Such is the parlous – and pitiful – state of men’s tennis in Australia the news this week that Chris Guccione reached an all-time high ranking of 98 was received in the tennis community with the sort of acclaim that used to accompany more meaningful achievements, such as winning a tournament. But that’s how grim things are down Tennis Australia way. We’ve got Lleyton Hewitt ranked at No.20, and seemingly in a steady decline, and Melbourne’s red-headed rocket, Guccione, at 98. Two lousy entries in the top 100.
The days when tennis was synonymous with Australian sport are now so far in the distant past you’d need to carbon-date Ken Rosewall’s racquet to get an exact reading on the year. Those sepia-toned pictures of Lew Hoad and Rosewall prancing around on the grass of Kooyong and White City, resplendent in brilliant all-white uniforms and flashing Pepsodent smiles, are so far removed from the current reality that they may have been taken on another planet.
Just roll some of those names from that golden era around in your head: Laver, Hoad, Rosewall, Sedgman, Emerson, Newcombe, Roche. Now fast-forward to the ATP Tour, class of ’07, where after Guccione at No.98, we have Mark Philippoussis ranked at No.143, Peter Luczak at 160 and Wayne Arthurs at 163, and only Luczak of that trio can safely be said to have his best tennis ahead of him. Chalk and cheese, or what?
So, a sorry state of affairs at Tennis Australia indeed. Some would say borderline neglectful. In the past 30 years, the Swedes, Czechs, Germans and Russians – and, yes, Swiss – have begun playing the sport in droves. Their academies, overseen by no-nonsense coaches and over-ambitious parents, have produced a string of prodigies who, almost overnight, seem to vault into the top 10. I mean someone called Novak Djokovic, from Serbia, is now ranked No.5 in the world. Hands up – apart from you tennis nerds – who has heard of him. Meanwhile, poor old Australia stands still, basking in its reputation as a great tennis nation without actually having a mechanism in place for producing great tennis players.
Interestingly, the profile and popularity of the Australian Open has risen in recent years in almost inverse proportion to the quality of its home-grown players. Regularly rated the overseas players’ favourite Grand Slam tournament, the Open was last won by an Australian in 1976, when Mark “Eddo’” Edmondson, wearing a pair of Dunlop Volleys, took home the Norman Brookes Cup. Yet, because the tournament has been so well marketed and sold over the past 20 years, this lack of genuine local chances – Cash, Rafter, Philippoussis and Hewitt excepted – has proved no barrier to centre court sell-outs. Now we’ve even got Wimbledon looking at having a closed roof and adopting the Hawkeye technology.
Why is it then that golf, a sport that is played in almost as many countries as tennis, is positively booming in Australia yet the cat-gut racquet brigade is floundering around in a directionless daze? The world golf rankings feature 11 Australians in the top 100 and seven of those are in the top 40 – Adam Scott (4), Geoff Ogilvy (8), Nick O’Hern (17), Stuart Appleby (20), Robert Allenby (21), Aaron Baddeley (28) and Rod Pampling (38). There are more Australians on the US PGA Tour (23) than any other nation. The post-Greg Norman revival is almost complete. These players are young and hungry – and winning tournaments.
Now, that’s a genuine reason for celebration.