SYDNEY — WHERE are all the great Australian tennis players? ``They're tournament commentators on American television,'' quips one wag. From the late '50s to the early '70s, the names Emerson, Smith, Laver, Goolagong, Rosewall, Court, and Newcombe were synonymous with the sport.
But not any more. As the Australian Open - the first of the four biggest (Grand Slam) events in the 1990 pro-tennis circuit - gets underway (through Jan. 28), you won't find one Australian man ranked in the world's top 30. Only former Czech-turned-Aussie Hana Mandilkova makes the grade among the women. It's been more than a decade since an Australian won a singles title at the Australian Open.
The 1990s will be different, predicts Denis Colette. As national director of coaching, Colette is trying to remake Australian tennis. ``Australia has a tremendous tradition of playing a certain way. But we've been living on that tradition too long. The game has changed 180 degrees in the last 10 to 15 years,'' he says.
The game got faster: Space-age technology went into balls, shoes, and most of all, rackets. Once wooden, then metal, rackets are now made of molded concoctions of graphite, Kevlar, boron, and assorted ceramics. They're lighter, more aerodynamic, and offer fatter ``sweet spots.''
Of course, Australians reaped these benefits as much as anyone. But courts also changed and, tennis observers say, that's the crucial difference. The traditional Australian game, like the British, was based on slower, grass courts. Balls don't bounce as high on grass. ``Australian'' strokes tailored to these courts are flatter, with a fair dose of slices.
Today, the pro circuit has more hard-surface courts. Indeed, last year, Australia joined the trend when it built the National Tennis Center in Melbourne. The Australian Open is now played on a concrete surface coated with synthetic rubber.
Those players with a style of play to match the changing conditions excelled. Sweden's Bjorn Borg, for example, exploded on the tennis scene in the mid-'70s with his strong topspin which produced a more emphatic bounce. ``The game has changed from low-bounce to high bounce. It's not played [with the ball hit] in the knee to thigh area. Now you hit in the waist to chest area. That requires different swing patterns,'' says Colette.
For the past year, Colette has been introducing ``European style'' swing techniques and tactics to some 400 coaches in the McDonald's Junior Tennis Australia program (the five-year-old, $1 million US program, spearheaded by John Newcombe with corporate and government funding, which aims to develop Australian world champions).
For example, the old Australian continental grip is being shed in favor of eastern or semi-western grips more suitable to strong topspin forehand and backhand volleying. Developing a powerful serve and a backhand slice is also being emphasized.
Also, Australian coaches have long taught that power comes from shifting your body weight. Now ``sport scientists'' say racket velocity is the key to more power and this is best achieved by analyzing each part of the swing using high-speed cameras.
Pat Cash, Australia's only men's Wimbledon singles champ in the 1980s, proved adept at picking up these techniques after turning pro. And many of the ``modern'' methods have been less-widely disseminated for several years by Ray Ruffels, head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport.
In the last few years, Australia has produced some of the best junior players in the world. For example, Jason Stoltenberg was the No. 1 men's junior player two years ago. Stoltenberg, along with Wally Masur, Todd Woodbridge, Mark Woodforde, Darren Cahill, Rachael McQuillan, and Jo-Anne Faull are some young players Australian tennis fans are pinning their hopes on.
But some tennis observers are wondering why these teens haven't gone on to win grand slam tournaments `a la Michael Chang and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (1989 French Open). Alan Trengove, editor of Melbourne-based Tennis magazine, says mental factors are the dividing line between stardom and relative mediocrity on the pro circuit:
``The top players exude confidence - look at Boris Becker. If you haven't developed that foundation of confidence by age 18 by winning, you'll never catch up.''
Davis cup captain Neale Fraser, a Wimbledon champ in 1960, puts things in perspective. ``No country will ever dominate again as Australia did. We were big togs in a small wheel. Today, the wheel has grown to enormous proportions; there are so many more players and countries competing.''