Australia on rise in tennis rankings
FOR too many years to count, the debate has been what's wrong with Australian tennis.
Less spectacularly, evidence has built this year for the question to be cautiously asked: "What's going right with Australian tennis?"
The year-end rankings in 2018 will have six Australian men in the top 100 and 12 in the top 200.
There are seven top-200 Australian women, with four in the top-100, headed by world No.15 Ash Barty.
One year last decade, Lleyton Hewitt was the only Australian man in the world's top 100.
This year is the first in 17 when Australia had had four top-50 men and in terms of depth, Australia's representation of 12 in the current top 200 compares encouragingly with tennis superpowers such as Spain (17), France (16) and Germany (14).
"It's pretty good for men and women compared to where we were five years ago, say,'' said Tennis Australia head of men's tennis Wally Masur.
"It's pretty cyclical and we have always got work to do.
''We had only one Australian in the ITF junior Grand Slams this year, but we have more boys and girls there next year.''
Australian tennis has questioned its assumptions repeatedly over the 20 years since three Australian men - Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis and Hewitt - held top-20 positions at the same time. During their careers, they made seven Grand Slam finals between them.
TA's national academies' model has held sway for more than a decade, with sites in each mainland capital.
TA provides on-the-road coaching access for select players until it is assessed they are old enough, some in their mid-twenties, to fund their careers.
One of the world's outstanding teenagers, Alex de Minaur, benefited from the TA program in Sydney for four years in his early teens, but has been based with his family in Alicante, Spain since he was 16.
The ATP Newcomer of 2018 award winner followed a similar clay-court training path, followed by three-time major winner Andy Murray, who left Scotland to live in Barcelona when he was 15.
De Minaur (ranked 31) and France-based 19-year-old Alexei Popyrin, the 2017 French junior champion now ranked 152nd, have made rapid progress this year.
"It was (TA executives) Machar Reid and Scott Draper who came up with a principle that if we had 90 per cent (of emerging players) based in Australia and 10 per cent based overseas (and receiving funding by TA), then that was acceptable,'' Masur said.
"It's been borne out that we can have different ways to support them on their journey.''
De Minaur and Popyrin have European parents so it's not a stretch that they live in Europe.
"The ones in the top 200 are mostly pretty young and most of them can be good players for a decade, although things can go wrong.''
Florida-based Jordan Thompson, 24, (ranked 72) has worked his way back into the top 100 with two Challenger tournament titles in a year which attested further to his renowned work ethic.
"I'm about strength in numbers that if we get as many players as possible in the top 100, it is inevitable that draws will open up for someone at a big tournament,'' said John Millman, Brisbane's Federer-buster who has risen 90 places in the rankings to No.38.
Millman, 29, and Matt Ebden, 31, (ranked 46) have rebounded from injuries to take top-10 scalps this year and firm up the conviction that Australian players often mature later.
"The game has changed over the last 10 years. The average age of the top 100 is around 29,'' he said.
"We can lose track of that. It takes a little longer for guys to mature on tour.
"If I'm fit and healthy, I think I'm in my peak years. To put together a year free of injuries, it would add to that feeling that I belong at this level.''
AUSSIES INSIDE THE TOP 100
ALEX DE MINAUR 31
NICK KYRGIOS 35
JOHN MILLMAN 38
MATTHEW EBDEN 46
JORDAN THOMPSON 72
BERNARD TOMIC 83
ASH BARTY 15
DARIA GAVRILOVA 35
AJLA TOMLJANOVIC 46
SAMANTHA STOSUR 72