Small Is Big in Men's Tennis, Where Swiss, Croatians Top U.S. Listen
Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Switzerland's Roger Federer, the No. 1 player in men's tennis, comes from a country with fewer people than New York City. The sport's top team title, the Davis Cup, belongs to Croatia, a nation four years younger than second- ranked Rafael Nadal of Spain.
Small countries rule and traditional men's tennis powers such as the U.S. are struggling as the sport plays its first Grand Slam tournament of the year at the Australian Open.
Federer began the Open in Melbourne having won five of the eight majors over the past two years. Ivan Ljubicic may be playing the best tennis in the world after leading 15-year-old Croatia to the Davis Cup in December. Andy Roddick is the top American at No. 3 and hasn't won a Grand Slam tournament in three years.
``These smaller countries are concentrating on what they have, rather than having so much to select from,'' said Nick Bollettieri, who helped develop former top-ranked U.S. players such as Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. ``They can see what they have and give it enough financial support.''
Promising players can train at one place and are treated as an elite group with a strong support system, said Bollettieri, 74, who also worked with Grand Slam title record-holder Pete Sampras and 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova.
The U.S. Tennis Association spent $64 million on developing players in 2004, according to the group's most recent figures. Switzerland's governing body for tennis spent about 3 million Swiss francs ($2.34 million) on development last year, while Croatia's federation spent about $500,000.
"We're magicians,'' Marina Mihelic, executive director of the Croatian Tennis Association, said in a telephone interview.
Federer, 24, became the first man from Switzerland, population 7.3 million, to win a Grand Slam title when he beat Mark Philippoussis of Australia at Wimbledon three years ago. Ljubicic's 11-match winning streak in the Davis Cup helped Croatia defeat 13-year-old Slovakia for the title.
Ljubicic ended last year ranked ninth after reaching finals in four of his last six events, winning two. He won the Chennai Open in India last month as the 2006 season began.
Nadal, Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain have won the French Open over the last eight years after another Spaniard, Sergi Bruguera, ended an 18-year winless Grand Slam spell among men for their country at the same tournament in 1993. Argentina has three players in the top 10.
``The writing's been on the wall,'' said Courier, 35, formerly No. 1 in the world with four Grand Slam titles. ``Tennis takes us all over the world. People aspire to be the players they see on TV, and that's where dreams come from.''
Croatia's interest in tennis boomed when Goran Ivanisevic beat Australia's Patrick Rafter in a five-set final at Wimbledon five years ago, said Micho Dushanovic, a former Croatian junior player who works as a tennis broadcaster for state-run HRTV.
Interest in the Davis Cup victory among Croatia's 4.4 million citizens might have surpassed that for the national soccer team's third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup, he added. The country's success in tennis may continue with players such as 17-year-old Marin Cilic, the world's top-ranked junior.
``After soccer, tennis is for sure No. 2 in popularity,'' Dushanovic, 54, said in a telephone interview. ``It wasn't like that in the past.''
Tennis officials say the shift from big to small hasn't affected marketing. The Association of Tennis Professionals spends $5 million on marketing every year, said Richard Davies, chief executive of the commercial wing of the men's tour.
``As a global sport, we can afford to have pockets of strength and relative evenness, without really affecting the total pie,'' Davies said in a telephone interview. ``Growth is never a bad thing.''
In November, the ATP signed a three-year contract extension with Daimler-Chrysler's Mercedes Benz, the German-based No. 2 luxury automaker and a chief partner.
``Most of the revenue for the tour has always come out of Europe,'' Davies said. ``America has never really dominated.''
The U.S. still needs to produce successful men's players to maintain American interest in the game, said Michael Stirling, founder of London-based Global Sponsors, which provides advice to companies on sponsorship strategies.
``It's important because it attracts youth and the investment required to maintain standards,'' Stirling said in a telephone interview. ``If you have a long period where you don't have a star, it'll be even harder to find one.''
Roddick, 23, ended 2003 ranked first and has failed to reach the semifinals at five of eight Grand Slams since. The 35- year-old Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam champion, is the only other American in the top 15. He skipped the Australian Open with an ankle injury after losing to Federer in the U.S. Open final last September.
The bright spots for the U.S. include James Blake, who rebounded from a broken neck to make the top 25, and Robby Ginepri, who reached the U.S. Open semifinals in New York. He lost in the second-round of the Australian Open to 177th-ranked Denis Gremelmayr. Donald Young, 16, is second to Cilic in the junior rankings.
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