By Alex Johnstone
The sudden retirement of Ash Barty last month was a shock that Australian tennis didn’t see coming and one that could have lasting ramifications.
Never has the cupboard looked so bare. A quick glance at the Australian women’s rankings will make you raise your eyebrows.
Where is all the top-end talent?
At the time of writing, Australia only boasts one player inside the WTA’s top 120 - Ajla Tomljanovic at No. 38. Second position is held by daylight, closely followed by Maddison Inglis at No. 126.
For a nation that boasts one of the four Majors, it’s astonishing that Australia only has one female player inside the world’s top 100. In fact, it’s a little embarrassing.
Barty papered over the cracks in the wall but her sudden recession to everyday life has opened up a chasm in Aussie women’s tennis.
Even during Barty’s reign, it was still obvious that there wasn’t nearly enough talent coming through on the women’s side.
If you delve even further back, Sam Stosur was asked to carry the load at the top without much assistance from a fellow Aussie.
Sure, both Barty and Stosur are Major champions, but why were they the only ones bearing green and gold to have a shot?
In 2018, Australia had three women inside the top 50 at year’s end for the first time since 1989. Barty was entrenched inside the top 20, Daria Saville (formerly Gavrilova) was consistently in the top 30 and Stosur rounded them out in the forties.
With such a rich history of women’s tennis in this country, it’s quite a shock that it took 29 years for Australia to produce three top 50 talents in a calendar year.
Since then, the issue of top female talent was overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Barty and what she was able to achieve, however, her retirement has put the spotlight back on the talent pool in Australia.
To put things in perspective, the Czech Republic - with a population of 10.7 million - currently has eight women inside the top 80 in the world, with five in the top 50 and two in the top 10.
This includes two Major winners in Petra Kvitova and Barbora Krejcikova.
Similarly, Romania boasts six women inside the top 100 with a Major winner in Simona Halep - all with a population of 19.3 million people.
Others with Romanian roots include Bianca Andreescu and Emma Raducanu.
This is to take nothing away from these proud tennis nations, but it’s an interesting comparison and a thought provoking one at that.
It’s also worth noting that the United Kingdom is in the exact same boat, with only one top 100 player in Raducanu.
One would naturally assume that Australia (and the UK for that matter) should be able to produce the same kind of numbers that the Czechs and Romanians do, given our resources and status as a proud sporting nation.
Australia also has something that the aforementioned do not; a major tournament.
The Australian Open is the main contributor to Tennis Australia’s piggy bank and a yearly influx of money that most international federations aren’t privy to.
A quick snoop through Tennis Australia’s financial reports revealed the organisation raked in over three billion dollars in revenue from 2010 to 2021, although the exact specifics of how it was spent is clouded.
Some of it, pleasingly, is being used to close the gender participation gap at grassroots level.
In 2019, Tennis Australia used Barty as the face of the Women & Girls campaign which was part of a $12 million Federal Government contribution to increase opportunities for females in tennis and to ensure more girls stay in sport.
Alarmingly, an AusPlay study in 2019 found that one in three girls gave up on sport by the age of 18.
A further barrier to sustained Aussie success in the women’s game has been the multitude of sporting options available to girls growing up in this country. Now that AFLW and NRLW have taken off, tennis’ share of the pie has grown even smaller.
Perhaps this is a key difference between Australia, the Czech Republic and Romania.
Another theory is that the current generation of Aussie players didn’t have an Australian champion to inspire them - our most recent Major winner before Stosur was Evonne Goolagong in 1980.
That’s why Barty has been so important to Tennis Australia and the game in this country.
An AusPlay study found that participation rates in tennis dropped the most out of any other major sport from 2001 to 2019. Yet, following Barty’s on-court success, tennis received more participation growth in 2021 than the other 15 major sports.
Adult participation increased by 37 per cent from June 2020 to June 2021 but most importantly, children’s participation grew 29 per cent in the same window.
There is no doubt what success can do for a sport in Australia, just look at how football took off following the Socceroos’ 2006 World Cup campaign and now with the Matildas and Sam Kerr.
Barty’s retirement will definitely sting a little, but here’s hoping she did enough to inspire the next generation of women to become major champions.
After all, one in a hundred is not good enough, Australia should be better.
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