Juniors keep flag flying
Andrew Harris, left, and Canberra's Nick Kyrgios are among the Australian juniors providing hope for the future. They are pictured here with their Wimbledon boys' doubles trophy won earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images
The fortnight at Wimbledon seemingly exposed Australian tennis as frail and endangered.
Gone were the halcyon years of Rod Laver and Roy Emerson.
But beneath the early-round flops of Lleyton Hewitt and Samantha Stosur, Australia's juniors were again making us proud.
Canberra's Nick Kyrgios won a second successive grand slam doubles title with Andrew Harris, his Wimbledon trophy sitting nicely on the mantelpiece alongside the French Open plate he won in May.
Last year's Wimbledon boys' winner, Luke Saville, narrowly missed a repeat victory, forced to settle for the consolation crockery.
Sixteen-year-old Ashleigh Barty didn't even bother entering the girls' competition she won last year, instead fighting bravely in the ladies' draw.
Tennis Australia's head of player management, Paul Kilderry, believes Australia's juniors are among the best in the world.
And the stats back him up.
With junior tennis sorted by year of birth, Australia has a player ranked in the top two over four consecutive years in the boys' ranks.
Bernard Tomic, 19, is the No.1 player for his age and the only teenager ranked inside the men's top 100.
Jason Kubler, 18 and a two-time Australian Open junior champion, is the world's best for boys born in 1993.
Saville, 17, lost the No.1-ranking with his Wimbledon defeat, but still sits second for his age. In contrast, Kyrgios was promoted to the world's best player born in 1995 after his quarter-final appearance in the boys singles at Wimbledon.
As you would expect, Barty is the best player for her age. She is also ranked No.250 in the women's seniors.
''[She] is doing fantastically, she lost first round at Wimbledon, but she's 16 years old - I can't remember what I was doing at 16,'' ex-professional Kilderry said.
''There are no 16-year-olds in the world doing as well as she is.''
Todd Larkham, Kyrgios's former coach with the ACT Tennis Academy, says ''it is an exceptional period'' for junior tennis, but hard work is only half the battle in turning that into future results.
''The key for me is being a tough competitor,'' he said.
''There's a lot of guys out there who can play tennis, but for me the key is the mental aspect of the game.
''The ones who can win the big matches, hang tough in the big pressure situations and can come up with some good tennis, that's going to be the difference if these guys are going to make it or not.''
So the challenge now for Tennis Australia is turning these juniors into successful seniors.
''There's no magic formula that takes a great junior to a great senior player. It's just a long hard road, and it's a longer and harder road now than it ever was,'' Kilderry said.
''The game is so physical now, the average age of top 100 players is now 27, where you look back 10 to 15 years, it was probably 22 or 23.
''If you can imagine putting a first or second-year player into the AFL, physically they're just not ready, it's very tough.''
Kilderry acknowledges the promise of the current cluster of ''very good'' juniors, but stops short of making any predictions when it comes to future grand slam champions.
''It's really hard to label anyone a [future] grand slam champion,'' he said.
''Twenty-nine of the last 30 grand slams in men's tennis have been won by three players, so it's not that easy you know, you're looking at freak athletes.''
As the manager of Samantha Stosur, Kilderry knows just how hard it is to predict.
''Probably a year ago a lot of people were writing [Stosur] off and saying she'd blown her one chance to win a grand slam, and then eight weeks later she won a grand slam, so you just don't know,'' he said.
Kilderry said it helped to have a cluster coming through, which has traditionally been the case in successful times for Australian tennis.
''Generally when a good group can come through, one or two can jump up and it shows all of them that it's possible. Kyrgios agreed, saying that's exactly what Saville, who trains with him at the AIS, has done for his peer group.
''[He] sets a good example to us, winning junior Wimbledon last year, he was very determined, very professional and he set an example for the other guys,'' Kyrgios said.
''We're all pretty good mates and we push each other on the courts so I guess we've got to keep knuckling down and working hard.''