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  • 1976 Australian Open champion Mark Edmonson. (Getty images)Source: Getty images
The first grand slam of the tennis calendar kicks off shortly with the Australian Open. Yet it's been 40 years since an Australian man won the singles title. For champion Mark Edmondson it was a surprise win. Dario Castaldo meets the big server.
Dario Castaldo / SBS Italian

SBS Radio
18 Dec 2015 - 3:26 PM  UPDATED 3 Jan 2016 - 5:28 PM

On January 4th 1976, Australia's Mark 'Eddo' Edmondson pulled off one of the biggest surprises in the history of tennis. A burly, moustached, big server from Gosford, 21 year old Mark came out of virtually nowhere to win the Australian Open.  Ranked 212th in the world, his earnings were so meagre; he took a part-time job - the press dubbing him "the janitor."

"Between October and December there weren't any tournament to play, here. So I took on a job at a hospital were my sister was a nurse as a bit of a cleaner. So we did floor polishing, or wash windows, or whatever not really a janitor. Then Tennis Australia rang me."

In 1976, Australia's top 15 players were offered to compete in the various State tournaments for a spot In the Australian Open.  Edmondson got his chance after a few top players turned down their invitations.

"I had been improving and playing well for the previous six months or so, winning lots of smaller tournaments. But, just you know, I don't think it was realistic to be thinking I could win the tournament when I'd never played some of these great players of the time."

To get to the quarters, Edmondson had to defeat many of the top Australian and international  players.  

From the Austrian Peter Feigl, to Phil Dent, then Kiwi Brian Fairlie in the third and former Open finalist Richard Crealy in the quarters.

"I didn't enter the tournament thinking I could win it, I did not have the experience against all these world class players. Everybody I was playing was better than me. So maybe you dream you can win it, but not necessarily think you can win it."

He faced a much bigger task in the semis against number one seed and eight-times Grand Slam winner Ken Rosewall.

"Well it was very hard to beat Rosewall because he was such an idol, you know, and even though he was 41 years old I still think it's probably the greatest win I ever had."

Playing the final in windy conditions against defending champion John Newcombe, he prevailed 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1.

"If had not beaten Newcombe, I still thought it was an unbelievable event and achievement to get to where I did and to beat Rosewall. It wouldn't have been an anti-climax to me, because it was still fantastic. So then to go to the final and beat Newcombe it was just a better experience than it already was."

He'd won the 'battle of the moustaches' and the Australian Open title. So shocked, he couldn't find words.

"I bet you haven't even got a victory speech prepared, have you?" "Nah!"

After the match Edmondson took the tram home, just like all the fans leaving the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club. And he was headline news.

"After the event they came to where I was staying with a family friend and they brought along a bucket and a mop and wanted me to throw it out of the door, as if I stopped being a cleaner."

Forty years later, Edmondson is still the last Australian to win the men's singles title and the lowest-ranked men's player to ever win a major.  He thinks the record will last for a long time.

"You can't say it would never happen, but I think it'd be nearly impossible. I just can't see someone coming from never having played these people before, to suddenly beat them all, especially all in one tournament."

The Australian Open used to be the 'forgotten' major. Many overseas  players chose not to play in the tournament - matches started after Christmas and the winner's prize was only $7,500 dollars.   1976 was therefore dominated by Australians.

John Newcombe and Tony Roche won the men's doubles title against fellow Aussies, Ross Case and Geoff Masters.  It was also a triumph for our women, Evonne Goolagong won the singles and doubles title with Helen Gourlay. 

While tennis legend Todd Woodbridge says an all-Australian Open final isn't likely to happen again, the future of men's tennis looks bright in Australia.

"We like to look at this crop of young men that they've got the potential to do that in their game. I think there's a possibility in the next five years that we may get an Australian player win."

Five Aussies feature in the world's top 100. Bernard Tomic leads at 18th, followed by Nick Kyrgios (30), Sam Groth (60), Thanasi Kokkinakis (80) and John Millman (92).   Since 1976, Pat Cash won Wimbledon in 1987, while Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt have two Grand Slam singles titles each and both clinched world number 1 spots at some stage.

Todd Woodbridge was our last Open trophy holder - he nabbed 16 Grand Slam double titles, three of those at the Open.  He says locals can feel pressure playing in front of a home crowd.

"It took me a while to feel comfortable to play in Australia, I must say, 'cause you always want to do well in front of your family and friends and so on. But once I got to a certain age, I learnt how to use the crowd and playing at home to my advantage"

Sam Stosur was the last Australian to win a Grand Slam title in 2011.  Ranked world number 27, she's still the nation's number one female tennis player.  But in 13 attempts at Melbourne Park, she never progressed beyond the fourth round.

Todd Woodbridge says in a few years the women's game will be stronger.

"I think Australian women tennis is in a similar place where the men's game was around about 6 or 7 years ago, and they need 3 and 4, maybe 5 more years to be able to compete day in day out on the women's circuit. If we expect it in the next year or two then we're going to be disappointed, but in four to five years we're going have some players that are going to be in a space where Sam Stosur has occupied over the last five years."

The Australian Open starts January 18. Listen to SBS Radio and follow SBS Radio Sport on twitter for our comprehensive coverage.