Glory days may be gone but tennis will rise again
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
THIS morning, as the second week of the Australian Open tennis tournament begins in Melbourne, we will bemoan the fact there is no Australian left to cheer in the men's or women's draw.
Australia's worst result at the Open - just three Australians made the second round and none passed the third - will again prompt calls for heads to roll and millions to be invested.
But what has not been noted is how tennis has changed since the days when we marvelled at Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall or Margaret Court or Evonne Goolagong. No longer is it a game played predominantly by Australians, Americans and British. It is a global game, and it is our expectations - not our federal and state budgets or tennis officials - that need adjusting.
We have one woman in the top 10. Has Sam Stosur underachieved? Yes. Long regarded as the fittest player on tour and one of the few who can match the American Serena Williams for strength, Stosur should have much more to show for her efforts. Williams, who has the extra quality of nerves of steel, has 15 grand slam trophies. Stosur has one.
But look at the women's top 10. It contains a Belarusian, a Russian, an American, a Pole, a German, a Chinese, an Italian, a Czech, Stosur and a Dane. America's next highest ranked player is the decidedly ''unfamous'' Varvara Lepchenko (No. 20). Australia's next highest ranked woman is the decidedly infamous Casey Dellacqua (No. 101) who once turned out for the Australian Open kitted in discount-chain clothes. Britain's top ranked player is Heather Watson at No. 50. Times have indeed changed.
The cavernous lack of depth in Australian tennis is not caused by lack of facilities. Melbourne has a state-of-the-art tennis centre, with eight new Italian clay courts among 21 new indoor and outdoor courts, an indoor running track, recovery pools, treatment rooms and video playback facilities for game analysis.
Nor is it for lack of support: the Australian Open draws phenomenal crowds as only Melbourne can.
Since the great era of Australian tennis we have had intermittent success, and most of it came from Lleyton Hewitt capitalising on the slim gap between the fall of Pete Sampras and the rise of Roger Federer. Hewitt, the winner of two grand slam titles more than a decade ago, is still chasing down every yellow ball, but the job of reviving Australian tennis is not his.
In future, perhaps it is fairer that achievements are measured against Hewitt and the two-time US Open champion Pat Rafter, now our Davis Cup captain. Two grand slam trophies might be the new normal for our best players. On Saturday night Bernard Tomic's spirited yet fruitless fight against the man considered the greatest on record, Roger Federer, showed how far the 20-year-old has to travel to compete against the best players. His time would come, said Federer, the winner of 17 grand slam titles.
But Tomic, our best ranked male at No. 43, would do well to bury the hatchet with Rafter, who was universally popular for his humility, and listen. Australians will happily adopt the Swiss Federer for the rest of the tournament, and not only because he is successful. He is adored for his deference to Laver, his charm and generous praise of opponents. ''I think he did excellent tonight and he'll be tough to beat in the future, that's for sure,'' Federer said of Tomic.
But can you name Australia's second-highest ranked male player?*
That we have one woman in the top 10 and one man who will surely reach it in the next few years should be considered a reasonable return.
The men's top 10 is made up of two Serbs, a Swiss, a Scot, two Spaniards, a Czech, an Argentinian and two French. America's top ranked player is journeyman John Isner, at No. 13. And that nation bemoans the days it enjoyed sustained success through the likes of Sampras and Andre Agassi.
The rise of east European players has brought much more fierce competition. For the men, the globalisation of tennis has meant bigger, stronger, more mature bodies enjoying success, mostly from the baseline. Having one or two top 10 players represents success. Tomic just needs time.
* Marinko Matosevic may need a little luck.