She hits the ball powerfully and does, according to her coach, "freaky things with her hands at the net." But the Australian girl some good judges think could one day win Wimbledon is too young to stay up late to watch the tournament on television. So Olivia Lukaszewicz, 13, is taping the action, making sure she records any match featuring her favorite player, Monica Seles. Another favorite is Martina Hingis, who isn't playing because of injury. "I absolutely love those two," says Olivia. And are there any Australian players she admires? She is silent, thinking. "I quite like Alicia Molik," she finally says.
No one could blame Olivia, of Adelaide, for finding her heroines overseas. Molik (ranked 66th in the world) and the two other Australian women in the Wimbledon draw-Nicole Pratt and Evie Dominikovic-are fine players. But the competition is fierce, and it would be a surprise if any of them survives until the tournament's second week. Olivia would need a tennis history book to find inspiration in the deeds of her countrywomen. She wasn't born when an Australian woman last won a grand slam title (Evonne Goolagong Cawley, at Wimbledon, 1980); or when a local girl last reached a grand slam semi-final (Nicole Provis, now Bradtke, at the 1988 French Open).
In a country that once produced tennis champions the way Russia spawns chess masters-as though the requisite qualities were ingrained in the national character-the dearth of female stars has irked those who run the game. It was at Wimbledon last year that Tennis Australia began devising a plan. After consulting former players, coaches and tennis identities, it launched in January the Tennis Australia Player Development Program (TAP), whose aim is to have two local girls in the world Top 10-and 10 in the Top 100-by 2007. "It's ambitious," says Tennis Australia's women's tennis manager Janet Young, "but if we were just aiming for mediocrity, that's what we'd get."
TAP caters to the needs of roughly 30 girls -ranging in age from 10 to 22-that Tennis Australia has identified as Top-10 material. If they require extra coaching, more tournament play, advice from a dietitian or sessions with a sports psychologist, Tennis Australia is a phone call away. While Young says there are signs it's working already, others have reservations. Olivia's coach, Peter Smith, argues that while the program-of which Olivia is a member-provides welcome support for players, it has taken on too many youngsters who will never make it.
TAP has identical goals for the country's best junior boys, but the situation there isn't as urgent. World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter have won three U.S. Opens between them since 1997, and-with occasional help from Mark Philippoussis-have made Australia a force again in the Davis Cup. For the top-ranked Australian women, the men's success has inspired mixed feelings: they're happy for them, but it's demoralizing that everyone's asking the same question-Why can't the girls cut it?
There are nearly as many theories as Anna Kournikova admirers. Lack of role models is a popular one. Hewitt, Rafter and Philippoussis are all old enough to have seen at least some of Pat Cash's '80s heroics; former top Australian players-John Newcombe, Tony Roche, John Fitzgerald-remain prominent in the sport. The same isn't true on the women's side (though Goolagong Cawley was recently made Federation Cup captain). "I don't think any of the girls can see themselves as No. 1," says Adam Anderson, a former touring pro and now Sydney-based coach. "Many of them are content to bobble along with no goal other than to enjoy the good life and make pretty good money."
There may also be cultural impediments, Anderson says. Girls in Australia tend to play at least two sports into their teens. In the U.S. and Europe, they specialize earlier. In a sport where the window for success is narrow-if you haven't made a splash in women's tennis by your mid-teens, you probably never will-this could be important. So might be the laidback Australian mentality. Australians couldn't bear the odious Damir Dokic, who eventually took his daughter Jelena-at the time Australia's best player and now the world No. 8-back to her homeland of Yugoslavia. Are obsessive fathers like Dokic, Richard Williams and Stefano Capriati a key piece of the jigsaw? "While the perception is that they may be domineering," says Tennis Australia's Young, "they're obviously of great benefit to the player."
In coming years, Australians may have to grapple with the methods of Gavin Hopper, whose elder daughter Jade, 10, is the youngest recruit to TAP. Hopper, a Gold Coast coach, set out to make Jade a tennis champion. He began hitting balls to her when she was three; she now spends up to five hours a day-every day-on the practice court and is home-schooled. Featured recently on abc-TV's Australian Story, Jade seems happy with her life. Hopper says hothousing prodigies is done routinely overseas and is the only way to develop world-class players: "If they burn out, they weren't mentally or physically made to be elite athletes."
By including Jade in TAP, Tennis Australia is condoning Hopper's methods. "That is what it takes for some players," says Young. When choosing recruits for TAP, scouts weren't too concerned with players' styles. "Look, something like that has to be picked on the glint in the kid's eye as much as anything else," says John Trickey, Tennis Australia's national women's development coach. "That's something that's been overlooked in the past, when people have tended to be a little too shot-oriented in assessing potential -ÔOh, this kid has nice shots.' Kids like Lleyton and Jelena have proved that hunger is probably the most important quality that anyone can have."
Goolagong Cawley is inclined to believe systems and programs rarely produce tennis champions, who rather "just come along once in a while." Why, she asks, don't Australians take the trouble to get to know their current leading players? The preoccupation with rankings disturbs her: "I mean, where are we going here? Do we only want Australia to have No. 1 players? Are they the only players we're going to support? Have we become that way as a country?"
Coach Smith believes TAP needs an overhaul. "It's great that we're spending revenue on junior development, but in my wildest dreams I can't imagine that we've got 60 players in Australia [29 girls, 31 boys] who are worth spending a serious amount of money on," says Smith, who coached Hewitt for 11 years. "If we look around the country, there must be a relatively small number of players who are showing considerable promise ... and I think those players need some very considered treatment."
In Smith's view, one of those is the tall, blond Olivia-the daughter of Polish immigrants-whose rare talent Tennis Australia was slow to recognize, he says. Like her heroine Seles, Olivia has the unusual technique of hitting both forehand and backhand with two hands on the racquet. This troubled the leading scouts, Smith suspects, but her outstanding results lately seem to have allayed their concerns. "[Tennis Australia] needs her," Smith says. "They need someone to come through. They need a flagship. And I think they now see her at the minute as the best possibility by a mile." For her part, Olivia would rather avoid predictions. "Whatever happens, happens," she says. But she's pumping iron to try to attain the strength of the muscular girls-the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati-who dominate tennis. Will Olivia one day raise the trophy at Wimbledon? To find out, Australians will need to exercise another quality vital in tennis: patience.
| | |