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February 20, 2014 11:48 AM

AussieDJLast June, John Embree, the CEO of the USPTA, asked Albuquerque coach Dick Johnson if he’d like to attend the 2014 Australian Open. If you know, Dick, that is like asking a Little Leaguer if he’d care to hang with Big Papi. Embree was getting together 30 or so other coaches and pros from the U.S. to spend 10 days Down Under. The group would be guests of the Australian Tennis Federation and would be there for part of the Open and for the Coaches Conference. Members of the group—Johnson was the only one from the Southwest—paid their airfare and hotel expenses, but the federation took care of passes to the Open, meals and sightseeing travels.

You’ve gone to other Grand Slam tournaments, haven’t you?

I’ve been to the U.S. Open four times, Wimbledon four times.  The Australian Open was very high on my bucket list.

Why was that?

I used to work with a lot of those guys. In the mid-1970s and into the early ’80s, I worked with Rod Laver and Roy Emerson at one of their tennis camps in Murrieta Hot Springs, in California. Back then they held adult tennis camps across the country. Now and then they would bring in others great Aussies, such as Lew Hoad and Mal Anderson.

Tell me about the National Tennis Centre. Is it like our Flushing Meadows?

It was built in 1988 in what is Melbourne Park. The center doesn’t have stadiums as large as our National Tennis Center. Melbourne Park is actually a complex of different facilities. For tennis, the main stadium, the Rod Laver Arena is impressive. So is Margaret Court Arena. There is also a rugby stadium, an Australian rules football stadium, a cricket stadium in Melbourne Park. The first two days there we attended the Coaches Conference, which consisted of guest speakers and classroom sessions. Toni Nadal was a speaker. So was Judy Murray, Andy’s mom. The National Tennis Centre has 34 outdoor courts. Its grounds are amazing.

Why is that?

There are busts of Australian tennis greats everywhere. Laver, Emerson, Stolle, Roche, Margaret Court and on and on and on.  You quickly realize you are in the presence of tennis royalty.

Much of what we read about the Australian Open this year had to do with the horrific heat. How bad was it?

The tough part was four straight days over 100 degrees. This was their summer, of course, but Australia has never had four consecutive days above 100 in a century. I was there for the Sharapova-Karin Knapp match when it reached 108.  There were announcements all day long about applying sunscreen and drinking water.  Even so, spectators were being taken out of Rod Laver Arena all the time for heat prostration. Being from the Southwest and enduring summer days in Phoenix, I was prepared.

At the U.S. Open you can run into people you know. Did this happen in Australia?

One day I stopped to watch Ryan Harrison’s match. Who should be standing alongside me but Tom Gullikson. I had last seen Gully at the Coleman Vision, two or three years ago, when he was  helping Melanie Oudin. “What are you doing here?” I asked Gully. “What are you doing here?’ he asked me. He was there coaching Ryan, who unfortunately met Gael Monfils in the first round and lost in straight sets.

Did you see Nadal play?  

Not in a match, but I saw him practicing and that was as just as instructive. For a good hour, two young Spanish pros fed Nadal forehands and Nadal would return each one, first a down-the-line, then a cross-court, then an inside-out. Only forehands, over and over.

Did you get to play any tennis?

We played at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, which is located in a Melbourne suburb. Kooyong is Australia’s historic tennis venue, much like our Forest Hills. There are 26 manicured grass courts there. Kooyong Stadium was home to some great Davis Cup battles with the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Australian Tennis Federation arranged for our group to get on those courts and hit. That was really memorable. There was a federation awards dinner one night and members of our group got to hold the original, very old and inscribed Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, which goes the men’s singles winner.  We had to wear white gloves when we held that grand old trophy.

Why has Australia stopped turning out tennis superstars as it once did?

Like the U.S., Australia is trying to play catch-up with the rest of the world. The Australian Tennis Federation is in the midst of installing a national initiative for its 10-and-unders, much like the USTA’s push. The federation has commissioned groups of tennis professionals to go to major cities such as Hobart, Adelaide and Sydney, and get kids playing the game. Local tennis pros in those cities have been recruited to make sure the kids keep at it.

What did you take away from this trip?

I have never experienced a new place where people are as friendly as in Australian.  Everyone was so cheerful and so kind.  When we would go to enter anyplace, officials would see the passes that hung around our necks, and they’d say, “Oh, coach, go right in.  No worries coach.” 

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