How Important Is It To Have A Strong National Tennis Movement? - UBITENNIS
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How Important Is It To Have A Strong National Tennis Movement?

A strong national tennis movement can be important for the interest of sport in countries and creating the next generation.

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Jannik Sinner (@rolandgarros - Twitter)

Article translated by Tommaso Villa

 

The Swedes followed Borg with his “grandchildren” Wilander & Co. Same with Germany, inspired by the Wunderkind, Boris Becker, and by Fraulein Forehand, Steffi Graf. The importance of leading by example.

Tennis is obviously an individual sport. Every player runs and strikes for himself or herself. However, it cannot be a coincidence that, in certain eras, players from the same countries have done well at the same time – a concept that applies the other way around as well. As to why this happens, here’s a few theories:

  1. It could be the leading example of a fellow countryman or countrywoman, someone who perhaps didn’t stand out as a junior player, allowing to understand that a champion is great, of course, but not superhuman – “if he or she did it, why can’t I?”
  2. Maybe it’s the fact that tennis players are not as alone as they used to be. They have coaches, physios, psychologists, tactical analysts, physicians, whole teams. And what do teams do? If they are friendly with members of other collectives, they collaborate, exchange information, foster the growth of each member. If they are not, they study each other, learn, and grow. What happens when a player’s team has success? Other teams emulate and study their methods. Very often, one’s achievement becomes everybody’s achievement. Within the tennis circles, it is then much likelier that people from the same country will enable each other – why would you antagonise people with which you can naturally cooperate, since they were shaped from the same mould?  
  3. The media play an important role, perhaps, voicing and spreading the popularity of the game, positively influencing the entire movement, and encouraging the players to greater feats.
  4. Said national enthusiasm might prompt more kids to pick up a racquet and further stimulate the growth of the game in a given country, creating a positive cycle.

Tennis history validates all the above statements. I’m not referring to the epochs when the game was limited to a few select nations: before WWII, it was the Brits and Wimbledon, the French with the Musketeers, the Americans with Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge. Afterwards, and all the way to the end of the Sixties, tennis was dominated by the Aussies, followed (though not closely) by the United States. Between 1950 and 1967, Australia won the Davis Cup 15 times out of 18 (the competition was as important as a Major back then), dominating thanks to the presence of champions like Sedgman, McGregor, Rose, Rosewall, Hoad, Laver, Newcombe, Roche, and Emerson – the USA won thrice out of 11 finals.

Of course, both countries had a much bigger reservoir of young players due to a greater following, a following that was alimented by a winning cycle, so much that five consecutive American Davis Cup wins (between 1968 and 1972) took place in the same years when Agassi, Courier, Sampras, and Chang were born, three of them the children of immigrant parents who had discovered the game because of the national wins that made headlines and filled sports shows – this was also the time when the Slams were becoming more and more popular, especially the US Open and Wimbledon.

In the early Sixties, Italy reached two Davis Cup finals, in 1960-61, and, perhaps by chance, perhaps not (I believe not), four kids (they were born in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1953) learned about the game after hearing about what Pietrangeli, Sirola, Merlo, and Gardini had done – they would later become Italy’s version of the Musketeers (Panatta, Barazzutti, Bertolucci, and Zugarelli), one of them the son of a tennis club’s custodian, another one the offspring of a Tuscan tennis instructor, two more the progeny of struggling families.

THE POST-BORG SWEDISH CASE

What happened in the early 1970’s? Borg Mania, the arrival of a racquet-swinging Beatle, that’s what happened. His popularity was immense – a bona fide superstar. He won a Davis Cup almost by himself, along with 11 Majors that included a triple Roland Garros-Wimbledon brace, back when grass was actually grass and players did not even have the time to assimilate the switch between the dirt and the lawns. The outcome of his domination? The media frenzy in Sweden spurred a bonanza of young children who elected to start playing, flooding tennis clubs in a small country that didn’t even have outdoor courts except in Bastad – all those kids braving the cold before dawn, they dreamt of becoming the new Bjorn Borg.

Coincidentally (but it’s not a coincidence) those years saw the emergence of Wilander, Nystrom, Sundstrom, Jarryd, and Edberg. A grassroots dynasty with seven consecutive Davis Cup Finals between 1983 and 1989 – and three titles. The glory days lasted until Edberg’s retirement in 1996, when his team lost the final in Malmoe against the French led by Arnaud Boetsch (now a Rolex man), who saved three match points against Niklas Kulti in the decisive tie. Unfortunately, Larsson, Kulti, Gunnarson, and Gustafson didn’t have the talent or the charisma of their predecessors. Therefore, the sacred fire of tennis in Sweden was extinguished, and it hasn’t come back to this day – at the moment, the best Scandinavian player is a Norwegian, Casper Ruud.

GERMAN PHENOMS

Midway through the 1980’s, a new champion emerged in Europe – Boris Becker, born in 1967. Actually, the young Teutonic studs were two, because a few years later Steffi Graf (born in 1969) broke onto the scene as well, and in a far more emphatically dominating way. At the beginning of the ensuing decade, when Boris had already become the most popular German along with his peer, nicknamed Fraulein Forehand, the German Chancellor Kohl said: “If Becker decided to run, he’d easily win the elections” – that was around the time when, in 1991, he lost the Wimbledon final against a fellow countryman, Michael Stich.  

Coincidentally (but it’s not a coincidence) Germany notched its first two Davis Cup titles in those years (out of three finals played between 1985 and 1989), and the wins snowballed into a generation of very good players, such as former world N.2 Tommy Haas, N.4 Nicolas Kiefer, and N.6 Rainer Schuettler. However, a guy like Haas, who didn’t reach the top spot and wasn’t reared in Germany but rather in Florida by Nick Bollettieri, wasn’t enough, and the flame was extinguished in Germany as well, with the galore of tournaments (Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Essen, Hannover) trickling down to almost nothing, the population losing interest due to the lack of new great champions.

NADAL, SPAIN, AND THE FRENCH TENNIS MOVEMENT

As soon as the German fandom started dwindling, Ion Tiriac moved his Masters 1000 event from Hamburg to Madrid, where the Caja Magica was built and Rafa Nadal dominated, spearheading a national movement that was already great – the years of Santana, Orantes, and Gimeno were the same when Bruguera, Albert and Carlos Costa, Moya, and Ferrero were born or grew up in, another coincidence/not coincidence – the latter even became the first man to lead Spain to a Davis Cup triumph.

I don’t want to become repetitive, even though there are dozens of examples, such as in France, where the generation of Noah, Forget and Leconte was succeeded by Grosjean and Clement, who were in turn up-staged by the contemporary, ageing quartet of Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet, and Simon, or in Argentina, where the duel between Vilas and Clerc caused the emergence of Jaite, Coria, Gaudio, Del Potro, or in Croatia, where Ivanisevic spawned Cilic and Coric, and so on.

THE ITALIAN CASE, FROM SCHIAVONE TO CECCHINATO

The history of Italian tennis is further confirmation of the generational theory: after years of drought, Francesca Schiavone won the French Open at 30 years old, reaching the final again the next year, perhaps an even greater achievement. Before her, Silvia Farina had reached the 11th spot in the rankings, but she had never broken through at a Slam, thus not spurring a winning wave. Coincidentally (but it’s not a coincidence!) Schiavone was immediately succeeded by another Italian in the Parisian final, Sara Errani, a player very few believed in – certainly not the national federation, judging by the press releases of the time and by the fact that she had opted to move to Spain to train with Pablo Lozano, but still, right on her heels, Flavia Pennetta won at Indian Wells and then at the 2015 US Open, defeating Roberta Vinci, another Italian who hadn’t done much early on in her career.

How can this multiplicity of great players be explained if not by acknowledging the veracity of the theories I laid down at the beginning of this op-ed? Why the Italian women managed to ratch up these wins while their male counterpart couldn’t? The answer is simple: because no man was able to convey a positive message to the younger generation for over 40 years, no Italian male player was able to go deep into a Major nor to win some big event.

In 2018, Marco Cecchinato reached the semi-finals at the French Open, 40 years after Barazzutti. Suddenly, every Italian player who had played and perhaps even beaten Cecchinato (sometimes just in training sessions) realised that his achievement could be emulated. Moreover, the national tennis federation (the FIT) also came to a sudden realisation, finally understanding that financing private teams is a good thing, because it creates financial benefits for the entire movement.  

What happened next? Fognini won in Monte-Carlo in 2019, after years of high-level play but with no satisfaction, finally breaking into the Top 10, while Matteo Berrettini reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and then the semi-finals at the US Open, qualifying for the season-ending ATP Finals. The pandemic slowed down the growth of the movement, but at the moment both the two highest-ranked players born after 2001 are Italians, Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti.

This doesn’t mean that Italian tennis will dominate the next decade. Spain had as many players in the third round of the men’s French Open as Italy, five apiece, their N.1 player is also the favourite to win the men’s tournament, and they are already assured of a spot in the fourth round thanks to the Carreno-Bautista derby. Moreover, the Italian women’s movement seems to have meanwhile withered (hopefully not for 40 years). But negative and positive cycles are not a coincidence. So, tennis is an individual sport, but maybe not that much. Don’t you agree?

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US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

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Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.

 

The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.

That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of  Shelby’s biggest fans.

LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?

Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.

Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.

Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.

WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN

The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.

Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.

But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.

With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played  in the last 19 games Monday night.

WHO’S NEXT IN LINE

So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.

And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.

Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.

WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!

Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep. 

The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.

At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.

So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.

NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE

Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.

Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.

And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.

Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.

And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.

My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.

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James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Will Rafael Nadal Keep The Grand Slam Winning Feeling Going In New York?

Rafael Nadal has injury doubts heading into his search for a 23rd grand slam title in New York.

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Rafael Nadal (@usopen - Twitter)

Rafael Nadal will look to repeat successes from Melbourne and Paris by answering his doubters with triumph in New York.

 

The Spaniard enters the last grand slam with injury doubts having only just come back from an abdominal injury suffered in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.

It was injury that saw his calendar grand slam dream come to an end and ever since then has been recovering in the hopes of finishing the grand slam year strong in New York.

However in his first match back Nadal was defeated in three sets to Borna Coric in New York which has put doubts on whether the Spaniard can be a threat in the US.

Nadal will likely not have to worry about Novak Djokovic but a victory in New York could see him be world number one with current number one Daniil Medvedev defending the title.

The likes of Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be standing in Nadal’s way and if the Spaniard isn’t match-fit then he could face an early exit.

However as tennis pundit Barbara Schett pointed out, ruling out Nadal at this stage would be foolish and the Spaniard always raises his level at the grand slams, “The match is always different from practice,” Schett told Eurosport.

“And whoever had an abdominal injury and a tear on the abdominal muscles knows how it feels. You have to be extremely cautious. You’re worried that you’re going to reinjure it again.

“And I think that’s what we’ve seen on Wednesday. When he played against Coric, he was a little bit uncertain how the body was going to hold up. And for sure he’s going to feel better and better.

“If there’s no damage to the abdominal muscle, then he still has a week and a half to improve his health, to improve the trust also that he can extend and he can’t bend on the serve because that’s the trickiest shot, the serve and the smash.

“When that is the case, Rafa Nadal certainly can be dangerous again at the US Open. I mean, he’s so fired up at every single Grand Slam. We’ve seen this year playing the best tennis of his life. You can never, ever write him off.”

Nadal is currently undefeated at grand slams and if fit, the Spaniard will certainly fancy himself to win another seven matches at the US Open this year.

Whatever it should be interesting to see if Nadal improves before the US Open with the tournament starting on the 29th of August.

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Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

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