It’s nearly axiomatic that it takes a Grand Slam champion to put a new or resurgent tennis nation into the elite group of countries that can be described as tennis powers. You produce a Novak Djokovic and—bingo!—you soon have folks talking about Janko Tipsarevic (presently No. 9), Viktor Troicki (No. 38) and doubles star Nenad Zimonjic. With these men, Serbia became the newest member of the Davis Cup champions club in 2010.
Two years ago, Francesca Schiavone won Roland Garros, and all of sudden people took notice that the Italian women claimed the Fed Cup twice (the second time in 2010, after Schiavone’s breakthrough) and have a pretty nifty fleet of players in Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Roberta Vinci, and most recently, Sara Errani, who reached this year’s French Open final.
Unfortunately for tennis fans from Lübeck all the way down to Freiburg, the Germans have yet to deliver a Grand Slam champion since the dreadful dry period that followed the retirement of arguably the greatest female player of all time, Steffi Graf. But they’ve come close—mighty close—and are showing signs of getting even closer. And should Angelique Kerber (presently No. 5 and a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist), Julia Goerges (No. 18), Sabine Lisicki (No. 37), Mona Barthel (No. 39), or the recently injured Andrea Petkovic (No. 125) break through, you’re likely to be hearing plenty about the “German renaissance”—and inquiring journalists will be falling all over themselves to figure out how the country became such a force in the game.
Of course, there is no single, pat answer to that question. That’s what the Australians learned about two decades ago, when they charged the Australian Institute of Sport (a state institution) with the rather Big Brother-ish mission of creating a new wave of homegrown champs, relying partly on the conviction that every blessed young Aussie ought to be taught the Ivan Lendl forehand. I kid you not: The AIS geeks broke it down on video tape, frame-by-frame, and tried to shove it down every promising young player’s throat, certain that it was the key to Lendl’s success.
What did the Aussies get out of that experiment? Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis and, most recently, Bernard Tomic. It’s safe to say that none of those players were or are anything like Lendl clones.
The more likely explanation for collective national success is a theory first advanced (to my knowledge) in tennis by Arthur Ashe, who famously said of U.S. tennis excellence that, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Can there be any doubt that this is the ultimate explanation for the success of the Italian women? It now looks like it may pay off for the Germans, too.
Let’s take a look at Germany’s impressive cadre, in order of ranking:
Angelique Kerber: No. 32 at the end of 2011, the 23-year-old was already in the process of lifting her game to another level. She was ranked No. 92 late that summer, but made the semis of the U.S. Open and amazingly hasn’t slipped back or let up since. She’s now firmly ensconced in the upper echelon. The only thing lacking—so far—is a major title.
Julia Goerges: Although this free-swinging, 24-year-old power baseliner improved only three places from her year-end ranking of 2011, she’s made strides. Before the 2010 U.S. Open, Georges had been past the second round of a major just once. She’s lost before the third round at a major just one time since then (at the U.S. Open, in 2012). Goerges has tremendous giant-killer potential; what she’ll need is greater consistency and confidence to blast her way into the Top 10.
Sabine Lisicki: Her No. 15 finish in 2011 was a career-best, and while she’s only 23, Lisicki has been plagued by injuries and hasn’t quite recovered her confidence and full command of that big, serve-based game (hence the fall-off to No. 37). Still, she upset Maria Sharapova in straight sets at Wimbledon before losing a remarkable, three-set, see-saw battle to her countrywoman Kerber in the quarterfinals (6-3, 6-7 (9), 7-5). Lisicki isn’t afraid to volley and she has nice touch to go with that atomic serve.
Mona Barthel: She finished 2011 at No. 67 but immediately announced herself as a player to watch when she qualified for Hobart this January and won the event. Just 22, Barthel chose to remain in school and didn’t even venture onto the pro tour until late 2009 (at which time she was ranked outside the Top 500). After that win in Hobart, she used her big serve, crackling backhand, and excellent tennis brain to win two matches at the Australian Open before being stopped by champion-to-be Victoria Azarenka. Barthel has been ranked as high as No. 31 and could be up for a big sophomore year.
Andrea Petkovic: Bosnian-born Petkovic is in some ways the elder statesman of this group, based on her age (25) and experience (she’s been inside the Top 10). But this superbly fit and hard-working athlete was laid low by injury in 2012 (lower back and ankle injuries kept her out for seven months and resulted in her presently low ranking). It’s going to be a long road back, but she’s a terrific athlete and has plenty of drive.
The upshot is that the German women who have not had serious injury problems have continually improved—sometimes dramatically. If they remain on course, they’re likely to be serious contenders at the majors this year. And should one of them actually win one—well, we saw how the Germans responded when Graf and Boris Becker established themselves as Grand Slam champs. They created an enormous tennis boom that benefitted everyone.
That a legion of equally great players didn’t following in the footsteps of Becker and Graf remains puzzling, but it may have been a good thing—at least for the rest of the world.