Hinton: Top tennis score equals Erakovic to love

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 05/01/2014
Marina Erakovic
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ
NZ'S BEST: Marina Erakovic in action.

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OPINION: What a week it's been for tennis in New Zealand. Pity we can't say the same for New Zealand tennis.

There's a distinction, of course, as we sit at the mid-point of the annual fortnight-long festival of tennis, aka New Zealand's two international tournaments that are part of the lead-in to the year's first major in Melbourne.

These are two golden weeks for tennis in New Zealand as some of the best players in the world converge on Auckland's quaint Stanley Street centre. It's a fabulous fortnight where our little corner of the globe is, if not the centre, at least a significant part of the tennis universe.

Then there are the other 50 weeks when New Zealand tennis is about as inconsequential as it gets.

With the exception of Marina Erakovic - a much under-appreciated Kiwi sporting asset - our leading tennis players wallow in international ignominy. Our top male, Rubin Statham, is ranked No 283 in the world. The next best woman after Erakovic, Diane Hollands, is - wait for it - No 689.

Nothing personal, but it's a sad state of affairs for someone weaned on the exploits of Fairlie and Parun, Lewis and Evernden.

To put it mildly, New Zealand's talent development system is failing abysmally to produce world-class players. Or players of any class, for that matter. You might even say that Erakovic, the world No 46, has succeeded in spite of her adopted country's support and nurturing, and not because of it.

So for two weeks tennis basks in the reflective glow of its showcase events; for the other 50 it barely pokes its head above the parapet. The Davis Cup, once a staple on the Kiwi sporting landscape, is now all but irrelevant. At least Erakovic is a regular in the slams, but there is little reason for optimism, or even hope, that she will have company any time in the foreseeable future.

Tennis in New Zealand is in such a dire state it receives no funding from High Performance Sport NZ, amid barely a murmur of dissent. It's almost as though the white flag has been waved: sorry, it's just too damn hard!

It's a shame that the foresight, initiative, drive and ambition of New Zealand's tournament director Karl Budge cannot be replicated at Tennis NZ.

It's hard to fault the work Budge is doing with his two events. Somehow, in the midst of tight financial times and a system that doesn't exactly make his life easy, he has found a way to continue to make the Kiwi tournaments not just relevant, but pretty damn successful.

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But it's worth asking the question: is all the money going in to getting a sneak peak at a Venus Williams or Anna Ivanovic, at a David Ferrer or Tommy Haas, for just a few short days really worth it?

Or, would that significant cash best be invested elsewhere in the sport?

World-class tennis players do not come cheap. The prizemoney for the two tournaments is the best part of $US750,000, and the stars command appearance fees as high as $100,000 each.

Of course, it's not as simple as swapping one for the other; but I'd take a player or two waving our flag at the highest levels on a weekly basis in a mystical tradeoff for two weeks of enjoyable, but largely inconsequential, fare at the Street.

Still, we have what we have, and all things considered it's a pretty decent product.

The ASB Classic has showcased two of the biggest names in women's tennis in Williams and Ivanovic. They played their part too as they won through to yesterday's "dream" final.

In terms of bang for his buck, Budge could not have asked for more. He'll likely get a similar return on investment this week when Ferrer, as honest a performer out there, will shoot for his fifth Auckland title.

It would be nice to think that these tournaments are inspiring the next Brett Steven, the next Chris Lewis. Unfortunately, reality suggests otherwise.

New Zealand has a remarkable ability to produce world-class competitors in nearly every sport of any note on this planet. Tennis is the glaring exception.

Is it time to put Budge in charge of the whole sport, and not just its showcase two weeks?

- Sunday Star Times

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