Every January, the build-up to the first grand slam of the year is met with excitement and optimism concerning Australia’s representation in both the men’s and women’s draws.
Assisted through wildcard entries, many Aussie players are given an opportunity to compete in the opening round of the Australian Open where they would not be handed those same fortunes in other tournaments.
Even with that luxury provided by Tennis Australia, the most recent event at Melbourne Park delivered a grim reality.
There were 10 Aussie men entries in the 2023 main draw which was the country’s worst showing since 2018, albeit Nick Kyrgios was not fully fit to compete.
De Minaur and Kyrgios aside, there is no disputing that there’s potential amongst our Aussie men, with the likes of Jason Kubler playing some of the best tennis of his career as well as Alexei Popyrin reaching the third round, almost joined by Thanasi Kokkinakis after claiming a two-set lead against Andy Murray. We have eight players currently inside the top 100 with the latest to join Aleksandar Vukic (100 exactly)
Be that as it may, a more worrying trend is developing on the women’s side.
Olivia Gadecki, Storm Hunter, Talia Gibson, Jamie Fourlis, and Kimberly Birrell. Those were the only five Aussie women included in the main draw, who were all offered wildcards due to to their ranking being outside the top 100. Incredibly, this was the lowest number of Aussie women participants in the Open era for the Australian Open.
The injuries sustained by Ajla Tomljanović and Daria Saville need to be highlighted, but there are much deeper issues regarding the lack of depth that Australian tennis is currently producing.
Perhaps, the likes of Ash Barty and Nick Kyrgios have somewhat covered the cracks over a talent pool that is struggling to stay at the top consistently.
As the tennis world prepares for the French Open in just over a week, the clay court season is often a time when Australians brush it aside and set their focus on the other two surfaces.
Stosur and Barty’s Roland-Garros titles may make you think otherwise, but the truth is that Australian players have never been comfortable on the red dirt.
Last season on the ATP tour, 10 clay court tournaments of either 250 or 500-point calibre featured zero Aussies. With Tomlajnović sidelined with injury (due back for the French Open) there have been a total of nine clay court tournaments so far this season on the WTA circuit, with six of those failing to have one Australian represented.
In fact, only two Aussie women have featured in the top clay tournaments through qualifying. World number 109 Kimberly Birrell (25) is Australia’s next-highest ranked player after Ajla, while world number 151 Priscilla Hon (25) is walking a constant tightrope to enter the top events.
Optimists will be quick to point out the relevant Australian success on the men’s challenger tour, with Max Purcell waving the flag as a result of his three titles and six finals appearances in 2023, the most of any other player on tour which has provided a big rankings spike from outside the top 200 to inside world's top 70, followed by Aleksandar Vukic on a Challenger tour winning run which is about to take him into double figure rankings from 180 in March.
The vast majority of ATP challengers our Aussies compete in are on hard courts.
Is it simply a coincidence that a lack of clay court exposure is ultimately affecting Australians climbing the rankings and competing in major tournaments?
According to AusPlay results released last year, football and tennis are two of the top three most participated sports in Australia, recording an estimated 1.1 million and 1 million respectively, with tennis almost doubling Aussie Rules. Yet, it seems as though both sports find themselves at a crossroads with their development.
Focusing on tennis, there are many questions that can be raised about the lack of development and why Australia is finding it so difficult to break through at the very top. Is it down to a drop-off in quality regarding grassroots coaching? Is it too expensive to take the next step turning pro? Is the prize money discrepancy too large between the top 100 and the rest of the competition? All of these questions are valid and it’s definitely played a part in the problem whether it be big or small.
In saying that, the biggest hurdle that Australian tennis needs to find a solution to is the lack of emphasis on clay courts and making it the cornerstone of the curriculum, starting from the junior level.
It makes sense though, because roughly seven months of the calendar year are predominately focused on the hard courts.
No matter how many tennis fans find the surface boring due to the slower pace and longer baseline rallies, it’s proven that clay enhances defensive skills, problem-solving skills, and movement around the court, as well as teaching the essence of patience and constructing points.
Last month, Greek world number five Stefanos Tsitsipas put it best when commenting on the assets of clay.
“When it’s super fast you don’t construct anything. On clay, go ahead, find a nice tactic, good angles. The clay is like an artist’s canvas, you can paint on it, it’s all its beauty. The purest form of tennis is played on red clay,” Tsitsipas told L’Équipe.
You just have to look at Australia’s two number ones in De Minaur and Tomlajnović to realise. From the age of five, Alex learned his craft on the southeast coast of the small Spanish city of Alicante. Ajla was born in Croatia and began her tennis journey in Zagreb. What they both share in common is their practice on the clay from a very young age.
Each year that passes, European and South American tennis are witnessing increases in improvement, making up 74% of the ATP top 100 and 72% of the WTA top 100.
Back in 2017, former Australian tennis great Todd Woodbridge expressed the importance of Tennis Australia to keep investing further in clay court facilities, as well as reflecting on his playing career dominated by hard courts.
“My game developed all around that - a big, flat, hard forehand, a slice backhand. For our modern player coming through, it was crucial to be able to learn to be an offensive and defensive player, and [clay] is the only surface to do that,” Woodbridge said.
35 years ago at the 1988 Australian Open, 48 Australians and 74 American men and women combined took part in the tournament. Fast forward to 2023, tennis has become a much more diverse sport and with the continuous growth of clay court tennis in other parts of the world, Australia has failed to adapt and keep up with the modern game. Inevitably it’s impacted the overall depth, with the US suffering to a lesser extent.
Roland-Garros provides two weeks of enthralling entertainment and lifelong memories. For Australian fans, however, they will have very limited options to support.