2022 was Australian tennis’s best calendar year for almost half a century.
Twenty-seven players aged between 14 and 23 have access to the country’s best coaches
Kimberly Birrell is a graduate of the program, and is now ranked 111th in the world
Tennis Australia’s goal is to get 15 players inside the top 100 in the world
For the first time in 45 years, the nation boasted seven grand slam champions across singles and doubles competitions, headlined by Ash Barty’s Australian Open swan song.
When it comes to her successor, Tennis Australia (TA) is breeding a crop of young talent with its National Tennis Academy in Queensland. Twenty-seven players aged between 14 and 23 have access to the country’s best coaches and sport scientists in a tailored training environment.
Chris Mahony heads up the academy, which has set a lofty goal as a key performance indicator.
“We’re aspiring to get 15 players in the top 100 because that would make us the number one tennis nation,” he said.
Australia has usually fallen behind the likes of the US, Spain and Russia, which generally have around 14 to 15 men and women among the top-ranked players.
“On the men’s side, we’re really healthy at the moment with eight in the top 100 and two knocking on the door,” Mahoney said.
“The women’s, we’ve had a few injuries and Ash [Barty] retiring, so we’re in a bit of a transitional stage with the girls. But we’ve got a good crop of young ones coming up that can hopefully fill those shoes.”
Chris Mahony oversees the team providing these future stars with a year-round training base while competing on the world junior circuit.
“They’re probably travelling 25 to 30 weeks of the year,” Mahony said.
“They do six days a week here. They’re typically on court, three to four hours a day.”
Their base – at the Queensland Tennis Centre in Brisbane – even has facilities for them to complete their schooling around their gruelling training and travel schedule.
The main aim is for each of them to crack the top 100 by the time they are 24 years old – the average age of players competing across the four grand slams.
“The top 100 is kind of the main benchmark in our sport,” Mahoney said.
“There are 104 direct spots into those tournaments, and that’s where the big money is.
“If you can get into there, that’s the start of your career, and then you know that prize money allows you to reinvest in yourself and hire your own coach and your own team.”
Ranked 111th in the world, that’s the fight currently facing 24-year-old Queenslander Kim Birrell, an alumnus of the development program.
“I’m starting to play some of my best tennis, and I really proved to myself that I can play against some of the best girls in the world and get some good results,” Birrell told ABC Sport.
Birrell impressed as a wild card at the 2023 Australian Open, taking down Kaia Kanepi – with a career-high ranking of world number 15 — in three sets.
“I’m hopefully going to make my dreams come true and get into the top 100 and then after that, I will definitely be shooting for the top 50,” she said.
Gold Coast siblings Hayden and Emerson Jones already have a taste of it, the teenagers sitting 35th and 23rd respectively in the world junior rankings.
Emerson Jones is the top-ranked 14-year-old in the world, with a big year of competition ahead of her.
“I’m really excited to just start off my career with doing some junior grand slams because I haven’t really done anything that big before, and then trying to get up to like the bigger and better tournaments like what Ash Barty has been playing,” she said.
The teens are also following in their parents’ footsteps.
Mum Lorretta Harrop was a silver medallist in the women’s triathlon at the Athens Olympics, while their father Brad Jones played Australian rules football, winning the QAFL’s top individual accolade, the Grogan Medal.
The family plans to continue travelling the circuit this year as the children compete at the junior French and US Opens, as well as Wimbledon.
“I don’t really like being away from home too much, too long, so when Mum, Dad and Emerson are there, it makes it easier for me, I enjoy it a lot more,” Hayden Jones said.
It also helps that the National Tennis Academy is only an hour up the road from their Gold Coast home.
The program was spread across facilities around the country before it was centralised at the Queensland Tennis Centre in 2020.
Mahoney said that is in part due to the climate in Brisbane, but also the fact the facility is one of the only training centres in the Southern Hemisphere with all the outdoor surfaces for the four grand slams.
Ninety per cent of the program’s funding comes from profits generated at the Australian Open each year.