Aussie Youngsters

Every year, hundreds of players who gather Down Under agree the atmosphere at the Australian Open defines the tournament. However, in recent times the home crowd has had little to put their fanatical support behind.

The Woodies of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde have provided some doubles pleasantries but since Chris O’Neil claimed the women’s title in 1978, the closest they’ve come to a home singles champion is Kim Clijsters’ triumph last year as the Belgian’s ‘Aussie Kim’ nickname finally meant more than just her dating past with Lleyton Hewitt.

Hewitt almost ended the barren spell for a nation which has produced legendary names such as Rod Laver and Margaret Court in 2005. Marat Safin claimed the title from a set down and no one has come close since. That could be set to change though.

Sam Stosur became the first Australian Grand Slam winner since Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2002 when she claimed the US Open crown four months ago. At 27, she has less time to make more history but encouraging signs have emerged indicating the next generation of Aussie talent can succeed where Hewitt couldn’t.

For a start, the current Wimbledon junior champions are both Australians. Luke Saville and Ashleigh Barty can boast the grass court event amongst the highlights of promising junior careers. Saville reached the final of the Australian Open juniors last year and was joined by several compatriots at the top of the junior world rankings including Andrew Harris, Andrew Whittington and Nick Kyrgios. Meanwhile the girls, including Barty, won the 2011 Junior Davis Cup.

Barty has even begun to make a mark on the pro circuit at just 15 years of age. The Queensland native last month won herself a place in the main draw of the Australian Open senior tournament after beating established players including a former top 50 name in Casey Dellacqua during the wildcard play-offs. Her focus and attitude are better than some players twice her age and being equipped with the talent to match makes her a strong contender for future stardom.

Australia can also pin their hopes on a crop of youngsters who add depth if not future tour champions. Olivia Rogowska and Isabella Holland are both 20 and pushing for the WTA’s top 100 while James Duckworth and Ben Mitchell are 19 and sit just outside the ATP top 200.

Clearly interest is still alive in the sport, which is always a positive but with the rapid decline of Hewitt, it’s left a hole as to who could challenge for the Melbourne title on the men’s tour. Another top 10 player is perhaps needed to push the next generation forward. Matthew Ebden isn’t too old to enjoy some top level tennis after a successful 2011 where he finished the year inside the top 100 but the main prospect is Bernard Tomic.

The 19-year-old is the youngest man in the top 100 and has already cemented a place in the top 50. With a Wimbledon quarter-final berth under his belt too, he could be challenging for the title on his favourite surface very soon.

Like Barty, he has the right frame of mind to use his big serve and excellent movement to make something of himself. However, there are questions concerning his attitude. Australia’s Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter has spoken out about Tomic’s work ethic while he’s also been involved in some controversial incidents in the past.

What stands Tomic out from the rest of the up and coming players on the tour is his love of a big stage. The more that’s riding on a match, the more he thrives. That intrepidity has seen him record victories over Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and Stansislas Wawrinka so far but it’s also had a negative impact. When he’s played lesser known opponents his effort levels have waned, although without that casual approach he might not be where he is today.

Things have started looking good for him in 2012 though. A 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Tatsuma Ito en route to a semi-final berth at the Brisbane International shows he can cope with players below and above his ranking. His relationship with the press has also improved. Whereas before he showed very little personality, he now cracks the odd joke and embraces his home fans.

Whether that will continue outside of Australia is yet to be known but right now, he can be seen as a huge threat in the Australian Open draw. With more experience Tomic could win majors and is the ray of light for the next generation of Aussies; both players and fans.

By Lewis Davies