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Between The Lines
November 1, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Tennis Nation of the Decade

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Ray Bowers

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.


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.


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 Todd Martin.

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 nationalities.

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.


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.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


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