Commentary

Little star power, waning interest attribute to plight of Swedish tennis

They've germinated dozens of world-class performers through the years. But with no players etched in the top 50, Sweden is pining for the days of Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. But as Ravi Ubha explains, a renaissance appears to be bleak.

Originally Published: February 18, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Robin SoderlingAP Photo/Claude ParisDon't recognize him? That's Robin Soderling, and at No. 59, he is one of only two Swedish players in the top 60 in the world.
Tradition, it seems, counts for little in modern day tennis. Just look at Sweden.

The Scandinavian nation that produced the rock-star like Bjorn Borg, graceful Stefan Edberg and efficient Mats Wilander -- not to mention dozens of other world-class performers in Sweden's heyday -- appears to have cast tennis aside as other sports surge in popularity.

The sport's governing body continues to leak financially, television stations get paid to show Davis Cup encounters and, judging by media involvement, interest in Grand Slams is minimal. The immediate future looks similarly bleak, but the Swedish Tennis Federation and players -- both past and present -- are trying to turn things around.

Last month, for instance, what's believed to be the country's first private academy was launched in Stockholm. It is being overseen by former world No. 2 Magnus Norman.

"We've had a declining curve as far as success," said Mikael Stripple, the federation's director of sport and a former coach of 1999 Australian Open finalist Thomas Enqvist. "If you compare it to the 1980s, we're far away from that level. If you look at the number of players in the top 100 or 200, we just have a fraction of the amount we used to have."

2002 Australian Open winner Thomas Johnansson leads the way at No. 54, while Robin Soderling, just back from a wrist ailment, and the ageless Jonas Bjorkman are Nos. 59 and 86, respectively.

Johansson, who's had to contend with one injury after another, will turn 33 next month, and his good friend Bjorkman turns 36 a day earlier. No other man is in the top 200.

Sofia Arvidsson, at No. 62, is the only woman in the top 200. She faded following a promising 2006 and didn't even get her own page in this year's WTA player guide. Only one junior, male or female, cracks the top 100.

If that wasn't bad enough, monster server Joachim Johansson, who was on course to become the next Swedish standout, retired this month due to ongoing shoulder problems.

"We were hoping that Joachim and Robin would be in the top for years to come," Stripple lamented.

Being at the elite level was scarcely a problem for the men in the past: Grand Slam champions popped up one by one. Borg collected 11 Grand Slam titles, and his place in the game is well documented. Wilander came next and left with seven majors, one more than Edberg, who was famous for his classic serve-volley game.

There were substantial layers underneath the elite players in those days. Along with Norman and Enqvist, Mikael Pernfors was a Grand Slam finalist. The likes of Joakim Nystrom, Anders Jarryd, Henrik Sundstrom, Jonas Svensson, Magnus Larsson and Kent Carlsson ensured a hefty Swedish contingent in the second weeks of Slams, too.

[+] EnlargeThomas Johansson
AP Photo/Steve HollandThomas Johansson, at the 2002 Australian Open, was the last Swedish Grand Slam champion.
Thirteen men finished in the top 100 in 1987, and the same year, six different Swedes captured a combined 18 titles, according to ATP stats wizard Greg Sharko. The country, remarkably, reached seven straight Davis Cup finals from 1983-89.

"We were so good that we spoiled everyone at home," said Bjorkman, himself a former world No. 4. "There was no way we could keep winning Davis Cups, have No. 1s and Grand Slam singles champions. We played the Davis Cup semifinals last year and were not even nominated for the top five teams in Sweden. I think people do forget some of the achievements we still create in tennis because they compare everything to the past."

With track and field grabbing more and more headlines -- Carolina Kluft is the world's undisputed heptathlon queen -- and hockey, soccer, golf and alpine skiing flourishing, there was minimal media presence at Sweden's Davis Cup opener in Israel last week. It was also a struggle to find a TV station willing to air September's home semifinal against the U.S.

Bjorkman and a few pals, including Wilander, work on a new Swedish tennis magazine that was launched last year following the demise of another national tennis publication.

The number of kids playing is on the rise, but only after the previous 10 years saw declines, according to Stripple.

"Tennis is not that big anymore," said Jonas Arnesen, a veteran sportswriter for the daily publication Svenska Dagbladet.

Why the downturn?

Apart from those other sports snaring potential tennis wannabes, Stripple pointed to an archaic club structure, due to be revamped by January 2009. Money is lacking -- the federation has been in the red annually in recent years -- as consistent sponsors stay away. The lack of money generated by the sport, for example, has meant that some good Swedish coaches find greener pastures. (Stripple is responsible for juniors, educating coaches, Olympic matters and anti-doping, and he works with tennis themed schools to boot.)

Bjorkman wasn't about to use Sweden's sparse population (about 9 million) as too big of an excuse, saying "a few good players on and off" should be in the pipeline. He did, however, target the federation.

"We were always telling them a lot of ideas of what we think we should do to get tennis in Sweden back on track," he said. "Unfortunately the ideas never went further than when we spoke."

"We need to get out in schools, we need to inform about tennis, we need to write about tennis, we need to start a tennis community," Norman added. "Tennis has been not as proactive as track & field, ice hockey and soccer in Sweden, so it has lost a lot of interest."

Backed by Catella and with the federation's blessing, the academy features juniors aged 15-18 by invitation only. Enqvist is among those who lend a hand, and if all goes well, younger players will be allowed in.

The complex has three hard courts, four clay courts and a gym.

"It's a new concept that started because we see that Swedish juniors aren't practicing enough, and they don't have enough quality in the practice," Norman, renown for his work ethic and fitness on tour, said. "The way we handled the juniors in the '80s, a lot of them came straight from the clubs to the ATP. Now we feel the club level has gone down a little bit."

Meanwhile, the federation's new system next year, will see 23 tennis districts across Sweden compressed to seven regions so that juniors have better competition and a more nurturing atmosphere.

Norman forecasted a renaissance, eventually.

"Everyone wants to see a new Grand Slam winner," he said. "For the moment things are a little bit down, but with the work we're doing at the academy and the work the federation is putting in, I think we'll see a revival again in eight to 10 years."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.