European Dominance at Tennis
When I first started taking an interest in tennis in the late 1960’s, the game was dominated by the Australians and the Americans. This was the case in both the men’s and the women’s game and had been so throughout the 1950’s and the 1960’s. Players like Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Billie-Jean King and Margaret Court were then in the ascendant. Now forty years on, the situation is completely different as European players dominate the game. Russian, Central European and Spanish players bestride the top of the world rankings, while tennis in those two former bastions, Australia and America, lies in the doldrums. Such a major reversal in fortunes is hard to credit and bears some closer exploration. Perhaps, sporting dominance simply goes in waves and what we are seeing now is that part of the cycle bringing Europeans to dominance. Or are there other more permanent factors at play?
While tennis first started in Europe in the 19th century, chiefly in Britain and France, it was not long before it had been exported abroad where the Australians and the Americans in particular, came to the fore. In the pre-WW2 years, many European players were at the top of the sport. The names of Perry, Cochet, Austin, Lacoste, Borotra, Brugnon, von Cramm stand in the pantheon of tennis heroes of that era. In the post-World War 2 years, however, Europeans went into relative decline against a background of rising dominance of the Australians and the Americans. In those years, players such as Drobny, Pietrangeli and Santana managed to rise to the dizzy heights, but overall European talent was seen as in overall decline. In the women’s game, Truman and Mortimer-Barrett, Francoise Durr, Ann Jones and Virginia Wade ensured a strong European representation at the top of the game, but like in the men’s game, the balance of power had also shifted decidedly in the Americans’ and Australians’ direction.
Things began gradually to shift back again in Europe’s favour in the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s as players like Borg, Nastase, Wilander, Lendl, Edberg, Becker, Noah and others came onto the scene – role models to a younger generation of European players who have subsequently carried the torch forward.
Since the era of US dominance in the 1990’s and 2000’s, it is noteworthy to see the slide in the US game particularly. Since the days of Sampras, Agassi and Courier, the US game has been finding it hard to chart a future for itself. After Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, many are asking from where will the future generation of US talent emerge. After the Williams sisters, many ask the same question of the women’s game in the US.
What are the reasons for this? Both the US and Australia are big sporting nations with a huge number of sports competing for attention and popularity. Tennis, as a result, has found itself being squeezed in the middle. In the US, football, baseball, basketball and hockey all vie for attention in multi-billion dollar industries. In Australia, rugby union, rugby league, Aussie rules and cricket are the ‘big ticket’ sports, attracting the most attention in a highly competitive and commercialised environment. Unlike a country like New Zealand where sport is dominated by rugby, Australians excel at a wide range of sports which all compete in a crowded market-place. These factors must go a long way in explaining the relative decline of tennis. With fewer players at the top of the game and as a result, fewer role models, the relative decline inevitably is compounded.
The countries of Eastern and Central Europe are an interesting example of the new trends. These countries are very much at the hub of the new burgeoning international talent. Famous central Europeans of the past like Navratilova, Lendl, Kodes, Mandlikova, Sukova laid firm foundations in that part of Europe. It is also interesting how the countries of the former Yugoslavia, so beset by other problems in recent decades, are also asserting their strengths in both men’s and women’s tennis. The impact of players like Ivanisovic and Djokovic on the game in that part of Europe has been huge in recent years. The women’s game has also been moving forward impressively in these countries.
In times gone by, tennis in the former Soviet Union was very much a ‘ginger group’ sport, seen as a ‘capitalist, elitist indulgence’, with only the occasional international talent emerging in the form of an Alex Metreveli or an Olga Moroszova. Since the collapse of Communism, tennis has taken on new lease of life in Russia unencumbered by obsolete notions of ‘acceptable’ sports. Russia, of course, had always had a strong sporting orientation. Huge public funding had traditionally been devoted to encouraging sport with the aim of enhancing Russia’s international prestige. This sense of drive and determination has now successfully been channelled into tennis where Russia’s men, and particularly its women, are among the best in the international game.
In the early years of open tennis, the majority of tennis events were held in locations in the US and the sport generally was very much driven from within the US. In the 21st century, the span of locations for major events is much wider and a great number of these are now held in Europe. This has inevitably heightened interest. It both reflects and has enhanced interest in the game in Europe.
What has been of interest has been that while tennis strength has rolled on on the continent of Europe, the same has not happened in Great Britain. This has been the subject of much comment, analysis and regret in Britain. The country that gave the world tennis and is still able to host the world’s premier tennis event, has not yet been able to devise a plan to produce more successful young players. There are obviously a myriad of reasons for this, but as an outsider looking in on British tennis, it strikes me when looking at many British players that there does not appear to be the same hunger to win as there is among from players from other countries. Murray and Henman aside (two players who rose to the heights of the game), this lack of the ‘killer instinct’ comes across palpably. Admittedly, tennis in Britain also suffers from the same obstacles as other countries where it has to compete with other popular sports in a crowded market place. The British tennis public continues to live in hope of the arrival of the ‘Great British Tennis Messiah’, so hope remains. This has to be matched by a much greater deepening of tennis talent beyond the occasional individual who alone scales the international heights.
For the foreseeable future, this dominance of the game by the Europeans looks set to continue. No other force is standing on the horizon to challenge that dominance. This is not to say that a US ‘supernova’ might not appear, but until there is a major rebuilding of the game there, the US is set to remain in Europe’s shadow, despite the vast resources and facilities invested in the game there. Maybe, it would be better for there to be more international balance to rival European dominance. Yet, within Europe there is considerable international balance with Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Croatia and the Czech Republic all vying for dominance. You could argue, therefore, that the scene now is much more balanced than in the days of US and Australian dominance. National pride being what it is, this may inspire a great resurgence among the Australians and the Americans. As two strong sporting and highly competitive nations, this is a strong possibility. Traditions of excellence do not disappear overnight and for the good of the overall game, as much competition as possible is healthy. The crown continues to rest comfortably on Europe’s head for the moment, but complacency should be avoided at all costs.
Date published :
26 Sep 2011 - 11:13:30