When Australia and the the US dominated men’s tennis 50 years ago

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As we survey a men’s game so dominated by players from Europe, it is instructive to look back to an earlier era when the United States and Australia were dominant and Europe was decidedly in the 2nd division .

Current European dominance was perfectly exemplified by the recent Australian Open. The quarter-final and semi-finals of that event were overwhelmingly European encounters. Whatever one’s views on the debate over future British participation in the European Union, the geographical fact remains that two Europeans, in the shape of Murray and Djokovic, are the contenders in the Australian final.

Fifty years ago, those stages of the draw were overwhelmingly Australian and at the US National Championships at Forest Hills, overwhelmingly American encounters. Furthermore, the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup was competed for by the US and Australia, the former winning by a narrow 3-2. This was the norm in international tennis at the time and very few, either nations or individuals, could rival their joint superiority. Even more so, the then burgeoning professional game was also dominated by these two nations: Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzales, Tony Trabert, Frank Sedgeman, Earl Bucholz, the most illustrious among them.

Over those years, we have seen the rise of Europe (in both men’s and women’s tennis) and the demise of both Australia and the US. This shift in the balance in international tennis has been most evident since the turn of the millennium. The passing of Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, Phillipousis and Hewitt and the rise of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and many others has signalled this shift. The fact that there has been no meaningful replenishment of past Australian and American talent at the very top has been noteworthy. Although American and Australian talent has been there or thereabouts (Isner, Fish, Tomic and a few others), it has not really threatened the talent at the top of the game. By contrast, European talent down the pecking order has shown its capacity to pose a potent threat to the Top Quartet, through such players as Tsonga and Ferrer. Why is that so?

In the US, the college breeding ground continues healthy, but more of its scholarship stars now come from outside the US. What is clear is that unlike in periods in the past, reality on the ground has shown that there is no longer that swift and easy transition from the US collegiate game to the higher levels of the professional game. This is not intended to decry the level of talent in the US collegiate game which remains high, but simplify to highlight how the dynamics and centres of power in the international game have changed. Australia, which does not have the same well-developed collegiate system as exists in the US, has also seen the relative success of its upcoming talent dwindle, but largely for different reasons.

Many would say that tennis has suffered due to it having to compete for attention with an ever-expanding range of sports (basketball, football and baseball the most popular in the US and rugby (two codes), cricket and Aussie Rules in Australia). These sports attract people from a young age, many of whom are then forever lost to tennis. Given the head start offered by youth starting tennis at an early age, this is critical. Can it also be said that, even despite the huge efforts to widen the base of tennis worldwide, it has found it hard to shrug off its ‘elitist’ tag? Image is everything in modern life, it seems, and the aura a sport gives off affects the level of its appeal. No matter how much effort that has been put in on the ground to democratise the sport, perhaps it is more difficult to change lingering public images (real or distorted).

One would imagine that the same argument would equally apply to the sport in Europe. All of Europe is football mad and other sports also compete with tennis for attention, yet tennis in Europe has burgeoned. The Central/Eastern Europeans and the Spaniards are strongly to the forefront, in two parts of the continent where the appeal of football is particularly strong. In the case of Central/Eastern Europe, the efforts of these societies’ public authorities to invest in and develop tennis over many years have borne fruit in recent years. Buoyed up by some ‘early wins’ in the early years of professional tennis through the successes of Nastase, Tiriac, Kodes, Lendl, Navratilova, Sukova et al and the later successes of Ivanisevic, Mecir, Djokovic (and the many talented women), that part of Europe is now widely recognised as  a tennis ‘centre of excellence’.

The ups and downs of international tennis fortune would suggest that the basic laws of physics also apply to the human realm. In the far distant past, Britain and France had their ‘place in the sun’, as did Australia and the United States subsequently. Now, it seems that the cycle has simply moved in Europe’s direction. Or is there a much more long term trend at play here? With a few exceptions in the US and Australian game, the burgeoning talent continues to come mainly from Europe, (not surprisingly) building on the momentum provided by current and past generations of European talent. This is not to say that some new ‘supernova’ will not emerge from either Australia or America to set the tennis world alight. With both countries’ traditions and tennis infrastructures, this is always a live possibility. Yet, we are still waiting. As the Grand Slam events and the ATP tour demonstrate very clearly, the Europeans continue to hold a firm grip on the men’s game, a grip they seem likely to reinforce for the foreseeable future. Maybe the next ‘supernova’ will come from one of the dynamic BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as the centre of economic and power moves away from the US/Europe nexus. Now that would be interesting.

Paul McElhinney

January 2013

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