Mark Woodforde may have won 11 tennis grand slams with Australian playing partner Todd Woodbridge – but he says their medals at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 were their career highlight. He explains how a genuine synchronicity between the two players took them to the top of the podium.
If one thing can sum up the extraordinary simpatico relationship between Australian doubles tennis legends Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge – known to all as the Woodies – it was their approach to singing the national anthem as they stood on top of the podium at Atlanta 1996.
“I knew the first verse of Advance Australia Fair but not the second, and Todd was the other way around,” Woodforde said with a laugh. “So we agreed that, if we won, I’d pound out the start and then he could take over. That was us. We were always covering for each other.”
The Woodies are among the most successful men’s doubles partnerships ever, winning 11 grand slams (only the Bryan brothers won more majors, but their Olympic record is inferior), and that “covering” – Woodforde as a left-handed baseline expert, Woodbridge a right-handed volleying machine – was vital.
“A good doubles partnership is like a jigsaw; you have to fit it together,” Woodforde said. “I was looking to play with an Australian who was right-handed and a little younger. And Todd wanted a left-hander who could offer experience of winning some of the bigger tournaments. We communicated very well but, early on, we knew there was an intuitive connection. We were aware of where to position ourselves on the court, which ultimately meant we were backing each other up. We filled in the holes and we had each other’s backs. There was a real synchronicity.”
Their personalities also blended perfectly. “We were fire and ice,” Woodforde said. “Todd could fire us up, ‘Come on, pick up the pace!’, when that was needed. I showed less emotion. I could communicate to Todd, ‘Let’s calm down here’. There were times where both those things helped.”
While not all pairings are the best of friends off-court, the Woodies were also great mates. “I do think it helps. Being the more senior partner, it’s Aussie culture to offer advice to the next generation. I knew he was one of the best juniors in the world.
“We had the same passions and I wanted to know the person I was playing with, because in pressure moments, if you don’t know that person, you may not be able to play ‘as one’. We didn’t need to hang out in our time off because we had that special bond at tournaments. If you’re together too much, it can break you. I never got tired of being around Todd.”
Woodforde claims that Atlanta ’96 was the highlight of his storied career. “We were ecstatic to go to the Olympics, and it was probably the biggest moment. As a little fella growing up, I’d always be glued to the Games. I always wondered, will I get that opportunity to be an Olympian?
“I didn’t get chosen for 1992, so it burned strong in me that, for Atlanta, there’s no way I’m missing it. We were top seeds, and that was maybe our strongest year together. To walk out at the Opening Ceremony and to stay in the [Olympic] Village, it was so different to what we knew as tennis players. You have the Davis Cup, but tennis is an individual sport for nine-tenths of the year. Being at the Olympics, I was so amped every day. Wearing that green and gold, you never wanted to take off the tracksuit. You’d have to tear it off us.”
Being major medal hopes, meanwhile, made them stars within the Australia squad – and fostered a great togetherness in the Village, remembers Woodforde. “We had the basketball team on our corridor – the Boomers – and we got to know them very well. You’d come back into the dorms after your match and there would be incredible camaraderie. The others saw us as potential winners, so it’d be like, ‘There’s the Woodies, they’re favourites for gold!’.
“The Boomers were great. It was so exciting to come back each day and find out how they did. You almost cared more about their result than yours, and they’d be the same: ‘Did you whip those guys in two sets today?’ When we got into the medal stages, it just grew, lots of other athletes were coming to our games.”
The Woodies defeated Great Britain’s Neil Broad and Tim Henman in the final, but Woodforde claims the real test was in their semi against Dutch duo Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, who they beat 18-16 in a long third set. “That was the bigger match, because we played them a lot on the tour and they could beat us,” he said.
“It felt like our gold-medal game. It was a really long match in brutal conditions, like what Olympians should be going through. So it was almost a relief to play Henman and Broad. Tim was a great player but didn’t play a lot of doubles. It was bigger for them than it was for us. We had the edge. It was probably my most cherished sporting moment. Singing the anthem, watching the flag rise, and seeing the other Australian Olympians in the crowd, it was quite overwhelming.”
After their glory in Atlanta, the Woodies moved into Sydney 2000 as home favourites. Those Games now produce mixed feelings, however, as the pair came up one short in the final, losing to Sebastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor in what would prove to be their last-ever fixture together.
“The memories of Sydney will never wane,” Woodforde said. “It was great to be playing at home, we were having a strong year, and it was our last event, because I was retiring. The Olympics are an emotional time anyway, so it was an extreme mix.
“In the end, we lost, not because we played badly but because our Canadian opponents did exceptionally well. It was disappointing but afterwards we said, ‘Even though we’ve got silver around our necks, our partnership together has been a gold-medal one.’ It was a way of dealing with losing maybe, but it was meaningful, to put it in that context.”
The power of the Games still shines bright in Woodforde. “I often do talks in schools and take my medals in, and it’s amazing to see the effect on both kids and adults,” he said. “They’re mesmerising. People gravitate towards them.
“I can be introduced as a 17-time grand slam champion [he won a men’s doubles slam without Woodbridge, and five mixed doubles slams], which is pretty neat, but I’ve learned that I don’t need it. I can simply say ‘I’m Mark Woodforde, an Olympian who was able to win a gold and silver’ and that kills it. I don’t need the rest of the career.”
That gold and silver, meanwhile, put the Woodies in elevated company: they’re jointly the 27th most successful tennis players, male or female, in Olympic history – along with Roger Federer. “That’s a fantastic fact,” said Woodforde. “I’m going to be dropping it into conversations from now on. It’s never too shabby to be level with Roger Federer at anything.”