This weekend, Laver Cup will pit “Europe” vs. “The World” for a third time. The artificial nature of these categories and teams is clear from their names. How can “The World” not include “Europe,” too?
Never mind. Laver Cup is an exhibition; entertainment, not logic, is the point. The event is just expanding on a similarly manipulated concept that golf pioneered decades ago. That sport’s signature team event, Ryder Cup, pits a country (the U.S.) versus a continent (Europe).
In choosing its teams, though, Laver Cup has accidentally shined a light on a very real—but nonetheless amazing—development: How dominant Europe continues to be in men’s tennis.
This won’t be news to anyone who has followed the ATP for the last decade. Since 2010, the four players who have held the No. 1 ranking—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray—are from Europe. All 40 Grand Slam events played during that time have been won by Europeans. The last non-Euro to win a Slam was Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open in 2009; the last one before that was Delpo’s fellow Argentine Gaston Gaudio at the French Open in 2004. As for the ATP’s current rankings, nine of the Top 10 are from Europe (the exception is Kei Nishikori at No 8).
Surely this can’t go on forever, right? Surely, the Big 3’s sustained excellence is in a category by itself, and once they’re gone the rest of the world will have a chance again. Once-dominant tennis powers like the U.S. and Australia will rebound, and the investments made in Asia will pay off. After all, the same phenomenon isn’t true on the women’s side. The WTA’s player of the decade was an American, Serena Williams; and this year women from Japan, Australia, and Canada—The World—won major titles.
Yet as we enter a new decade, Europe has continued to pump out the ATP’s best prospects. Dominic Thiem of Austria has reached the last two Roland Garros finals. Alexander Zverev of Germany finished No. 3 in the world last year. This year Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece joined him in the Top 10, and has recorded wins over Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. Karen Khachanov of Russia cracked the Top 10 and won a Masters event. Italy’s Matteo Berrettini won titles on clay and grass and reached the semifinals at the US Open. And while we’ve heard a lot about North American hopefuls like Denis Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe in recent years, it was the less-heralded, less-flashy Daniil Medvedev of Russia who had a breakout summer at 23 that took him all the way to the fifth set of the US Open final and into the Top 5.
But Europe isn’t just giving us fresh faces; it’s also giving us a second look at some rejuvenated older ones. Roberto Bautista Agut, Fabio Fognini, and Gael Monfils are all over 30, have all had surprisingly good seasons, and are currently ranked No. 10, 11 and 12—ahead of every non-European player in the world except Nishikori. Old Gen, Next Gen, Late-Bloomer Gen: They’re all based in Europe.
Why has the ATP’s center of gravity shifted so definitively to that continent? It’s a question that has been asked for so long we’re probably past the point of ever expecting a definitive answer, especially when the same phenomenon hasn’t been true, or as true, in the women’s game. But there are a few likely factors.
—Talent pool: The higher level of interest in tennis in Europe, compared to the U.S., may mean that a higher percentage of promising young athletes choose the sport.
—Coaching: When Patrick McEnroe announced his departure as head of USTA player development a few years ago, he cited “coaching education” as the most important aspect of the U.S. game that needed to be improved. Knowledgeable observers say there’s higher standard of expertise for coaches in Europe, and what’s happening in Canada right now might bear that out. Since hiring the former head of France’s junior development program, Louis Borfiga, Canada has had a surge of success, which peaked this month with Bianca Andreescu’s win at the US Open.
—Surface: The baseline game that was once the exclusive province of clay is now played on every type of court. That seems to give Europeans, who are more likely to play on clay as kids, a leg up in learning the patience and point construction that’s needed to succeed everywhere today. American men, meanwhile, mostly write off the two-month clay season and the ranking points that come with it.
—Mindset: European players, who speak multiple languages and cross national borders regularly, seem to adapt more easily to the disorientingly international nature of tennis. Medvedev, of Russia, made his breakthrough in the foreign lands of Washington, D.C. and Mason, Ohio, and he played the New York crowd like a fiddle during the Open. By contrast, the highest-ranked player in the U.S, John Isner, has won 14 of his 15 career titles on home soil.
The ranking gap between Europe and The World is easy to see in this year’s Laver Cup lineups. Europe’s six starters are ranked No. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11, respectively. The World’s are ranked No. 20, 24, 27, 30, 33, and 210. This doesn’t mean it will be a blowout. As an exo, entertainment comes first, and that means keeping things entertaining—i.e., competitive—from Friday to Sunday. And this group of World players has had its successes in 2019: Nick Kyrgios won two events; Taylor Fritz cracked the Top 30 and won his first title; Shapovalov showed signs of improvement with new coach Mikhail Youzhny.
But even if The World manages to conquer Europe this weekend in Geneva, Europe looks set to keep conquering the world of men’s tennis for the foreseeable future.