Aussies nurtured some of tennis' greatest champions
It laid the foundation for much of today's circuit, fostered the all-time men's Grand Slam champ and defied conventional wisdom, but the U.S. is not the greatest tennis country of all time.
Never mind that the flow of top players has slowed to a trickle. What matters most is the Aussie code and how it has long set the gold standard for how tennis players should comport themselves. Back in the days when such stars as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong kept Australia atop the tennis world, the saying was "first to the net, first to the pub." But that easygoing temperament belies a supreme work ethic, exemplary camaraderie and first-rate sportsmanship. Leave the whining to wankers from other countries. Often working as coaches and hitting partners for players from tons of countries, these guys and gals are court rats of the highest order. Always have, always will. Stop the presses if you ever meet a pompous Australian.
2. United States of America
Decades of success, innovation and commercialism have long kept the U.S. at the forefront of tennis. America is where a man like Richard Williams has the guts to disregard conventional wisdom and dare push two young African-American girls to the top. America is where an entrepreneurial teaching pro like Nick Bollettieri created an academy -- like the Williams family, without top-down institutional engagement -- that's emerged as a developmental Ellis Island, nurturing future pros from around the world. No nation has won more Davis Cup and Fed Cup titles than the U.S., a saga of championship play that goes back more than a century. While other nations are currently surpassing the U.S. both on the court and in the business of tennis, it was America that laid the foundation for much of today's professional circuit.
Yes, the peak years came in the '20s, when the stylish Suzanne Lenglen and the legendary Four Musketeers dominated the world. But France continues to make the mark you'd expect from a nation where style is supreme. From Hall of Famers Francoise Durr and Yannick Noah, to Fabrice Santoro and Amelie Mauresmo, uniquely creative players have enjoyed successful careers. The French Open at Roland Garros has also stepped up considerably. As recently as the late '70s, various political and economic factors contributed to shallow fields. But thanks to a French visionary named Philippe Chatrier, Roland Garros resurrected itself and has emerged as a popular, significant and enchanting part of the tennis calendar.
4. Great Britain
On one hand, the last time this nation had a Grand Slam men's singles champ, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought Hitler could be kindly talked into making peace. Fred Perry's Wimbledon win in 1936 is the most recent triumph on the books. And the women have only been marginally better -- nothing since Virginia Wade's Wimbledon victory 31 years ago. But golly, these folks invented tennis, creating Wimbledon. No court in the world conveys the spiritual and emotional power of Centre Court. For that alone, Great Britain remains near the head of the tennis table.
Rafael Nadal is now at the forefront of an armada that's been permeating the game for nearly two decades. Recent Grand Slam champions such as Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya and Sergi Bruguera may only have won at the French, but their games helped create a template for today's brand of physical baseline play. Spain has also emerged as a top-tier training ground for players from many countries, as evidenced by the success of the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. Add in prominent coaches such as Jose Higueras and champions Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Conchita Martinez, Manuel Orantes and Manolo Santana and the mélange is spicy.
Like spam on your computer, a new Russian tennis phenom seems to surface every three minutes. No other nation in recent tennis history has so rapidly made a name for itself. Its players are workhorses, practicing hard, entering tons of tournaments and winning an ample share. They are also thoroughly committed to team play, always front and center for Davis Cup and Fed Cup.
The nation no longer exists, but its tennis heritage is proud, distinctive and revolutionary. Back in the '20s and '30s, Karel Kozeluh was one of the top pros in the world, on a par with fellow Hall of Famers Bill Tilden and Ellsworth Vines. Later in the '70s came "the bouncing Czech," three-time Slam winner Jan Kodes, another Hall of Famer. But Czechoslovakia's major contribution came in the form of Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl. Overcoming early doubts in their respective careers, each greatly upped the ante in defining what it meant to be a professional tennis player. Navratilova was the pioneer, the first to conduct the off-court fitness and nutrition regimen that's since become de rigueur for all pros. Lendl rapidly followed. To these two champions -- winners of a combined 26 singles Slams -- the motto was simple: In the pursuit of excellence, leave no stone unturned.
In many ways, this nation of affable gents picked up the mantle from Australia as the epicenter of camaraderie, sportsmanship and athleticism. Bjorn Borg was, of course, a tennis rock star, a man who even today at age 52 can command attention by showing up at Roland Garros and Wimbledon wearing a blazer. Later came multi-Slam champs Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, accompanied by a troupe of classy, unpretentious warriors whose most recent incarnation is one of the most respected men in the entire sport, Jonas Bjorkman. Like Australia, Spain and Russia, Sweden has by now long been an impact player in high-profile events like Davis Cup.
Two of the most charismatic champions in tennis history, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, put this nation on the tennis map in a big way. Becker for a time was the most popular person in the entire country, a massive crossover icon who delivered the goods in Slams and in Davis Cup. Graf's 22 Grand Slam singles titles -- including a calendar-year sweep of the Slams and an Olympic medal -- are a titanic achievement. Off the court, the success of these two triggered significant economic growth for tennis in Europe. Historically, such notables as Hall of Famer Gottfried von Cramm and Roland Garros three-peater Hilde Sperling add luster.
In the movie "The Third Man," Harry Lime, a character played with understated bravado by the legendary Orson Welles, takes a swipe at Switzerland. Says Lime, "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace -- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Since the movie was made in 1949, Lime was long gone when two creative geniuses emerged from Switzerland: Martina Hingis and Roger Federer. Any nation that's the base for such distinctive stylists is as prominent to tennis as the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool is to the history of pop music.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
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