January 13, 1997: The day Carlos Moya upset defending champion Boris Becker in the first round of the Australian Open
Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On January 13, 1997 an unheralded Carlos Moya beat defending champion Boris Becker in the first round of the Australian Open
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, January 13, 1997, a relatively unheralded Carlos Moya, then world No 25, upset the defending champion, Boris Becker, in the first round of the Australian Open (5-7, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4). The German was the first defending champion to lose in the first round of the Open since Roscoe Tanner in 1977. The Spaniard would defeat world No 2, Michael Chang, in the semi-finals, to make his way into the final, where he would be dominated by Pete Sampras (6-2, 6-3, 6-3).
Carlos Moya, born in 1976 in Majorca, turned professional in 1995. Left-handed in everyday life but right-handed at tennis, he broke into the top 100 in November the same year, just after he claimed his first title in Buenos Aires, defeating Felix Mantilla in the final (6-0, 6-3). In 1996, he added a second title to his list of achievements, triumphing in Umag against the same Mantilla (6-0, 7-6), and, reaching two other finals on the Tour, he finished the year as world No 28. His massive forehand made him one of the most promising young players in the world, which he confirmed at the start of 1997 by finishing runner-up to Tim Henman in Sydney (6-3, 6-1).
Boris Becker was born in 1967. In 1985, the German became the youngest ever Wimbledon champion at the age of 17, beating Kevin Curren in the final (6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4). In total, he claimed three titles at the All England Club, which was also the scene of his famous rivalry with Swede Stefan Edberg. His powerful serve, which he often followed to the net, earned him the nickname “Boom Boom”. He was famous for his spectacular diving volleys, as well as for his dramatic play and emotional outbursts. His peak years were undoubtedly 1989-1991. In that period, he claimed three Grand Slam titles, and he eventually reached world No 1 on January 28, 1991, after he had beaten Ivan Lendl (1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4) to collect his first Australian Open crown. Becker then struggled in the next seasons and in 1993, he even left the top 10 for the first time in eight years. In 1994, he reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon and claimed the Stockholm title, beating the three best players in the world to finish the year as world No 3. In 1995, he finished runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon (6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2) and reached the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows, but in 1996, he claimed his sixth Grand Slam crown in Melbourne, defeating Michael Chang in the final (6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4). After a fourth triumph at the Queen’s Club in June (defeating Stefan Edberg, 6-4, 7-6), a wrist injury kept him away from the tour until the indoor season, during which he played at a great level. After he defeated Sampras in the Stuttgart final (3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4), he beat the world No 1 again in the Masters Cup round-robin (7-6,7-6), but the American edged the final in a match that would live long in tennis history (3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4). It seemed that Becker was one of the dominant players again and he was one of the favourites at the Australian Open.
Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and, later, the Australian Championships) had moved location several times over the years. In fact, the event switched cities every year before it settled in Melbourne in 1972, and no less than five Australian cities had hosted the event at least three times: Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. The event was held on grass at the Kooyong Stadium, in a wealthy eastern suburb of Melbourne. Its timing had changed several times as well, between early December and January, going from being the first Grand Slam of the year to being the last. Until 1982, many of the best players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness, and the low prize money, but then, with the triumph of Mats Wilander, the dynamic changed. The tournament’s board made big efforts to become as prestigious as the other Grand Slams, which ended up with the event moving to a new location in 1988, at Flinders Park (later known as Melbourne Park), switching from grass to hard courts, and displaying the first-ever centre court equipped with a retractable roof. Prizes increased as well, and since the move to Flinders Park, no player had triumphed at the Australian Open without ever reaching world No 1.
Arriving at the 1997 Australian Open, the defending champion Becker was one of the favourites. In 1996, he had played great tennis, and when injuries had left him alone, he had probably been the second-best player in the world after Pete Sampras. Although his opponent, 21-year-old Moya, from Spain, had just finished runner-up in Sydney, no one thought he was going to get into any trouble against such an inexperienced player. No one, except maybe Becker and Moya themselves, as the Spaniard had defeated the German in November in one of his favourite tournaments, the Paris Indoor Open (6-3, 5-7, 6-4).
Under an extreme Australian heat, both players put up a big fight, with Becker rushing to the net whenever he could, and Moya trying to put as much spin as possible to keep the German at bay. In the end, it was maybe the Spaniard’s accuracy at passing shots that made the difference. Despite 22 aces and 30 winning volleys, the defending champion was defeated (5-7, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4), after three and a half hours of play. With 17 double faults and 87 unforced errors, Becker produced what he called “the worst tennis (he’s) ever played in Australia”.
“Playing against him gives me extra motivation”, admitted Moya. “Becker is one of the greatest players in tennis history.”
“My brain is scrambled eggs right now,” Becker said after the match, referring to the blistering heat. “I’m really struggling to speak normally because I’m burning.”
The German was the first defending champion since Roscoe Tanner in 1977 to be ousted from a Grand Slam tournament in the first round.
Carlos Moya would continue all the way to the Australian Open final, defeating world No 2, Michael Chang, in the semi-finals (7-5, 6-2, 6-4). Eventually, he would be heavily defeated by Pete Sampras (6-2, 6-3, 6-3). Moya’s career would peak in 1998, the year when he would claim his only Grand Slam title, defeating Alex Corretja in the Roland-Garros final (6-3, 7-5, 6-3). Reaching the US Open semi-finals and finishing runner-up at the Masters Cup on top of that would help him reach world No 1 in February 1999, although only for two weeks. Retired in 2010, Moya would then become famous as Rafael Nadal’s coach in the late 2010s.
After losing to Sampras in the 1997 Wimbledon quarter-finals (6-1, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4), Boris Becker would announce his retirement from Grand Slam events. In 1998, he would attend only 11 tournaments, without claiming a single title, and in 1999, he would attend his last tournament at Wimbledon, defeated by Patrick Rafter in the fourth round (6-3, 6-2, 6-3).