As Daria Saville posted her first win at a major level in more than a year on Monday, a star who once carried Australian tennis could be spotted among the crowd at Roland Garros.
US Open winner Sam Stosur was the first of the two big retirements in Australian tennis this year that have left the cupboard looking distinctly bare when it comes to major contenders.
When Ash Barty thumped a forehand winner past Danielle Collins to claim the Australian Open in January, the champagne flowed as the nation celebrated a generational talent.
The Barty Party felt like it was warming up when the three-time major winner retired in March. The bar closed abruptly, bottles were re-corked, and a hangover loomed large.
The “After Ash” era has begun, and the first grand slam since her retirement in Paris proved a sobering affair for local hopefuls.
With Dasha Saville’s exit in the third round on Friday ending a good tournament from the former world No 20, not one Australian progressed to the last 16 of the French Open.
Stosur, hoping to mentor the next generation of Australian talent when she hangs up her racquet after a last lap on the doubles circuit, noted from Paris: “I think Ash covered up a few holes in where our players are”.
“All of a sudden, things are not looking great,” she said.
Australia’s top-ranked man Alex de Minaur exited in the opening round and has just two wins from six visits to Paris, though his form on clay in the lead-in events was stronger.
Former boys champion Alexei Popyrin has just one win from four attempts.
On the day Cameron Norrie beat Jason Kubler in straight sets, Nick Kyrgios was training on a practice court in Australia when not belittling Bernard Tomic on social media.
The 42nd-ranked Ajla Tomljanovic, now the nation’s top-ranked woman, reached the second round.
Saville, who is on the comeback trail from ankle and Achilles heel issues, is on the verge of breaking back into the top 100 and showing signs she can return to where she was.
This week they proved a minor step forward from a hardly inspiring 2021 in Paris when two men and three women, including an injured Barty, managed to win a round.
Jordan Thompson was the last Australian man to reach the third round in Paris in 2019, the same year Barty claimed her maiden grand slam title at Roland Garros.
When assessing the desolate landscape of Aussies cast aside on the red clay of Paris this week, John Millman said: “We have been lucky with Ash, haven’t we? It doesn’t come around too often, having the best player in the world.”
But just as one swallow does not make a spring, rushing to judgment that Australian tennis is in a death spiral after the below-par showing in Paris would be a miscalculation.
The grass is generally far greener for Australians when they cross the English Channel, though it is a stretch to suggest any of the current cohorts will match Barty’s deed last year at Wimbledon.
Millman urged against hasty judgments, saying that having six men in the top 100 and Popyrin on the cusp is a remarkable effort given the global spread of tennis.
“I think it gets lost in Australia just how challenging tennis is,” he said. “We are not in your faces every week like your footy players are. There are probably 400-footy players that are on a list. Then you have a sport played in 180 countries.
“And you start doing the maths and think, ‘If you can get one player into the top 100, that is the equivalent of probably having the best player in the league in Australia,’. I am not having a go at the footy. Everyone knows that I love my footy. But in terms of how we perceive tennis players, it blows my mind.”
Stosur is hopeful some of the 11 Australian women ranked between 100 and 250 will have learned from Barty, who is also planning to mentor young talent and become tour regulars.
She is confident Saville will gain ground quickly if she can remain fit and has belief in the potential of Olivia Gadecki and teenager Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz, who played doubles this week.
“We need all those to push each other along and try to get up the rankings,” she said. “One in the top 100 is not great by any means, but hopefully, we can push the eight, 10 to 12 players into the next bracket. Hopefully, it is not too long.”
Longer term, there is hope that the Barty effect will fuel a surge of Australian talent. Enrolments in coaching numbers skyrocketed during the three-time major winner’s career, and her coach Craig Tyzzer is hopeful the retired world No one will create a legacy of success.
“The five or six-year-olds who have started now, in ten to 15 years’, might be the best juniors in Australia. That is what we hope,” Tyzzer said. “Just the fact that there are more people out there playing tennis and doing sport is the other part of it; whether or not they make it to where Ash is or play on the tour, it doesn’t matter.”