The Australian Open was a small-fry tournament, all things considered, for the first decade and a half of the Open Era. The last women’s tournament of the 1970s — which started in December of 1979 and ended in January of 1980 — was a 32-player event.
Top pros did skip Roland Garros in the 1970s, either to play World Team Tennis and/or because complicated contractual situations constrained them. That said, the Australian Open was most often skipped because of the travel, the small fields, and the general sense that it wasn’t worth playing Down Under unless a Grand Slam could be captured.
Had Bjorn Borg won the U.S. Open in any of the years he won the French Open and Wimbledon, chances are he would have made the trip down to Australia to try for the full set of majors in a calendar year.
For a long time, the Australian Open labored under the burden that it was not on par with the other three majors, and when 1983 elevated those other three majors to 128-player women’s fields, the Australian Open’s separation from the big-boy (or big-girl) table became even more conspicuous.
Something had to be done.
In 1980, the women’s Australian Open did move from 32 players up to 56, but in 1983, progress at the other three majors — to 128 — dwarfed the move from 56 up to 64. The other three majors had fields twice as large as the Australian Open, with 64 more players involved.
The other three major tournaments had their own internal differences from 1968 through 1982, but those were usually 32-player differences — 96 to 64 or 128 to 96. A 64-player difference was a Grand Canyon of separation between the Australian Open and the other three majors.
It could not last.
This gave way to another multi-year series of changes in the Open Era.
Much as the U.S. Open men’s field varied in size in each of its first four years — 1968 through 1971 — the Australian Open women’s field varied in size in 1985, 1987, and 1988.
In 1985, the last 64-player women’s field was assembled. In 1988, as everyone in tennis knows, the Australian Open entered its fully realized modern identity and arrived at 128.
Why the focus on 1987, then? Very simple: the 96-player field at the 1987 tournament, the last one on grass in Kooyong, marked the only time the Australian Open women’s field had 96 players.
Roland Garros had a 96-player women’s bracket three times — 1968, 1981, and 1982. Wimbledon had it from its first Open Era edition in 1968 through 1982. The U.S. Open had 96 from 1976 through 1980.
The Australian Open — in a span of three tournaments — went from 64 to 96 to 128.
Tennis is a mess today, but as this Tennis Tumult series keeps showing, it was abundantly chaotic even as late as the mid-1980s.