Comparing eras or generations in any sport, can be fraught with danger. Generally, it’s pure speculation, opinion, and debate, about who would beat who, which players were stronger, who’s era was more dominant, and so on.
Currently, there seems to be a bit of chatter that the state of tennis in the country is struggling. While we might not have a plethora of players performing at the pointy end of tournaments, is it really fair to say Australian tennis is in a poor state? It’s easy to use Major titles as the formula for success, but if we take a step back, and look at what we have right now, we may see that things aren’t all doom and gloom.
How does the current generation of athletes compare to previous generations? Was Australian tennis 20 or 30 years ago really that much better?
For the sake of this exercise, I am basing this solely on rankings. I am going to look at the top 250 players in the world. I have chosen this figure, as it is generally the rough cut-off point for a qualifying berth at a major tournament. There are obviously a lot of other factors and statistics you can use to determine success, but I’m keeping it simple for now.
Let’s begin with the women.
Currently (May 2022), we have only 1 woman in the top 100 – Ajla Tomljanovic. Things do drop off after that, there’s no denying it. However, we still have 11 athletes in the top 250. Of course, this is totally ignoring the fact we have just had the world number one for the last three years! So how does this compare with previous eras?
If we go back a decade to 2012, we had Sam Stosur as our only representative in the top 100, and eight women in the top 250, so in fact, things are looking healthier right now.
In 2002, we had three in the top 100, led by Jelena Dokic at 9, and a total of 11 in the top 250, which is still fairly comparable to the current day.
Ten years prior to this, in 1992, was, at least under these parameters, the most successful time for women’s tennis in recent history. We had four players in the top 100 (no one in the top 30 though), and 15 in the top 250.
Let’s also keep in mind, tennis is far more widespread than it was 30 years ago. Eastern Europeans held just 13 positions in the top 100 back then. Today, there are 46! The depth in tennis has seen extraordinary growth, yet still, with 11 Australians in the top 250, we haven’t gone backwards as much as we may think.
To dive a fraction deeper, the average age of these 11 players is just over 25, meaning there is plenty of upside to come. Tomljanovic is at her highest ranking, Maddison Inglis is close to her highest ranking, Astra Sharma has been in the top 100, Olivia Gadecki is at her highest ranking, and Daria Saville has been as high as 20 in the world. Of course we would love a handful of these current women to push up into the top hundred, but overall, we are currently tracking in a similar vein as recent decades.
Now we will take a look into the men’s side of the game.
As of May 2022, Australians occupy six positions in the top 100, and 14 in the top 250. These are very solid numbers, and should not be downplayed. Throw in players such as Rinky Hijikata, who is on the verge of qualifying for the year-end Next Gen finals, and Li Tu, who is on an absolute tear at the moment, and you can soon see, there are plenty of exciting things happening in Australian tennis.
Ten years ago, in 2012, we only had three in top 100, and eight in the top 250. We have essentially doubled the number of players in this bracket, which is a brilliant output.
Wind back to 2002, and Lleyton Hewitt held the number one position, yet overall, we had three in the top 100, and only seven in the top 250. So it seems the success of Lleyton may have been papering over the cracks that were appearing below him on the rankings table.
Thirty years ago, in 1992, Australia occupied six positions in the top 100, and 14 in the top 250 – exactly the same as today. Interesting isn’t it?
Of all the years in the last 30, it appears as though 1998 was Australia’s best, with nine in the top 100, including Rafter, Philippoussis, Fromberg, Woodbridge, Hewitt, etc. We also had 18 in the top 250, which was possibly the ‘golden years’ of modern tennis in Australia, but probably didn’t last as long as our memory might have us believe.
We can use any number of statistics to decide which era was best, yet still, if we’re simply comparing numbers of athletes towards the top end, we are actually not tracking too badly in 2022.
Just to put a finer point on our current players, I want to take a closer look at what we have right now, and why we shouldn’t disregard anything they’ve done so far in their career.
Alex De Minaur – a genuine top 20 player, who has already held plenty of silverware, and will be challenging in the Slams for many years to come.
James Duckworth – reached the top 50, has made the third round of Wimbledon, and beaten the likes of Sinner, Goffin, Thiem.
Nick Kyrgios – enough has been written about him over the years, but the bottom line is, he is one of the most talented players in the world, and a genuine top 10 at his best.
John Millman – a highest ranking of 33, a US Open quarterfinalist, a win over Roger Federer, an ATP title winner. I think most of us would take that.
Jordan Thompson – a highest ranking of 46, a fourth round appearance at Wimbledon, and wins over Murray, Dimitrov, Ferrer, Isner.
Thanasi Kokkinakis – Supremely talented, but interrupted by injuries, Thanasi has had a win over Federer, Berdych, Cilic, Tiafoe, has won an ATP tournament, and is still on the rise.
Personally, I would take any of those careers in a flash. Yet it seems some will simply throw them all in a basket and say that this era of Australian tennis has been underwhelming.
The same point I made of the women, must be made of the men; that the depth in world tennis has dramatically improved, but nonetheless, men’s tennis in Australia continues to perform to a high standard.
Reaching the professional ranks of tennis is one of the hardest things to do in sport, and anyone that gives their early life to achieving this, should be applauded. To do your best, and reach the top 250 in a world sport, let alone the top 100, is extraordinary. Putting tennis in perspective, there would be approximately 2000 soccer players just in England alone, earning more than the 250th ranked tennis player in the entire world. It’s quite astounding to think about.
Sometimes, as I mentioned, we need to take a step back, and give a bit of credit where it’s due. We will all judge the success of Australian tennis in different ways, but perhaps focusing solely on majors or top ten athletes, just isn’t realistic any more.