Perhaps the high point for New Zealand tennis – certainly since the days of Anthony Wilding in the early 1900s – occurred in the early 1980s. In the Davis Cup, Chris Lewis – who had foreshadowed future greatness by winning Junior Wimbledon in 1975 – and Russell Simpson formed a strong combination. In 1982 they took New Zealand all the way to the Davis Cup World Group semi-finals, where they were beaten just 3–2 by France.
In 1985 Chris Lewis was the last New Zealand player to win the Benson and Hedges Open. New Zealand has been absent from the tournament roll of champions since then, except in 1996 when Brett Steven was the runner-up. New Zealanders appeared on the roll more frequently in the 1970s and early 1980s. No New Zealand women have won the ASB Classic – Belinda Cordwell was runner-up in 1989. International players treat these tournaments as a warm-up for the Australian Open, which partly explains why New Zealanders no longer get a look-in. However, this also reflects New Zealand’s modest standing in the tennis world.
Lewis, unseeded (unranked for the tournament), and ranked 91st in the world, stunned tennis followers in 1983 when he reached the Wimbledon singles final. His 8–6 win in the fifth set over 12th seed Kevin Curren in the semi-final was a cliff-hanger that kept New Zealand tennis fans up all night watching on television. In the final, Lewis was outplayed by John McEnroe, but his effort was still remarkable. He won the Sportsman of the Year award and his world ranking rose to a career high of 19.
Other male players
Russell Simpson never reached Lewis’s heights, but was a good professional player. Soon after, two more notable players emerged, Kelly Evernden and Brett Steven. They carried New Zealand’s Davis Cup efforts into the 1990s, but after their departure New Zealand men’s tennis declined rapidly. New Zealand became ensconced in the lower tiers of the Davis Cup, a far cry from the heyday of the 1980s.
Belinda Cordwell emerged in the mid-1980s as New Zealand’s best woman player. She scored several notable wins at Fed Cup level and most notably in the Australian Open, where she reached the semi-finals in 1989. Her highest world ranking was 17. Julie Richardson and Claudine Toleafoa were two other near-contemporaries of Cordwell who achieved well, Richardson more in doubles than singles.
The women’s field in the Benson and Hedges Open was discontinued in 1981, but a new women’s tournament (now the ASB Classic) started in 1985.
Since Chris Lewis, Belinda Cordwell and Kelly Evernden, the only New Zealand player of real international standing has been Marina Erakovic, who was coached in Auckland for some years by Lewis. Erakovic was a junior doubles winner at the 2004 US and 2005 Australian opens and a junior doubles runner-up at Wimbledon in those years. She was ranked inside the top 50 in July 2008, but fell to 324 at the end of the 2010 season due to injury. Erakovic recovered form in 2011 and was ranked 39 in May 2012.
The national association (called Tennis New Zealand in the 2000s) tried various methods of developing players. It sent junior teams overseas, set up a national coaching school in Auckland and encouraged some players to gain scholarships at American universities. No method was especially successful. Several competent players were produced, including Leanne Baker, Sacha Jones, James Greenhalgh and Steven Downs (Junior Wimbledon and French Open doubles winners in 1993), but they were unable to break into the top levels of world rankings.