 at the relatively young age of 28.
1) Mark Edmondson - 1976
While the previous four choices might stir up some debate, we're pretty sure our No. 1 pick for "Unlikeliest Australian Open winner" will be greeted with universal approval.
Despite the absence of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, the 1976 Australian Open still boasted had a quality field, with the likes of Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Stan Smith vying for the crown. By the time these men ended their careers, they would have a combined tally of 18 Grand Slam titles to their names.
Yet for ten days from December 26, 1975 to January 10, 1976, none of these men managed to put together a consistent run of games. Instead, Mark Edmondson, who was ranked 212th in the world at that time and had been doing odd jobs just two weeks before the start of the tournament, toiled his way to the quarter-finals with a five-set win over Peter Feigl and four-set victories over Phil Dent and Brian Fairlie. In the last-eight clash compatriot Dick Crealy was banished in straight sets.
In the semis, Edmondson fought his way past top seed Rosewall, who despite being 42 was still quite a formidable player, before triumphing in four sets over second seed John Newcombe to seal one of the unlikeliest Grand Slam victories ever.
Edmondson went on to win just four more singles titles in his career but 36 years later his legacy lives on as he remains the last local to reign supreme at the Australian Open.