Where the hell are Kiwis?
So where the hell are they? The singles draw for the Australian Open was made on Thursday and a few predictable things happened. Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic both got blockbuster first-round opponents, nice for Aussie television. Roger Federer got an easy, but not too easy, draw that puts him against Denis Istomin, a player he has never lost to, a qualifier and then Gael Monfils. And there was no sign of a Kiwi.
There are a lot of tennis fans in New Zealand, but at the moment they have to be purists rather than patriots, because there are no home players to shout for. Well, that’s if you don’t include doubles and, as the days of Newcombe and Roche, McEnroe and Fleming are long gone, most people now regard it as a diversion full of sideshow Bob Bryans.
The sad fact is that Rubin Statham, ranked 360 in the world, is the only player from New Zealand in the top 500 of the men’s and women’s rankings. But then I got to thinking that maybe it wasn’t sad at all. Maybe there is no point obsessing about a sport that stacks the odds against a remote country.
Belinda Cordwell, who reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 1989, a feat that seems almost inconceivable now, as usual has a few thoughtful observations about New Zealand’s lack of success on the modern circuit.
‘‘We don’t have enough knowledge about what it takes,’’ she says.
Cordwell points to rugby, which as she correctly observes is not a global sport, however much it might like to be, where New Zealand has ‘‘this great knowledge’’. There is a pathway. A 15-year-old knows the route to the All Blacks. There are coaches and former players to point the way. The kids understand that achievement is possible. They can see the way.
And there will be many a helping hand. The sport is full of former players and referees and coaches and commentators and teachers. New Zealand has a brain bank of knowledge. The country knows better than any other country in the world how to succeed at rugby.
But tennis just isn’t like that. The few top
New Zealand players of the past are scattered around the world. Chris Lewis has a tennis academy in California. Kelly Evernden is a resident teaching pro in Arkansas and sometime coach to Elton John. Onny Parun is engrossed with the share market in Wellington. Brett Steven is in finance. Cordwell does a variety of things, although her priority is her family.
But what this group probably have in common is that they didn’t really come through a system, because there wasn’t a system to come through. They are mavericks. They succeeded because they were personally driven in various curious ways.
Evernden lost a lung and had a steel rod put in his left leg after a car accident as a teenager. He has described the attitude of the hospital staff as ‘‘one of the greatest experiences of my life’’. Tennis New Zealand wrote him off. But the doctors and the nurses never said he was lucky to be alive or would be permanently disabled.
Evernden was different and that was kind of the point. He wasn’t from Auckland. He wasn’t from a wealthy family. He had a bit of attitude. He didn’t like to talk about the loss of the lung because, ‘‘I never wanted to feel I had overachieved. When you are trying to be as good as you are any excuse will tip you over.’’
Cordwell describes Evernden as ‘‘a real talent’’. Parun was ‘‘a trailblazer’’. And so was Cordwell. She had an Austrian friend on the circuit who she realised could play two or three tournaments and then go home to recharge. That wasn’t an option for a New Zealander.
Cordwell played against a Russian in a tournament in Stuttgart where a shortage of officials meant that the players had to call their own lines. Cordwell couldn’t believe just how much her opponent was cheating. And then she realised. Tennis was her opponent’s ticket out of communism. The Russian wanted to win so much more. Cordwell wonders if the will to win of New Zealand kids just cannot compare.
Currently there are 14 East Europeans in the top 30 of the women’s game. A few years ago the gag about tennis was; ‘‘people think it’s all ‘ova’, it is now’’. Even now there are five ‘ovas’ in the top 30. Tennis is a way to a better life for whole families.
So would Cordwell do it over again knowing what she knows?
‘‘No, I wouldn’t. I really wanted to do it but there were different things I could have done. We all underestimate the impact on a person once their pro career is over. When I finished because of injury I didn’t have the support. What do I do? Who am I?’’
A number of the players Cordwell knew in the UK became employed by the Lawn Tennis Association. In Australia the likes of Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt have become heavily involved in a sport that is on the rise again. There are now three Australians ahead of Kyrgios in the rankings.
Cordwell says, ‘‘There are a lot of pathways post career in Australia, America, the UK and Canada. I was offered a job in the UK. I turned it down. I wanted to come back to New Zealand. Tennis was just a segment of my life.’’
And you expect that Cordwell speaks for all those New Zealand tennis mavericks who succeeded. They did it their way. It was the outsiders who were most likely to make their own way. And now those outsiders are up against a whole world that is scrabbling to get to the top.
Novak Djokovic, the winner of the previous two grand slams and favourite to win this year’s Australian Open, was driven by the horrors of the war that had fractured his childhood. Serena Williams, favourite for the women’s title, was driven by her father’s demons and the struggle against the white patriarchy of American tennis.
So when the young New Zealander Ajeet Rai says; ‘‘I want to win a grand slam, become world No 1 and put Taranaki and New Zealand on the map for tennis,’’ we should not smile. But we should know what he is up against. It’s a hard, hard road out there, populated by hard, hard foot soldiers.
The odds of population and geography are massively stacked against Kiwis. You suspect that the talented maverick from the wrong side of the tracks has the best chance of succeeding, but who is going to put a racket in his or her hand and then pay for a 10-year overseas experience?
Maybe it is not such a bad thing that nobody is coming through. Maybe it is a sign of our maturity as a country to know that it doesn’t really matter. There are more important things in life.
And so the Australian Open is not about us. It’s about the tennis.
We don’t have enough knowledge about what it takes.
New Zealand’s Rubin Statham plays a backhand against Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff at the ASB Classic.