Last Aussie champ backs Ash to break drought
WHILE Ash Barty cashes in a $1.04 million cheque for making the Australian Open semi-finals, the last local to win the grand slam is living a quiet life in Port Macquarie - and she wouldn't have it any other way.
Chris O'Neil made history when she beat Betsey Nagelson in straight sets in the 1978 final.
She became the first unseeded woman to win the Australian Open - a record she held right up until No.81 Serena Williams lifted the trophy in 2007.
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But 42 years later, O'Neil's against-the-odds triumph only seems to get a good run at pub trivia nights.
This year, as Barty blitzed her way through the tournament, O'Neil increasingly became a point of reference.
O'Neil's win was by far the best of her career - her highest singles ranking was 80 and her career record stood at 19-52.
Born and raised in Newcastle, O'Neil worked in a parcel delivery job for 18 months just to pay for her first trip to Wimbledon in 1974.
But O'Neil has always been reluctant to revel in her major claim to fame.
After a stint coaching tennis with her brothers Will and Keith in Newcastle, the 63-year-old has been laying low in the coastal town of Port Macquarie.
These days, the retired tennis great who inspired tennis fans across Australia to pick up a racquet, occasionally coaches local kids. At one point she was pulling beers at Westport Bowlo.
O'Neil rarely speaks to the media, but the humble champion made an exception to praise Barty.
"I think Ash embodies all the qualities of a truly great champion. There's so many things I admire about her," O'Neil said.
"Her humility, her desire to be the best person she can be, her raw talent, her determination, her all round game, her composure under pressure, her ability to think and play her way out of trouble, her down to earth nature and sense of humour ... she has it all."
In 1978, O'Neil won $35,000 for winning the final.
This year, the winner of the Australian Open Singles title will take home $4.12 million - roughly 103 times what the former champion won.
Barty's semi-final loss to American Sofia Kenin means that O'Neil will remain the last Aussie to win the Australian Open - for now.
O'Neil has previously said it's "pretty cool'' being a "good trivia question'' as the last Aussie grand slam champion at home.
But O'Neil hopes that one day Barty takes over this title.
"She's a wonderful ambassador for tennis, for Australia, for women and for her indigenous heritage," O'Neil said.
"I would be honoured to pass on my record as the last Aussie to win the title to Ash ... I wish her all the best for what is and will continue to be an amazing career. I think she's fabulous."