Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Gold, Silver, Bronze, Newcombe

A relatively recent enterprise, the Australian Tennis Awards are the crowning accolades for those involved in the sport across the country.  Officially, they "recognise the outstanding contributions made by players communities and individuals to tennis", therefore honouring not only the star players, but also, juniors, coaches, community initiatives and club and school promotions.

2012 nominees Stosur and Hewitt
The pinnacle award of the evening (this year held on the 3rd of December) is the Newcombe Medal, named in honour of the seven-time slam winner, John Newcombe.  Newcombe was prolific towards the end of the Australian dominance of the 50s, 60s and 70s, alongside Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson.  They marked a glorious era of strength in depth for the Oceanic nation that has never come close to being matched.  The honour that carries Newcombe's name is thus given to the most outstanding pro player of the season.  When it was first created in 2010, the award went to Sam Stosur.  That season was her breakthrough year and saw her make a slam final for the first time at Roland Garros.  That she didn't quite make good on the promise of earlier rounds, and crumbled against an inspired Francesca Schiavone in two one-sided sets didn't matter as she became the first Australian woman to come within touching distance of a Slam title since 1980.  Handing the award to Stosur, ahead of players such as Lleyton Hewitt who was approaching the end of his career seemed a no-brainer.

In 2011, Stosur was again granted the award.  The timing of the Medal ceremony, so soon after she captured the US Open title made it incredulous for anyone else within Australian Tennis to receive the accolade. The first Aussie female Grand Slam winner in over 30 years an obvious choice for the Newcombe Medal.

Heading into 2012, though, Australian Tennis now faces a difficult decision in working out whose neck to hang this year's medal around.  It has, for large parts, been a hugely anti-climatic year on court for the former great tennis nation with none of the potential candidates standing out with a stunning year.  The shortlist, narrowed down to four candidates, reveals the problems inherent in Australian tennis.

Samantha Stosur
Lleyton Hewitt
Casey Dellacqua
Marinko Matosevic

First thing to note about the list is the absence of Bernard Tomic.  The teenager, who promised so much in 2011 with an unbelieving run to the Wimbledon quarter-finals, was being heralded as the "next big thing" in Australian tennis and his talents on court saw him rise to within the top 30 at the beginning of 2012.  However, a string of laddish escapades and arrests have shifted his focus off the sport and could see him slip out of the top 100 if he fails to turn his game around during the Australian leg of the tour in January and February.  At only 20, Tomic has much to develop in his attitude as well as his game to really lift himself first out of his slump in form, and then into the upper echelon of the ATP.  If he cannot re-invigorate himself to the consistency necessitated by the challenges of the sport he will see other youngsters, David Goffin, Gregor Dimitrov, overtake him in the race to climb the rankings into a position to challenge for a top 20 or even a top 10 place.

Tomic's troubles have been much catalogued this year, with arrests and driving infringements as well as on court petulance and patchy results.  However, this leaves the Australian tennis organisers with a difficult task in determining the shortlist of candidates and overall winner of the award.  If Tomic had sustained his 2011 into this year he could well be the shoe-in for the honour next weekend.  As it is, finding a winner amongst the rest of the nominees could be an even harder task.

To give the award to Samantha Stosur for a third consecutive year would go some way to belittling the purpose of the award.  Granted, it's there to honour the top representatives of Australian tennis on the global field, and Stosur, currently sitting at 9 in the WTA, is the highest ranked male or female on tour at the moment.  However, to win twice for reaching a slam final then winning one of the four majors sets quite a high standard against which her season needs to be measured, and 2012 has been something of a torrid affair for the Australian.  It began in the worst possible way, with a 1 win and 4 loss record in her home tournaments during the Australian summer.  With so much expectation on her following her US Open triumph, it looked an impossible struggle for Stosur to string two match wins together and must have left Asics, her new clothing and footwear sponsor, wondering if they'd splashed the cash on a lame horse.

Taking as a straight comparison of results between Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur over the season it is apparent that the Australian has fought for most of the season in an attempt to string results together but has largely failed anywhere other than on a clay court.

Enlarge for detail

By comparing Maria Sharapova (in the green) and Sam Stosur (in the orange) it is apparent that the worst result that the Russian recorded all season was a quarter-final finish.  She also posted 3 tournament wins and 6 runner-up placings.  Contrastingly, Stosur managed only 2 finals all year.  More tellingly, though, she failed to win her opening match (be it in round one, or a bye to the second round) on 6 occasions out of the 22 tournaments she played all season.  That number increases to 11 when including a defeat in her second match - equating to an inability to post two consecutive wins 50% of the time.  In many ways, a statistic unworthy of the honour of carrying John Newcombe's name into 2013.

Sticking with the WTA, the inclusion of the next name on the list, Casey Dellacqua, is an oddity.  With a season for the most part limited to doubles, her singles scores are somewhat sporadic but have been enough to see her squeeze into the top 100 for the first time in 4 years.  However, even within doubles, she hasn't really excelled this season, partially due to her partnership with Stosur in the run-up to the Olympics.  The only high point for both players was their performance within Fed Cup matches, securing a return to the elite World Group within the competition, which has been rewarded with an opening 2013 tie against the reigning champions, the Czech Republic.  In neither of the two matches that she played this year was Dellacqua particularly key, the crucial reverse singles rubbers falling to Jarmilla Gajdosova instead, who hasn't been recognised with a nomination.

Over in the ATP, Lleyton Hewitt again heads up the nominations, despite yo-yoing up and down the rankings since his drop out of the top 20 in 2010, and he currently sits around the 100 mark.  Ever the talisman for Australian tennis, Hewitt's sheer enthusiasm when playing in front of a home crowd was often enough to make his matches at the Australian Open watchable, and he is (even at 31) capable of writing the headlines with the odd upset at Melbourne Park.  Elsewhere, though, there is the opinion that Hewitt has had his time, and he will never be able to resurrect the player that claimed 2 slam titles in the pre-Federer era.  With Andy Roddick choosing to throw in the towel on his career this September, Hewitt would be a pretty obvious choice to join him on the sidelines next year.  A stalwart of the Aussie Davis Cup team, even his performances in that competition have been none-existent, eclipsed in the singles by Tomic, and lacking in the doubles when faced with a team of any class.

Mad-Dog Matosevic
The final name on the list is Marinko Matosevic, who finally broke the ceiling of the top 50 this year, making his first career final at Delray Beach back in February.  Despite never making it beyond the opening round of a Grand Slam, the 27 year old is perhaps the most improved player of the season, with his steady accumulation of finals and victories in the Futures and Challengers series, winning two titles during the course of the 2012 season.  This alone makes him the most decorated Australian for the year and the highest ranking Aussie in the ATP.  But at 27, his career has been one played out largely in the lower tiers of the ATP tour, and only now is he finding a morsel of success in the evening of his profession.

From these four it is hard to pick a winner.  Matosevic is the most deserving due to his rise up the rankings and the quasi-success he has had in breaking the world top 50 this year.  But perhaps Tennis Australia will take the view that they may never get another opportunity to honour Hewitt and so gift the medal to him.  It would seem odd if, at the end of Hewitt's career, Sam Stosur was to be recognised by the TA committees twice in succession for an honour that Lleyton had missed out on.

But the main issue when viewing the list of nominees is one that magnifies the problems currently endemic in Australian tennis.  The two WTA players are both nearing their thirties, and even though one of top players on tour this season (Serena Williams) is in the 30-club, neither Stosur or Dellacqua can expect the successes Williams has had over the past two seasons when they are at that age.  Dellacqua simply isn't of the class to be a top 50 player, let alone a top 20 or top 10 regular.  And for Stosur, the majority of players around her in the rankings (exceptingWilliams) belong to a different generation, approaching their peak rather than tipping the summit.

Similarly the two male names on the list are also over 27, with the 31-year-old Hewitt representing past glories that he currently cannot recreate over the course of a seven-match tournament, and Matosevic probably reaching the maximum level that his ability will realistically allow.

And for neither the ATP nor the WTA Australian teams are there viable replacements for these players to transition with in the rankings over the next few years.  An obvious successor to the ATP challenge would be Tomic, but currently, the pressures of expectation from an Australian crowd brought up on the charisma of Hewitt and the successes of previous generations have proved too weighty for his young shoulders, and off-court antics have served to over-shadow any development on court.

Like the unfortunate Tomic, tennis in Australia is struggling with the expectations of former successes, seemingly unable to cultivate the youth to support a legacy that is both ageing and declining.  Until it develops new players that can perform at a consistently high level  over the course of a season, the accolade of the Newcombe Medal will always seem like a token gesture begrudgingly made in the name of averageness, recognising the past rather than celebrating the future.

image from http://newcombemedal.com.au/

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