NZ tennis continues to court disaster

MARK REASON
Last updated 13:09 28/09/2012

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New Zealand's tennis coaches have had enough. Some have left the country in despair, others are exiles in their own land. But several of them are prepared to speak out against the waste and incompetence undermining the sport that they love.

This year must have been a nadir for the sport. The women were banned from competing in the Federation Cup. The men lost to Uzbekistan and India ‘B' in the Davis Cup and now face a play-off match against Chinese Taipei to avoid relegation from their substandard group. The Grand Slam events were a write-off and Marina Erakovic lost in the first round of the Olympics.

Steve Dries is a tennis coach in Timaru. Since 2003 Dries has coached nine juniors to national finals. It is a remarkable achievement from a population of 30,000, yet in all that time, no-one from Tennis New Zealand has rung up to offer financial encouragement or to seek advice.

Dries says: “The TNZ board is out of touch with the tennis community and only has knowledge of the bigger cities. Tennis in this country is only for the elitist. Club membership is way too high and we lose a lot of talented athletes to different sporting codes.

“The board of management continues to make bad appointments. Only Onny Parun and to a certain extent Chris Lewis have dared criticise what is happening to tennis and they have been alienated. We have regions that are insolvent and in debt. Top coaches are unsupported."

You may suspect Dries of being a tad hysterical, but if anything he is an understated man.

The exodus of so many of New Zealand's top coaches is a symptom of a failing sport. Lewis, Kelly Evernden, Russell Simpson and Austen Childs are in the United States. Steve Guy is in Germany and Paul Dale is very successful in Asia. Gebhard Gritsch became Novak Djokovic's fitness coach in 2009. Jack Reader is coaching Alex Dolgopolov.

It doesn't have to be this way. There is a shining example of the way forward - oh Canada. A few years ago Canada was as dysfunctional as New Zealand Tennis. So they overhauled the system. The government invested money, a top chief executive was recruited and he in turn appointed a leading French tennis coach, Louis Borfiga.

It's not rocket science. Look at Dick Tonks and New Zealand rowing or Arthur Lydiard and athletics. It's about the coach, stupid - and, in these ever more professional times, that means money. Borfiga has revolutionised Canadian tennis.

Borfiga said: “It's important not to play a good match, but to play to win. It was my first message.” His second message, according to chief executive Michael Downey, was “Kids need to have the right values, to be low-key and be polite.”

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Scouring TNZ's strategic plan, I could not find a single mention of the word “winning.” Canada has embraced the word. Felip Peliwo and Eugenie Bouchard won both junior Wimbledon titles. Peliwo became the first man since 1984 to make all the junior Grand Slam finals.

A second Canadian girl made it to the Wimbledon semis. Milos Raonic, 21, is the fastest rising man in the rankings and tipped for a major title. And guess who Erakovic was thrashed by at the Olympics. Yep, another Canadian.

It's the sort of thing that makes Blenheim's Michael Mooney, former national tennis coach, despair. He says: “We have a CEO with a surf life-saving background and barely two years experience in a global professional sport. Our high performance manager has a background as a handy interclub player. This is true of many key positions filled throughout NZ.

“Cutting 50 per cent of the positions, cutting salaries and putting people on performance bonuses would help. The savings could go directly to our next group of top juniors starting at 12 years. I see no other way forward than to get the board and management to resign.”

TNZ needs to open its mind. It needs to reach out to all its coaches and engage with them. As Downey said, the Canadian model “doesn't mean that there aren't great kids out there with independent coaches”.

This country has great coaches, but TNZ is obstructive rather than inclusive, even to the point of legal action.

Parun says: “Sadly, this mediocre NZT administration doesn't have the tennis knowledge or intellect (with the exception of board member Brett Steven) to change the situation around.

"Until there are real and meaningful changes at the very top New Zealand will continue to repeat this most recent loss (against India).”

Scratch below the murky surface of Tennis New Zealand and, as ever, you see the fumbling fingers of Sport New Zealand. Bad investment, bad appointments and bad reviews have all contributed to the current mess.

Borfiga had a simple message when he came to the frozen north. He said: “What was missing before in Canada was that hunger to win. I wanted to make them understand that in Canada there was no reason that they can't win. You just have to want it.”

Does New Zealand?

- The Marlborough Express

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