Does anyone else remember picking up tennis balls before serving from the base of the fence at their local tennis courts on a brisk Saturday morning? Or standing alongside your opponent by the net at the change of ends sipping a pre-mixed drink prepared by mum?
We used to slug out eight-game sets, clear the court for the next singles match and scoot down to the local shops (Joe’s ‘Food to Go’ was my haunt) for a bucket of hot chips smothered in sauce, vinegar or the topping of your choice.
This recharged the batteries and after my sister had battled hard against a worthy opponent, Matthew Treeves and I would head out for the boys doubles encounter.
Matthew and I had great success. I believe he still plays well today. I steered into other waters and ventured down the path of professional golf.
There was a simple honesty, purity and integrity about the tennis of my youth. It was one of the most popular sports played by kids through the sixties, seventies and eighties. Riding the wave of the glory days of Australian tennis featuring the likes of Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and the great Rod Laver, Australian tennis surged forward with fantastic participation levels.
Local competitions thrived, clubs were hubs of social activity and the game become a dominant focus of the Australian sporting public. Epic Davis Cup encounters against the Yanks and Italians in the seventies furthered the interest in the game and the ’86 final against Sweden where a young Patrick Cash made his mark helped continue the legacy that the pioneers had begun back in the fifties and sixties.
Success, both individually and from a team perspective was not as common for Australia through the latter part of the twentieth century. The long wait between the Wimbledon titles of John Newcombe and Cash was much lamented and glorious when it was broken.
The growth of European tennis, with such names as Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Henri Leconte, Yannick Noah, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker was the main reason for this.
This was probably a blessing as it led to enhanced celebration when an Aussie found a way to triumph against the wider world – as opposed to previous victories against the limited countries who participated during the golden age.
The legends of the game have always been far from perfect. Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and others all had cringe worthy moments of madness, yet their toughness was never in question.
The emergence of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert-Lloyd and later, Steffi Graf, on the women’s side saw females begin to exhibit the same outstanding skill and quality as the men and the game grew and grew.
While there were lean periods where players of less flair dominated for short periods, such as the machine like Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier and Monica Seles, the fiery rivalries between old adversities still invigorated the game.
McEnroe v Connors, Navratilova v Evert – Lloyd and Pete Sampras v Andre Agassi became folklore and the memories are etched into the minds of all tennis fans who sat up late (boy we live in the wrong time zone for international sport) watching history unfold on foreign shores.
The game today is unrecognisable and the pandering to players has reached a point where it has become somewhat painful to watch. Much has been made of the attitude of some of Australia’s best young talent. Messers Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios have fed so much media over the last year or two that their tennis has become almost secondary.
Australia’s two tennis brats seem to feel a sense of entitlement and display a ‘sour grapes’ attitude far too often.
Their talent is unquestionable. It is, in fact, outstanding. Yet their diabolical behaviour has dominated their profile. This is not the space to outline the litany of offences and infractions that are littered throughout their careers yet perhaps it is the space to attempt to identify some of the root causes of their behaviour.
Tennis has become an exercise in exorbitance, hero worship and narcissism that has directly led to the attitudes that these two young Australian athletes hold. In no way does it excuse their behaviour, however, it does provide an insight into the modern tendency to glorify these athletes at the expense of the integrity of the game.
The game in its current form is sickening to watch. Seeing enthusiastic young ball kids zipping towards a player holding a disgusting sweaty towel always makes me squirm. The ‘he’s going for the towel’ line began in the eighties as players apparently began to sweat more than they had in previous decades.
The disdain and rudeness shown by the players as they snatch the towel away, usually at the end of a disappointing game is appalling to watch and reeks of the service afforded a King or Queen.
This regal treatment continues at the change of ends as the ball kids are forced to stand behind the player, holding an umbrella aloft to protect their precious scalps from the sun.
Never mind the ball kids, they get a three dollar hat and a sausage on a roll for the right to ‘serve’ the mighty.
Umpires seem almost completely determined to placate the emotions and feelings of the players the entire time they are on court.
As soon as a player expresses dissatisfaction, they lurch forward out of their chair and speak in apologetic tones in order to calm the situation. The players speak rudely, disrespectfully throughout as the crowd whistles and jeers at the exchange. If spoken to in the same manner at your workplace how would you react? I’m surprised an umpire has not retaliated in a more aggressive way.
Transfer the conversations between players and umpires or lines people to everyday existence and imagine the result. Somebody speaks to you in that manner, threatens to shove a tennis ball down your throat, as Serena Williams threatened to do at the 2009 U.S Open – would you stand there as an indentured servant and cop the abuse?
Surely not. Yet the culture created by the game has meant that this has become the norm and accepted.
Andy Murray’s antics remind many of a spoiled brat and mum’s ever-present support from the stands reinforces this view.
If he even dared to act the way he does on a tennis court in front of upstanding citizens in a social setting he would be absolutely crucified.
Murray and many other players also exude arrogance and distain for reporters at post match press conferences, dodging and ducking questions and completely disrespecting the people before them.
In light of all these issues, sure, some players do the right thing most of the time. However, the money and media influence in the game cannot be underestimated and the players seem to be excused and exonerated from their poor behaviour.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic stand above all as they have cast themselves as rare exceptions. Tomic and Kyrgios are classic creations of a system that turns a blind eye to poor behaviour in favour of ticket sales and the corporate influence.
The childish slamming of racquets, bottles and other equipment sets an appalling example for all watching and can’t be underestimated. In light of the absurd financial rewards they experience one would think that an appreciation of the good fortune they have had might be a part of their psyche.
Our two young stars have committed the most appalling crimes as athletic professionals.
Through both words and action they have proved themselves to be disgraceful ambassadors for the game and the country.
Perhaps one day, in an Agassi or Lleyton Hewitt-style resurgence, they will grow up and become something remotely like role models for young tennis enthusiasts.
I certainly hope so. Yet perhaps they are not entirely to blame for the situation Tennis Australia now finds itself in.
However things pan out for the two brats of Australian tennis, two things can be said. They are victims of a culture of greed and entitlement that makes the average Australian sick to the stomach. And secondly, their own decision making and seeming lack of a moral and ethical compass has turned fans away from them as well as the game.