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The impact of the last eighteen months on Australia as a whole needs no restating.

The restrictions that many have had to endure has resulted in racquets being put down in favour of TV remotes for far longer than anyone would’ve liked.

Conversely, almost everywhere else in the world has moved on from the locked down lifestyle. While that is of course frustrating; this is not a political blog.

What concerns The First Serve, rather, is the impact COVID-19 may have had on the state of Australian tennis relative to the rest of the world.

Admittedly, this writers initial reaction was one of great concern.

While the likes of Ash Barty and Alex de Minaur are currently representing our nation at the top level, it is easy to think that a consequence of all that we have endured will result in a generational gap where Australia will struggle to produce top end talent in years to come.

Not to mention the financial and emotional impact on coaches and players alike.

However, maybe – just maybe – it’s not as bad as it seems.

To address some of our concerns, The First Serve sat down with Paul Vassallo, Director of Talent at Tennis Australia.

It seems that the impact of COVID-19 on the state of Australian tennis can be split into two categories.

The first is the absolute grass roots level. The everyday player and everyday coach. This is where – to say the least – things aren’t great.

Lockdown restrictions have meant that the average New South Wales or Victorian coach has either not been able to run their business at all, or only in a heavily reduced capacity.

By way of example, Victorian coaches have basically lost all their income over the bulk of the past 18 months.

Similarly, New South Wales based coaches have only been able to offer private lessons; with group coaching off the table during lockdowns.

The damage here is devastating for our coaches and local players and there is no easy fix. We can only hope that these coaches are not lost to the game as our grass roots educators due to the crippling financial impact of COVID-19.

Equally, you can’t help but wonder how many children will have turned to other sports in place of tennis.

That might sound dramatic, but how many children, who ordinarily would have been gearing up for their first ever tennis lessons, have spent their lockdowns locked out from their local tennis clubs, and instead gathered in parks and ovals pretending they’re Daisy Pearce, Ellyse Perry or Sam Kerr?

Naturally, only time will tell, however the impact on participation levels within the sport will be an interesting watch over the next few years.

The second category, is our elite level junior talent. The kids that will be our next Ash Barty or Alex de Minaur – being those that fall under Vassallo’s purview.

This is where we can probably afford to be a little more optimistic.

While acknowledging that the last 18 months has been, of course, challenging for many, Tennis Australia’s Director of Talent Paul Vassallo prefers to take a more optimistic approach.

In assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the state of Australian tennis, Vassallo noted “COVID isn’t necessarily hurting everyone”.

And he’s right. When comes to lockdowns, some have been more restricted than others.

Fortunately, players with either an ITF ranking or recent experience in a Platinum or Gold level AMT event have been granted government exemptions to get on court with their coach in lockdown affected states.

What this means, is that our elite juniors have been able to continue their physical and technical training, albeit without match practice.

The benefit here is that our junior talent has been able to continue to build their foundations throughout this period. Each junior should be technically well rounded with a physical base capable of pushing their opponents to the brink when they are eventually able to return to competitive tennis.

Moreover, players in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and both Territories have been largely unaffected by the pandemic save for a few frustrating border closures and weekends off court.

Otherwise, tournaments and training has continued uninterrupted.

Nonetheless, Tennis Australia is indeed wary that there are certain elements of the unknown when evaluating our current pool of junior talent.

For instance, one of Tennis Australia’s traditional markers for evaluating young talent is their ITF and UTR rankings with respect to their birth year.

Given most juniors have not left the country for two years, their rankings are, to a point, “in a bubble”.

“We don’t really know how they compare globally” Vassallo noted.

“We’re in a bit of a holding pattern on that front”.

However, Vassallo was excited by a unique opportunity that COVID-19 presented some of our more fortunate juniors

As some of our current professionals (such as Barty and Kyrgios), for one reason or another, decided to stay in Australia for longer than they ordinarily might have, some of our next generation kids became their regular sparring partners.

You have to wonder how much young Canberran Charlie Camus – the recent 14/U National Clay Court Champion – must have learned by trading blows with Nick Kyrgios every day for weeks on end.

Similarly, Ash Barty has begun mentoring a group of the next generation up in Queensland.\ These experiences will be invaluable and, for the lucky few, could far outweigh any match practice against their peers – at least in the long term.

Granted, Vassallo was wary that the current environment is not ideal for our next generation talent. Yet, some perspective is always helpful.

“An eight week block of no competitive tennis is a lot better than a 6 month injury… [as a player] I’d take the restrictions every time” Vassallo opined.

“How many times has Rafa missed half a year but come back stronger?”

“Everyone is in panic mode a little bit, but we can still improve every aspect of the game [other than match play]”.

Vassallo further noted that Tennis Australia’s national talent programs may soon be tweaked to include more match practice when squad training can return.

He also expressed desires to increase the number of participants included on Tennis Australia’s training trips to Europe designed to expose our best against the world’s best.

Meanwhile, coaches in club land have been frustrated by the lack of court time and the difficulties faced for their players in trying to make it on the tour.

Again, Vassallo provided some refreshing insight on this matter.

“It’s not as bad as we think” he said; noting that many players (at the school leaver or pro tour age) found a way to get on tour this year.

“We’re not missing 100% of these experiences”.

“If you take a look around, people are just going out there and doing it”.

“Look at Dane Sweeney, Tristan Schoolkate… they’re out there”.

“We too often concentrate on what we can or can’t do here in Australia. Once you land in Europe, there’s nothing you can’t do”.

Ultimately, Vassallo believes that, notwithstanding the added challenges, the talent is there for Australia to continue to produce world class players for years to come.

As for one prodigy in particular, Cruz Hewitt, Vassallo said “the base is there for a game… he’s part of a group of three or four for his age that are highly thought of”.

“He’s a lot like his father… you wouldn’t want to bet against him making it”.

Listen to The First Serve with Brett Phillips each Monday at 8pm AEST on 1116AM SEN Melbourne, 1629AM SEN SA / 1170am Sydney or listen live and catch up on the SEN App.

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