State of the Tennis Nations, Part Two

by: Peter Bodo | September 28, 2012

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Yesterday, we looked at the way the “rising tide lifts all boats” principle has affected—or failed to influence—the fortunes of nations lucky enough to have had a blue-chip male champion(s) jump start or rekindle interest in tennis. More specifically, we were interested to see if those impact players triggered a surge of talent into the ATP ranks.

Today, we’ll look at the nations through the WTA lens. Keep in mind that this isn’t a nation-by-nation survey, and some nations with a few players in the Top 100 may not make this cut because, well, the players simply aren’t ranked highly enough, and there’s not a whole lot to be said about the tradition of tennis in that particular nation.

So without further ado:

Argentina is a puzzle, although not quite as much when you look at the overall paucity of women pros from South America and even, comparatively speaking, Spain. Is there some cultural or gender-based inhibitor at work here?

All I know is that Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas and Gabriela Sabatini were an incredible one-two punch for the game; both were Grand Slam champions, much loved around the world. But where Vilas triggered the most successful national boom—there’s that “rising tide” concept—few Argentinian women followed Sabatini’s trail to glory.

The most highly ranked Argentinean woman presently is Paula Ormaechea, who’s No. 126. There isn’t another representative of the baby-blue-and-white in the Top 200.

Things are better in Australia, but not by all that much despite the continued success of No. 9—and former Grand Slam champ and runner-up—Sam Stosur. The next highest ranked Aussie woman, and the only other one in the Top 100, is No. 77 Casey Dellacqua.

Aussie women can comfort themselves with the fact that the malaise extends to the fortunes of their ATP cohorts, where even Lleyton Hewitt’s heroic persistence is offset by Bernard Tomic’s no less persistent habit of acting like a jerk. The tide that once made Australia a formidable tennis power in both gender divisions is near absolute ebb.

Belarus is one of the many nations that may lead you to ask, “Is it part of Russia or isn’t it?” The answer is, “It used to be, and not so long ago.” And that’s where things get a little complicated.

It wasn’t all that long ago that a player from any of the former precincts of the Soviet empire played under the hammer and sickle, period. The outstanding example is the former top tenner, French Open finalist, and doubles genius, Natasha Zvereva. Her WTA bio still lists her as being from Minsk, USSR—even though Minsk is the largest city and capital of independent Belarus.

But lately, Russian players have flooded the neighboring republics, including Kazakhstan, completely skewing an inquiry like this. Anyway, Belarus certainly punches above its weight, having produced Zvereva and, now, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. She’s joined in the Top 100 by countrywoman Olga Govortsova (No. 54).

Talk about punching above your weight: Belgium had absolutely nobody of even Top 20-caliber other than Sabine Appelmans until Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, both former No. 1s and multiple Grand Slam champions, rocked the tennis world. It wasn’t long thereafter that Yanina Wickmayer (career-high ranking: No. 12) popped onto the radar, although she’s tailed off surprisingly—and puzzlingly—in the last year or so.

Currently No. 26, Wickmayer is joined in the Top 100 by No. 68 Kirsten Flipkens. I suppose the sheer size and population of a nation is either a stimulant or inhibitor to producing players, because Belgium to the best of my knowledge is not awash in juniors dying to be the next Kim or Justine. There isn’t a Belgian girl in the ITF Top 25 junior rankings, and no pro within shouting distance of the Top 200 other than the aforementioned two.

Bulgaria gave the world the three, pioneering Maleeva sisters:  Magdalena, a former No. 4, Manuela, and Katerina. Theirs remains one of the more astonishing stories in tennis history, given the desperate conditions under which they managed to develop their games and emerge as world class players. What traction the game gained at home from them must have been offset by the difficult economic circumstances and challenges; currently, the only Bulgarian in the Top 100 is No. 44 Tsvetana Pironkova.

Yesterday, I mentioned that Canada might be on the cusp of a tennis boom, given the success of Milos Raonic as well as the strength of the Canadian juniors. At No. 43, Alexsandra Wozniak is the top Canadian, but talented Rebecca Marino (currently taking a break for stress-related reasons) and promising junior Eugenie Bouchard (No. 2 in the ITF rankings) might find a way to join, or re-join, her.

By now, everyone knows the story of China, which manages to reverse the South American (and to some extent, European) dilemma of producing top pros of only one gender—male. The Chinese are top-heavy with women, starting with transformational figure Li Na (currently No. 8). She’s joined in the Top 50 by Jie Zheng (No. 27) and Peng Shuai (No. 46).

As on the ATP side of the fence, Croatia has built a strong women’s tennis tradition, and a more interesting one to boot. There’s former French Open champ and fun-loving party girl Iva Majoli, star-crossed but still struggling former prodigies Jelena Dokic and Mirjana Lucic, and Karolina Sprem.

That’s quite a tradition, eh? But the only Croatian presently in the Top 100 is quiet, uncontroversial, Petra Martic.

The Czech Republic has a great history as a tennis powerhouse, and it’s only fitting that the godmother of it all is arguably the female GOAT, Martina Navratilova. This is a nation/peoples that has cherished and built on its grand tradition, despite having to endure the traumas of the break-up of the former Czechoslovakia (the Slovaks have also held up their end).

The Czechs presently have former Wimbledon champ and still developing Petra Kvitova sitting at No. 4, but they have seven others in the Top 100 and two more within striking distance. The second highest-ranked is No. 17 Lucie Safarova.

Will No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki trigger a tennis boom in Denmark? Given that it’s one of the Low Countries, it wouldn’t take much for the tide to rise—dramatically—in a nation that has never been on the tennis map until now. Unfortunately, there isn’t another Dane in the Top 500. . .

Although the men get most of the glory and publicity—and win most of the matches—for France, the women lack only an impact player of the stature of recently retired Amelie Mauresmo. Tennis has a strong and surprisingly steady tradition in France (especially when you compare it to the history of Germany, or Spain), which currently has a surprising six Top 100 players, led by No. 10 Marion Bartoli.

Tennis went over a cliff in Germany shortly after Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Anke Huber, and Steffi Graf retired, but while the men have struggled to fill the void, the women have popped up as a potential superpower. Five German women are in the Top 100, led by No. 6 Angelique Kerber, and it’s a very well-balanced group—none ranked worse than No. 62 Andrea Petkovic, whose ranking took a big hit when she missed much the year with injury. If she regains her form, form those five Germans could potentially all be in the Top 20. This is the team to watch in Fed Cup.

I made some remarks about Laura Robson et al yesterday, so I’ll leave Great Britain out of this post and go right to Italy. There was no real reason for the Italians to emerge as a WTA power; their tradition is strong but only because they’re a prosperous European nation with an “almost major” (the Italian Open).

Italy hasn’t produced much in the way of dominant players until Francesca Schiavone won the French Open a few years ago. That she and Flavia Pennetta also were able to anchor an overachieving Fed Cup squad (they won all three of Italy’s Fed Cup championships in the first decade of this new millennium) may have been an even more powerful inspirational factor. Now we have this year’s French Open runner-up Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in the mix as well.

With four players in the Top 40, led by Errani at No. 9, and another in the Top 100 (No. 95 Camila Giorgi), Italy is flying nearly as high as Germany. The question is, will this rising tide be sustained?

Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan, the 42-year old, still-active wonder who was ranked as high as No. 4 in—get this—1995 has fallen out of the Top 100, leaving only Ayumi Morita (No. 79) in the double-digit rankings. Whatever happens in Japan from her on in, you can’t blame Date-Krumm for not doing her utmost to fire up the girls in her homeland.

Although Kazakhstan has yet to produce a Grand Slam champion (even one lured away from Russia or some other nation by a big check), it has four women in the Top 100. The best thus far has been No. 35 Yarsolava Shvedova, who made history at Wimbledon when she won a “golden set” (24 straight points). Is there a dynasty in the making here?

As in the ATP game, Mexico has been strangely silent. That’s a real puzzler, given the nation’s location and climate. The Netherlands isn’t much better off, given her strong tradition and location in Europe. The Dutch, who produced Tom Okker and Betty Stove, currently have just two Top 100 women: No. 60 Kiki Bertens and No. 70 Arantxa Rus.

Wojtek Fibak was a male trailblazer for Poland, although the follow-up has been tepid. Perhaps the success of the two Top 100 Polish women, No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and her sister, Urszula (No. 36), will motivate girls all over Poland to take up the sport.

Romania has a surprisingly strong history in the game, and I apologize for overlooking it on the ATP side yesterday. Bottom line: Former No. 1 and international mega-star Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac implanted a tennis tradition in Romania, and it has taken hold among both sexes. It also must have helped that Virginia Ruzici was a perennial Top 10 singles player (and French Open runner-up) in the 1980s, because Romania now has five women in the Top 100, led by No. 31 Sorana Cirstea. That makes Romania a legitimate power in tennis.

Russia has been a power in women’s tennis since Anastasia Myskina shocked everyone—her countrywomen included—by winning the French Open title in 2004, just weeks before Maria Sharapova won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.

Individual Russian players have not always lived up to expectations (or in some cases they have exceeded them—funny how that works), but they have established themselves as the major power and rival to the U.S. in women’s tennis.  Russia has a whopping 10 players in the Top 100, led by de facto expatriate and WTA No. 2 Maria Sharapova.

Serbia’s WTA players have taken their countrymen and women on a wild, frustrating, tear-stained, jubilant, endlessly compelling ride. But no matter how you cut it, they’ve joined with their male pals (Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, and Viktor Troicki) to make their nation the one with, potentially, the brightest future—if the “rising tide” principle can be put to work for them.

The process has already shown signs of working. No. 12 Ana Ivanovic and former No. 1 (now No. 24) Jelena Jankovic are joined in the Top 100 by Bojana Jovanovski.

Another nation that has overachieved recently is the other half of the former state of Czechoslovakia, the Slovak Republic. It has three highly ranked players: No. 13 Dominika Cibulkova, No. 33 Daniela Hantuchova, and No. 71 Magdalena Rybarikova. There’s a fourth Slovak knocking on the door as well: No. 103 Jana Cepelova.

The profound changes in South Africa seem to have had a tremendous negative impact on what once was a tennis power in both divisions of the game. Right now, No. 53 Chanelle Scheepers is the only WTA Top 100 player from her nation. And perhaps No. 90 Polong Hercog can inspire her peers in Slovenia to match the men, who have three players in the Top 100.

It could be worse for Spain; the nation has five women in the WTA Top 100, led by No. 40 Anabel Medina Garrigues and No. 48 Carla Suarez Navarro. But heft-wise, that’s a far cry from Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Fernando Verdasco, and Feliciano Lopez. The WTA has some catching up to do, but these women have established a beachhead.

Sweden never did experience a female boom comparable to the one the men’s game experienced in the wake of Bjorn Borg’s career, and that’s not likely to change. No. 42 Sofia Arvidsson is the highest ranked of the two Swedes in the Top 100, and the talent drops off sharply from there. And Switzerland is hardly better off, with No. 64 Romina Oprandi the only Top 100 player from the land of Federer and Martina Hingis. Could it be that the Swiss leave the heavy lifting of pro tennis to foreign players—like Hingis, who was born in Slovakia—who emigrate to Switzerland to find opportunity? Think Mirka Vavrinec, think Jakob Hlasek. . .

The women of the United States are pulling their share of the weight and continue to resist the “American tennis is dead” narrative. Serena Williams may be “just” No. 4, but we all know she’s on the short—very short—list of GOAT candidates.

Interestingly, the U.S. has exactly the same number of women in the Top 100 as Russia (10), and that includes the second highest-ranked American, Varvara Lepchenko—a 26-year old from Uzbekistan who embraced the opportunity and citizenship, afforded by her adopted homeland. The USA also has a dozen players ranked Nos. 101-200, and many of those are young and still developing.

Who knows what the future will bring? Probably more top players from the Czech Republic, for one thing. But that’s about as far as I’m willing to go on that one.

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