“Give me a C!” shouted the slightly intoxicated Aussie a few rows behind me.
“C!” chanted he and his 10 mates all decked out in yellow in support of fellow countryman and veteran tennis pro Lleyton Hewitt.
The chant leader asked for an “M!”, then an “O!”, then another “O!” – and another one and another one and another one … you get the picture.
Finally, he asked for an “N!” before bellowing: “What does that spell?”
“Cmooooooooon!” they roared in unison, in tribute to the oft-used war cry which Hewitt has made his own throughout his career.
We were all in the stand of a packed centre court at Melbourne Park cheering on Hewitt who was battling against ginormous Canadian Milos Raonic for a place in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open.
Hewitt’s fans kept up the chants for three hours, as he wore down his opponent.
Two days later Hewitt went on to lose to world number one Novak Djokovic in a typically spirited performance.
But no matter for the Aussies – they’ll have plenty of homegrown players to cheer on in future when Hewitt finally calls it quits.
They have two young guys in the top 100 and three females in the top 100.
New Zealand, by comparison, has no men inside the top 300. Our lone top 100 female player is Marina Erakovic at a respectable 62. Our next highest ranked woman is at 731.
But there is hope. And this will sound highly parochial but if a Kiwi is going to make a charge on the pro circuit in the near future, it’s more likely they’ll have come out of Queenstown than anywhere else.
That’s thanks to a super-enthusiastic local club and two top coaches – Mark Milburn, formerly from Dunedin, and Lan Bale, a South African who spent 10 years as a pro on the ATP tour. Together, they’ve got the four club courts in Queenstown Gardens brimming with juniors hitting balls.
Those few with potential, the desire and right attitude get into the elite Queenstown Tennis Academy. It is starting to bear fruit with three of its graduates now on lucrative college tennis scholarships in the United States. More are likely to follow if you listen to the excited predictions of the coaches.
Whether the kids at college crack the pros is another question – in the meantime they’re getting a hell of an opportunity and a tertiary education to boot. And like most sporting pursuits, it also focuses young minds – I remember speaking with a young academy member a few years ago who, aged 15, told me they’d gone to a party but everyone was just getting boozed so they left because it wasn’t conducive to their goals. Not at that age, anyway.
Recent academy graduate Ben McLachlan – a year into playing for the University of California team – is showing the benefits of college play. On return to NZ for a Christmas break, he competed in the NZ Residentials tournament entered by the top Kiwis, including those on the pro circuit.
He made the semis, upsetting an older college graduate eyeing the pros and another young Kiwi player with a pro ranking who is trying to crack the big time.
It took Artem Sitak, ranked 413 in the world, to stop Ben who also made the doubles semi-finals with his brother Riki.
The McLachlans are showing anything is possible from Queenstown – even though it amazingly lacks an indoor facility to make year-round training a little more palatable. You’d think with all the top-end golf facilities, an indoor tennis centre would be part of the mix.
Not that it stopped the McLachlans or their coaches – they used to get out on the court in mid-winter rugged up in beanies and gloves to hit balls in freezing temperatures.