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Rafael Nadal of Spain and Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic.
Rafael Nadal of Spain and Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic.

The European stamp on tennis

Europe has maintained its hegemony in tennis as about 60% of the top 500 players—both men and women—still come from the continent

The first tennis major of the new year and new decade is upon us. Earlier this week, the Australian Open put out its list of seeds for this year’s tournament, which starts on Monday. The men’s and women’s sides narrate contrasting stories. The men’s side illustrates the European hegemony: all the top 10 seeds are European; and the first seed from another continent is a Canadian, at number 13. The women’s top 10 features six Europeans, two Americans, an Australian and an Asian.

The story shows how, over the past two decades, Europe has withstood a globalizing world in which more countries were beginning to make their presence felt on the world stage to maintain its dominant footprint on tennis. About 60% of players in the top 500 on both the men and women’s sides still come from a continent that accounts for about 10% of the world’s population.

For both men and women, we looked at country-wise data in terms of rankings, participation and success at four to six equidistant points, depending on data availability, for the past 50 years. The big shift on the men’s side happened between 1979 and 2019 when the European share in the top 500 nearly doubled (chart 1).

Cut back to 1979, when tennis had completed a decade of allowing professionals and amateurs to compete on an even keel, and the first flush of big money was entering the sport. It was the US that co-dominated the tour with Europe. In the men’s year-ended ranking, both geographies accounted for about one-third of men each in the top 500.

While Europe matched the US in quantity, it was a notch below in quality at the upper levels. In 1979, seven of the top 10 men’s players and 27 of the top 50 players were Americans. Leading them were the likes of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Roscoe Tanner.

Over the next two decades, Europe not only upended the American order but also stamped its own emphatic presence. By 1999, Europe was accounting for above 60% of all players in the top 500 on the men’s side, but only four of the top 10 that year.

But in 2019, in the tail end of the golden age of Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic, all top 10 men players were Europeans, as were 33 of the top 50, and 65 of the top 100 men’s players. And Spain was logging numbers worthy of a continent (chart 2).

The Rest of Americas (all countries in North, South and Central, other than the US) is now number two in the men’s segment in terms of player presence, accounting for 15% of players in the top 500. It is followed by Asia, with 11%, a share that has trebled in the past three decades.

But as Asian players will testify, it’s one thing to have a presence among the numbers, quite another to break into the top ranks. On the men’s side, for instance, that Asian share of 11% in the top 500 dropped to 2% in the top 50 in 2019. Go down further to look at winnability in major tournaments, and that number for Asia drops to 0—not a single Asian made it to the semi-finals of tier-I events, namely Grand Slams and Masters in 2019. By comparison, 89% of semi-final appearances in such tournaments in 2019 came from Europeans. In the context of their overall numbers, other than Europe, it’s only men players from the Rest of Americas who maintain their numbers across quantity, quality and winnability (chart 3).

On the women’s side, ranking data is available only from 1989. The overall geographical distribution at the level of top 500 ranking looks similar to the men’s side: Europe managing to preserve the dominance it established in the eighties and the US losing share (chart 4).

There are also differences. Asian women have made a greater mark on the circuit than their male counterparts. In the top 500, Asia has doubled its share between 1989 and 2019 and is second after Europe. Further, unlike their men, the Rest of the Americas have lost out on depth.

There’s an old order whose time is coming. There’s the men’s troika the chasing pack is getting closer to. There’s Serena Williams on the women’s side. New narratives could emerge. For example, Asia added the numbers in the last two decades. Can it now do what Europe did in the seventies and eighties? These narratives will reshape themselves in the coming years. For now, in tennis, it’s the age of Europe.

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