Sunday Star-Times

Tennis NZ plans for top 100 stars

Performanc­e director Simon Rea wants to change Kiwis’ mindset about what true success looks like,

- reports David Long.

No apologies will be made by Simon Rea for raising the bar to unparallel­ed levels as he tries to create world class tennis New Zealand players.

There have been numerous false dawns and failed plans over the past 20 years as New Zealand struggled to produce a top 100 singles player other than Marina Erakovic.

New Zealand’s highest ranked male singles player is the 31-yearold Rubin Statham and the country’s top women’s player is the long-term injured Erakovic at 204.

On the women’s front, there are hopes that Paige Hourigan, Erin Routliffe, Jade Lewis and Emily Fanning can make it. But with the men, there isn’t anyone aged 19 upwards showing any signs of doing anything.

Tennis NZ high performanc­e director Rea, has spent a year researchin­g the best way for New Zealand to produce world class singles players again.

For a small, isolated country it may sound the stuff of pipe dreams, but Rea says that can be a reality.

‘‘We would like top 100 male and female athletes in singles and we’d like them to do that in the Kiwi way,’’ Rea said. ‘‘We’d like to see a philosophi­cal shift, a raising of the bar around a national standard being the point of reference.

‘‘With that in mind, we’ve put some extensive research into place around what a trajectory into the ATP or WTA top 100 looks like. From 13 years of age, all the way through a person’s pathway.

‘‘We’ve got some benchmarks in place that need to be met, simultaneo­usly.’’

Rather than Tennis NZ taking a punt on a young player because he or she looks like they have potential, they will now be far more objective.

‘‘What we’re trying to achieve is attacking of internatio­nal and world class standard, rather than being overly excited by being the best in New Zealand,’’ Rea said.

‘‘We would like to work with good players from a national perspectiv­e and make them better.

‘‘Players that meet the criteria, we’d like to put a greater emphasis on a daily training environmen­t here in New Zealand.

‘‘In conversati­ons with parents and athletes in recent weeks, yes, the criteria is demanding, but I’m unapologet­ic for that, because I feel like we have to raise the bar with what we’re trying to achieve with tennis in this country.’’

In 2014 Tennis NZ launched its targeted athlete programme, in which it provided significan­t investment and support to Finn Reynolds (then aged 13), Macsen Sisam (13), Rosie Cheng (15) and Valentina Ivanov (12).

Four years on, these players are at the age where they should be making an impression at ITF junior tournament­s.

But none reach the new criteria establishe­d by Rea. Reynolds is at 145 in world junior rankings and will be going to the University of Mississipp­i this year, Sisam is at 136, Cheng is no longer a junior but only got to 155 and is now at college in America, while Valentina is a 95, although she still has two more years as a junior.

‘‘We’ve based it on two years’ worth of data on where these players in the top 100 were at correspond­ing ages,’’ Rea said.

‘‘So we’re going from something that as a selection system has been subjective, opinion based and quite fluid, to something that’s very objective, based on data and science.

‘‘We’ve cross referenced our numbers with Tennis Australia, Tennis Canada, USTA, Swiss Tennis Federation and the feedback we’ve had from the ITF around athletes from smaller nations and what those ranking trajectori­es have looked like.

‘‘We’ve put It all in a pot and come out with a criteria, which we think is a searching examinatio­n, but for the players that meet the criteria and have proved they’re deserving of support, we want to support them really strongly.’’

To reach criteria, players need to be doing well at national and internatio­nal tournament­s and a high junior ranking.

Last year there were 10 targeted athletes but that number is expected to drop to just a few.

Ivanov, now 16, last week made herself unavailabl­e for the New Zealand Fed Cup team for the upcoming tournament in Bahrain next month.

She is based in Sydney and has had a significan­t amount of money spent on sending her to tournament­s and training bases around the world, often travelling with Tennis NZ performanc­e coach Marcel Vos.

However, that will come to an end when her current contract with Tennis NZ expires at the end of the month and Rea says if she wants to get continued coaching support she needs to get that in New Zealand.

‘‘We would like to support her more comprehens­ively from a daily

training environmen­t point of view,’’ Rea said.

‘‘If she’s willing to commit to spending more time in New Zealand, where we feel we can do a better job of being more accountabl­e, we will support her strongly on the domestic front.

‘‘She doesn’t reach criteria, so we’d like to put in place a support network around her domestical­ly, that’s going to help her when she does travel internatio­nally for her ITF events and get to criteria.’’

Given that Ivanov has a better junior ranking than any Australian player, there is that potential for her to jump ship, but Tennis NZ CEO Julie Paterson said they accept that possibilit­y.

‘‘There could be a risk around that and we’ve considered that,’’ Paterson said.

‘‘But we need to be really clear around what our criteria is.

‘‘When you make a change, there is always going to be angst and there’s risk when you make a change.

‘‘We would hope that Valentina doesn’t go and play for Australia and she stays in the New Zealand programme and I’ve expressed that to her mother.’’

Valentina’s father, Sergey, said they don’t currently have plans to switch allegiance­s, but naturally will do what’s best for Valentina’s future.

‘‘If Tennis NZ is happy to invest in Valentina we’re happy to commit and definitely she will play for New Zealand,’’ Sergey said.

‘‘At the moment we’re not going to change our minds. But we do have to discuss it. It’s easy to make a decision but it’s important to know if this decision will benefit the player and Tennis NZ.’’

Sergey said he understood why the bar has been raised but believes Valentina has a bright future ahead of her.

‘‘They’re trying to make the best changes for Tennis NZ but at the same time she’s No 1 ranked junior in Australia or New Zealand,’’ he said. ‘‘She’s gone from 850 a year ago and now she’s 95. That’s significan­t and not lots of girls can do that.

‘‘I can understand the decision but at the same time they should consider how any junior is improving and potentiall­y what they can reach.

‘‘We can’t afford to support her fully. I can maybe afford two or three tournament­s, but that’s nothing, she has to play 15 to 20 tournament­s a year. In my opinion, she’s able to reach the top 20 by the end of this year.’’

Meanwhile, the performanc­e coaching roles that were previously held by Lan Bale and Vos have been restructur­ed. Bale has resigned from Tennis NZ to take up a position in Queenstown.

We would like top 100 male and female athletes in singles and we'd like them to do that in the Kiwi way. Simon Rea

 ?? PHOTOSPORT ?? Tennis NZ’s high performanc­e director Simon Rea has spent the past year assessing the talent in New Zealand.
PHOTOSPORT Tennis NZ’s high performanc­e director Simon Rea has spent the past year assessing the talent in New Zealand.

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