The man who has carried Australian tennis through the first decade of the 21st century was last week handed a wildcard for the French Open. Tennis Australia thanks to an agreement with the French Tennis Federation on reciprocal wildcards between the two majors decreed Hewitt the man most worthy of the wildcard. Lleyton Hewitt has been the shining light in Australian men’s tennis for over a decade and on achievements is certainly the most worth now but it is time for Tennis Australia to promote its new brigade.
Hewitt’s performance at this year’s Australian Open enhanced his reputation further and even turned old detractors to supporters over a battling and at times brilliant performance under duress of persistent injury. The suffering in his weary body has been well documented, as has his desire to play for Australia at the Olympics this year.
The problem Hewitt faces is his ranking has faded to beyond direct entry to major tournaments – wild card entries are the only way now. A problem for Australian tennis is that by giving Hewitt a wildcard, it denies an opportunity for a youngster to come through and play in a bigger tournament.
There are arguments that if the younger guys are good enough then they should be able to qualify and get into the main draw. The problem with this is that three tough matches means that even if they do qualify, players are often are spent coming into round one.
Of the four men and three women in French Open qualifiers for the French Open this week not one made it through their three matches into the main draw.
What also needs to be highlighted here is that tennis and particularly on the men’s side is changing. For most of last season Bernard Tomic was the only teenager in the top 100 men in the world. Players are developing later, often not until their mid to late twenties.
David Ferrer has been a top 10 player for the past four years and is currently 30 years old. Not until he was 26 did he start to regularly make it to the pointy end of the bigger tournaments.
For Australia we have three men in the top 100 for the first time in over four years and unfortunately for Marinko Matosovic his ranking didn’t get into the top 100 in time for the direct entry cut off to Paris. At 26, he has a career high ranking of 89 and he will make the main draw at Wimbledon for the first time.
This year Olivia Rogowska won her first match in the Australian Open main draw after three years of wildcard entries allowed her to experience the main draw and get rewards for her efforts. Tennis Australia would have been happy with that.
The problem is that whilst men are maturing later it also means that they only have a limited window of their bodies and game being in top shape. Whilst the current generation except for Tomic might not be top 10 players or future Grand Slam winners, surely its better for Australian tennis to have more numbers in the top 100 than less.
The options for Australian wild card entries are not a chance to win the French Open – this year at least - but they are a chance to kick start their careers and who knows where they will end up.
Hewitt on the other hand is near the end and of the back of only 10 days practice is not likely to progress very far at Rolland Garros either. He has been a monumental servant of Tennis in Australia and is rightly feted for his perseverance and performances over the years, but it would have been magnanimous if he afforded the opportunity to another player.