Australian tennis has something cricket would dearly love, an asset that was sprinkled through the outside courts on Sunday as if the host nation’s representation in the junior tournament had been engineered by the United Colours of Benetton. Behind Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis a multicultural melting pot is on the rise.
Olivia Tjandramulia was born in Jakarta, moved with her family to Queensland when she was eight, yet has never felt like an outsider. ”We’re from all over the world, which is really exciting, you’re not the only one that’s from somewhere else,” she says of her peers in the elite junior ranks.
Brian Tran, Priscilla Hon, Omar Jasika, Akira Santillan, Seone Mendez, Linda Huang, Andrea Dikosavljevic, Marc Polmans. Plotting their heritage is a virtual trip around the globe, through Asia, eastern Europe, South Africa, South America. And back to New Zealand and Destanee Aiava, a 13-year-old with Maori parents who validated her special exemption into the girl’s singles draw with a first-round win on Saturday.
When Scott Draper was an up-and-comer, and later a Davis Cup player, he was surrounded by names as Anglo as his own: Woodbridge and Woodforde, Stolle, Arthurs, Rafter, Hewitt, Fromberg. Mark Philippoussis and Andrew Ilie stood out.
Now the developmental manager for Tennis Australia, Draper envisages a time in the not-too-distant future when the wheel will have turned full circle and the names of old Australia will be in the minority.
”One hundred per cent,” he says. ”Of all the kids coming through who have ability, most aren’t from Anglo backgrounds.”
Oliver Anderson is an exception and the 15-year-old Queenslander reflects on the phenomenon in that refreshing manner of the young, who either don’t notice difference or don’t give it a second thought.
”A lot of the best players in Australia are from ethnic backgrounds, [we’ve got)] a lot of young Asian players, they’re always very skilful,” Anderson said after his first-round win on Sunday. ”[But] I’ve never really thought about it, tennis is a huge sport I guess.”
Draper agrees, adding that it’s also a world sport and one that appeals to migrant parents who hail from countries that care little for the traditional Australian sporting obsessions of football, netball and swimming. Often, their old life is not as affluent as their new one could be. ”That’s why these players are so damn hungry, they want to make a living out of the game and their lot in life and tennis is a good vehicle for that,” Draper says.
He sees the change as a mirror of the nation, where the sketch of the ”typical Australian” is not what it was. Draper is certain Tennis Australia knows full well the strength such diversity brings and it is something they impress upon their young charges. ”We try to foster the concept of having great respect – it’s one of our values we talk about, respecting difference. We all come from different parts of the planet, [so] respect what that place is and that person, what they bring to the table.”
The same code applies to staff, who Draper thinks can do more to understand the different cultures that underpin the lives of the young people they nurture. ”When it comes to educating athletes and parents, sure it’s OK to say, ‘These are our expectations, this is what we’re after’, but we need to spend more time understanding their background, what that means … We probably haven’t done enough in that area.”
In the Open’s first week, inspiration was readily at hand. Thanasi Kokkinakis nods in agreement at how Australian tennis has benefited from its exotic mix; he looks to his parents from Greece, his mate Nick Kyrgios’ Greek father and Malaysian mother, and sees a bright future for his sport.
”It’s a good question, I’m not too sure,” Kokkinakis says of why Australian tennis is anything but a white-bread pursuit. ”A lot of genetics are involved in tennis, that helps a lot. A lot of Europeans come here because they love the lifestyle as well, a lot from the Asia Pacific countries, too.
”They love the tennis here and it’s just great for the sport.”
Just as the ”Special Ks” have been great for the juniors who hope to follow in their footsteps very soon.
”They’re really inspiring me to step up the level a bit more,” Tjandramulia said after her gutsy three-set girls’ juniors win on Sunday.
Anderson spoke for all of the next wave, no matter how near or far their family tree stretches. ”They’ve been doing unbelievably,” he said of Kyrgios and Kokkinakis. ”I’ve been seeing them in the locker rooms and around the place, they’ve been having so much fun. I’d love to do that in a year or two.”