Tennis: The great barrier: Guy Hodgson discusses the causes and effects of a lost Australian generation

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THE SCENE was a dinner in honour of two Davis Cup teams in New York and the year 1959. A waiter, newly arrived from Iran and serving on the top table, stared at the Australian triumvirate of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle and was struck by a rare ambition: to have a son play in the final for the United States.

Emmanuel 'Mike' Agassi's dream was fulfilled by his son Andre. Thirty-five years on, a waiter would look at an Australian tennis team, and recognition would be beyond him.

Britain has had 60 years to get used to tennis mediocrity, but Australia is newly acquainted with net losses and finds it hard to believe. The land of Laver, Rosewall and Hoad has almost as little chance of lifting its great championship as a Briton has of winning Wimbledon.

With all due respect to a nation that reached last year's Davis Cup final, it would need an unprecedented series of upsets for anyone speaking 'Strine' to emerge as champion of the Australian Open. It is a sad state of affairs for a country which from 1946 to 1976 produced the winners of 66 Grand Slam tournaments. Since then there has been only Pat Cash's success at Wimbledon in 1987.

'It was as if someone had turned the switch off on the conveyor belt,' Ian Barclay, Cash's coach for many years, said. 'Australia had produced great champion after great champion and suddenly there was no one. It's been difficult to adjust our expectations.'

Barclay, a native of Melbourne, is at present grooming Britain's promising tennis players as national coach at Bisham Abbey, but his switch of allegiance has not deadened the frustration he feels about Australia's demise. 'Complacency was the big problem,' he said. 'We saw the wonderful players we had and assumed we didn't need to work at it. At one time we could have had four or five competitive Davis Cup teams; now we struggle to get one. Australia still leads the world in doubles but we don't have one truly great singles player to build around.

'Australia sat back while other countries poured money and effort into getting champions. They caught up with us in the Seventies and then went past in the Eighties. The tennis hierarchy might claim that Pat Cash vindicated their policies but he was privately coached away from the system. He came along despite, not because of, them.'

Barclay believes the remedies the Australians have carried out will produce results, but it will be years rather than months before proper evidence of an upsurge emerges. And patience is not something that comes naturally Down Under.

Laver, with a weighty claim to be the greatest player ever, worries, too, that rival attractions are diverting the attention of Australia's youth. 'The kids have so many different forms of recreation open to them that it's no surprise tennis has been hit,' he said. 'Kenny (Rosewall), Hoady and the others, we would practise for six hours at a time.

'It's different now. Be honest, would you rather be sweating on a dusty tennis court, or spending six hours with a surfboard among the girls on the beach?'