AUSTRALIAN TENNIS CAN FLOURISH AGAIN!!!
Craig Tiley is taking Australian tennis back to the future.
Amid forecasts of doom and gloom, the South African-born mover and shaker can see a ray of sunshine through the clouds.
Since arriving from the US in mid-2005 with a mandate to "re-design, re-organise and re-energise" tennis in Australia, Tiley has made tremendous gains.
The short-sighted will point to the rankings freefall of Lleyton Hewitt – now 21st in the world and without a Grand Slam in more than five years – and the relegation from the World Group of Australia's Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams as evidence to the contrary.
The true believers – who include Tiley's hand-picked TA staff he describes as the best working unit in the business – will argue the emergence of a raft of world-class juniors is proof the future of Australian tennis is indeed bright.
The neutrals must wait and see.
But here are some telling facts:
- Australia this year completed the rare double of Junior Davis Cup–Junior Fed Cup success and have 15 boys and girls in the world's top 100 under 18 years players, second only to the United States with 19. Considering 54 nations are represented in the top 100, Australia's strike rate is quite something.
- Boys alone, Australia has 10 juniors in the top 100, second only to America's 11, and five in the top 20, more than double any other country and including the world's premier 15-year-old in Queensland wonder kid Bernard Tomic.
- Australia is home to reigning Australian Open junior champion Brydan Klein and French Open junior runner-up Greg Jones.
- Australia has five girls in the top 100, the fourth-most of any nation and trailing only prolific Russia (10), USA (8) and Romania (7).
- Among the pros, Australia now has 16 players in the world's top 250, up from just nine pre-Tiley in 2004, which was the lowest total since rankings were introduced in 1973.
"That's a remarkable turnaround, so we're back to similar sort of levels to where we were in 1997," Tiley said.
But Tiley, a former South African Davis Cup captain who came to TA's attention after twice being named America's national coach of the year for transforming the University of Illinois into the US's No.1 college team, is anything but satisfied.
The 46-year-old has a vision to revive the halcyon days of Australian tennis of the 1950s and '60s .
Besides, cold, hard statistics don't tell half the story of what Tiley is building at Tennis Australia.
With a strong focus on improved coaching and a particular emphasis on making his staff accountable, Tiley has implemented an impressive though fundamentally simple strategic plan designed to make Australia the No.1 tennis nation in the world once again.
In his words, Tiley inherited "a disorganised system, which wasn't very clear in what the objectives were or which direction it was going".
In other words, the previous administration had taken their eyes off the ball and, consequently, an entire generation of potential champions was lost between the mid-80s, when Australia won two Davis Cups and Pat Cash won Wimbledon, until the emergence a decade later of Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis and Hewitt, who between them accrued two Davis Cups from four finals and four Grand Slam titles and six runner-up trophies.
Tennis Australia was in such a mess when Tiley took over as director of player development two-and-a-half years ago that he has since added several more functions to his portfolio, including directorship of the Australian Open, in order to help TA chief Steve Wood oversee four very specific divisions within the organisation.
They are coach development, athlete development, tournaments and competitions and community tennis.
Part of Tiley's initial charge aimed at ultimately "developing our next champion" was to "evaluate the current systems and it was very clear that there was not a clear athlete pathway with entry and exit points".
"And the results were not forthcoming," Tiley quickly learned. "The results were fairly poor.
"So there was a significant change – an 80 per cent change in staff in the first six months.
"I had to do a lot of hiring and firing. Then we brought a new team on board.
"There were some carryovers from the old team and we now have a business model in place where strategic policy is owned by someone – either by one person or a team of people – and they are going to be held accountable for delivering between now and 2012."
Among a host of initiatives, TA introduced a national talent search program, which includes luring youngsters from other sports, as well as the "Hot Shots" participation program "to get more kids playing tennis more often and for longer".
TA established five national academies in the five major capital cities – each with a head coach – to ensure a consistent developmental pathway for juniors across the country and also introduced one national ranking system.
"So we no longer focus on (excelling in) the juniors. We now focus on preparing your tennis for the professional scene," Tiley said.
"There is no such thing as being good in the 12s and good in the 14s anymore. It's one ranking for everyone.
"When the kids reach 16 and they meet certain criteria, we provide them with a coach and fully fund their preparation for the professional tour.
"We redefined the pathway. It's now three simple steps.
"If you're under-12, it's the talent search program. Through ages 10-16, you're in the national academy program. And 16-plus, you're on the pro tour program."
TA established AMTs – Australian Money Tournaments – including 30 × $10,000 events open to anyone and 23 pro circuit events ranging in prize money from $15,000 to $50,000.
To help the game grow at grassroots level, TA introduced a $6 million court rebate program aimed at improving facilities across the country.
Significantly, in a bid to banish synthetic grass – the surface which Todd Woodbridge once famously described as cancerous to Australian tennis – TA is installing more Plexipave and Plexicushion courts.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, there has been a conscious effort to construct more clay courts, the premier surface for developing players' games.
Because of the great cost in maintaining clay courts in Australia, TA is even helping clubs get more water tanks and has helped developed a chemical that can improve retention of water on courts.
The changes at TA go on and on.
"One of our more successful initiatives has been accountability," Tiley said.
"Across the board, we've required accountability from everyone and that includes playing off for wildcards, meeting certain criteria to receive scholarship opportunities ... we're no longer in the business of handouts.
"That time has gone. It's all about earning your place. Everything we provide is not a right. It's a privilege, and you earn privileges.
"We've been very aggressive in putting these programs in place. I've been very focused, I'm holding people accountable – if they perform, they stay on board. If they don't, they're out of here.
"And that's been a simple message to everyone. Most of our coaches are on a contract. They're not on full-time employment, so there is a pressure to perform."
Tiley, though, has every faith in his staff to deliver, not least the coaches.
Partly because he has achieved a priority to bring some of the world's best coaches home, with the likes of Tony Roche, Darren Cahill, David Taylor – to mention but a few – all now 100 per cent committed to Australia's cause.
There are lesser names, of course, and they carry as much responsibility, with Tiley adamant that he will measure the performance of his coaches by the success of his players.
Tiley is reluctant to publicly predict how many players Australia will have in the world's top 100 and top 250 by 2012 other than to say TA's goals are "lofty".
"Success in the juniors is no prediction or guarantee of success in the seniors, and that's pretty common knowledge and well researched," he said.
"You absolutely have to be focused on long-term success and long-term gain, and that means having a developed mental focus on your game primarily with a laser-like focus on fundamentals; correct technique.
"In my view – and we've measured this on biomechanical screen sketches – Australians over the last 10 or 15 years have generally been poor technically and, consequently, our results have shown that.
"However, that's changing. I believe we have the best coaches but I think we've looked for too many shortcuts – not necessarily the coaches but everyone has – Tennis Australia, the coaches, some of the players and the parents. And there's no such thing as a shortcut.
"It's a long process, it involves a tremendous amount of effort and hard work but it's extremely rewarding if you get it right.
"We've put all these programs in place. They're still young, only about 18 months old, and they take about three or four years to really stick.
"But if everyone does this right, we'll have tremendous results; and Australia, I'm very confident, will lead the world in tennis again."
BERNIE'S THE HEAVY HITTER OF JUNIORS!
The world's leading junior, Bernard Tomic, wants to emulate the achievements of his idols Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But along the way, he is making his own history.
The Australian teenager collected his third Orange Bowl in Florida on Saturday - and is now the only junior to have won the prestigious title, the unofficial world championship, three times, having claimed the under-12, under-14 and now the under-16 division. World No.1 Federer also claimed an Orange Bowl during his ascent through the ranks.
The world's highest-ranked 15-year-old player might have proved himself as the junior shining light of Australian tennis, but he wants more.
"I am really excited about what I achieved until now, but this is nothing if I can't compete with the big boys," Tomic said.
As he headed out to dinner on Saturday night to celebrate with his father and coach, John, and manager Lawrence Frankopan, Tomic said the momentous victory felt like all the others.
"The feeling is the same as winning all the other titles but now I've won a hat-trick, which is good," Tomic said. "I was a bit nervous going into the match because I have been playing bad over the last couple of weeks. So, I'm happy I've had a win."
Tomic cleaned up his opponent, Jose Pereira of Brazil, in the final, 6-2, 7-5.
While former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt last week lamented the lack of determined Australian juniors coming through the ranks, Tomic is proving an anomaly.
This year, despite being four years younger than most of his rivals, he moved into the top 20 of the under-18 world rankings.
"I have had a solid year and feel that I have definitely grown as a player," Tomic said.
"I have worked really hard on my development and I feel I am far from my best and I really have a long way to go still. The highlight of my year must have been winning Kentucky [ITF] Grade 1. All the big players were there and I tested myself to the limit.
"My immediate goal is to keep on developing and play some futures next year and just keep on progressing and making the change from juniors to seniors. It's a long road and I want to work hard and stay healthy."
Tomic admires the games and grit of Federer and Nadal but has had little time to mix with his heroes while furiously training, touring and playing.
"I'm a bit busy myself with training. I admire their calm and hustle for every ball and I also admire their belief."
Encouraging his own belief is his father, John.
"My father is my coach still and that is going great," Tomic said. "Sean [Fyfe] is helping me a lot with other areas of my game but my father is still a big force in my life and in my playing career."
Frankopan said that the past year has been critical to the teenager's development as he steadily moved towards the senior circuit.
"He really has made a very important step in becoming more of a complete player [this year]," Frankopan said.
"We are just taking one step at a time so that we can build a solid foundation for the future. We are very happy to have selected to play Orange Bowl 16 and not 18 as this stage of his career is a marathon not a sprint. We believe that he needs to win at every level so this foundation is secure. We are in no rush to push him to play above himself and this will, in our professional opinion, bear more fruit in the future."
Tomic said he had focused on improving his mental toughness in his game this year and is yet to do strength work in the gym.
"[I've been working on my] all-round mental toughness," Tomic said. "My body is still growing and I can't hit the weights room yet."
He is aware success will mean sacrifice.
"The travel has been tough and being away from Australia and my family, which I love, but I know that I have to sacrifice things to get ahead. It's frustrating sometimes to keep playing from week to week but I love tennis and I feel the luckiest guy in the world to have this opportunity".