Tennis people worldwide are united in their affection for the sport and, most
often, in their shared traditions of sportsmanship. Fans everywhere support
the top players of their own countries. The nearly universal desire to
compete against other nations has thus strengthened the game in all lands.
The traditional symbol of national supremacy in men's tennis has been the
Davis Cup, where top players from over 100 nations nowadays compete annually
in head-to-head play. Fed Cup provides a comparable competition among the
women. Also interesting but less widely noted are World Team Cup, a men's
team event in Europe, and Hopman Cup, where male-female pairs compete
annually in Australia. Meanwhile every four years tennis joins the Olympics,
where the nations are represented by national teams and where the
medal-winners are tabulated by nation.
EBBS AND FLOWS IN TENNIS HISTORY
Four teams dominated competition among the nations during the early 1900's.
Britain, France, the U.S., and Australasia (Australia and New Zealand)
captured every Davis Cup from its start in 1900 until World War II. A threat
to their monopoly stirred in the 1930's, but the German surge ended with the
imprisonment of Gottfried von Cramm by the Nazis. Amid the clouds of war in
1939 Australia won the Davis Cup for the first time as a single nation.
Meanwhile women's team competition prewar consisted of the Wightman Cup,
which involved only Britain and the U.S.
The resumption of international tennis in 1946 began a long period of
dominance by just two nations--Australia and the United States. In the 28
years starting in that year Australia won the Davis Cup 16 times, the U.S.
12. Meanwhile, Australian and American men regularly won the men's events at
all four Slams including, surprisingly often, at Garros. The long Aussie-Yank
dominance was especially remarkable because their champions (Gonzales,
Sedgman, Rosewall, etc.) turned professional one after another thus departing
from world competition.
Australia and U.S. dominance in men's tennis began to fade roughly in 1974,
when South Africa won an uncontested Davis Cup final-round victory over
India. The challenge round rule had recently ended and with it the
home-court, grass-court advantage of the two leaders over the clay-court
nations of South America and continental Europe. During 1975-1990, the U.S.
won the Cup five times, Sweden four, Australia three, Germany twice, and
Italy and Czechoslovakia each once. Leading their teams in producing these
triumphs were superstars Borg, Wilander, and Edberg for Sweden, John McEnroe
for the U.S., Pat Cash and John Fitzgerald for Australia, and Becker and
Stich for Germany.
Competitive balance was also good in the World Team Cup, an annual event begun in
the 1970's involving eight nations selected mainly on the basis of the
rankings of their top players. The teams competed annually during a single
week at one location, usually on clay courts, in head-to-head team matches
consisting of two singles and one doubles match. In the 13 years starting in
1978, the U.S. won three times, Spain twice. Eight other nations each won
once. But the event lacked the tradition and the widespread participation
seen in Davis Cup, and was thus widely regarded as an exhibition, a tuneup
for Roland Garros.
The Australian and American women were almost as successful in the postwar
era as their men. One or the other nation won Fed Cup, which commenced in
1963, in 18 of its first 20 years. Their dominance in Fed Cup ended in 1983,
when the Czechoslovakian women broke a seven-year U.S. reign. Czechoslovakia
and the U.S. then shared the Cup for another seven years except for a 1987
win by a German team led by Steffi Graf.
Thus the balance of tennis power among the nations in 1990 seemed generally
healthy. The nation having the most tennis players, the United States,
understandably had been close to the top most of the time, but the
Australians had often been ahead and recently there had been other close
contenders. Australia, however, which had once won Davis Cup in 15 of 17
consecutive years, seemed now behind the U.S. overall although roughly
co-equal with the top European nations.
THE CURRENT DECADE, 1991-2000
There were suspicions in 1991, however, that America's strength in men's
tennis might soon decline, as the competitive careers of the great Connors
and McEnroe were ending. But already on the scene was a remarkable group of
five young American males, all 18-20 years old. These five would become
superstars and would bear American tennis fortunes for the next ten years.
Their names were Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, and
The new decade again produced thrilling competition in Davis Cup. Sweden and
the U. S. each won the crown three times, and Germany, France, and Australia
each won once. (Australia and Spain will in December decide the Cup for year
2000.) Competitive balance was also good in the lesser World Team Cup, where
clay courts tended to favor the European nations. Sweden, Spain, and Germany
each won twice. No nation won both Davis and World Team Cups in the same year.
But team competition alone no longer adequately described the balance of
tennis power among the nations. As ever-larger moneys entered the sport, the
outlooks of players, agents, and organizers gradually turned away from Davis
Cup and instead toward the Slams and the other major individual events. World
politics occasionally intruded into Cup competition, and top stars often
avoided Cup duty. Fans everywhere still took pride in Cup victories, but they
also increasingly found satisfaction in the success of their players in the
big tournaments, where the players were identified by their tennis
The lists of men's champions in the Slam tournaments reveal a picture of
American dominance. The five American stars named above captured 22 of the
decade's 40 Slams. American strength was also deep. In 1991, for example,
twelve different American men reached the round of 32 in at least one of the
year's Slams. No other nation could claim more than four.
If we count up the number of matches won in the middle and late rounds of
Slams, we find that the Americans led in every year of the decade but one,
sometimes winning twice as many matches as the second-best nation. Second
place in this tally alternated between the Germans with Becker and Stich, and
the Swedes with Wilander and Edberg, through 1995. Australia was second-best
in 1996, helped by strength in doubles. Spain was second the following year
and then, in 1998, Spain and Australia both finished ahead of the Americans,
who received only minimal contributions from Courier, Agassi, and Martin.
Spain's Moya and Corretja completed their 1998 performances by reaching the
finals at the Masters Cup (then called the ATP World).
The U.S. regained leadership the following year, 1999, helped by Agassi's
resurgence, comfortably ahead of second-place France and closely bunched
Russia, Brazil, and Australia. The Americans repeated in 2000. The
Australians were second, ahead of Sweden because of doubles successes mainly
by the Woodys.
But if the decade was plainly a time for Americans in men's tennis, the
picture is less clear among the women. Spain's two superstars,
Sanchez-Vicario and Martinez, won Fed Cup for that nation five times during
the decade. U.S. won twice, and the American women are heavily favored to win
a third time in late 2000. Germany and France each took the Cup once.
A different indication of power among the nations in women's tennis are the
players who attain the annual WTA Top Ten. The official rankings include all
tour events and give strong weight to the Slams.
Spain's Sanchez-Vicario reached the Top Ten in eight of the decade's years,
Martinez in seven. No other European nation could match that consistency. In
1994, the Spanish superstars ranked second and third, respectively. Steffi
Graf finished in first or second place in each of the decade's first six
years and again reached the Top Ten in 1998, but her only German companion in
the rankings was Anke Huber, a Top Tenner in 1993 and 1995. The Swiss Miss,
Hingis, was wholly alone as a Top Tenner among her countrywomen. France
placed four women in the Top Ten in 1999 in Pierce, Tauziat, Halard-Decugis,
and Mauresmo. It was Pierce's fifth appearance and Tauziat's second, but
otherwise France claimed no Top Tenners during the decade.
Clearly ahead of all nations in depth, quality, and consistency in Top Ten
finishes were the Americans, represented early in the decade by Mary Jo
Fernandez, the very young Capriati, and Navratilova late in her career. A new
Top Tenner in 1994 was Lindsay Davenport, whose arrival announced the coming
period of clear U.S. dominance. Monica Seles joined the American
representation after she became a U.S. citizen in 1995. Venus Williams first
appeared in 1998 and Serena the following year. All four will probably finish
year 2000 as Top Tenners.
A look is also owed to Hopman Cup, the week-long team competition in Perth
each January. Each team match consists of one men's singles, one women's
singles, and one mixed doubles match. The only nation winning twice in our
decade was Germany, once with Michael Stich and Steffi Graf and once with
Boris Becker and Anke Huber. Czechoslovakia and its successor state Slovak
Republic both won once, as did Yugoslavia (with Seles in 1991) and successor
state Croatia. Although the event has not yet achieved wide stature, we award
Germany a positive in our analysis for its two victories.
The Olympic games took place three times during the decade. The U.S. women
swept the gold in all three Olympics. Capriati, Davenport, and Venus Williams
were the singles champions, while Fernandez-Fernandez won the doubles twice
and the Williams sisters once. Meanwhile the six men's gold medals went to
six different nations, including United States with Agassi in 1996, Australia
with the Woodys in 1996, and Germany with Becker-Stich in 1992.
TENNIS NATION OF THE DECADE
Which nation, then, shall we deem the decade's champion in men's and women's
tennis, our Tennis Nation of the Decade?
I believe it is clear that the American men and Spanish women are the winners
in their realms. The margin among the women is not large, however, where
Spain's five Fed Cups narrowly outweigh a strong overall record by the
American women, including remarkable success in the Olympics.
Given the American strength among both men and women, in my opinion the
choice as overall champion must be the United States. The judgment is not
quite final, however, as two important team events remain. Late this year
Spain will bid to win its first-ever Davis Cup and the U.S. will defend its
possession of the Fed Cup. What if the Spanish men succeed and the American
women fail? Should we then alter our verdict?
Assuming that the top American women participate in the Cup defense, the
contingency seems unlikely. But one further thought arises. Given the huge
American advantage of numbers, should we not also choose a second Nation from
among the others where populations are more nearly equal?
Sweden and Australia are strong candidates for this honor, showing strength
primarily on the men's side. Meanwhile Spain offers good credentials both
among the men and women, as does Germany thanks to Becker, Stich, and Graf in
the first half of the period. Perhaps the forthcoming Davis Cup showdown in
Barcelona will settle the matter.