Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: New deal to find next ace

Marina Erakovic has been a lone beacon of hope for tennis. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Marina Erakovic has been a lone beacon of hope for tennis. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Pictured below are the four youngsters Tennis New Zealand are hoping to propel into the world's top 150.

Since 2007, Tennis New Zealand has invested more than $2 million in 40 to 50 players of all ages, attempting to produce some who can compete on the world stage.

It hasn't worked. Now they will pour most of their limited resources into a select group of Junior Targeted Athletes: Finn Reynolds (13), Rosie Cheng (15), Macsen Sisam (13) and Valentina Ivanov (12). It is an ambitious new strategy, with the hope of producing world top 150 players by 2020.

The quartet will be funded up to $50,000 each annually. New Zealand touring professionals such as Rubin Statham and Michael Venus will still be paid for playing Davis Cup matches but won't receive any other funding or support.

"We need to focus almost exclusively on juniors," says former ATP top 50 player Brett Steven, also a Tennis NZ board member. "That is where we can make the greatest degree of difference.

In the past, we haven't found out early enough with our players that they didn't want it bad enough. [This way], we'll get the highest bang for our buck. It will always be a big ask, as tennis gets more and more global, but we need to do something different."

It's certainly different but is it enough?

"I agree that they should take a punt on young talent and it looks like a step in the right direction," says former New Zealand great Onny Parun. "However, I would question what the Tennis NZ board has been doing. It's the first decent decision or initiative the board has taken in the last decade. What the hell have they been doing? Even Brett [Steven] has been ineffectual among that group. There isn't much hope for New Zealand tennis with the current board in place."

Parun, who reached the Australian Open final and won the doubles title at Roland Garros in the 1970s, also takes issue with the members of the selection panel for the targeted players, which includes former Davis Cup captain Marcel Vos and Queenstown based coach Lan Bale, with Tennis NZ chief executive Steve Johns overseeing the panel.

"Important decisions like that should not be made by those guys," says Parun. "They have already been involved and haven't pushed the envelope enough. They have been part of our spiral into absolute oblivion over the last few years. They have already had a chance to make a difference and they haven't. We have a CEO with a surf lifesaving background who admits he knows very little about tennis. You need to have a feel for the game to be in that job and understand the mindset of a tennis player."

The targeted players will train in the United States and Europe, play at selected tournaments and will "be afforded every domestic and international opportunity that can be provided ... within available Tennis NZ and private resources".

They will be able to retain their existing coaches but the national body will keep a close eye on their development and individual performance programmes.

Around this time every summer, with the ASB Classic and Heineken Open on the horizon, the discussions start around tennis in this country, generally prefaced by the words, 'what went wrong?'

In the 1970s, Parun reached the last eight at Wimbledon and Roland Garros and the final in Melbourne, while Brian Fairlie made the quarter-finals at the US Open. In 1982, New Zealand made the last four of the Davis Cup (defeating Spain and Italy en-route, eventually losing to a French team featuring Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte) and a year later Chris Lewis captivated the nation as he made the Wimbledon final.

In the 1980s, Kelly Evernden (three ATP titles) and Russell Simpson were solid performers on the world stage. Belinda Cordwell made the last four in Melbourne. In the 1990s, Steven reached the last eight at the Australian Open and climbing as high as No 32 in the world.

Aside from Marina Erakovic, an outstanding flag bearer for the sport, the cupboard has been bare since then.

There have been contributing factors. Tennis has gone from essentially an Anglo-Saxon pursuit to one of the biggest sports on the planet, with the emergence of players from Eastern Europe (in particular), South America and Asia.

New Zealand's geographical isolation seems more pronounced with every decade, while the increasing importance of the clay court game has also made things more difficult for locally-raised players. Tennis NZ has been culpable too, with poor management, coaching structures and talent identification.

"We need to do something to arrest what has been, apart from Marina, 10 to 15 years on the slide," says Steven. "We have invested a lot of money into a lot of players for little return. [And] there is not a lot of hope with what we have out there at the moment."

In the early 2000s, the national body, led by Lewis and David Howman, introduced the player transfer funding scheme. It seemed a good idea; if players met certain targets (mostly based around ITF, ATP and WTA ranking points), they would be eligible for grants and funding. But it had unintended consequences.

"People learned how to game the system," says Steven. "It promoted what we called 'tennis tourism'. You could play a B2 tournament in Fiji or Darwin against nobody, pick up ITF ranking points and bank your cheque. It didn't encourage the development of good players. Tennis NZ got nothing out of the system and just became an ATM machine."

There are exceptions but generally if you haven't been inside the top 50 as a junior or managed some significant achievements by the age of 20, you are probably not going to make it into the top 100 as a professional, recognised as the point where players begin to make money.

"Aside from being a good athlete and having talent, the most important success factor is persistence - the aptitude to continue day after day through hardship," says Steven. "You need steel, you need drive. The earlier we can discover who has what it takes, the better."

Tennis NZ hope that a solid junior programme with plenty of time based overseas and then a proactive approach to ensuring Kiwis get into the best US colleges will achieve their goal of having players inside the top 150 by 2020.

The Chosen Four:

Finn Reynolds. Photo / Warren Buckland
Finn Reynolds. Photo / Warren Buckland

Finn Reynolds
Age: 13
Residence: Hawke's Bay
Age Started Tennis: 5
Achievements: 2012 Australian 12s singles champion; Rod Laver Cup winners (12s team event in Melbourne) with Macsen Sisam and Liam Stoica; this year won Tennis Europe doubles tournament (with Sisam); 2013 runner-up in Tennis NZ 14s tournament.

Rosie Cheng.
Rosie Cheng.

Rosie Cheng
Age: 15
Residence: Auckland
Age Started Tennis: 7
Achievements: ITF junior singles title at Gimcheon (South Korea); member of the New Zealand Junior Federation Cup team that qualified for the 2013 world final; runner-up at an ITF tournament in Kaohsiung (Taiwan) last year.

Macsen Sisam.
Macsen Sisam.

Macsen Sisam
Age: 13
Residence: Auckland
Age Started Tennis: 6
Achievements: 2012 Australia 12s singles champion; 2012 Rod Laver Cup winner with Reynolds and Liam Stoica; 2013 New Zealand 12s singles and doubles champion.

Valentina Ivanov.
Valentina Ivanov.

Valentina Ivanov
Age: 12
Residence: Sydney
Age Started Tennis: 4
Achievements: 2013 Australia 12s singles champion; 2013 New Zealand 14s and 12s singles champion

- NZ Herald

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