By: Jane Voigt
The draw ceremony at Melbourne Park on Friday was lengthy, but amusing. Li Na, the recently retired women’s singles champion from 2014, made it all that much better.
The occasion also revealed angst from Tennis Australia, the game’s governing body.
A representative spoke about Aussie tennis and its overarching goal to get more people involved in the game: clubs, schools, community associations. The initiative was labeled, “The Australian Blitz.”
“Get those not involved, involved,” the spokeswoman said. “Go for numbers.”
Along with United States, Great Britain, and Sweden, Australia is struggling to raise its tennis presence in a country whose heyday appears to have gone to seed. There hasn’t been an Australian Open men’s champion since Mark Edmondson in 1976, no woman since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
For a country up to its eyeballs in tennis legends, the drought has lasted too long.
Who doesn’t remember these Australian Open champions: Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Margaret Court, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley? Many earned their accolades prior to 1968, when the Open Era allowed paid professionals to compete with amateurs. Only a few remained relevant into the 1970s.
Such a legacy and firm ground from which to build more champions. So why the gap?
Simply put, the game caught on and spread around the world. The population grew, as well. Both are good things for the game, but hardly blessings for the nations who were once big fish in small ponds.
This year, 62 countries are represented in the men’s and women’s singles draws. That was not the case in the 1970s through the 1990s or, let’s be honest, through much of the 2000s. By sheer numbers, the chances of an Australian champion automatically diminishes.
By the same logic, the chances for any one player becoming the champion from any one of these diverse countries diminishes, as well. Countries like Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan, China, and Estonia, were simply not on the tennis map before the last decade.
Australia and the United States, however, still have the largest contingencies entered at this year’s main draws, the former with 18 and the latter with 21. That quantity has remained relatively constant, meaning those players are getting the same opportunities to advance.
However, they are not advancing with the frequency once experienced.
The one country that has practically vanished from the courts is Sweden. Mats Wilander became the youngest Swede to win the Australian Open in 1983, at 19. He won it twice more in 1984 and 1988. Stefan Edberg won in 1985 (beating Wilander) and in 1987, when he closed out Pat Cash – an Aussie. Edberg went on to be a finalist in 1990, 1992, and 1993; Thomas Enqvist was runner up to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 1999. Thomas Johansson upset Marat Safin in 2002, the last Swede standing on the last day of the Australian Open.
If we look at titles per country – including both Grand Slams and regular tournaments from 2008-2013 – the United States ranks No. 6, Australia No. 7, according to the ATP. Sweden is non-existent here.
Starting in 1973, when the ATP began compiling statistics, the United States led in titles every year through 1996 except two: 1986 and 1987. Sweden took those years. Beginning in 1997, Spain’s presence became apparent. It compiled the most titles from 2007-2013. To show how competitive the sport has become, no matter the number of entrants from larger countries, Switzerland (read: Roger Federer) accumulated the most titles on the ATP in 2004 and 2006.
Quality, not quantity, seems to be the message for the bigger country’s players. Australia has buckets of possible Grand Slam champions: Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Bernard Tomic, Storm Sanders, and Ajla Tomljanovic – a former Croat.
Junior development in Australia and the United States has taken on a fervor. The Little Tennis initiative implemented by the United States Tennis Association has caught on slowly in other countries, the benefits of smaller racquets and lighter balls for kids seemingly making sense to build high-ranking players. But the chances of one Top 10 player or one Grand Slam champion coming from – you pick the country – has to be about equal, with a variance of some standard deviation not yet calculated.
In other words, let the players come no matter the country of origin. Let the kids rise on their own, like cream in milk.
Nick Bollettieri’s comment on youth programs at the draw ceremony brings a calmness around any country’s quest for glory on court.
“Tennis is to prepare them for life. Not to make them a tennis champion.”
Follow Jane on Twitter @downthetee!