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As the Australian Open ends its first week, there are few home players making headlines. Indeed, as dawn broke in Melbourne on Saturday, there were only two Australians remaining in the men’s and women’s singles, testimony to the fact that tennis in the host nation, traditionally one of the world’s strongest, is at a low point.
This is the country that produced the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Pat Rafter, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong. It has also won the Davis Cup more times than any country except the US.
Lleyton Hewitt won the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon a year later but he is the only Australian male player to have ended 2006 in the world’s top 100 and, now ranked 19, he is not among the favourites for the Open. The situation is even more worrying for the women, where Samantha Stosur and Nicole Pratt are the only top 100 players, ranked 29 and 77 respectively, although Alicia Molik is making her way back after a lengthy illness.
The crisis is so profound that some former Aussie greats are even looking at British tennis with envy. Peter McNamara, who won three grand-slam doubles titles with Paul McNamee and was also a top-10 singles player, says: “Australian tennis is worse than British tennis at the moment – at least you have got Andy Murray. There is no Lleyton Hewitt or Mark Philippoussis coming through, and the women are even worse.”
Once a pioneer or leader at almost every level of tennis – including establishing the first professional coaching association and having the most courts per capita in the world – Australia is struggling to keep up.
John Alexander, a former player and leading coach, attributes much of the decline to rising property prices, which have wiped out many tennis courts. Sydney, the country’s biggest city, has lost more than 1,000 courts in the past decade.
As for Brisbane, “tennis used to be played there but it no longer really is”, according to Alexander.
The number of tennis players has remained steady in recent years – 1.32m in 2004 compared with 1.38m in 2001, according to the Australian sports commission. But many of the recent problems appear to have stemmed from the top, with friction among coaches and executives that climaxed in an overhaul of Tennis Australia, the national organisation, in 2005.
It may be too early to judge the results of this but coaching instability has persisted in a country that ironically has produced some of the world’s best coaches. A case in point is Roger Federer, the Swiss world number one, who is working with Tony Roche, the veteran coach who previously looked after another world number one, Ivan Lendl.
Jason Stoltenberg vented his frustration after quitting in October as head coach at Tennis Australia’s national high-performance academy. He lambasted tennis authorities for adopting an approach suitable for “training for college” rather than the professional circuit. McNamara says too many foreign coaches and managers have been hired at the expense of home-grown talent.
Eyebrows were also raised in September when former doubles champion Todd Woodbridge was replaced as coach of the Davis Cup team by Roger Rasheed – Hewitt’s coach until he dramatically severed their relationship this month – before the semi-final against Argentina. The tie ended in a 5-0 demolition of Australia.
Concerning this incident, John Lindsay, an official from Tennis Australia, says that “with Lleyton playing, it made sense to have his coach as team coach”. But a leading tennis pundit disagrees: “It shows how desperate a country has become when the top player gets to dictate who’s in charge.”
The sniping continued this week with Woodbridge alleging that Hewitt was allowing off-court distractions to affect his game and that his family had too much influence over his career.
Meanwhile, young Aussie players are getting less exposure to international competition and spending less time in Europe, “where it’s happening”, according to Lesley Bowrey, who won the French Open twice under her maiden name of Turner in the 1960s. Bowrey, one of the few Australian players to have been most successful on clay, also notes that Australia had many more clay courts in her day.
She says: “In my time, we had to be overseas for six months of the year – we simply couldn’t afford to come back all the time. It made us tougher players. Now [players] can come back home after a few weeks – back to their comfort zone. But if you’re going to be a top tennis player, you can’t afford to stay long at home. And you learn more by being in Europe and playing on clay.”
Echoing Stoltenberg, Bowrey, who was Jelena Dokic’s coach for four years and helped her become the world’s best junior, also worries that discipline and commitment are no longer hallmarks of Australian tennis.
There are signs, however, that Tennis Australia is trying to attract more domestic coaching talent. Darren Cahill, who helped Hewitt become the world’s youngest number one and most recently coached Andre Agassi, is in talks with Tennis Australia.
Lindsay also argues that the organisation is becoming “very proactive” in its scouting. Furthermore, junior players such as Jessica Moore and Bernard Tomic have made good progress.
But most observers do not expect Australian tennis to return swiftly to winning ways. “They have not done a good job of building the grassroots,” says Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion. “Realistically, you are looking at eight to 10 years before we produce another top player.’’