Thursday, August 5, 2004

Global push is extending game's reach

Many countries developing talent

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

MASON - In the two weeks following the Wimbledon triumph of Russian phenom Maria Sharapova, Nick Bollettieri said he had six Russian girls leave their homeland to come train at his famed academy in Bradenton, Fla. They were all 8 or 9.

You'd better believe they knew the Sharapova story: a family uprooted to America with $700 to its name, coming to Bollettieri with a 9-year-old girl and a dream.

Similar scenes are occurring in far-flung locales, where tennis' newest names are becoming inspiring examples of their own.

When Armenia's Sargis Sargsian won an ATP tournament, countrymen began asking him where to enroll their kids in tennis lessons. Max Mirnyi became Belarus' first significant player, beginning a boom that has landed his country in the Davis Cup semifinals. Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan became the first player from Asia to hit the top 10, becoming the ATP's poster child for its marketing strategy in Asia.

Tennis, always a broad-based sport, is truly going global. An increasing number of nations are producing top-ranked talent, adding depth to a game once controlled by traditional powers in Europe and the Americas.

"Tennis has always been a global game, but it keeps expanding, and the balance of power is changing," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and men's Olympic coach.

"There's a lot of opportunity. In an individual sport like this, talent and drive (alone) can get you to the top. It's harder in team sports, but in tennis you can do it yourself."

At Wimbledon, there were players from 33 nations in the men's draw and 34 in the women's draw. The Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, which 20 years ago had players from 17 countries - 34 players were American - has 27 countries represented this year and just nine Americans playing.

Men from six continents infiltrated last year's top 10 at different times. Countries with few facilities and coaches, including Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Paraguay, had players at Wimbledon.

Developments such as the addition of tennis to the Olympics and a grassroots program begun by the International Tennis Federation, along with the placement of tournaments in new countries, have factored into the game's changing face.

In 1989, there were 27 Americans ranked in the men's year-end top 100, and just six players from Spain. Fifteen years later, the current top 100 includes 10 Americans and 14 Spaniards.

Nations newly rising in the men's rankings include Finland (Jarkko Nieminen), Georgia (Irakli Labadze) and Chinese Taipei (Yen-Hsun Lu). On the women's side, breakthroughs have been made by Japan's Ai Sugiyama, ranked 11th, and Greece's Eleni Daniilidou, who hit No. 14 last year.

China's Jie Zheng, No. 53, has credited the 2008 Olympics in Beijeng as a major reason tennis is taking off in her country.

Tennis' return to the Olympics in 1988 spurred numerous nations.

"Before 1988, many governments and national Olympic committees would not invest in tennis in their countries," ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti told Tennis Week. "This all changed. ... There are many examples, but perhaps none so obvious as in Russia, where an Olympic medal is prized above all other sporting awards."

In 1984, there were no Soviet men or women in the year-end top 100. Today, Russia has five men and 14 women in the top 100, including four women in the top 10.

There are 64 ATP events in 30 countries and 59 WTA events in 31 countries, spanning six continents. Men's and women's events take place in such nations as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and India.

Lesser known is the significance of entry-level events, such as the ATP-run Challenger series that includes 116 events in 47 countries.

"The bridge that players have to cross is going from the high-level juniors to the Tour," ATP Tour CEO Mark Miles said. "You have to play at the professional level - learn to travel, etc. - to begin to make that transition.

"The ITF at the helm of the Futures and satellite (events), and us at the Challenger level, have really covered the globe with those kind of entry-level opportunities. Those are really the bridge to the big leagues."

The ITF's development program has invested $49 million the past seven years to spread coaching expertise and increase junior events and entry-level pro tournaments. Much of that was targeted in Asia, Africa and Central America.

Srichaphan and Daniilidou, and former world No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten before them, are among the players who received help from the ITF.

Then there's the Bollettieri factor. He founded his academy in 1976 and sent such luminaries as Jim Courier and Andre Agassi through the pipeline. Then followed foreigners such as Monica Seles, Tommy Haas, Anna Kournikova, Mirnyi and Sharapova.

For a generation now, promising players have come to America to train at an academy, or to attend college as Sargsian did. The fall of the Soviet Union certainly increased the mobility for many aspiring talents.

However players ascend from unlikely locales, their example affects the mindset of others considering this career.

"It's just a belief," Sargsian said. "When I was growing up, this was considered something unreachable. But now everybody's trying."


Then and now

A comparison of the number of countries with players represented in major draws/rankings over 10-year intervals:

Men's tennis

Wimbledon draw263133
Cincinnati draw171827
Year-end top 100242630*

Women's tennis

Wimbledon drawN/A3034
Year-end top 100222929
*Current world rankings

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