Anyone for tennis?

Watching the Australian Open this week, reminded me of an article I wrote many, many years ago about two of my favourite Aussie tennis players and I thought I would share it... because, being my blog, I can :-) Here is what I wrote... There is no doubt about it. Tennis is now firmly back on the sporting map, after a longer drought than Eritrea. After a long absence, tennis is once again cool and Dunlop volley’s are just as fashionable as Pat Cash’s headband was in 1987. So what has made all the difference? It is not what, but who...

Last summer’s Wimbledon was the spiciest for years thanks to the star studded gang of female tennis teenies.... the IT girls of the centre court. It was Andre Agassi who patented the statement ‘Image is everything’. However Russian Anna Kournikova has taken the whole thing a step further. Everywhere she goes she attracts a crowd; the darling of court-sides internationally. Her angelic face can be seen emblazoned on the sides of buses. She is even becoming something of a veteran on the sofas of the American chat show hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno.

More successful in terms of titles but still second when it comes to popularity, Martina Hingis has also done much to reinvent the funny English game that gives fans a neck-ache. The 17 year old multi millionaire has been gracing glossy magazines sporting headlines such as “The champ is a vamp.”

The colourful characters of the charismatic William sisters have also added to the appeal of tennis, as have the hyper successes of Brits Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. (Indeed in 1997/8, Rusedski and Henman grabbed the first and second spot in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, respectively).

Henmania has swept the country and Wimbledon is now more commonly referred to as Timbledon. Sports fans love a winner and at long last British tennis players are holding trophies aloft across the world.. Rusedski was one of last year’s unheralded wonder boys jumping from 52 to five in the rankings. For the first time in decades, Britain now has two players inside the top ten.

Yet it is not the British boys who have made tennis ‘hip’ and ‘happening’ again. The Australians have a talent for producing some of the best exports in the world. Fosters and XXXX may top the list, but the handsome figures of Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis come a very close third.

Like Anna Kournikova, the attention on Rafter and Philippoussis is not necessarily confined to the tennis. The young Australians are cheered wildly by women wherever they go as thousands come for a glimpse ofbronzed leg as much as a well weighted backhand.

Reebok and Fila, their respective kit suppliers have also improved their ages tenfold by making them wear shirts with zips that go halfway down their stomachs. At this year’s Aussie Open, the women were reportedly going mad. Rafter’s shirt was already half undone giving them a tantalizing glimpse of his chest. Every time he exposed his tanned chest after serving, high pitch gasps apparently emanated from the largely female corps of spectators. Who said fans go to tournaments for the tennis?!?

Sex sells and the ability of the two Australians to attract sponsors is made stronger by the fact that too many of their peers are perceived as robotic and charmless.Philippoussis hassaid in past interviews, with typical Aussie bravado: “ I prefer women cheering me on that the guys.”

Rafter is similarly unconcerned about the motives of his followers: “People come to see me or they come to see my tennis. I don’t care as long as they come.”

This dream team is an assured crowd puller. Both are tall, dark and have a reputation as bad boys. Both admitted turning up on court drunk during a Davis Cup match after a heavy night of celebrations earlier this year. Philippoussis had already earned a reputation as Australia’s answer to John F Kennedy Jnr with his Lamborghini and porsche. Yet these ‘babe magnet’ optional accessories just seem to make him even more irresistible to the paying female audience. The fact that both Mark and Pat would never be classed as cleaner than clean, has only earned them more points on the sex scale. Compared to Rafter and Philippoussis, it has to be said that Pat Cash looks positively innocent!

The rise of Rafter (and his silencing of McEnroe’s “one slam wonder” tag) and Philippoussis’ emergence as more than just a kid with a big name and a big serve, have given the fans more than something to cheer about. They have given them someone to cheer for. The resurgence of the sport can be attributed to individual success. Rafter is the product of Queensland’s tough, anthill ridden country tennis courts while Philippoussis’ success has been driven by his Father and private coaching, including one difficult stint as a young teenager with Ivan Lendl in the USA.

For years the Australian Open has been one of the poor cousins of Australian sport - an event sandwiched between horse racing and the football which has hardly attracted the attention cricket gets - cricket itself nowhere near as big a sport on the world stage. That has changed so quickly.

Since the relocation from the grass courts and miserable amenities of Kooyang a decade ago, the Australian Open no longer begs the best players in the world to travel down under and compete. This year a combined three of the top 40 men and women players are in the draw with only the absence of fatigued world number one, Pete Sampras, marring the event. If you need an indication of the tournament’s prestige amongst the players, last year’s winner - Petr Korda - keeps his trophy in a shrine in his office. Nowhere near his medicine cabinet, I hope!

The revival of tennis has as much to do with Australia the country as it does with Australian exports. Australia is this year’s Ireland - currently top of everyones holiday shopping list. It is home to some of the world’s most friendly people all of whom have a zest for life. It is a country of mind boggling geographical superlatives. From the haunting outback and sparse red desert to the largest coral reef in the world and the truly magical Barrier Reef Islands. From civilized sunny cities to distant sheep stations, from rolling vineyards to steamy rain forests, the Land of Oz is now within range of most of our budgets and now is the time to go because visitors and prices will rocket for the Millennium and Olympic Games in the year of 2000. This factor, combined with the appeal of the Australian tennis players, ensured that 1998 and 1999 Australian Open tickets flew out of the box office the day after Rafter’s New York win.

Then again, this is hardly surprising really. Wimbledon is wet. Roland Garos is dusty. Flushing Meadows is unpredictable. But Melbourne Park is hot, hot, hot in every sense of the word...