There was a time when there were just four superpowers in tennis: Australia, France, the UK and the USA. The homes of the four Grand Slams. That hasn’t been the case for a long, long while, the sport spreading to far-flung spots around the globe as all sorts of countries have taken it up with abandon.
Europe has become a tennis superpower in itself - Italy, Spain, Germany, Croatia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Russia and many more combining to bring new faces to the table.
But on examining the junior draws at this year’s Australian Open, there are new countries emerging on the tennis map, new territories which could be producing the Grand Slam champions of the future. Davis and Fed Cup, for example, are now played in 123 and 90 nations respectively.
First and foremost, tennis in Asia is on a growth spurt all of its own.
Take Korea, for example. There were no fewer than six Koreans in the boys’ main draw this year, including the astonishing Duck-Hee Lee, the 14-year-old who captured attention for his deafness. Two of them are in the semi-finals of the boys’ doubles.
China, considered by many to be the superpower of the future, even before Li Na’s extraordinary success, had 18 players here in Melbourne, 12 of them seniors, but six juniors too, including, for the first time, some boys. And don’t forget the two juniors from Hong Kong and one from Chinese Taipei.
And Japan, where Kei Nishikori is a national hero, had 21 competitors, many of them in qualifying, but future attention lavished on three boys and two girls.
The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia too have up and coming youngsters.
Then there is South America, the continent which Roger Federer described as a revelation during his recent exhibition tour, the first time he had played south-west of the Equator. The Argentines and Brazilians aside, the southern hemisphere continent has not been one of the strongest in tennis terms, especially among the women. But Argentina had 11 players in Melbourne, Brazil had 10, and Chile had four.
Africa, admittedly, has little to offer other than the odd South African or Moroccan. But that will come.
And then there’s Eastern Europe. Heralded by the likes of Safin, Sharapova, Djokovic and Ivanisevic, tennis in the east of Europe continues to catapult. There were 14 Croatians in the draw, three of them juniors, 13 from Ukraine, a whopping 25 from the Czech Republic and 15 from Serbia, four of those very promising juniors, including the boys’ world No.1 Nikola Milojevic.
Latvia, Estonia, Belgium too; those countries make up the latter stages of the girls’ singles, alongside two Czechs, a Belgian, a Croatian, a German and a Russian.
The boys’ latter stages, similarly, feature two Italians, a Serb, a Slovak, A Croatian and a South African. Australia is the only Grand Slam nation still in singles contention in the juniors, with two Aussies remaining in the boys’ singles draw.
All of which is to say that tennis has become a truly global phenomenon. And the next Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray could well not be from an established nation. Watch this space.