The Flawed Philosophy of Australian Tennis

This is a guest post by Russell Barlow. Russell is an ex-professional tour player and a friend of mine. This is a long article but it’s well worth reading. It is a controversial topic and Russell covers some interesting points. Let me know what you think on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

Many experts have been putting forward their views as to what is the source of the demise of Australian tennis, and for the most part the points they have been making in the media over the last week have been valid. However, none of the views being expressed are new or revolutionary and even if all put together form no integrated set of ideas.

The appalling performance of the Australian contingent at Wimbledon was inevitable and there will be no change in the standard of results in the near future. The inevitability of the results is caused by the flawed philosophy introduced and promulgated by Tennis Australia and the culture of failure that has been the legacy of that philosophy.

If we want to change the culture of Australian tennis, we must first understand and define the over-riding current philosophical approach to our sport. As the leadership of Australian tennis, Tennis Australia must be willing to take apart their philosophy for cultural change to be possible, and to do this they must be willing to face the truth and tell the truth.

The first truth to face is that a culture that stifles diversity will stagnate and die. Diversity has almost died in the culture of Australian tennis. The young players are taught one accepted way of playing in a centralized system where all the coaches are encouraged or forced to sing from the same song sheet. This song sheet not only includes how to play, but where – which tournaments to play and when. We now see young players playing meaningless junior events to gain a world junior ranking, or selected futures tournaments attempting to gain easy ATP or WTA points. Meanwhile those coaches frustrated and thwarted by the ineptitude of this philosophy eventually leave the program and in some cases leave the sport entirely.

There was a time when the standard cultural practice of young Australian players was to go to Europe and play on clay until they could win. It was the long road, and the road that worked. Nowadays, if they go to Europe to play on clay, it is only for a few weeks. They get beaten. There is an obvious reason for this policy which points to a diabolical philosophy of protection, the consequence of which is that these young players never learn to play at the level required of the professional tour.

This is a philosophical flaw that almost alone determines our culture of failure. The statements that demonstrate this philosophy are, “ We have great juniors who are just not transitioning into the seniors”, and “ We just need more time”.  By implication these ubiquitous statements by Tennis Australia administrators blame the spoilt brats for not succeeding when they should, and the administrators should therefore keep their jobs.

This culture created by the leadership of Tennis Australia has a massively detrimental impact on the young player, who now being supported by Tennis Australia is under the obligation to uphold his or her end of the bargain and succeed at the tour level. This they cannot do, as they lack the training and experience to do so.

Fourteen Spanish men players started in the main draw of Wimbledon this year, continuing the dominance of this country in both numbers of players and titles won. There is no coincidence – they have the right culture. There are literally dozens of tennis clubs in Spain that outclass the level of our very best. There are at least five such clubs in Barcelona alone. There is a plethora of private academies and private coaches in Spain, and the parking lot of futures tournaments is dotted with the vans from these private academies who transport their youngsters to these events, with a body of coaches to instruct and manage them.

This is not the case in Australia, as it does not fit with the philosophy of centralized control by Tennis Australia. The standards of clubs here are in general deterioration and private academies are almost extinct. The private coach with a diverse opinion and methodology is now a fossil to be found in the historical swamp of Australian Tennis, as any good students they foster are forced by financial concerns to join the Tennis Australia machine.

Let us be careful that we do not suddenly decide that we must copy the Spanish model and have that be our new buzz-word. The other stand out successful country is France, which employs a completely different set of policies brought about by a different philosophy in a different environment. There are two obvious infrastructural differences between these two nations. First, the French Federation, having the income of a Grand Slam event, has the funds to finance an extensive player development program, while Spain does not. Second, due to the differences in climate, the French mainly play six months indoors on various surfaces, whereas the Spanish play predominantly outdoors on clay for the entire year.

We can however learn from those who are successful and those who fail. The obvious failures to study are South Africa, Sweden, the U.S.A, the U.K., and our cousins in New Zealand, who have all fallen from the heights of tennis to near oblivion in the last twenty-five years.

If we are to change the culture of Australian Tennis, we must have an objective view of the tennis environment, that is the infrastructure of this country, and how that infrastructure determines our overall success.

When viewing our infrastructure we must study the clubs and training facilities, their location and their quality and the quality of coaching methods available and tell the truth about the standards we see. We have opportunity to create a tennis environment conducive to success. The determinant factor in creating this environment, however, is having the philosophy that will implement such an infrastructure, not an infrastructure that puts band aids on broken legs.

One of the major complaints of the former players who are involved in player development is that we have insufficient quality of playing surfaces on the ever-diminishing number of tennis courts in Australia. It is an accepted fact by these former players that synthetic grass is detrimental to player development and that an abundance of clay courts is needed. This opinion has been voiced continually for more than a decade now, and there has been almost no change in this vital part of infrastructure. This demonstration of inaction in a vital area points to a philosophical lacuna on the part of Tennis Australia, which outlays tens of million of dollars per year on player development, yet does not address one of the absolute fundamentals of player development (despite years of unfulfilled promises).

Darren Cahill stated in a recent interview that the young players do not show enough respect for Lleyton Hewitt’s achievements. It is not surprising if this is so, given that the national governing body pays no heed to the unanimous calls for change by the leaders of the professional game. This is a defining point of our current culture given by a philosophy that seems to be based on public relations rather than the integrity of the game.

It is not time to produce new policies. It is not time to try to enforce some brand of new culture, or produce a new song sheet to sing from. If Tennis Australia authentically wants success they must review their premises and be willing to correct them. They must review every policy and objectively view if such policy stands to reason. They must begin to formulate an integrated philosophy that stands the test of empirical evidence rather than impressive rhetoric designed to defend a fundamentally flawed philosophy.

These are large tasks, and one that should be undertaken by intelligent and dedicated men and women with vast experience and knowledge of the game. And it will first require facing one fact: we have failed.

Until that fact has been acknowledged by the administrators of Tennis Australia, nothing they say can be listened to in any other way than amusement or contempt. No amount of pie chart presentations and press conferences can cover the fact that their philosophy has caused this failure. No new policies and procedures can be taken seriously until the philosophical causes of this failure have been recognized and corrected. No new young juniors should be given the impossible burden of being the next great hope to pull us out of this slump. They cannot endure this impossible task, and history has cruelly shown that this is the case.

A successful tennis player knows each loss has to be the next rung on the ladder to success. But a failure is a mistake unacknowledged, and remains a failure until it is acknowledged. Perhaps this is the philosophical flaw in Tennis Australia’s thinking that has pervaded the entire sport in this country.

So what do you think? Is a change needed for Australian Tennis to succeed or is the current system good enough? Let me know on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends:) Thanks for reading!