John Harms' View Of The Australian Open

What has caused the decline of Australian tennis?

The Australian Open is just underway, one of the key elements of summer sport in this country, and a nice alternative to the crash and bash of T20 and ODI cricket. What’s better than to come off the beach somewhere, crack open a summer ale and take possession of the remote control to begin channel-surfing between the tennis and the cricket.

Tennis has been a big part of life in this country, not that the two singles draws of this Open suggests. During the week I saw a doco on the golden years of Australian tennis – women’s and (especially) men’s – with classic black and white footage of tennis stars whose names I’d almost forgotten: Sedgman, Rosewall, Emerson, Hoad, Fraser, the great Rod Laver, and later Newcombe and Roche. So many victories in Grand Slam tournaments. Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong as well.

These were the days before talent identification when tennis was just one of those sports you played whether it was in the bush, at clubs dotted around cities, at schools, at churches.

“Where’s Mum?” someone would ask.

“She’s at Tennis.”

Tennis had a capital ‘T’ back then.

Although the stuff you played in the backyard when you were a kid didn’t quite deserve the capital ‘T’, it was all part of the process and the culture. You were so keen you wore out the white balls pretty quickly. Back then tennis balls were still white and a couple of new balls from a former cricketer’s sports store was a once-a-year luxury. In our household we spent hours belting tired old hairless balls - that both John West and the local pooch would reject – against the back wall of the house.

New balls didn’t stand a chance on the asphalt of the Oakey Primary School tennis court; they lasted quite a bit longer on the ant-bed which was a joy to play on, and longer on the grass.

So what changed?

I have two theories which together explain why Australians no longer dominate tennis.

I blame Totem Tennis. The beginning of the decline of Australian tennis coincides precisely with the introduction of Totem Tennis. Look at the timing. Look at what happened.

Now I’m not bagging Totem Tennis completely (although I think it is over-rated); the Totem Tennis pole is up there with the Hills Hoist, the lemon tree and the tank as must-haves in the Australian backyard. But Totem Tennis made a generation of tennis players (my generation, who grew up in the 70s) lazy. We expected the ball to come through at a uniform height. We didn’t use our feet. We didn’t bend. And we could get away with closing our eyes. Victory didn’t mean as much as it should have. We didn’t pay enough attention to technique: how could you win a set of tennis with a piece of half-eaten watermelon in your hand?

The second theory is that the world caught up: western Europe and Scandinavia first, then Eastern Europe, and now the Asian nations have taken to tennis.

You only need to look at the singles draws.

So who wins this fortnight?

The factors are the same as forever: ability, experience, and form. With another factor in summer Melbourne: the weather. They say this is the hottest of summers. Fortunately for visitors during the first week the mercury stays low on all but one day, but the heat will play a role at some stage.

In the women’s tournament Serena Williams is all the rage but she is too short in the market for me to open up the wallet. You will get comparable odds later this week. Agnieszka Radwanska, the No. 4 seed, is on the other side of the draw – in the quarter with Li Na – and she is in fine form. The Pole has won her last two tournaments include a dominant ‘double-bagel’ final victory over Dominika Cibulkova in the Sydnet International. That’s good enough at $12.00 to start me off.

The men’s tournament is a beauty, even without Rafa Nadal. Apart from Djokovic and Federer there are many with the brilliance to beat anyone on their day. Tsonga and Del Potro are classic cases. But the player who took the biggest steps in 2012 is Andy Murray. He comes to Melbourne with a completely different head on his shoulders. He is a genuine second favourite, with Federer, and on the same side of the draw. Federer is a year older. Murray may well be the better value.

As for the Australian contingent, there will be a lot of local support and a lot of hoping. Lleyton Hewitt will give his all against Janko Tipsarevic and I don’t think the once-brash Australian was being arrogant when he suggested over the weekend that Tipsarevic would have said “Oh, no!” (in Serbian) when he saw the draw. Bernard Tomic will be the focus (hyped to the max by the broadcaster). He will have to play well to make the third round where his opponent would almost certainly be Roger Federer. And you’d be a brave punter to have more than the milk money no Sam Stosur.

The ranks of Australian contenders are fairly thin at the moment. There is a simple solution.

Something has to be done about Totem Tennis.