The Old World Order

June 11, 2012
June 11, 2012

Table of Contents
June 11, 2012

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The Old World Order

Week 1 of the French Open, with so many dominant European players, proved that the center of the sport has moved to the Continent

These are not flush times in Europe: high unemployment, austerity measures, debt crisis, unstable currency. While it may be small consolation, at least the Continent is experiencing robust growth in one sector: pro tennis. In fact, Europe has almost cornered the market.

This is an article from the June 11, 2012 issue

As the French Open began in Paris last week, it had the feel of a regional championship. The top eight seeds in the men's draw were from Europe. Same for 24 of the top 27 women's seeds. When, comme d'habitude, U.S. players left the clay-court festivities unfashionably early—not least Serena Williams, who was bounced from the first round of a major for the first time—the Euro vibe only intensified.

In tennis, it wasn't always thus. Twenty summers ago, Jim Courier defended his French Open title, and Andre Agassi won Wimbledon; 15 years ago no European won a men's Grand Slam singles title; a decade ago an Australian (Lleyton Hewitt) won Wimbledon and an American (Pete Sampras) won the U.S. Open. "You heard a lot more English in the players' lounge then," quips Courier, now a TV commentator. Today? By the fourth round in Paris, only two of the 16 remaining men required more than a short flight to return home.

In part this Continental drift is a natural outgrowth of the free market. When communism fell and the former Soviet states opened their borders, the sport's talent pool increased dramatically. (Thus Mikhail Gorbachev has affected tennis more than Nick Bollettieri did.) Plus, like a bank robber, tennis goes where the money is. As more and more of the top stars resided in Europe, many pro tournaments followed, leaving old strongholds such as Philadelphia and Scottsdale, Ariz., and setting up in Copenhagen and Belgrade. That not only increased tennis's exposure in the new markets, but it also created playing opportunities for European pros, which in turn accelerated the ascent of homegrown talent.

Yet the biggest factor might simply be tennis's status in the European sports hierarchy. In many countries it's second only to soccer in popularity, so promising young athletes aren't easily diverted from the tennis court to the basketball court or gridiron. Consider Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, who made the quarterfinals on Monday. If he were American, it would be easy to envision the 6'2", 200-pound Tsonga, an exceptional athlete, shooting jumpers or running off tackle. But he grabbed a racket at age four and never let go. "I like other sports," he says, "but I thought tennis had the most possibility, and I could always find good training."

As Tsonga spoke, his agent, Morgan Menahem, nodded. Menahem's mere presence at Roland Garros said plenty about the importance of tennis in Europe. His other big client is NBA star Tony Parker.

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That an irrepressible African-American woman was among the last U.S. players remaining in Paris last week was not a shock. That it was neither Venus nor Serena Williams, but instead Sloane Stephens, was a considerable surprise. A 19-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, Stephens alternately pounded and ground her way to the fourth round, where she served for the first set before losing 7--5, 6--4 to Australia's Sam Stosur, the reigning U.S. Open champion. The list of (over)hyped American prospects failing to meet expectations is so long that it could be serialized. But Stephens, who arrived in Paris ranked No. 70 but will soon encroach on the top 50, combines grade-A speed and power with a precocious court sense. Plus, at a time when too many players feel as though cracking one smile might ruin their competitive resolve, Stephens is thoroughly enjoying her ascent. The highlight of her run in Paris? "I'm excited," she joked, "because now I'm going to have more Twitter followers."

TWO PHOTOSTHOMAS LOVELOCKCHEZ MOI Tsonga, a Frenchman who lives in Switzerland, made the quarterfinals on what is practically his home court.