The 105th Australian Open tennis championships at Melbourne Park starts on Monday.
The two-time defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic is hoping to set a record of seven tournament wins. He is currently tied alongside Australian legend Roy Emerson on six. In the women’s tournament Serena Williams is also seeking her seventh Aussie Open, hoping to add one more Grand Slam title to overhaul German Steffi Graf; they are currently tied at 22 slams each.
The perennial question begs: when are we going to see a homegrown Australian Open champion? Whatever happened to those glory days when we had John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Ashley Cooper and Roy Emerson, and in the women’s we could boast 24-time Grand Slam singles winner Margaret Smith Court and the graceful Evonne Goolagong Cawley?
How long is it since there has been an Australian champion in Melbourne? The answer is an incredible 41 (yes, forty-one) years. You must go back to 1976 when an unheard-of janitor from Gosford, New South Wales by the name of Mark Edmondson upset the whole tennis world by successively defeating the top two seeded players Ken Rosewall (1) and John Newcombe (2). In fact, that year ALL the quarter finalists were Australian – a scenario you could hardly envisage in the current era.
The wait for a female champion has been almost as long. You need to hark back to 1978 for the triumph of Newcastle, NSW born Christine O’Neil over American Betsy Nagelsen.
Those were the days when the tournament was played on outdoor grass courts at Melbourne’s old Kooyong Stadium. Those of a certain age may remember it was at this venue that Australia defeated Sweden 3-2 in the 1986 Davis Cup Final with Pat Cash coming from two sets down against Mikael Pernfors in the deciding rubber. I can well remember the hugely animated crowd roaring encouragement and waving placards exclaiming `Kill `em Cash` and `Aussies mash Swedes`. Sadly, that’s over 3 decades ago.
Do we have a Pat Cash or a Pat Rafter today? The last Australian man to even reach the final was Lleyton Hewitt who lost to Russian Marat Safin in 2005. The last Australian woman finalist was Wendy `Rabbit` Turnbull who lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.
So, what are the prospects for this year’s tournament? There is only one Oz player in the top twenty in either the men’s or women’s draw, and that is Nick Kyrgios at 14. The highest ranked women are Samantha Stosur at 21 and Daria Gavrilova at 25. I’m afraid they are the only two Aussie women even in the top hundred with Casey Dellacqua now down to a lowly 247.
At age 21 there is still time for Nick Kyrgios; after all, Scotland’s Andy Murray (now ‘Sir’ Andy) didn’t become number one until November last year at the ripe old age of 29.
In Sydney on Monday this week, Kyrgios managed to defeat 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal at an exhibition of the Australian invented `Fast4` tennis, a shortened version of the game now in official use for the Hopman Cup, but so far not at the Grand Slam events.
Afterwards, Kyrgios courted controversy by wearing a “F*** Donald Trump” T-shirt at a press conference. When asked about wearing the T-shirt, Kyrgios told the Australian media: “It’s pretty explanatory.” Well yes, and Nick is no stranger to controversy. He was fined twice by the Association of Tennis Professionals, first for an on-court remark about Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend during their Rogers Cup match in Montreal in 2015 and then a year later for his behaviour during a defeat to the qualifier Mischa Zverev at the Shanghai Masters.
Kyrgios is an entertainer, you might say, but what of his chances of lifting this year’s Australian Open trophy? Per the bookies, he is 50/1 while 27 seed Bernard Tomic is 150/1. Big serving wild card Sam Groth may tempt you with 1,500/1.
In the women’s tournament Samantha Stosur is seeded 18 and is rated by Ladbrokes at 150/1 while 22 seed Daria Gavrilova is 100/1. Russian born Arina Rodionova, now based in Melbourne, is 1,000/1.
It doesn’t really look like 2017 will see much home success and the seemingly interminable wait must go on. So, what’s gone wrong? The number of Aussies playing the game is in chronic decline. In 2002, 8% of 18 to 24-year-old Australians were registered tennis players. By 2005 that was down to 6% and in 2012 just 3%. The 1976 champion Mark Edmondson says that nowadays there are more distractions for youngsters like computers and the social media.
With declining participation figures and tennis courts disappearing, will the glory days remain in the past? A good run by Kyrgios or big Bernie could rekindle interest. Let’s be optimistic and as Lleyton `Rusty` Hewitt would shout – C’mon!
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