Why you should care

As the “Big Three” fade, players from more countries are competing in the higher ranks.

Paul Annacone remembers a time when men’s tennis felt — and looked — so good that American fans, in particular, believed things couldn’t possibly get any better. 

As Pete Sampras’ coach from 1995 to 2001, when the seven-time Wimbledon champ, five-time U.S. Open titleholder and two-time Australian Open champ was one of the faces of tennis, he recalls epic matches with players like Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Boris Becker, Pat Rafter and Roger Federer. Fast-forward two decades and the “Big Three” — Novak Djokovic, with 16 Grand Slam titles, Rafael Nadal with 19 and Roger Federer with 20 — have redefined what domination looks like in tennis, winning 54 of the last 64 men’s singles Grand Slam titles between them. The predictability of their success is akin to Alabama and Clemson always leading the conversation as likely BCS champions. It might also be hiding a fast-approaching shift in men’s tennis.

Look beneath the trio — Djokovic is No. 1 on the ATP tour, Nadal is 2 and Federer 3 — at the rankings table, and an unprecedented yet little-recognized churn is unfolding as players from more countries than ever before are competing in the higher ranks. Over the past five years, players from more than 38 countries have, on average, been ranked in the top 100 in the ATP rankings, up from 36 nations in the five years between 2010 and 2014, and startlingly higher than the 29 nations on average between 2005 and 2009.

It certainly looks a lot different from when I played.

Pam Shriver, former pro tennis player

The data suggest that the ATP’s efforts to globalize the sport at grassroots levels are finally beginning to pay off in top-tier tennis, notes Pam Shriver, former professional tennis player and a longtime commentator for ESPN. 

“Without a doubt, the global governing body for tennis has invested resources and time to making tennis a global sport,” says Shriver, who won 21 singles titles in her playing career. “It certainly looks a lot different from when I played — and keeps looking different.”  

 

To be sure, even though Federer, who turned 38 last month, Nadal (33) and Djokovic (32) are in the twilight of their one-of-a-kind run, they’re not rushing to exit stage left anytime soon, and certainly not without a fight. So we might need to wait to see how the rapidly globalizing nature of top-tier men’s tennis actually plays out. “When Federer, Nadal and Djokovic finally do step away, we’ll have to see what happens,” says Annacone, who has also coached Federer (2010–2013) and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens

But the sport’s history is full of records and rivalries that at the time seemed impossible to match — until a later generation took it one step further. Martin Blackman, general manager of USTA Player Development and himself a former pro from 1989 to 1995, remembers watching Björn Borg amass six French Opens and five Wimbledon titles. He thought no one could beat that record. Nadal now has 12 French Open titles. Later, he thought no one would beat Sampras’ seven Wimbledons. Federer now has eight. Still, he thinks the Big Three are at a “different level.”

“It’s hard to believe that you could see anything like this kind of a dynasty and the domination again,” says Blackman.

But Annacone can recall how “people worried that tennis would never recover” from the Sampras-Agassi era. “That’s the beauty of tennis, and that’s why we love the game,” continues Annacone, who played on the ATP tour and, at his peak, was ranked 12th in the world. When Federer, Nadal and Djokovic finally hang up their rackets — or start to show their age — Shriver says it’ll be one of the biggest transitions tennis has ever seen. “They’re starting to plan for it, but we know they’re not ready for it,” she says. “Of course, we know things can change suddenly.”

And if the changing — and increasing — number of flags now represented in the top 100 is a pointer, the next generation of dominant players might come from countries that haven’t been traditional tennis powers. It’s already happening in women’s tennis: Take two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka of Japan, for instance. Shriver also points to the fast growth in the popularity of tennis in China. 

Meanwhile, Europe “looks different” as well, Shriver points out, compared to the 1990s. After the end of the Cold War, former socialist republics in Eastern Europe and the erstwhile Soviet Union “began to commit resources to funding tennis” and started pushing some of their best athletes into tennis, says Blackman. “Then you had an influx of dollars coming into the game and prize money has steadily risen since the early ’90s.” 

How this globalization affects men stateside is yet to be seen, but Annacone has concerns — even though youth tennis participation increased in 2018, to 4.64 million overall, a rise of 1.6 percent from 2017, according to the Tennis Industry Association. Kids growing up in the U.S. have the opportunity to participate in a wide-ranging set of sports, whereas most other nations have one or two that dominate, explains the 56-year-old Annacone, who attended Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Academy when he was 13. 

Annacone is happy that kids today have more choices and says he believes early specialization in any one sport can hurt a child’s overall development. However, “I often wonder if having sporting options has hurt tennis on the American side,” he says. “For a lot of these countries — where options across the board aren’t as readily available — tennis is often the only real and viable opportunity as it relates to sports.”

Which is why, when it comes to nationalities of future champions, fans will have to learn to expect the unexpected.  

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