Aussie men’s tennis enjoys days in the sun

Brisbane When Roger Federer ended James Duckworth’s maiden ATP quarter-final with a regal flourish on Friday night, the curtain was also drawn on a mostly good news week for Australian men’s tennis. Three locals among the last eight at the Brisbane International was a positive return from six main draw starters, even if none could emulate 2014 champion Lleyton Hewitt by making it to the final weekend.
Shanghai night field

With injured Nick Kyrgios unable to contest the Hopman Cup, and replaced first by Matt Ebden, and then cross-continental Marinko Matosevic in a desperate search for healthy manpower, the focus after Hewitt’s swift Brisbane exit switched to those making up a growing support cast. None are inside the top 50, but the troops are arriving in numbers, at last.

“We’ve been saying for a long time now there are Aussies coming through, there are young guys coming through,” says mature-aged success story Sam Groth, the 27-year-old who cracked the top 100 in July, emphatically upstaged Hewitt in Brisbane and has realistic top-50 ambitions. “Until it happens, people question what’s happening in the system and that sort of thing.

“But it’s great that it’s happening here because it makes everybody take notice. If it happens overseas, OK, but right now we are in everyone’s eye in Australia. It’s great. On the back of what happened last year, we had a few guys break through: myself, Nick, doing well. This is our one time of the year to promote tennis in Australia and promote ourselves in Australia. I think all the young guys, myself included, are doing a good job.”

Groth’s point is worth exploring. Indeed, the fact you have read even this far is an indication that this must be January. From saturation coverage in the first month of the year, and the Melbourne Park fortnight in particular, the reality is that within days of the must-watch Australian Open men’s final, the football codes – and this year, cricket, with the World Cup imminent – return to swallow up the precious column centimetres and broadcast minutes. Until Wimbledon – and, to a lesser extent, the French Open – tick around mid-year to revive interest, tennis becomes a much harder sell.

So, while everyone’s buying, what of the local product? It is still all about Kyrgios, of course, as the All England Club quarter-finalist prepares to return to competition in Sydney after a break that stretches back to last September. Davis Cup coach Josh Eagle, who travelled with Kyrgios for several months in 2014, would prefer to dial down the hype. Good luck with that.

“It’s been such an incredible, rapid rise, that there’s still so much for him to learn,” says Eagle of the injury-prone Canberran, who won his maiden grand slam match at last year’s Open. “Nick’s 50 in the world, but has really played about three ATP main draw events in his life, so I think he’s still got so much room to improve.

“He’s going to feel a lot of pressure, no doubt, in the coming weeks and he’s really got to work hard to manage the expectation of the Australian public, but if he can get his body fit and strong and healthy, already on the tennis side of it, his level is really high. So if he can put the tennis and the physicality all together and then be able to mentally deal with the pressure and the expectation, he’s got big improvements to make. But that’s not going to happen quickly.”

His great mate Kokkinakis has jumped from 628 to 149th in just over 12 months, yet continues to gather invaluable experience with every week spent among the big boys. In Brisbane, he upset seasoned world No.25 Julien Benneteau for his best senior win, before a second-round slap-down from Bernard Tomic, but not before an encouraging first tie-break set.

The 18-year-old’s week finished with a doubles semi-final partnering grand slam singles contender Grigor Dimitrov against US Open finalists Kei Nishikori and Alex Dolgopolov, the Kokkinakis warm-up including a few kicks of a hot pink Sherrin with Dimitrov and India Rasheed, eight-year-old daughter of the Bulgarian’s Australian coach, Roger.

Indeed, after a dozen or so training sessions with Federer in Dubai in December, Kokkinakis is now mixing with the best and brightest, and increasingly feeling like he belongs. “The first week was interesting, because Roger didn’t have much of an off-season, so it was pretty relaxed and the sessions weren’t too intense but they were still specific,” says Kokkinakis’  long-time coach Todd  Langman. “But then in the second week he upped his ante, and I remember Thanasi looking up and go ‘All right, here he is now’.”

Kokkinakis is still coming, just as Tomic is returning back from the relative oblivion of the 120s territory where he slumped after a meritorious loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon. It was at the Colombian Open, where he won his second career title, that Tomic’s injury-hit season turned around in July.

“That two, three weeks there was where I sort of felt that I was back. I kept playing a lot of tournaments and finished the year I think 55, 56, so that was very good for me,” said Tomic. “I’m feeling physically better and it’s helping me mentally as well on court to feel good and go for my shots and I play the right tennis I should play to beat these guys.” Shame, then, about the rather ugly 6-0, 6-4 quarter-final loss to Nishikori, but on he goes to Sydney, and then to Melbourne Park.

Which leaves the likes of improvers Groth and Duckworth, the latter still just 22 and better than he showed against a red-hot Federer, as well as the tempestuous but undeniably talented Matosevic and battling Brisbane specialist John Millman, who was not so very far from doing the unthinkable against Federer in the second round.

Duckworth paid a heavy price for Millman’s impertinence, through a 6-0, 6-1 shellacking the following night, as Federer reminded Brisbane, and the world, that this pre-Melbourne detour is about more than swimming with dolphins, flitting about in helicopters and visiting galleries to spruik the host state’s tourism credentials. Federer’s, of course, are unrivalled in a tennis sense, and if Australia’s will never again rival the glory days, then they are also, encouragingly, better than they were.

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