x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Australia's tennis elbow

As the UK gears up for the most famous tennis tournament in the world, former champion Pat Cash posed an interesting question in one of the British newspapers: where on earth are the Australians?

Lleyton Hewitt may still be Australia's leading player in men's tennis. But he is still only ranked 56 in the world rankings.
Lleyton Hewitt may still be Australia's leading player in men's tennis. But he is still only ranked 56 in the world rankings.

As the UK gears up for the most famous tennis tournament in the world, former champion Pat Cash posed an interesting question in one of the British newspapers: where on earth are the Australians? I have to say, this is not an issue that has caused me to lose a lot of sleep. Given the Aussies' habit of humbling us Brits on rugby and cricket fields over the years, the fact that not a single player from Down Under features in the ATP's top 50 seems to me a blessing.

It feels odd, though. Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, in the era of Rod Laver and John Newcombe, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley in the women's game, still think of Australia as a great tennis-playing nation. In view of the fact that the highest ranked Aussie is Lleyton Hewitt at 56, we might have to think again. On the eve of Wimbledon, the top 10 comprises seven Europeans, two South Americans and Andy Roddick from the USA. Cash ascribes this shift in the balance of power from Southern to Northern hemisphere to the fact that the majority of those at the top come from a football background.

He believes proficiency in football - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray could reportedly all have had careers in the game - gives a tennis player an edge in the vital area of footwork. The same half-steps that can buy a sliver of space for a footballer to get a shot or a killer pass away, Cash believes, can enable a tennis player to move nimbly into position to play his strongest shot. It is an interesting analysis but, without wishing to contradict a Wimbledon legend like Cash, does not begin to tell the whole story. If we extend our sample to take in the top 25 players, we find three are from the USA, where football (not American football) remains a minority sport despite the best efforts of Beckham et al, and no less than four from France, all in the top 20.

I expect at least one of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon and the exciting Gael Monfils to make it to the business end of the fortnight. It's a great success story for the French, but I have to tell Pat Cash that France is not a football- playing nation. That might seem a strange assertion, given recent French World Cup and European Championship successes. I am talking about tradition, though. French children do not grow up kicking a ball around like their counterparts in South America or even the UK. Football has to compete for national attention there with cycling and rugby and does not often come out on top.

Tennis could easily have been relegated to Cinderella status there, but a government-funded coaching programme has scoured the nation and identified prospects at an early age, often from deprived communities, and hot-housed them to success. There is a well of talent in France that does not look like drying up for some time. Football, Mr Cash, does not have a great deal to do with it. If Australia wishes to regain its dominance in tennis, money must be spent luring children away from rival attractions, and coaching them. Without investment, Aussie tennis will continue to languish - to the great satisfaction, it must be said, of some of us Poms.

mkelner@thenational.ae