The Power Nations In Pro Tennis
by Ray Bowers
Team competition among the tennis nations goes back to the birth of Davis Cup in 1900. For many years thereafter, four nations dominated international tennis -- the classic Davis Cup powers. Thus Britain, France, U.S., and Australia were the only nations to win the Cup until 1974. Since that year, however, nine other nations have been added to the list of past Davis Cup champions. Meanwhile since its start in 1963, Fed Cup has been won at least once by the women of eleven different nations. Today, more than a hundred nations compete each year in Davis or Fed Cup play.
Which nations are today's powers in world tennis? Which four are the present-day successors to the Classic Four as dominators of the sport?
Our answer rests on scrutiny of recent playing results, namely those starting in 2011 -- roughly the first third of Decade 202 on our modern calendar. We employ two measurements, deeming each of roughly equal importance.
Measurement 1. Success in Davis Cup action (Fed Cup for the women), and
Note that our two measurements are complementary. In Measurement 1, Davis/ Fed Cup competition, depth of top talent has only limited importance, as a Cup championship can be won by a nation having only two outstanding players. But in Measurement 2, in order to finish atop the match-win tally at a Slam, the more contributors the better. At least four high-level players are usually needed. Doubles too are emphasized differently in the two measurements. Cup meetings consist of four singles and only one doubles match. But in our Slam tallies, doubles provides more than a third of the overall count.
Measurement 2. Success of the national contingents at the Slams and Near-Slams, measured by tallying match-wins at each tournament.
MEN'S MEASUREMENT 1 -- DAVIS CUP
Spain, which had been the most successful Davis Cup nation of late, again triumphed in 2011 to begin our period of immediate interest, Decade 202. In winning their four meets during that year, the Armada did not lose a meaningful singles match. Their heaviest scorers were Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, but there were also important contributions from Verdasco and F. Lopez. Two of the victories came as visiting team on hard courts, while the semi-final and final-round victories came on Spanish clay, against France and Argentina, respectively.
A new champion nation emerged in 2012 when Czech Republic's stars, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek, defeated Spain's team in the final round, played on an indoor hard court in Prague. Remarkably, Ferrer completed an undefeated Cup year in singles for Spain, but with Nadal absent on the final weekend amid knee trouble, the Armada was unable to capture the needed third win.
Czech Republic again prevailed in Cup play of 2013. The Czechs were lucky in several ways. Spain failed to survive the first round, when the Armada, playing as visiting nation on indoor hard court and without Nadal or Ferrer, lost to a strong Canadian team led by Raonic. The Czechs were also fortunate in facing Switzerland lacking Federer, then Argentina lacking del Potro, and, in the final round, Serbia without Tipsarevic and Troicki.
Berdych remained a powerful singles performer, especially on hard courts and indoors. Stepanek provided a multifaceted singles artist, possessing excellent backhand and excellent net-attacking skills, and was a superior doubles player able to blend well with different partners. The two were responsible for the 2013 semi-final and final-round victories. Against Serbia in the final, both Czech stalwarts lost to Djokovic in singles, but both won their opposite singles and combined to win the doubles.
Two lesser Cups also provided team competition. World Team Cup was played on clay at Dusseldorf each year in the week preceding Garros. The event brought together eight national teams for round-robin team meets in men's singles and doubles. In the final round of 2011, Germany defeated Argentina, and in 2012 Serbia's singles nominees, Tipsarevic and Troicki, defeated Czech Republic's Berdych and Stepanek, respectively, to produce the Serbian victory. World Team Cup was discontinued in 2013.
Meanwhile Hopman Cup, staged each January in western Australia, entailed round-robin team meets each consisting of a men's singles, women's singles, and mixed-doubles match. The winning team in January 2014 was France, lifted by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's W-L record of 4-0 in singles and 4-0 in mixed.
As 2013 ended, our Measurement 1, based almost entirely on Davis Cup results, ranked the top nations for Decade 202 to date as follows:
1 -- Czech Republic (Davis Cup champs 2012 and 2013)
2 -- Spain (champs 2011 and runner-up 2012)
3 -- Serbia (runner-up 2013, semi-finalist 2011; won WTCup 2012)
4 -- Argentina (losing semi-finalist 2011, 2012, 2013)
5 -- France (runner-up 2011; won HopmCup 2014)
International Tennis Federation maintains a rank-order of nations in recent Davis Cup results, used for seeding in Cup draws. The scheme employs a sophisticated point system where Davis Cup results over a rolling-four-year period are adjusted according to age. The current top five nations in the ITF standings are identical to ours, above, except that Serbia outranks Spain in the ITF list.
A New Cup Year, 2014
All five of our leaders, just above, were among the sixteen nations of 2014's World Group in first-round action 31 January-2 February 2014. Seven of the eight meets took place in the Northern Hemisphere, where winter in most cases required indoor play. The host nations, which are determined by alternation, won five of the eight meets. In an odd scheduling twist, the Classic Four nations squared off against one another.
Great Britain 3, United States 1. The least expected outcome happened in San Diego, where the Americans had chosen red clay for hosting Andy Murray and his teammates. The decision to play on clay came partly in the belief that the likely American singles players, Querrey and Isner, possessed enough striking power to dominate amid the expected slow bounce. The strategy weakened when a foot injury forced John Isner's withdrawal at Australian Open and his inability to play at San Diego.
But Isner's absence probably did not matter. Murray, as was expected, won his two singles matches for the visitors, and the Bryans won the doubles for U.S. But in what spoiled the American plan, unheralded Londoner James Ward stunned Sam Querrey on the first day. Sam won the first set easily but then became increasingly outplayed and bewildered facing Ward's powerful and accurate stroking.
France 3, Australia 0. Veteran Lleyton Hewitt gave Australia one dangerous weapon against the powerful French lineup, but even Lleyton could not turn matters significantly. In first-day action, Lleyton lost to Tsonga in straight sets and Australian youth Kyrgios lost to Gasquet. The doubles was closely fought, but Gasquet-Tsonga won in four sets.
Italy 3, Argentina 1. The outdoor red clay was not kind to the host team, Argentina. Carlos Berlocq won the opening singles for Argentina, but the next three matches all went to the visitors when Fabio Fognini won two singles matches and, with Bolelli, the doubles. Italy has not won the Cup since 1976 but, with good clay-court strength at all positions, has good prospects in the next round against Britain in Napoli.
Switzerland 3, Serbia 0. The Swiss fielded their dream singles lineup -- Federer and Wawrinka. With the top Serbs not playing, the Swiss win was assured. On the first day Stan Wawrinka, the new Australian Open champion, collected his expected victory but only after losing a set to opponent Lajovic. Just before finishing his victory, Wawrinka appeared to injure a shoulder or arm.
The other meetings brought few surprises. Canada, lacking both Raonic and Posposil, lost to Japan. Meanwhile Berdych won two singles and, with Stepanek, the doubles to lead the Czechs past Netherlands. Germany advanced over Spain (lacking Nadal and Ferrer), and Kazakhstan defeated Belgium in the only meet where all five matches were meaningful to the team outcome.
The surviving eight nations will meet in early April to reduce their number to four. Italy should prevail over Britain even if Murray wins twice. Switzerland should defeat Kazakhstan if just one of the Swiss superstars plays. Meanwhile, Czech Republic and France should be favored against Japan and Germany, respectively.
A Davis Cup crown for Switzerland in 2014 would enhance the already majestic resume of Roger Federer. If both Federer and Wawrinka are able to participate through the full Cup year, Switzerland could, indeed should, win its first-ever Cup crown.
Of the eight nations still surviving in the run for Davis Cup 2014, Czech Republic and France were the only ones among our top five in Measurement 1. By winning in the recent Cup weekend, both nations took a step toward enhancing their credentials in this measurement. But for now, the earlier order of rank has not changed.
MEASUREMENT 2 -- SLAMS AND NEAR-SLAMS (MEN)
Here, we tally match wins by the national contingents at major tournaments. We count each main-draw match in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, giving half credit to the nation of each winning partner in doubles and mixed.
During our period of interest starting in 2011, by far the highest tallying at the men's Slams have been Spain, U.S., and France. No other nation finished in our top two at any of the twelve Slams of the period or at the 2012 Olympics, which we also count as a Slam.
Spain's large presence was no surprise, given the Armada's long-standing dominance especially on clay. U.S. had also maintained good success at Slams, buoyed by that nation's large tennis-playing population and by the successes of the Bryan twins in doubles. What is most remarkable, however, is the strong recent performance by players from France -- a rise that was probably aided by that nation's determined player-development effort.
Prior to 2011 the French contingents had usually been outscored by Spain and U.S. First place came only rarely for the modern Musketeers -- at Australian Open in 2008 and at Wimbledon in 2007 and 2010. But an upturn was unmistakable in 2011 and especially in 2012, when the French cohort finished in the top three at all four Slams of the latter year, capturing first place at Garros and also at the Olympic games. Then in 2013 the French males led our tally at both Australian Open and Wimbledon, was second at Garros, and third at U.S. Open.
Although the Gallic surge threatened Spain's top place in Slam success, the Armada remained well ahead in winning at the Near-Slams -- i.e., the Masters Series events. There the main draws are smaller than at the Slams, dampening the ability of the French cohort to build large early-round leads. Spain led in the tallies at 15 of the 27 Masters Series events played during 2011-2013. U.S. was second-best at the Masters events, leading in the tally at seven. France was third-best with two but was slightly ahead of U.S. in finishing more regularly inside the top three.
Here then was the men's rank order in Measurement 2 as 2013 ended.
1 -- Spain (first place at Aus Open 2011, 2012, Garros 2011, 2013, U.S. Open 2013; tops at Masters Series events)
2 -- France (first at Garros 2012, Aus Open 2013,Wimbledon 2013, Olympics 2012).
3 -- U.S. (first at Wimbledon 2011, 2012, U.S. Open 2011, 2012).
4 -- Serbia (third place or better at two Slams, twelve Masters).
5 -- Argentina (third or better at two Slams, one Masters).
Australian Open 2014
The French rise continued at the recent Australian Open. Here is the tally from that event:
Matches won at Australian Open 2014 (men)
The Gallic top score came from excellent early-round depth in singles. Twelve French players won first-round matches, and eight of them also won in the second round. Second-place Spain's contingent won fewer matches in the first and second rounds of singles but thereafter outscored France, benefiting from Nadal's reaching the singles final. But France held to its early lead, fortified slightly in the men's doubles. Switzerland' s third-place score came entirely from singles wins by Wawrinka and Federer. Hurting American hopes were unexpectedly early departures by Isner in singles and the Bryans in doubles.
(The individual contributions within the French and Spanish contingents at Garros 2014 are listed in the Appendix at the end of this column. The lists serve to illustrate the strong depth of both nations.)
But the French success at Melbourne Park was not enough to unseat Spain as our leader in Measurement 2. The two are eyeball-close in our Slam tallies, but Spain's large margin at the Near-Slams helps keep the Armada ahead. Thus our rank order is unchanged so far in 2014.
WOMEN'S MEASUREMENT 1 -- FED CUP
The women from Czech Republic, led by Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, captured Fed Cup in 2011, defeating Russia in the final round, and also in 2012, defeating Serbia in the final. Then in 2013, the pair Errani and Vinci swept the Italian team to victory, first defeating the Czechs on Italian clay in the semi-final round, and then defeating a Russian line-up lacking its top players.
Fed Cup 2014
The eight nations of World Group began the 2014 Fed Cup season one week after the February Davis Cup weekend. The four winning nations would advance to the Cup semis, improving their credentials in our Measurement 1.
Italy 3, U.S. 0. The defending Cup champion, Italy, faced a severe test, playing on an indoor hard court in Cleveland. Both the Italian and American line-ups lacked their top stars.
It nevertheless promised to be an interesting meeting, featuring the highly regarded American Madison Keys, 18, and two Italian stars slightly older but also on the rise -- Karin Knapp and Camila Giorgi. The first day was disastrous for the Americans. Knapp proved larger, stronger, and quicker than Cristina McHale, and the Italian player used these assets aggressively, winning in three sets. But day's bigger surprise came next -- in the form of the heavy artillery of Camila Giorgi, 22, who overwhelmed Keys. A critical factor was Camila's ability in returning Madison's heavy and high-bouncing serves. Camila repeatedly produced crisp backhand serve-returns that reached Madison too quickly for the American to answer.
Czech Republic 3, Spain 2. Czech Republic, lacking Kvitova, obtained contributions from all four nominated team members, thus scoring a rain-troubled, narrow victory on red clay over host-nation Spain. Suarez Navarro won two singles matches for Spain, but Safarova and Zakopalova both won a singles for the Czechs, both in split-sets. Thus it was that the concluding doubles decided the verdict. The pair Hlavackova-Zahlavova Strykova completed the 3-2 victory for the visitors.
Germany 3, Slovak Republic 0. The weekend's most intriguing match-up came in Bratislava, where both nations --- Slovak Republic and Germany -- brought their best players. Led by Dominica Cibulkova, who had thrilled the world in reaching the final at Australian Open a few weeks earlier, host Slovakia seemed the more likely winner. Indeed, Dominica showed her familiar fire in winning the first set over her German opponent, Andrea Petkovic, by two breaks of serve. But early in set two, Andrea began to register her own artillery, her serving and forehand work improving even as Dominica's game lost some of its brilliance.
The second set ended in a strange tiebreaker. Petkovic won six of the first seven points, then lost the next six. Thus Cibulkova held a match point, but that opportunity vanished with a missed serve-return. And soon afterwards, the set went to Petkovic, paving the way for her eventual victory and setting the stage for Kerber's wins in the next two singles matches and a sweep for Germany.
Australia 3, Russia 0. The Russkayas, lacking all six of their stars ranked in the world's first fifty, were rapidly outgunned by Australian's Stosur and Dellaqua in Hobart.
World Group 2. The eight nations of World Group 2 also paired off in early February. They competed for the right to join the losing nations of World Group 2014 (above) in April, playing off for membership in World Group 2015.
Three youthful risers each contributed two singles wins in World Group 2 meets -- Eugenie Bouchard for Canada, Belinda Bencic for Switzerland, and Paula Ormaechea for Argentina. Thus lifted, Canada and Argentina indeed won tickets to the playoffs, but Switzerland lost to France, 3-2, in a meet decided in the doubles. Also decided in the final match was Poland's victory over Sweden, where Agniezka Radwanska won twice in singles and once in doubles.
Here then is our rank order based on Women's M1 (Fed Cup), for the period 2011 to current date.
Current Rank Order for Measurement 1 (Women)
1. Czech Republic
5. Australia, Germany (tied)
The ITF ranking scheme disagrees with our order moderately, largely because of ITF's wider (four-year) period of coverage and also, to a greater extent, because of its severe aging of the earlier results. Italy heads the ITF list, slightly ahead of second-place Czech Republic. Russia is third, Australia fourth, and Germany fifth.
MEASUREMENT 2 -- SLAMS AND NEAR-SLAMS (WOMEN)
In the decade prior to 2011 Russia's women had led in winning Fed Cup and had been even more dominating in the achieving of match-wins at Slams and Near-Slams. Evidence of major change could be detected starting in 2011, when in that year Czech Republic finished in second place at the year's first three Slams.
But it was the women from U.S. that would finally displace the Russians, finishing first at four Slams during 2012-2013 (U.S. Open 2012 and 2013, Wimbledon 2012, and Garros 2013). The Russkayas were still strong, however, winning three Slams in the same period and capturing the most matches at Olympics 2012. The Czechs too remained in good contention, narrowly outscoring the Americans to capture the top honor at Wimbledon 2013. The three nations -- U.S., Russia, and Czech Republic -- would then enhance their dominance in the decade's most recent Slam, Australian Open 2014.
Australian Open 2014
Marches won at Australian Open 2014
U.S., 24.0 match-wins
Czech Republic, 14.5
Especially telling were the eight U.S wins in the first round of singles. No other nation had more than five. Honors for the full tournament were widely dispersed, as eight different nations each scored more than ten wins. Among them were China, led by singles semi-finalist Li Na, Slovak Republic, led by singles winner Cibulkova, and Italy, led by doubles winners Errani and Vinci.
In Near-Slam action of 2013 (Premium Mandatory and Premium Five tournaments), Russia, U.S., or Czech Republic together captured all nine events. Another consistently strong finisher in these events was Italy. Occasionally finishing in the top three were Germany, China, and Spain. A unexpected newcomer nation penetrated the top three at the first Premium Five tournament of 2014, Qatar Open, held in Doha in February:
Matches won at Qatar Open 2014
Czech Republic, 14.5 match-wins
Romania's second-place score was from Simona Halep's six wins in reaching the singles final plus Niculescu's two wins in singles and her share of two wins in doubles.
Here then is the current rank order for M2:
Current rank order for Measurement 2 (Women)
3. Czech Republic
In both realms, men's and women's, our Measurements 1 and 2 disagree at the very top. Thus In both, we must rely on further judgment in selecting our leading nation, choosing from the leaders in M1 and M2, respectively, or perhaps a third nation that is close in both measurements.
On the men's side, Czech Republic is first in Cup play (M1) while Spain is ahead in major tournament tallies (M2). Our judgment rules in favor of Spain, whose narrow margin partly reflects Spain's second-place finish in M1 in contrast to Czech absence from our top-five list in M2. France, which is a strong second in M2, takes third place in our men's integration.
The dilemma at the top is similar among the women, where Czech Republic again reigns in Cup results (M1) while Russia is ahead in M2. Our verdict here favors the Czechs -- an opposite conclusion than in the men's case despite parallel circumstances. In the women's case, both first-place nations stand third in the opposite measurement, but the Czechs fare better when looking closely at the margins. After second-place Russia, third place belongs to the women from Italy, the only other nation ranking in our top five in both women's measurements.
We now face the problem of integrating the integrated men's and women's lists.
Careful reflection makes it clear that the remarkable success of the Czech men and women in achieving consecutive Davis Cup and Fed Cup triumphs in our short period require that we place Czech Republic atop our list despite that small nation's less than superior depth of talent in major tournaments.
After that, the margins are harder to judge -- Spain and France are stronger on the men's side, Russia, Italy, and U.S. on the women's. Our tendency favors the extremes of greatness -- the Spanish men especially on clay, the depth of the Russkayas among the women, the U.S. for its current champions in men's doubles and women's singles, both of historic dimension. (The U.S. ranks fourth in both men's and women's integrated measurements.)
In conclusion, here is our rank order of today's powers in men's and women's pro tennis:
Current Rank Order of Dominance, Men's and Women's Tennis
1. Czech Republic
Our objective has been reached -- to identify the nations that are the current powers in international tennis. The six members of our final list, just above, compose today's leading tennis powers. Note however that we began with the notion of finding a smaller group that, albeit momentarily, takes the place once occupied by the Classic Four. The first four listed above will stand that test.
Other nations appear capable of moving upward. Serbia, Switzerland, and Germany are already at the doorstep. The females from China and Australia are potential Cup challengers, along with the males from Argentina and Britain on favorable court surfaces. Other nations have potential-superstar risers both female and male -- Canada with Bouchard and Raonic, Poland with Radwanska and Janowicz.
Fresh tests will come soon. Indian Wells and Miami will bring Near-Slam opportunities for both males and females in March. The next Davis Cup weekend, 4-6 April, will bring second round of Davis Cup 2014 along with late-round World Group I eliminations. Semi-finals of Fed Cup will follow two weeks later, along with playoff match-ups to determine next year's Fed Cup World Group.
It is inconceivable that the Current Four nations atop the tennis world will reign, like the Classic Four, for 74 years. Indeed, the shifting fortunes of the tennis nations will surely continue providing a fascinating dimension, one that enriches international team tennis and strengthens the entire sport at its roots.
Ancient Prague Lore
One evening Queen Bea sat to sup,
she stared at the Duchess von Krupp.
The duchess, undaunted,
Asked what the queen wanted.
Bea answered, We must have Fed Cup.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX: MATCH-WINS AT AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2014
Tsonga, 3s (singles wins)
Roger-Vasselin, 2s + 1.0d (doubles)
Benneteau, 1s + 1.0d
de Schepper, 1s
F.Lopez, 2s + 0.5d
Verdasco, 1s + 0.5d
Garcia-Lopez, 1s + 1.0d
(Doubles and mixed doubles matches count a half match-win for the nation of each winning partner. Here and throughout the column, the national affiliations of players are as stated in published ATP and WTA materials.)
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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.