From mateship to lawsuits: the unfortunate decay of Australian tennis

From mateship to lawsuits: the unfortunate decay of Australian tennis

Bernard Tomic's public takedown of Lleyton Hewitt is just the most glaring example of the once-great tennis nation's fall from grace.

MELBOURNE—The civil war that seems to have broken out among some members of the Australian tennis community is disappointing on many levels—not least because it flies in the face of a tradition that combined fierce rivalry with mateship and respect.

When I came into the game during the heyday of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and numerous other Aussie legends, any conflicts that might have arisen on court were never allowed to fester and, in any case, were overshadowed by strict rules governing the evening’s social schedule.

On tour, the players—unaccompanied by anything resembling a coach, manager or physio, and only occasionally joined by a wife or girlfriend—came up with the rule that you had to be at the hotel bar by 7:00 p.m. for the first beer of the evening or face a fine. There was only one exception: Ken Rosewall, a very modest drinker, was given a pass because everyone was in awe of his backhand.

So, from that starting point in Rome, Barcelona, Tokyo or Boston, the evening’s festivities would begin. The quantity of alcohol consumed had something to do with whether you were still in the tournament, but that never really restricted the intake of Emmo, Fred Stolle or the man everyone looked up to as the best of the best, Lew Hoad.

So with everyone on the town most nights, hangovers were evenly shared, and those who did the dirty by going to bed early were frowned upon. Nikki Pilic, the big lefthanded Yugoslav, broke ranks during the first ever Stockholm Open in 1969 and, as a result of not dancing the night away with everyone else at Alexandra’s discotheque, won the tournament. Stolle actually got as far as match point in the final, but then his legs gave out; Pilic, with plenty of good sleep to fuel his reserve tank, fought back to win. Nobody spoke to Nikki for days.

It was also in Stockholm that Rod Laver was turned into snowman. We were all invited to a party given at a tournament official’s house just outside the city where the beer, not to mention the schnapps, flowed. As we got ready to leave at about 1:00 a.m., someone—almost certainly Emmo—had the bright idea of turning the Rocket into a snowman. By the time Rod’s nose had turned an appropriate shade of red, his body had been packed with an abundance of snow. Being the good chap he is, he just stood there for a few minutes so that we could all admire our handiwork. He really did make a very good snowman.

We had dusted him off by the time the cars arrived, but not with any great expertise. I was sitting behind him on the ride back into the city and found myself watching a small glob of snow slowly trickle down the back of his neck. “Hey, can we turn the heating up? Bit chilly in here isn’t it?” he muttered. The schnapps kept him warm.

It was, of course, a completely different world than today’s. Prize money was starting to trickle into the game, but the whole atmosphere was one of a band of brothers enjoying each other’s company as they flew from one glamorous city to the next. For the Australians, in particular, it was a special time because the great Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman had produced one champion after the next, while raising standards of fitness to unheard-of heights. Yes, they drank—although not while Hop was around—but early-morning runs took care of that problem, and off they went to play best-of-five-set singles and doubles matches.

The Australian dominance during that era could be measured by the extraordinary success of Hopman’s Davis Cup teams. Beginning in 1950, when Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor appeared on the scene, Australia won the Cup in 15 of the next 18 years.

Inevitably, things changed as Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Italy, West Germany and a resurgent France started to win the Cup. Australia remained a force, but the tour had become a more professional, demanding and cutthroat operation, and a new generation of Australians were not quite as dedicated to playing for their country as their predecessors.

As Australia changed, with a massive influx of immigrants, so did it become more difficult for some to buy into the culture of Australian mateship. The Australian Davis Cup squad continued to offer the greatest sporting support system in the world: once on the team, everyone would have your back. But parents, like the father of Mark Philippoussis, were wary and suspicious, and didn’t really understand this code. Mark played some great Davis Cup matches for Australia—notably his superb victory in the 1999 final over Cedric Pioline indoors, in Nice—but there were times when he fell out with the leadership and allegedly refused to play.

John Tomic has proved an even greater problem for his son, Bernie, and is now threatening to sue Tennis Australia over something that happened between young Tomic and Lleyton Hewitt, later to become Davis Cup captain, all of nine years ago. This has come about as a result of a total breakdown in relations between Hewitt and Bernie Tomic, exacerbated here in Melbourne last week when Hewitt accused the Tomic family of attempted blackmail, coupled with physical threats.   

Nick Kyrgios, of course, has not been easy to handle and weighed in with some inflammatory remarks when it would have been much better to keep his mouth shut. Instead of attacking Hewitt, Nick should have basked in the good words Roger Federer had to say about him when the defending champion was interviewed on Rod Laver Arena.

“I like Nick,” Federer said. “I like the way he plays and all that. I was happy to hear he was in the commentary booth. He sticks around which shows he’s passionate about the game. That’s what we need to see.”

What we need to see is everyone cooling it. Hewitt, who can bristle, has handled the barrage of criticism coming from two potential squad members as well as can be expected, but it may be time to turn to the new generation of Australian youngsters, like Alex de Minaur, Alex Bolt and Alexei Popyrin, who appear to be more eager to become part of a history that can be traced back to the glory days of huge achievement and global admiration. They are lucky that there are many members of the golden generation like Laver, Emerson, Rosewall, Newcombe, Fred Stolle and Tony Roche still around, and they are more than ready to offer some perspective.

Seven o’clock at the bar will not be on the agenda, but that doesn’t mean they can’t all be friends.


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