Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Davis Cup Disaster

If it were the Ashes, it would be front and back page news. If it were the Socceroos, heads would role. If it were the Olympic Games, there would be a government inquiry.

But none of that will come from what took place in Cairns last weekend. In fact, few in the Australian sporting landscape will even know what happened.

What transpired is a crisis of our national sporting identity. A proud tennis nation, a Grand Slam host, a winner of 20 individual men’s Grand Slam titles in the open-era (the third best return of any nation), and a 28-time Davis Cup Champion was humbled at home by Belgium, a nation with no male Grand Slam champions, no Davis Cup victories, and with their best result being a finals berth in 1904.

It was a play-off for a place back in the World Group. A place Australia’s tennis history should suggest is a minimum annual requirement. New Australian coach Todd Woodbridge said pre-tie that the credibility of men’s tennis in Australia was at stake in Cairns.

Everything was stacked in Australia’s favour. Belgium travelled minus their highest ranked player Xavier Malisse (55). The two key pillars of their squad, Olivier Rochus and Steve Darcis, were ranked 78 and 121 in the world. Neither having ever reached the last eight of a Grand Slam, nor having cracked the world’s top 20 at any stage.

The Australians had recent history on their side. They had not lost a tie on a hard court since 2004. There was Flemish frustration at the standard of this hard court, evoking memories of Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s complaints of the potato patch on which he and his Russian teammates had to play a Davis Cup semi-final, in the same state, in 1999.

Alas there was no fervour stirred from the Belgium comments. Barely a ripple was created by the Tie in the wider media. Lleyton Hewitt stood on the precipice of becoming Australia’s most successful Davis Cup player, but that milestone went virtually unrecognised.

Hewitt did equal Cup record holder Adrian Quist with a hard fought four-set win over an unknown 22-year-old left-hander Ruben Bemelmans, who was representing Belgium for just the second time.

The South Australian then combined with Paul Hanley in the doubles to set up a 2-1 lead and become our best ever, with 44 wins covering all surfaces including carpet.

But the manner in which Australia lost the tie from there is as frightening as it is sobering.

Hewitt withdrew from the reverse singles with a damaged wrist that would sideline him for three weeks. But he would, no doubt, have been comfortable with the fact he had done enough to ensure Australia’s safe passage back to the world group.

One of either Peter Luczak or Carsten Ball needed only beat the aforementioned Rochus and Darcis. Rain ruined Sunday’s play forcing a Monday finish to the tie. Such is the lack of interest in Davis Cup at present, host broadcaster Channel Seven pulled the plug on their coverage leaving only the Cairns paying-public with the opportunity to view the tennis.

As it turns out, Seven may have done Australian tennis fans a favour.

The glimpse into Australian men’s tennis post-Hewitt looked decidedly grim as first Luczak, succumbing to a plucky Rochus in four knife-edge sets, and then Ball, folding meekly to the 121-ranked Darcis in three, consigned Australia to the Davis Cup wilderness for another twelve months.

Captain John Fitzgerald’s comments post-tie are worth noting.

''These are tough situations that they haven't faced a lot,'' Fitzgerald said of his young charges such as the 23-year-old Ball.

''And you learn a lot from the tough days to get those really good ones. And they are worth waiting for. When they happen they make up for the tough times.

''It is hard to swallow [being out of the World Group] but it is a different sport now. It was a different competition back then - you have to be realistic about it.''

Fitzgerald is right about one thing. It is a different sport now. No longer can a 23-year-old tennis player be considered a young charge. Rafael Nadal just won his ninth Grand Slam title at the age of 24. Roger Federer had won five Grand Slams before his 24th birthday.

But whilst you scoff at the comparisons to two of the greatest players of all time consider this; Hewitt had won two Grand Slam singles titles, made a third final, won a Grand Slam doubles title, two Masters Series Cup finals, two Davis Cups, played in two other Cup finals, and been World number one for two consecutive years all before his 24th birthday.

If you’re still not convinced, Novak Djokovic, 23, is a Grand Slam winner and twice runner-up. Juan Martin Del Potro, 21, beat Roger Federer in a US Open final. Andy Murray, 23, is twice a Grand Slam finalist.

So if the 23-year-old Ball and 31-year-old journeyman Luczak haven’t faced these situations a lot already, and have not coped with them when challenged, then when are they ever going to?

The reliance on Hewitt has never been greater and yet his tenure left in the game has never been shorter.

Fitzgerald again.

''In the last eight or 10 years there has been a lot of pressure on Lleyton,'' he said. ''We have got to keep trying to support the boys to step up - I have got confidence in what they can do. We will keep building a team, continue the fight.''

Two-time Grand Slam champion Patrick Rafter was shattered by the loss. His presence in Cairns, as a so-called “orange boy” has already created rumours regarding Fitzgerald’s job, with Tennis Australia’s President-elect Steven Healy said to be a huge Rafter fan.

Rafter was scathing of Australia’s system proclaiming the youngsters coming through have it too easy.

''One thing I'm really jamming down the kids' throats is that we've got to make it tougher for them, they've got to toughen up as well and there are ways to do that,'' Rafter said yesterday.

''By giving them everything, it's not helping to find solutions. If we give them a tough situation where they are on their own for a few months with no coach, no nothing and make them do it tough in Europe, you've got to find different solutions and ways of getting around it.

''It's just life skills to me that these kids could take into their game as well and, when they are on the court, they've got to tough it out for themselves and not have someone tell them what to do all the time.''

Who are the kids you ask? Well they’re not Ball or Luczak, or even the 543rd ranked player in the world, 25-year-old Chris Guccione.

The kids Rafter is referring to are three 17-year-olds; the already well publicised Bernard Tomic, Wimbledon junior runner-up Ben Mitchell, and World-junior number three Jason Kubler.

Despite the despair of the state of senior men’s tennis in this country, Australia are currently the holders of the junior Davis Cup, and have won two of the last three titles.

Ben Mitchell was an “orange boy” at the recent tie in Cairns whilst Tomic and Kubler have played in the main draw of the Australian Open. Tomic famously reached the second round earlier this year and nearly claimed a major scalp in Croatian Marin Cilic, but lost in an epic five-setter.

Unfortunately for Tomic his immaturity spoilt what was a fabulous performance when he blamed the prime-time scheduling and late-night finish for his loss. Tomic and his advisors obviously losing sight of the fact that he had not earned his way into the draw, rather accepting a wild-card and that he’d been placed on centre court in prime-time, a privilege usually reserved for the world’s very best.

Tomic the individual, not to mention the Tomic family, is a story for another time. But this is exactly what Rafter is talking about.

Perhaps it’s time to throw him in the deep end.

Hewitt, like Tomic, was an impetuous ambitious teenager who was an “orange boy” for the Davis Cup team in the late 90s. In the lead-up to the tie in Cairns Hewitt credited the foresight of then captain John Newcombe who backed his young charge and give him an opportunity.

Hewitt made his Davis Cup debut in July 1999 in a quarter final against the United States, having like Tomic never progressed beyond the second round of a major, although he had won two ATP titles. His opportunity came on the back of a knee injury to Mark Philippoussis.

His first Cup opponent was American veteran Todd Martin who had played in the 1994 Australian Open final and would make the final of the 1999 US Open. The South Australian won in four sets.

Hewitt was 18. He featured in the Semi-final against Russia where he beat a two-time Grand Slam champion in Kafelnikov, and a future duel Grand slam winner in Marat Safin. He then played in the final against France, on clay in Nice, where he lost to Wimbledon finalist Cedric Pioline in straight sets (two were tie-breaks) and a dead reverse singles rubber to Sebastian Grosjean, who had made two Masters Series finals that year on both clay and hard court.

With the Davis Cup on the line, and a group of twenty-somethings to choose from such as Jason Stoltenberg (29), Sandon Stolle (29), Richard Fromberg (29), and Andrew Ilie (23), Newcombe went with a teenager.

In 2010, with Australia still outside of the world group, a situation that hasn’t changed since 2007, the time is now to inject some youth into the squad.

If Fitzgerald has faith in the likes of Ball and Luczak then one wonders if he is the man to take the next generation forward. The current Davis Cup captain gave Tomic his Cup debut in March, with great success albeit against a weak opponent in Chinese Taipei, the Queenslander winning both his singles rubbers. But Tomic’s name was not mentioned in the lead-up to Cairns.

If not Tomic, then Kubler or Mitchell must surely be given an opportunity to either “sink or swim” as Rafter put it.

The Hewitt years are fading fast. His presence at further Cup ties will be like precious gold. If the Hewitt experiment of 1999 was anything to go by, the time is now to build from the ground up or risk one of Australia’s richest sporting traditions, in the Davis Cup, becoming extinct.

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