Opin­ion

Sunday Star-Times - - Sport - Mark Rea­son mark.rea­[email protected]

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

We don’t have enough knowl­edge about what it takes.

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.

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