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THE STATE OF AUSTRALIAN TENNIS

Posted By Linda Pearce  
07/04/2021
18:00 PM

Back before an ambitious University of Illinois coach named Craig Tiley arrived from South Africa via the US in 2005 to head Tennis Australia’s revamped player development department, a formula was used to measure the program’s success.  

Rare is it that on-court KPIs are so clearly defined - which is not to say that these ones were necessarily achieved. The pass mark at the time, though: two men and women in the top 10 and 10 of each in the top 100.

“That means you have the cream, but underneath you have the depth,’’ says long-time tennis administrator Peter Johnston, whose TA roles included Australian Open deputy tournament director and Head of Men's Tennis during a 17-year stint at HQ.

Johnston, now running the Kooyong Classic and ATP events in St Petersburg and Shenzhen, notes that Italy (men) and the Czech Republic (women), for example, both now have three players inside 25 and 10 in the sub-100 club.

So how, in this curious and challenging age of coronavirus, do the current Australian numbers stack up against those early 2000s benchmarks?

A bit like the nation’s vaccine rollout, not so well.

Obviously, Ash Barty is the poster-girl for single-digits, defending her Miami Open title last weekend to extend her stay as world No.1. It’s a little lonely up there, though, given that, scrolling down the WTA list as at April 5, only the newest and most remote Australian, Ajla Tomljanovic - at 78th - is keeping Our Ash company in double-figures.

The men’s crop looks healthier, with leading local man Alex de Minaur at No.25. and five more on the first page of the ATP rankings sheet: John Millman (44), the presently inactive and always-with-an-asterisk Nick Kyrgios (55*), Jordan Thompson (62), rising star Alexei Popyrin (82) and James Duckworth (97).

As another potential measure, at least of improvement, perhaps we can look at those players now at a singles career-high. (Author’s note: the rankings system remains Covid-compromised, and thus has tended to protect the status quo. If anything, it has disadvantaged some Aussies, faced with state borders regularly snapping shut and restricting even domestic competition. Then, once tournaments resumed internationally, the usual tyranny of distance was magnified by strict quarantine requirements upon their return home.)

Anyway, no surprise here, either: Barty - with 26-year-old Storm Sanders, ranked 187th - was one of just two women from among Australia’s top 15 whose ranking was at or equal to her personal best. Even considering her peers' individual circumstances and various setbacks, the 2019 French Open champion’s remarkable achievements fail to mask the lack of emerging names clambering upwards from the rungs below.

Distant No.3 Sam Stosur is the world No.124, and it would be a surprise if the 37-year-old mum-of-one plays more than a limited schedule if/when she returns to the tour. Daria Gavrilova, once 20th, now 312th, is a top 40 player when healthy, but that remains the popular Victorian's challenge after recent Achilles surgery extended a wretched injury run.

The likes of Maddy Inglis, Astra Sharma, Lizzie Cabrera and Priscilla Hon are all in the 22-25 age and 128-156 rankings brackets, but, for various reasons, the big Swiatek-like breakthrough remains elusive and - while acknowledging what each has already achieved in a super-competitive global sport - one has to wonder whether it will ever come. 

Slightly younger is Destanee Aiava, so impressive in her 2018 Rod Laver Arena debut against world No.1 Simone Halep while still just 17, but who has struggled since to get into the right physical and emotional state to compete, and could not capitalise on her latest wildcard opportunity when beaten by Stosur at Melbourne Park in February.

So, with Sanders only now adding some laudable singles results to her consistency in doubles, little wonder that one of the summer’s feel-good results came from 18-year-old Olivia Gadecki, the world No.727 who upset  Sofia Kenin in the Phillip Island Trophy. (Never mind that it was just days before the horribly out-of-sorts Kenin had her appendix removed. Details, details.)

Among the men, the sole PB belongs to the ultra-promising Popyrin, who won his maiden ATP title in Singapore in February and then two rounds in Miami, where the 21-year-old's improved conditioning also allowed him to push top seed Daniil Medvedev through three hot and gruelling sets.

Yet it has also been noted that the two brightest future stars, Popyrin (based at the Mouratoglou Academy in Nice) and de Minaur (who lives in Alicante with his Spanish coach, Adolfo Gutierrez) are both products more of southern Europe than the Yarra's north bank.

Regardless of wherever players reside, the tennis climate remains problematic. Lower-tier events at ITF and Challenger level have been drastically reduced, and non-slam prizemoney slashed, particularly for the women. Thus the flow-on concerns about how hard it will be to keep young players in the game during another difficult year or two, and whether development is about to become almost a discretionary spend.

Remembering, of course, that the bill for holding this year’s Australian Open has been estimated at $140 million (ie. all of TA’s existing cash reserves, plus a big debt left to repay).

And yet it was also at this year’s opening major that we were trumpeting the host nation's highest second round singles presence - 12 - since 1992. Damn that pesky fine print for  disclosing that main draw numbers were bolstered by locals who received all but one Asia-allocated wildcard. The last went to the then-unranked Adelaide coach Li Tu.

Which is also part of why this year’s AO was considered such a rare and golden opportunity for the host nation hopefuls to shine. The vast majority avoided a stint in hard  - or any form of - quarantine in the immediate lead-up weeks, while the internationals who made the long trip had a compromised preparation, and others stayed away.

So, among the next generation, who to watch?

The hype-ometer nearly exploded when Barty was a junior prodigy, ditto for a crazy-talented young Tomic, and Kyrgios was a well-known name in tennis circles by his mid-teens, too. The grapevine is more subdued now and, like everything else about this pandemic-affected environment, it's hard to get a true gauge on where hope might spring from next. 

One positive was the resumption of elite junior competition this week in Canberra, where the No.1 seed in the boys’ 12-and-under national claycourt championships was a kid named Hewitt.  

Cruz is his name. Lleyton is his dad. In very different times, Hewitt senior finished up with not just a pass mark, but a very high distinction. By any performance metrics, now or then.

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