Can Australia celebrate 100 years with a champion?
Brit Tim Henman, Aussie Lleyton Hewitt and American Andy Roddick all know the unusual pressure of bearing all or most of the hopes of a home Grand Slam victory. It's Hewitt's turn again as the Australian Open begins this weekend. Adding to Hewitt's pressure is a celebration of the tournament's start 100 years ago.
Currently the first major tournament of the year (at times it has been held in December), the Australian Open has grown over the past 100 years. In 2004, the tournament brought the country a gross economic benefit of more than $203 million and attracted more than 100,000 visitors to Melbourne, according to Australia's National Institute of Economic and Industry Research. More than 521,691 visitors went through the gates of Melbourne Park last year.
Still, the Australian Open is suffering the same problem as the other two majors that precede the U.S. Open: It's been years since an Aussie, Brit or Frenchman or woman won the title at his or her home Grand Slam. The Aussies last had a male champion when unseeded Mark Edmondson won in 1976, while the last female champion was Chris O'Neil in 1978. Pat Cash is the last Australian to reach the final, in 1987 and 1988.
It's been more than half a century since a British man lofted the trophy at Wimbledon. Although Henman, working with Pete Sampras' former coach Paul Annacone, had his best year at the majors last season at the age of 30, the Lawn Tennis Association is searching for their next hope. To that end, late last year the LTA hired American Jimmy Connors, an eight-time Grand Slam title winner, to work with its younger elite players to build their program. There's been some debate in the media about what benefit will result.
"Britain has a different attitude, the right attitude, in taking the game forward and finding the next Wimbledon champion," Connors told the BBC in December. "That's something you don't find every day. Everybody talks a good game but not everybody puts that into effect."
And although the U.S. Open had an American champion in Andy Roddick as recently as 2003, the United States Tennis Association also is working to build interest in tennis across the country to fill the dearth left by the retirement of a strong generation in Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang -- and the expectation that Andre Agassi, at age 34, can last only so long.
Australia, too, has a great legacy it is trying to replace. Aussie Margaret Smith Court won 62 titles in singles and doubles at the majors from 1960 to 1975, including the Grand Slam in 1970. (For perspective, Martina Navratilova has won 58.) Australia also produced the man Pete Sampras emulated, Rod "Rocket" Laver, who the Grand Slam not once but twice -- in 1962 and 1969. He's the last man to win all four majors in a calendar year.
So far, no one country amidst the hosts of the majors has found a solution to the lack of future stars. In Australia, two-time U.S. Open champion and former No. 1 player Patrick Rafter suggested former players need to take more of a hands-on role with player development.
"There definitely needs to be change, no doubt about it. We've been saying that for a little while," a retired Rafter told the Herald Sun in November. "I think it's time that they start utilizing a lot of guys more who have been on the tour. Guys who are willing to put their hand up now like 'Stolts' (Jason Stoltenberg) and those type of blokes. Even guys like 'Killer' (Paul Kilderry) who got to a pretty good level of tennis."
Being Agassi's practice partner early in his career seemed to help a young Andy Roddick. Sydney teenager Steven Goh, who is being taken under the wing of former No. 1 Hewitt for the Australian hard court season, according to the Sunday Telegraph, also might benefit from mentoring.
The USTA recently made Billie Jean King chair of the USA Tennis High Performance Committee after she turned over the reins of Fed Cup to Zina Garrison. Jack Kramer, who helped create the ATP in 1972, joined the committee as a special advisor.
The Australia and the French Opens are working together to give their youngsters a better chance by exchanging wild cards into their events. The Australian Open, originally called the Australasian Championships, also is expanding its role as promoter of the sport in the Southern Hemisphere. Representatives of the tournament have been holding clinics in India, Korea, Thailand and China, billed as the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific. Plus the tournament teamed up with the Asian Tennis Federation to launch a new tournament series in September to give young players in Asia international experience.
"Asia is an important region for the future growth of the sport, and ... we have a role to play in trying to assist that development," Australian Open Chief Executive Paul McNamee said last year. "The last few years has seen the hosting of major events such as the Masters Cup in Shanghai, and the emergence of a new group of Asian players led by Paradorn Srichaphan, which together are helping to fuel a growing interest in tennis in the region."
Extending the global reach of tennis just might be part of the problem for the four major tournaments.
"You forget that we probably overachieved once upon a time," Karen Lyon, of the Melbourne newspaper The Age, told Reuters. "In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when we had these exceptional players, tennis was a small sport. You didn't have all the players from Spain and South America. Now, Australians expect success to continue but they think that tennis is at still at Australia's beck and call."
Despite the recent criticism of the Australian system by former outstanding players such as Cash and Court, the country's chances for a title are good on both sides of the draw at the centenary tournament.
Hewitt, the year-end No. 1 player in 2000 and 2001, hopes to finally get past the fourth round of his home tournament after winning on the faster surfaces of Wimbledon (2001) and the U.S. Open (2002). Hewitt fell to eventual champion Federer at the 2003 Australian Open.
Still, the men have had strong contenders recently in Rafter and Hewitt. It's been more than 20 years since an Australian woman could be considered a contender. In fact, the last Australian woman to win a major was Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980.
So, imagine the pressure facing Alicia Molik as she heads into the year's first major ranked in the top 15 for the first time. She'll turn 24 during the tournament and is something of a late bloomer. She finished 2002 ranked No. 100, improved greatly in 2003 to finish at No. 35 and then made the even more difficult leap into the top 25 by finishing at No. 13 last season.
Meanwhile, Hewitt has been working harder than ever to get back on top of the game. The Australian media reports that after his breakup with Belgian Kim Clijsters, Hewitt moved in with friend and Australian Rules football player Andrew McLeod. The two began training with Hewitt's coach Roger Rasheed, who puts an emphasis on conditioning.
Hewitt told reporters he'd been working on building up muscle with his coach for the past 18 months but the results have just started showing in the past six months.
"In tennis, I think core stability is very important," Hewitt told the Sydney Morning Herald last week. "If you're strong enough through your mid-section, then you're going to be out there, especially on clay. That's where you have to slide and hit the ball. That's only going to help in the future."
Whether the future will see an Aussie champion holding the trophy this year remains to be seen. In any case, there will be at least two Australian tennis greats on the court: the trophy will be presented by Court and Laver, in honor of 100 years of tennis.
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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