What has happened to Australian sporting prowess?

I like to watch cricket on TV, because in terms of understanding what is going on it’s more instructive than being there. It hasn’t been much fun lately, with a dismal performance most of the time, by our batsmen. The Fifth Test looks like grinding its way to a draw. After a good run by the Brumbies, I thought that the first Bledisloe Cup game might be very close indeed. It wasn’t. Our swimmers didn’t dominate in any way in the last international meeting, and our athletes weren’t impressive. The Brits did better than us in the last Olympic Games. It’s a long time since we had a really outstanding tennis player. Where is our sporting renown, I hear you cry. What has gone wrong?

Actually, it’s not as bad as all that. There is no natural law that says we have to be on top in anything, and in cricket it’s easy to think of other times when Australia was in no sense dominant. But things really have change since the 1950s, Hoad and Rosewall, and superior teams in the sports we thought were most important. We are richer, and fatter. There are many things to do indoors, and young people do them. Technology is replacing physical activity.

Tennis was my game when I was young, and it is instructive to me to look at what has happened there. Whenever one of the grand slams is on (the US Open starts on Monday), Bernard Tomic will shine and dim, and Lleyton Hewitt will fade, and I will read or hear, again, that we don’t seem to be producing the tennis champions of yesteryear. As so often in Australia, when people make judgments like this there is an implied fault. Someone is to blame. Let’s find them, and deal with them, and then we’ll return to past glory.

I don’t think there is anyone to blame, either as an individual or as an organisation. But if you want a simple explanation, then we have lost some advantages we once had: lots of tennis courts, lots of sunshine, and a most democratic attitude to tennis — meaning that anyone could play, and it didn’t cost much.

I started playing tennis in about 1945, at the Reid courts in Canberra, and at Ainslie Primary, where there was a (and still is) a tarred court. The school had racquets, and we  kids could borrow them. In Reid we knew how to get the nets at the Reid Club; the price was that we put them back, and we did.

A few years later, in Armidale, we could play on a variety of courts, one at the back of the Methodist church, one in somebody’s backyard, four at our school. It cost £2/12/6 to join the Tennis Club, which had dozens of junior members. I ball-boyed once for a doubles exhibition in which John Bromwich and Ken McGregor played Mervyn Rose and Rex Hartwig. All of them won major titles, mostly in doubles.

What happened? Well, Australia got more prosperous,  Television took over some of the leisure time that once went to sport. We discovered surfing. The backyard tennis courts made way for blocks of home units. Other sports, like soccer, became important. Sport moved from being a mainly amateur activity to one where the best performers could make a great deal of money. New sports appeared. One of them was squash racquets, and once I played that, tennis became a past interest. There were a lot of squash players who had a tennis background.

The world changed. As a fifteen-year-old in Armidale, I could point to perhaps a dozen sports that were played on an organised basis in the town. Today’s Australian Sports Commission, unheard of in the 1950s, makes grants of over $120 million to 53 sports.

We are not the only country at all to place a high value on sporting excellence, finding the best young ones, and funding their development. And tennis has been a sport where any country can get ahead with relatively little money: a few good coaches, good courts, a selection system, and intense development. Switzerland was perhaps an odd country to have won the Americas Cup, given that it is entirely landlocked. But Roger Federer’s great record in tennis is not strange at all. Switzerland is rich, and has a fine tennis development system. Marc Rosset, another Swiss, won the 1992 Olympic Games gold medal in tennis.

Tennis is now a truly international sport, and the Chinese are beginning to demonstrate their own excellence, following the Russians, who have been a power in women’s tennis for some years now. At the moment most of the names on the results board seem to have an Eastern European origin — and that applies even to some of our own players — Tomic, Jarmila Gajdozova, Jelena Dokic and Anastasia Rodionova.

What has happened is that the playing field, which had been tipped in our favour, has been levelled. And sport has moved from being a few pastimes to many. We can’t be excellent in them all. We still have sunshine and a competitive culture, and popular support. But with four football codes and more than fifty other sports, we can’t expect to be top dog.

In fact, in terms of medals per head of population, the boring Olympic Games metric, we do pretty well!

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