Mon, Apr 8, 2024 11:33 AM

Local tennis coach returns as NZ captain


Peter Jones

Marlborough tennis coach Matt Hair heads into his second national assignment with a revamped team and high expectations.

Matt was confirmed recently as captain of the five-strong New Zealand senior women’s side to contest the Billie Jean King Cup Asia/Oceania Group 1 competition in Changsha, China from April 8-13.

Last year he made his debut as team captain, leading the Kiwi contingent to Malaysia where they reached the final of the Asia/Oceania Group II play-offs.

This time around they step up to Group 1, coming up against teams representing the Peoples Republic of China, India, Chinese Taipei, the Korean Republic and Pacific Oceania.

There have been a couple of notable changes to the NZ team, which is spearheaded by experienced WTA tour professional Erin Routliffe, a Grand Slam doubles champion, plus Lulu Sun who recently switched allegiances from her Swiss base to her country of birth.

Also on the team is Australia-based Kiwi Monique Barry, Valentina Ivanov, competing in her fifth event, and veteran Paige Hourigan who has made a comeback from injury last year.

Matt Hair and the 2023 NZ team, including Marlborough's Jade Otway, second from right.

Sun and Hourigan replace Marlborough’s Jade Otway, who made a promising debut last year and Vivian Yang.

Matt says the selection of Sun, who was born in Te Anau, has added depth to the Kiwi ranks.

“It is a real bonus for us having a player that is around the 150-mark in singles, that is a huge boost to the team.

“It is also great to have Erin back in the team … number five in the world in doubles and a Grand Slam winner and her experience of being a Tour player is really going to help. Erin has always been really good with the younger players as well.”

Six teams will compete in Asia/Oceania Group I in  a round robin competition on clay. The top two teams will win promotion to the 2024 Billie Jean King Cup play-offs, while the bottom two teams will be relegated to Asia/Oceania Group II in 2025.

Matt said he was happy to retain the job and intends to build on last year’s efforts.

“It is great to be given the opportunity to carry on what we started last year … the girls had a really good adaptive culture and were keen to improve, especially the younger girls. I really enjoyed it last year, so hope to continue in that vein.”

Matt said there were plenty of learnings gained from last year’s Malaysian trip.

“What we worked hard on last year was our team culture. So, I am hoping we are going to be able to take that to the next level this year.”

After spending many seasons coaching individuals, notably Grand Slam competitor Julia Grabher from Austria, Matt is relishing the additional pressure of performing in a team environment, especially the on-court coaching during matches.

“I have definitely enjoyed the team situation,” he said. “It is a learning experience for me too.

“Look, it’s tough, you get five players who are obviously working as individuals throughout the year, so trying to bring them together as a team in a short space of time is challenging. But I think we went a long way towards getting a good culture going. It is hard work, but it is also very rewarding when it happens.”

Despite coming up against five tough opponents in China, Matt has high hopes of success.

“They are strong nations but obviously having Lulu in the team and Erin with her doubles’ prowess, I think we have a chance of finishing in the top two. That is our aim.”

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