Why tennis is the sick man of sport

brad cooper - former journo and olympic swim gold medallist Roar Rookie

By brad cooper - former journo and olympic swim gold medallist, brad cooper - former journo and olympic swim gold medallist is a Roar Rookie


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    Lleyton Hewitt is temporary coming out of retirement for Australia's Davis Cup showdown with USA. (AFP PHOTO/Luis Acosta)

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    It’s no secret most celebrity obituaries are written years before deadline. The subjects are often elderly and their list of achievements unlikely to alter, so why use up strapped resources on the day itself?

    Sports stars are particularly obliging in this area because nothing really happens in their lives after their last youthful trophy or Facebook faux pas. Cub reporters can have their eulogies parked permanently in cyber-queue well before a post-career paunch hints at a maiden bypass.

    The same fill-in-the-gaps formula can be true of the demise of an entire sport. You can bet commentators will revert to default rhetoric to bemoan the end of Australian tennis after the next Australian Open… again.

    This, despite assurances from Tennis Australia that their trawlers are out plucking anything that flashes an impressive claw from our suburban hatcheries. And if they’re of legal size, they’ll pack them off to processing plants for eventual export where another kind of net – hopefully – will eventually separate them on court from a grand slam nemesis.

    But does the latest acronym for our national talent development scheme really stack up? There are more institutes, scholarships, camps, coaches and trips than ever, but are they working with too few, too late and too old?

    What nine year old does your nine year old know who can’t come around after school because they have to go tennis training most afternoons? I’m guessing none. But a swimmer, maybe. Swimming, after all, is close to being Australia’s number one junior participation sport. And its ratio of heavily involved kids is probably peerless.

    Many think this is because parents want their kids to be the next Ian Thorpe (confused and maudlin as he’s sounding of late).

    But the truth is, most of those parents get their kids into early swim training because there’s a lot of good camaraderie to be had in those lanes chock full of cheeky splashing and after school gossip.

    And it gets them in shape, because if you want to join the squad, the coach usually needs you there more than a couple of times a week.

    Junior tennis, on the other hand, is a two-speed court. Every afternoon scores of toddlers might be signed-in at the desk by brassy private school mums for a once a week swat-and-miss. Or a small group of 10-to-15s might take turns stepping up and volleying back to a handsome young Mr Knit-vest for half an hour, again once or twice a week.

    But rarely, if ever, do you see a court complex regularly chockers with kids keeping a ball in play for hours at a time. No, the only time you see anything of the kind is when there’s a young lonely Laszlo racquet-head out there until sunset, returning to his crazy dad.

    These dads (sometimes mums or uncles) usually start off as quite sane – if a little ambitous – people. But after years of ostracism and stereotyping, if their kid makes it, they might just be primed to act out the public expectation of a parent from hell.

    Which is a pity, because in junior tennis land, parents are the only coaches the parents of those kids can afford to provide all the hitting hours needed to excel. That’s excel, not win. People also forget gifted kids love to practice for the self-esteem that comes from excellence.

    Why can’t tennis follow swimming’s lead and provide affordable, regular mass practice for the as-young-as-you-can-get-‘em crowd? My answer would be that there’s a kind of restrictive trading cartel at work to protect the high unit-returns on private instruction. But that would sound conspiratorial and mean.

    Another stab would be pedantry. The kind of pedantry that insists that unless you have the perfect ‘continental’ or ‘western’ hand grip (and this could take hours and hours of finnicky personal tuition to get right), well, sonny, you might as well give up now.

    Swimming disabused itself of pedantry many decades ago when its pioneer scientific investigator, James ‘Doc’ Councilman, discovered the world’s best swimmers had actually been ignoring the best pedagogy for decades.

    Until underwater video revealed all champions pulled with sweeping, ‘eliptical’ underwater actions, coaches and swimmers alike believed you were meant to pull in a straight line.

    “Don’t forget to pull straight and hard, sonny,” Konrads, Fraser and co. were told.

    “Yes sir,” came the deferential reply, but they went ahead and pulled in their own idiosyncratic lateral sweeps anyway. They discovered these patterns on their own because they were gifted, strong and tried to ‘pull hard’.

    When my girls played fixtures, I’d listen to young idle coaches in the staff room deriding the dad who’d been on court with his 11 year old for the last hour, grimacing as he squished his paunch and risked aneurism and ligament with every forehand stretch.

    The ultimate hypocrisy came when my older daughter came home with a QTA junior handbook boasting a picture of Andre Agassi on the inside cover. Below his smiling face was a cautionary quote, “it’s fair to say I’d rather have had a dad who was just a dad instead of my tennis coach.”

    From my point of view, it’s fair to say the redoubtable Agassi senior had no choice when told the cost of having his talented boy practice every day. I can almost hear the profanity as the pair swaggered back to the car.

    And I can hear him rationalising that being a hopeless player himself might actually be good for Andre, because the lad would have to chase down all those sprays.

    If you haven’t heard of the 10,000 hour practice mantra by now you must have spent this last entire US election Olympiad in Obama’s campaign bunker. But basically, it goes like this.

    Whether you want to be a concert violinist, circus juggler, nuclear scientist or run-of-the-mill sports legend, you’ll likely need to tot up 10,000 hours in rote learning before you can hope to reach elite qualifying rounds, let alone prove you’re not another deluded manque.

    (There are some exceptions of course. Reportedly, it’s possible for a potential female Olympic rower to be identified by an inebriated talent scout by the way she pulls a beer at 19, thrown into a scull the next morning, and wear green and gold two years later. But this only serves to dispute the depth of that particular hatchery.)

    None of what I’ve written above excuses some of the abysmal behaviour we’ve seen from tennis parents over the years. And god knows what sort of lunatic ideologues we’ll see touting the 10,000 hour New Testament around the courts, pools and pitches to get more blood out of coaches in coming years.

    But I’m guessing if tennis could have thousands more eight to ten year olds practising most days and marketing their sport as, say fitness, instead of ‘become the next Sam Stosur’, we could defuse a lot of the insular hubris that makes parent/coaches go a little balmy.

    How so? Because when your child trains for years under a coach with rules and regulations defining the role of parents, you actually train those parents to understand what good parenting is.

    Just don’t expect the Agassi seniors of this word to hand them over when they’ve given them their first 10,000 hours of practice.