When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
Of All Nations, Aussies Set The Tennis Code
by Joel Drucker
With the Australian Open getting under way this month, it's timely to consider the massive significance of this nation as a tennis power - not just for its rich history of players, but for something much bigger.
As tennis has grown, each of the four Grand Slam nations has brought something special to the table. England invented the game. France broadened the sport in surface, language and playing style. America? Well, we did what we do so well when something captures the fancy of at least one sizeable, affluent constituency. America super-sized tennis, eventually helped bring it to more people and aided its commercial ascent as only America can. And, of course, more than England and France, America also became one of 20th century tennis' two superpowers.
But the fourth nation is the one I cherish most. The way I see it, Australians are to tennis what the French are to winemaking: exemplary practitioners of the craft.
How does this work? First, in the world of sports, tennis in Australia has always sat at the main table. Play tennis in Australia and you're taken every bit as seriously as any other jock. That's a huge factor in bringing credibility to the game for young athletes and sports fans. Also, for most of its history, tennis in Australia has been a middle class game, lacking the pretense that's often true in the U.S. So at heart, tennis was never stigmatized as a leisure pastime for wealthy sissies in Australia the way it was in the U.S.
Matters were also aided by a few additional cultural factors unique to Australia. A location near the equator helped ensure a climate generally hospitable to year-round, outdoor play. But even more, Australia's cultural sensibilities work perfectly for tennis. This is a nation that values team play and first-rate sportsmanship. The emphasis on team play is very important as Australians come of age in tennis. Why? Because, as Hall of Famer Fred Stolle once told me, "You learn to get over yourself and root for people no matter what their playing level. You get over your narcissism instantly and it also helps you relax more as you try to become a better competitor."
Sportsmanship also sets a wonderful tone. Such great Australians Stolle, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson will never do anything that degrades the value of the event or their opponents' efforts. Most of all, in Australia, copping a plea following a match is a felony. Emerson, winner of more Grand Slams than any man in tennis history, puts it quite simply: "If you're hurt, don't play. If you play, you're not hurt. There are no excuses." Not a bad life lesson.
The Australian Golden Era covered 1950-'75. These were the years when Aussies dominated the Slams, a chained melody of greats who heartily captured the spirit of a tennis nation whose unofficial motto was "first to the net, first to the pub." There was Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Ashley Cooper and Mal Anderson, Mervyn Rose Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle, John Newcombe, Tony Roche - and, of course, Rod Laver. All of these greats are enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
And while Australia ruled the world - winning the Davis Cup every year but three between 1950 and '67 - so it was that Harry Hopman ruled the Aussies. Though unquestionably the players who finally reached his Cup squad were already quite polished, it was Hopman who applied the final sheen, Hopman who insisted on an unprecedented fitness regimen, Hopman who would politely advise one of his charges to maintain a poker face and keep coming to the net.
Alas, the game's growth in the "70s coincided with Australia's own economic ascent. A more comfortable Australia also equated to a nation less willing to put in what the Aussies call "the hard yards" for a sport like tennis. Once strong enough to field four Davis Cup teams, Australia over the last 30 years has had a few great champions - Pat Cash, the Woodies in doubles, Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt - but of course today's game is so big that in competitive terms Australia is one of many fine tennis nations.
But the spirit of Australia continues. Pete Sampras has spoken frequently of his reverence for Laver and Rosewall. It was an Australian, Peter Carter, who did the primary heavy lifting that helped make Roger Federer a fine player. It's no coincidence that when Federer sought to bring a coach on-board in 2005, he opted for the beloved Aussie, Tony Roche. Though they parted ways in May '07, the Australian ethos pervades Federer - in his class, in his understatement, in his sportsmanship and in his love for the game and its rich history.
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review