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


17 Have your say

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (17)

    • November 24th 2012 @ 3:18am
      Johnno said | November 24th 2012 @ 3:18am | ! Report

      Tennis is a sport in OZ that to me is a victim of modern life. Courts are expensive to build , and maintain, and take up a lot of land at a high cost. Where as local councils are more likely to build big sports ovals, with multiple playing fields for cricket, rugby league, rugby union, and soccer with land allocated for sports as they offer simply more numbers for the masses than tennis, and more options of different sports than just tennis courts.

      Plus tennis you have to start really young usually to get good, and 1 on 1 coaching is very expensive for the middle class, often 30 or 40 dollars and hour start up . That’s a lot of money for middle class people to give to tennis. ANd we don’t have the demand for big USA style tennis academies . Many in OZ have gone broke. Also other countries eg China,Spain Russia.,Argentina, have invested in tennis not just the traditional powers of tennis.

      And for these reasons sad truth is i just can;t see an opening for Australia over the next 10 years too improve in fact it’s only going to get harder a smote countries participate in it , and many of these countries have more money to beat us.

      • November 24th 2012 @ 1:28pm
        brad cooper said | November 24th 2012 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

        Thanks for your reponse Johnno, but I disagree on facilities. If we are strapped for courts, why is my local complex totally deserted at 6.30am any weekday? Those 10 courts could have 40 kids hitting for two hours with minimal coaching supervision – reducing the unit instruction cost to sane levels for parents. But junior tennis resists egalitarianism because the pedantry that often masquerades as coaching insists that kids are wasting their time without lots of highly paid experts running around. This approach is not just short sighted, but seems almost a cynical ploy to protect the high instruction unit return on private and limited group coaching. Programs seem to exist to ‘choke’ the supply of instruction to protect unit return – not for broad benefits to the many. If the school education system acted like this, we’d have three or four students to a classroom and probably be complaining our kid wasn’t getting enough attention. This is why swimming abandoned its eccentric small group instruction and introduced large ‘squad’ coaching in the middle of last century.
        The junior tennis coaching model has a grandiose notion that the mechanics of stroke making are perfeclty understood and that only qualified coaches are privy to its shamanistic transmission. Never mind the elephant in the room (that most slam winners for decades have been coached by people who’d never read a coaching manual – the parents). As I wrote in the article, giftted kids often learn technique despite the coaching, not because of it. They move well because they are proprioceptively endowed, with high levels of visual acuity. The coach is no more responsible for that skill set than he is for the most hopeless dolt in the class. What takes those super-kids to the next level is quotidian levels of hitting, starting quite young. (Being invited to an institute regime at age 12 or 13 to double or treble your past hitting loads may be too late).
        Junior tennis coaching philosophy sails close to derelection. It forces parents to get on court to provide rote skill development, and uiltimately perpetuates issues with problematic parents. If I had to coach my own kid thousands of hours to a Wimbledon qualifier, and then have to listen to a commentator dissing parent-coaches, I think I’d be a little more than ‘problematic’.

      • November 25th 2012 @ 2:39pm
        Ian Whitchurch said | November 25th 2012 @ 2:39pm | ! Report

        As usual, Johnno is completely delusional.

        There are tennis courts scattered all across Sydney. They are cheap to build, and dont need maintainence, so local councils love them.

        • November 25th 2012 @ 3:07pm
          Johnno said | November 25th 2012 @ 3:07pm | ! Report

          Ian they maybe cheap to build but i’d love to know how many get approval. As land in Sydney becomes more of a premium. Some suburban golf courses are being closed down, and in place community sports ovals, to cater to multiple more sports.
          And i disagree with your maintenance issues. they do cost some money to maintain. Parking often has to be built next to them, electrical wiring, and electricity poles, .

        • November 25th 2012 @ 9:29pm
          clipper said | November 25th 2012 @ 9:29pm | ! Report

          Ian, courts are about 25-30k each, when being resurfaced (which should be done every 7 or so years) and obviously more when built from scratch. Factor in Fencing, lights, amenities etc. and they aren’t that cheap. They may be scattered all across Sydney, but in high value suburbs councils are charging upwards of 20k per year per court – this makes it hard for the lessee to offer reasonable rates to the juniors, especially if they aren’t being fully utilised during the day.

          • November 25th 2012 @ 10:33pm
            Johnno said | November 25th 2012 @ 10:33pm | ! Report

            clipper factor in stuff like insurance costs and law suits, public liability insurance, would also increase. And the need to maintain them as you say. The old concrete suburban court with pot holes everywhere, or synthetic grass with ripped synthetic marks and splits, are over as the council’s don’t want litigation and negilicance claim if a player does his knee, or slips a disc in the back, or trips over and does there ankle. No way hosay, those days are over, courts are now much more up scratch these days. I’m with clipper 25-30K of rate payer’s money is not cheap, plus all the amenities that need to be built , also the ratepayer’s have to foot that bill. So junior lessons and court hire can’t come cheap.

          • November 26th 2012 @ 2:23pm
            Matt F said | November 26th 2012 @ 2:23pm | ! Report

            While it’s true that they’re not the cheapest thing to maintain, there are still a lot of under-used courts around the country. We certainly don’t have a shortage of courts. Th bigger problem is the lack of variety. The vast majority are either concrete hard court or artificial grass as they’re cheaper to maintain. There are very few natural grass or clay courts (though TA are putting in more clay courts now.)

            • November 26th 2012 @ 2:58pm
              clipper said | November 26th 2012 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

              Matt – not only is grass, and to a lesser extent clay, more expensive to maintain, it also takes longer to dry out to become playable. The other factor is that artificial grass is a lot easier on the knees, as opposed to plexicushion, which TA like to push, or concrete.

          • November 26th 2012 @ 3:00pm
            Ian Whitchurch said | November 26th 2012 @ 3:00pm | ! Report


            Compare 30k every 7 years to this to, I dont know, lawn bowls, which need a full-time maintainence person per facility.

            • November 26th 2012 @ 3:47pm
              clipper said | November 26th 2012 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

              Ian, that’s 30k per court, so a centre of 5 courts would be up for $150k every 5 years. Maybe that’s why so many bowls clubs are going under, or cutting down on their maintenance by only using one green.

              • November 26th 2012 @ 3:56pm
                Johnno said | November 26th 2012 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

                Also Lawn bowls clubs like RSL clubs, leagues clubs, trades clubs are having make overs and are now appealing to a wider community, not just seniors. There putting in GYMS, good restaurants, modern function rooms, more community integration, modern day lawn bills promotions where young adults can drink and have a DJ spinning out modern tunes. All these are to survive , to remain community relevant and to maintain upkeep of costs. Tennis clubs should look at other revenue making ways as Lawn bowls clubs have.

    • November 24th 2012 @ 5:31pm
      Johnno said | November 24th 2012 @ 5:31pm | ! Report

      Brad it’s a pleasure happy to have a quick chat with an Olympic gold medallist no less and wow to do it at 18 an adult but a very young one, this in the time before globalisation, internet etc , heck this is the 70’s were talking about when you won yours. It’s funny for what’s it worth as the world has become so global and sport has expanded so much, I never even blink an eyelid now post say about 1995 when people would win medals either under 18, or 18-21, or do well in any sport between that 16-21 period, . Plenty of you divers were talking 13 here as you;d know have won some gold medals, but now it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I am 33 so grew up a teenager in the 90’s. But yeah start of 90’s and start of internet around 1995 and the endless tennis stars eg Graf,Seles, Capriati, Hingis it doesn’t shock me any more.

      Where as when Boris beaker won wimbledon in 1985 he stunned the World. Time have changed start of 90’s and globalisation , and internet and many other factors.

      But you make the point about getting gets going at 6,30am have a hit before school. Good luck with that mate. Many kids today maybe too lazy, but i also think it’s the culture of tennis and just about most sports in Australia.

      Sports like swimming , surf live saving nippers, the culture around that is kids get up early and just train it’s a done and that’s how you train.
      But the thought of regular semi talented 12 yr old kids or 15 yr old teenagers hit a tennis ball for 2 hours before school. The culture has never been there. I used to play a lot of tennis, went to a private school. Some years we’d have early morning training, but slowly it faded and became afternoon as too many kids would sleep in.

      Junior tennis has to change it’s business model to attract more kids,. It has to be aware of the middle class cash realities and cut down on the add ons if it wants to get more kids, as it’s expensive for the masses. Golf is now going through some problems as well like tennis. Some old style suburban golf courses are being torn down and mass playing fields put up. It’s a numbers game is there theory.

      But that’s it local courts in the suburbs a 10 court tennis centre should get higher numbers form 6am or 6.30am. Gyms are packed now in the mornings and boot camps as well on beaches all around OZ, and local sports ovals, tennis should do the same,, otherwise it’s wasting time in the day it could have it;s courts fill.

      But swimming it’s just seen as done, and surf lifesaving nippers too.

    • November 25th 2012 @ 1:54pm
      clipper said | November 25th 2012 @ 1:54pm | ! Report

      I agree with a lot of what Johnno says and you make some good points, Brad. The trouble, as Johnno illustrates, is that Tennis has become a middle class sport, and mostly the kids don’t want to put in the hard yards. Many of the courts are council owned and have to pay back quite substantial leases -they can’t afford to forgo the coaches money.
      I do agree that there is too much emphasis on being technically perfect- many of the kids get whisked away to play in squads and just don’t get to see all the different playing styles that they would do if they played in the local competitions against wiley veterans. They also are obsessed with chasing ranking points, which stifles many grass roots based competitions.
      All this is compounded by the huge increase in international Tennis – this has also affected the US as well. We are now a small fish in a very big pond, no longer one of the big fish in a smaller pond, so we dont have many stars for the kids to follow.

      • November 25th 2012 @ 3:20pm
        Johnno said | November 25th 2012 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

        clipper good points you make.

        -I am convinced tennis is a middle class sport now for multiple reasons, as mentioned above. Court hire, coaching is expensive, unlike more group sports like soccer, or rugby. Unless you really show potential or can find a sponsor to pay for coaching , good luck.

        -And junior sport should be about development not winning one of junior sports big problems , but especially so in individual sports like tennis, where issues like self esteem, and lack of patience will come into kids at junior level not seeing the bigger picture, plus coaches who want on there resume winning juniors , so coaches will look for short term at the local tennis club as they feel there jobs are on the line if there not bringing instant success judging by how many junior trophies are won, rather than focusing on technique, and just ironing out the junior player’s flaws,.

        Tommy Haas in Germany he was born in 1978, and he got sponsorship from rich business people. And part of the deal was if he turned out good enough to be pro which he did, he would have to give percentage of his endorsements, and tournaments prize money back to them ,.

        Very hard for parents to fork out like $30 dollars or more an hour on tennis coaching, and that’s even before paying for court hire. With gear costs, and travel costs, court hire you could easily be forking out $150 dollars a week on tennis maintancne, as he will not just be coached that includes saturday tennis comps.

        Then as you get better, you also need to fork out more money as you will need better standard coaches who then will be naturally more expensive.

        So in the end the only affordable way usually is the full time academies, Nick Bolleteri style in the states. Where you live , pay full board, go to a local school, and train full time. And Nick Bolleteri style academies are not cheap either.

        -You may get a spot at the AIS or NSW tennis if they have programs any more .


        So tennis is expensive, and if parents don’t see high level talent from an early age they may give up to early and stop forking out the cash for tennis lessons. So they just send there kids to team sports. Tennis and gold in OZ today are simply not cheap. you gotta be upper middle class if you want to get good at them or you need sponsors.
        Defianalty not a sport for the masses any more. They need to change there coaching structures as Brett pointed out.

        • November 26th 2012 @ 10:14am
          clipper said | November 26th 2012 @ 10:14am | ! Report

          On top of the move to middle class, tennis in Australia has suffered because tennis has become so big internationally. No longer is it possible to dominate like Australia and the US did (although Spain are having a good run at the moment). This happens when a sport becomes much more international – a country can’t maintain the same amount of success as when there were a handful of nations playing. The exception to this rule, of course, is the All Blacks – who have an amazing record, even though Rugby has increased internationally and is one of the reasons Rugby has fallen a bit behind in Australia – we just can’t challenge for the top spot with so many other countries getting better and biting at our heels. In a way, this is a bonus for Aussie Rules and league, which don’t have any relevance internationally, that Australia is always going to dominate. You can’t have it both ways.
          The big saviour in tennis is that we have the Australian Open, which makes a lot of money and provides a lot of interest – it would be a disaster if we ever lost that. At the moment, Tennis Australia is subsidising programs in SA and QLD and soon other states that allow for free membership – it might be a small step, but hopefully will make playing a little more affordable.

    • November 26th 2012 @ 2:14pm
      brad cooper said | November 26th 2012 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

      Thanks everyone for your feedback on the tennis article. In a nutshell, by far my major point was that junior tennis development is hamstrung because it has too few kids under age 10 doing the required volume of practice to fully optimise talent. In one sense, its aproach could be called aristocratic.
      In many, many activities involving sophisticated neural recruitment (and therefore requiring massive rote practice), it is often considered far too late to suddenly start going at it hard at age 11 or 12. If tennis could devise a more inclusive coaching philisophy which stipulates regular practice (daily) before the age of 10, it would have a far, far bigger nursery of modestly-skilled novices to nuture approaching their teens. But this doesn’t happen in tennis because the coaching system doesn’t seem to want to risk the inevitable reduction in unit instruction revenue that happens when you have high numbers practising with a reduced personal coaching input. Yet it could be done. It was done in swimming over half a century ago.(You can buy an entire month of twice daily coaching for your boy or girl for the same as a couple of hours of tennis coaching). The sport could recruit far more widely if it marketed this inclusive approach as ‘tennis fitness’ or ‘tennis fun’ rather than ‘become the next Sam’.
      Cheers, Brad

    • November 26th 2012 @ 2:29pm
      Matt F said | November 26th 2012 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

      Another reason is simply that more countries are competing in Tenis now. We were dominant in the sport when it was basically just us, the US and a handul of countries around Europe playing but now there are more and more nations producing players so there is much more competition then ever before. That’s not to say that the junior development in this country hasn’t got problems but the increased number of people playing the sport at the top level is hurting as well

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