If New Zealand wants to develop world-class tennis players, it will need to take a more ruthless approach.

That's the belief of Tennis New Zealand High Performance director Simon Rea, as he plots the sport's future direction over the next 12 months and beyond.

Every year around this time, tennis comes back onto the radar in this country, with the ASB Classic fortnight, before the Australian Open takes centre stage on the sporting agenda for two weeks.

People are reminded how captivating the sport can be, and it also leads to wistful thinking back to the 1980s and 1990s, when this country regularly had top 50 singles players.


It's hard to imagine now, but a New Zealand female was one match away from the Australian Open final in 1989 (Belinda Cordwell), while both Kelly Evernden and Brett Steven reached the quarter-finals of the Melbourne Grand Slam.

That kind of success seems light years away now, as the sport has changed immensely, becoming more and more global.

It has sometimes felt like tennis in this country is destined to become a solely recreational pursuit, especially since the government sporting agency turned the taps off on high-performance funding.

It hasn't helped that the sport here has been bogged down with entrenched regional factions, coaching issues at the top levels and a lack of genuine leadership and vision from the national federation.

But Rea, who joined Tennis NZ in December 2016, sees a positive future.

"It's an exciting time for tennis in New Zealand — but we have got an enormous amount of hard work ahead of us," Rea told the Herald on Sunday. "One of the shifts I want to make in high-performance tennis, philosophically, is less of a focus on national standards.

Instead we need to be really clear in our thinking on what international, or world-class standard looks like and start to attack those from a young age."

New Zealand has had so many 'big fish, small pond' young players in the last decade that simply haven't been able to make the jump.


That needs to change, and Rea has committed to a stricter criteria around support and funding, based on "data, research and history". It's been gleaned from decades of research into the trajectories of top-100 players, which, barring a few outliers, all tend to hit certain benchmarks at specific ages.

It will lead to a much narrower focus. Last year Tennis NZ supported 10 junior 'targeted' players, but in 2018 that figure is likely to be cut to "two or three".

"We will be trimming up what that targeted athlete group was, and supporting those that do hit the new benchmarks and in a more holistic and comprehensive way," confirmed Rea. "Unapologetically these new standards will be quite ambitious and lofty, but we need to create that step change.

Where what we thought was okay is not okay; we need to show that that's the new target, that's the new standard of acceptability. Otherwise we are not going to produce players. Some might say that is ruthless but I would say it is based on data and history.

We need to accelerate the development of our youngsters and have athletes, coaches and families really clear on the trajectory and what that looks like."

Rea reached a career high of 473 on the ATP Tour and played Davis Cup tennis for New Zealand but had retired by the age of 25.


He then made his name in coaching, rising through the ranks at Tennis Australia and achieving prominence by taking Nick Kyrgios from 843 in the world to a victory over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

Given Rea's reputation, a glamorous — and lucrative — coaching gig on tour would be easy for him to pick up, but he has committed to New Zealand.

"I'm in for the long haul," said Rea, who will be at the Under-12 Nationals in Christchurch this week, instead of mixing and mingling at the Australian Open. "There is no short-term fix to this. We are committed to doing a better job of what is happening on a daily training environment basis than we have done in recent times."

Rea also doesn't believe that sending young players overseas for extended periods of time is the panacea.

"International exposure to elite competition is a really important piece of the puzzle but what has been happening here, in our own backyard. We can do much better.

"That is a shift we want to see over the next 12 months. We haven't been ambitious enough and that's a change we need to drive."