In my position as a tennis coach, I am often asked “when will Australia dominate the tennis world again?”. The simple answer is that it is very difficult for one nation to dominate the way they may have done in the past. The majority of countries in the world have representation on the world stage and the margins are very fine between so many different levels which makes each rung on the ladder more and more difficult to climb.
Every year we see tennis explode during the summer of tennis with the Australian Open (AO) taking centre stage. Lesson enquiries, equipment sales, competition entries and people wanting to hire a court hit unprecedented levels.
During the summer, we are hooked on the television every night to cheer on our heroes and support the underdog against the ‘villains’. There are stories of triumph and heartbreak on almost a daily basis and we, as the audience become attached to our favourite players and support them until the end of their tournament which has us already anticipating what might happen next year.
Whilst this is a great month of tennis and an unbelievable shot in the arm for Australian tennis, what happens for the other eleven months of the year? The players depart to all corners of the world to ply their trade. They go from the glitz and glamour of the AO to lower-level tournaments and some even must go back to the ITF level to improve their ranking and earn enough prizemoney to sustain their lifestyle. Unless you are lucky enough to have pay television you are relying on the internet to keep track of your favourite players and the results from around the world, waiting for the next grand slam event to roll around to watch on free to air.
The young kids who were so inspired during the summer of tennis at home and seeing their favourites on the tv every night suddenly have nobody to watch. They will now be inundated with the football codes on the tv and in person. As tennis is such a worldwide game, our stars are only in Australia for such a small amount of time, usually over summer and when they are here, they are either relaxing after a tough year or they are in pre-season training preparing for the year ahead.
Being school holidays as well, they are unable to visit schools to spread the word which essentially gives the other codes a free-kick. We are never going to change the global nature of the sport and nor should we. We should be talking it up as one of the few sports that you can travel the world, meet people of so many varying backgrounds and enjoy money can’t buy experiences embracing the different cultures the world has to offer.
As much as tennis is an individual sport and you are ultimately defined by your results on the court, we should be working together as a team to ensure the enjoyment, success and lifelong participation of every child who picks a racquet for the first time.
I remember as a young tennis player travelling on a bus to tournaments all over New South Wales. Whilst the tennis was extremely competitive, and everyone gave it everything they had it was the other elements that went along with it that have stayed with me long after the tournament has finished, and the trophy has been long lost. The banter on the bus, the touch footy and cricket at the courts, the fast-food dinners, the crushes, the heartbreak all contributed to some of the best memories you could ask for and many of the kids on that bus are still some of my closest friends today.
Having moved into the coaching ranks, I have seen many similarities with successful programs around the world. I was coaching a girl with a high national ranking who was looking at going to the US on a college scholarship. I sent emails to suitable colleges and as I know how competitive the college market is, I did not expect many replies. I could not have been more wrong. Each college responded and could not have been more accommodating. They arranged tours of their campus’, invitations to watch practice and meet the players and coaches and were made special guests at a college match. My player came home with a great insight into college life, made some new friends and had a pleasurable experience.
We also spent 3 weeks travelling in France during the school holidays. We had a tournament schedule and travel itinerary planned but this changed almost immediately. When we got to the first tournament, we met some players and coaches from different backgrounds. They invited us to share some practice sessions, go to dinner with them and participate in social activities. My player was immediately made to feel welcome, and this continued for our entire time in France. Although it was a highly competitive environment, there was a sense of camaraderie, and everyone was truly happy for each other’s success.
I believe that this sense of ‘community’ is what will make tennis in Australia great again.
I have been to countless tournaments over the last few years in Australia and the most common sight I witness is kids sitting either alone or with their parents, not engaging with anyone and glued to their phones. If we can create an environment of fun and inclusiveness at these events, these kids will want to play at the next tournament and the next one after that and for years to come. This will filter down to the local courts, participation will increase across the board with the younger generation. This will see the talent pool grow which will increase the chances of seeing more players with a WTA or ATP ranking, playing college tennis, playing with friends, or most importantly having an incredible number of players enjoying the game for life.
To answer my initial question: when the courts are full of smiling players of all ages/abilities and backgrounds that is when we will see Australia dominate tennis again.