Tennis is a global sport, the appeal of which only continues to grow in countries once considered tennis black spots. Players like Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova paved the way for Bjorn Borg and Steffi Graf. They, in turn, opened doors down the road for the likes of Yevgeny Kafelnikov and, today, Li Na.
The last 30 years have seen the sport move into new markets. It has attracted wider audiences and encouraged young talent in a way that would have never seemed possible just a couple decades ago.
No point proves this more than the fact that the top 10 players on the women's tour represent 10 different countries.
"Having 10 different [countries] represented in the top 10 rankings shows how truly global tennis has become," WTA Chair and CEO Stacey Allaster said in a statement published in the Washington Times after the release of last Monday's latest rankings.
So what has been happening? The United States has started to lose some of its long-standing dominance in the sport and western European countries such as Spain and France have started to get a stranglehold on the sport.
But it's not just there where the biggest waves are forming. Russia has erupted onto the scene in the last 20 years to be considered a real tennis powerhouse and, as widely documented through the stories of Li Na, China is leading Asia's contingent of up-and-coming players who are threatening to make even bigger inroads into the sport's elite.
Over the last few weeks, I have been researching the global growth of the sport, and the patterns are there for everyone to see. I've studied the top 100 men and top 100 women at four points in history (1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010) and mapped the results to show the world's tennis hotspots at a glimpse.
The women's tour data is courtesy of the Virginia Slims rankings, the Sanex WTA rankings and the WTA rankings.
To summarize my basic method, a woman who was in the top 20 in the 1980 year-end rankings was given five points, someone ranked 21 to 40 was awarded four points, 41 to 60 three points and so on. This was repeated in the men's rankings, and the totals were combined. This same exercise was then duplicated for the other three years.
It's not perfect, and there's no real science to it, but here's what I found.
At a glance: The US was the dominant power in tennis at the start of the 1980s, with Australia a very distant second. Great Britain and Czechoslovakia had a number of solid players, but the rest of Europe as a whole was severely lacking in talent compared to the front runners.
It's no exaggeration to say that tennis in the late 1970s and early '80s was absolutely dominated by Americans. They were so far ahead of the field, both on the men's and women's side of the game, that they had a monopoly on success.
The US held claim to 59 of the top 100 women in the world, with a further 42 men in the same position. That level of dominance has never been seen in the sport since and it will never be seen again, by any country.
To put a different perspective on things, America had more players ranked between 81 and 100 than any other country had in the top 100.
Chris Evert Lloyd, Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova were so far ahead of the field. It seemed like new champions were coming through the ranks every few years.
Lloyd was in her prime at the end of 1980, having already won 11 of her 18 Grand Slams. She had taken the torch from Billie Jean King and was running with it, while a 24-year-old Czechoslovakian defector by the name of Navratilova had burst onto the scene just a few years earlier. Add to the mix the upcoming talent of Austin and you can see why American ladies won 23 of the 27 Grand Slams held between 1980 and 1986.
It's no surprise that the US won what was then still called the Federation Cup for seven straight years from 1976 to 1982.
Looking at the men, all you have to know is that John McEnroe had landed after winning the US Open in '79, and Jimmy Connors was at the height of his career. Team USA claimed four Davis Cup victories in five years between 1978 and 1982.
There was a very minor threat coming out of Europe and South America in the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Villas and Jose-Luis Clerc, but the fact that America had 15 of the top 20 ranked men at the end of 1980 speaks for itself.
It wasn't Sweden or Argentina, though, that had the second-best program in the world at that time. No, it was Australia that had the most success. They had more players (16) in the top 100 than the next two closest nations combined, and the country was filled with a bunch of mid-level talent.
While Evonne Goolagong Cawley had peaked by 1980, Wendy Turnbull was right in the middle of her career. 1980 represented the fourth consecutive year she ended the season in the top 10, and it's no real surprise that she remained there until 1984. Turnbull made the finals in three of the four Slams, with three quarterfinal appearances at Wimbledon, and while she was an elite doubles player, she was also a tough nut to crack one-on-one. With fast feet, strong defense and a smooth touch at net, she was almost an early version of Caroline Wozniacki.
When you talk about players on the men's side coming out of Australia, the biggest threat they had was arguably Peter McNamara. A future world No. 7, McNamara cruelly ripped tendons in his knee right when he was ready to challenge for serious hardware. Sure, Kim Warwick and Phil Dent were good, and Paul McNamee was above average, but there wasn't that elite athlete, like in the female camp.
Rod Laver did so much to put Australian tennis on the map. Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe carried on part of that Aussie heritage into the early and mid 1970s, but there wasn't anyone else there to carry the momentum forward until Pat Cash and, a decade later, Pat Rafter.
At a glance: While tennis in America remained excellent, there was real growth across western Europe, particularly in France, Spain and Germany. Sweden and Italy, too, started producing top players and, for the first time, tennis in the Soviet Union was starting to develop.
Who would have thought, 10 years earlier, that the USSR would be producing a steady string of up-and-coming elite tennis stars?
At the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, the Soviet Union sent more athletes to Seoul than any other country, with the exception of America. They topped the medal table and dominated the athletics, gymnastics, wrestling and weight lifting. The USSR did not medal in tennis, sending just four participants. The only man, Alexander Volkov, lost in the first round, while only two ladies made it past the second round.
But 1988 was also the first year that tennis had been a full sport at the Olympics in 64 years. It is safe to say that it had only just become a priority on the Soviet Union's agenda. The number of top prospects in the early 1980s could literally be counted on one hand.
There was a great piece written by Tim Heckler, the CEO of the United States Professional Tennis Association, last year highlighting just how important the fall of the Berlin Wall was to the spread of tennis as people began training and competing in non-Government controlled sports.
Still, like in everything, they wanted to be the best, and players like Natasha Zvereva put the nation on the map. A talented junior, Zvereva turned into one of the best women's doubles players of all time, capturing 18 Grand Slam crowns. 1990 represented her third year as a pro, although she was never able to build on her singles run to the French Open final in '88. What this Belarussian did do was lead the way for other Soviet tennis players.
Georgian Leila Meskhi was a top-20 player at the end of 1990 and was ranked as high as No. 12 less than eight months later. Likewise, Ukrainian Natalia Medvedeva was also just coming through the ranks, having won her first tour title in Nashville as a 17-year-old in 1988, and countrywoman Elena Brioukhovets finished the year at No. 73 following second-place finishes in Moscow and Brentwood and doubles titles in Taranto and Dorado.
Looking at the men, Andrei Chesnokov made it to the semifinals of Roland Garros in 1989 and won the Monte Carlo Open, a Master Series event, in 1990 on his way to No. 9 in the world, and Andrei Cherkasov highlighted the Soviet's growth by winning the first ATP tour event ever held in Moscow in 1990.
The participation and training of former Soviet players abroad, combined with the formation of the ATP, encouraged greater participation across Europe. New tournaments were added to the schedule and players were almost encouraged to play as much as possible with only a players' best 14 tournaments being counted in the rankings no matter how many they played.
The ITF responded with more tournaments as well (Heckler identifies the Futures, Challengers and ITF junior tournaments) and takeup increased as more and more people took part in events to earn ranking points.
While Russia was still getting a foothold in the growing tennis world, western Europe flourished against this backdrop of new tournaments and new rankings systems.
Germany's Steffi Graf was the best player in the game, and 20 years later, still considered one of the greatest of all time. Still, Germany's only female world No. 1, Graf rejuvenated tennis in her country, capturing the imagination of her peers with her Golden Slam in 1988 and showing the longevity to still be winning Majors in the mid 90s.
In addition to Graf, Germany also sported six more women in the top 60 and seven men in the top 100, while Sweden—led by world No. 1 Stefan Edberg—had a dozen male players in the top 100.
Add to that the likes of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Conchita Martinez and Emilio Sanchez coming out of Spain and Nathalie Tauziet, Guy Forget and Henri Leconte challenging for titles in France, and it set the wheels in motion for Europe to become a real tennis powerhouse.
As more money was pumped into women's tennis in Europe, TV broadcasters began taking notice. Prize money at Grand Slams hasn't always been equal, but it's still pretty simple to show how it, too, has evolved.
Take Wimbledon, for example. In a report published by Reuters last April, the women's champion earned £207,000 (around $334,000) in 1990, more than 11 times the £18,000 earned a decade earlier and 77 percent greater than the £117,000 from 1985.
In 2010 the prize purse, the same as the men's for the fourth consecutive year, hit the £1 million for the first time. To give that some context, the Bank of Scotland estimates that you would need just under £13 million today to enjoy the equivalent lifestyle of someone who had £1 million in 1968, the first year of Open Era tennis.
At a glance: America was not the only tennis superpower in 2000, with both France and Spain boasting impressive talent. The Soviet Union was now 15 separate countries, but that didn't stop Russia continuing to rise up the tennis rankings and, for the first time, the likes of China, Thailand and South Korea were being represented in the game's elite.
Looking back at the tennis landscape in 1990, it's no real shock to see France, Spain and Russia right near the top of the sport 10 years later.
While Lindsay Davenport was exchanging blows with Martina Hingis in a stark clash of styles, three Americans were taking the women's game to new levels with a dazzling combination of power and speed.
Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams and Serena Williams were amazing athletes just as much as excellent tennis players, and while they weren't the first to hit the cover off the ball (like Monica Seles and Mary Pierce did before them), they certainly made it more mainstream and fashionable. Let's not forget that the Williams' sisters didn't come through the usual USTA junior route.
Four American women won 13 of the 15 Grand Slam finals from the 1998 US Open to the '03 Australian Open, but at the height of their dominance in 2000, there were more Europeans (five) than Americans (four) in the top 10.
Obviously those four Americans were world class, but the Conchita Martinez's and Mary Pierces of the game were established, known entities.
On the men's side, there was a lot of change brewing. Seven nationalities were represented in the top 10, and between the time Boris Becker won the Australian Open in 1996 and Carlos Moya lifted the trophy at Roland Garros in 1998, men from eight different countries had been successful in 10 Grand Slams.
By 2000, Kafelnikov and Marat Safin had claimed three Major titles, Moya became just the second Spaniard in the Open Era to win a Slam, and Spain had its first of four Davis Cup crowns after nurturing the talents of Alex Corretja, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa.
Then there was France, often overlooked but right at the top of the sport because of Cedric Pioline, Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean. It was the second most popular spot in the country with more than one million licensed players, and new clay court facilities like the Palais omnisport Les Arènes in Metz helped the growth of the sport.
In the background, Anna Kournikova had crept into the top 10 in singles, leading a female Russian contingent that included Elena Dementieva, Elena Likhovtseva and Tatiana Panova, while Safin and Kafelnikov were mainstays in the top five of the ATP tour.
"The rise of Russian players in the standings is very impressive," Justine Henin told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2004. "They're young, audacious and they never relinquish anything, even if they are losing."
At the time, Patrick McEnroe said tennis had become a "way out" for less wealthy families in Russia, and by the middle of the decade, money initially funneled into developing the sport in the wake of the Olympics had made a real impact.
ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti told Tennis Week, "In Russia...an Olympic medal is prized above all other sporting awards. The growth of tennis in Russia has been phenomenal over the last 20 years." He was spot on.
Things were similar south of the Russian border, and Yi Jing-Qian was still inside the top 100. 2000 marked her second Olympic Games and fourth Fed Cup appearance, and she rose to No. 70 in the WTA rankings, just one spot shy of her career best four years earlier. She also became the first Chinese player ever to reach the third round of a Grand Slam (Australian Open), and while people are rightfully high on the Li Na bandwagon, Yi was the real revolutionary in Chinese women's tennis.
At a glance: Russia and Spain carried the tennis torch at the end of 2010, with the USA a distant third at best. France, Germany and Italy were all there or thereabouts, and smaller nations like the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Serbia and Belgium were producing elite players. China, too, continued to improve, and nations such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekestan and Latvia were also joining the party. 34 nations were represented in the women's top 100 and 37 countries in the men's ranking, more than ever before.
Tennis fans across the world know that the sport today is more global than ever before. Sure, the same two men have been dominant for the last six years, but between Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling and Co. the field is talented at the top.
On the women's tour, eight countries were featured in the top 10 of the 2010 year-end rankings, led by a Dane without a Grand Slam to her name. Following the Australian Open, the top-10 players hailed from 10 different countries for the first time since the inception of the WTA rankings in 1975.
The bigger story is the emergence of the Russians and long-awaited dominance of the Spanish.
Let's start with the Russians, in particular the women. There wasn't a single woman in the top 100 in 1980—five made the cut in 1990 and seven in 2000. At the end of 2010, there were 16 in total, including the world's No. 2 and No. 9 players and three more in the top 20.
The Russian women tend to be cut from the same cloth...aggressive baseliners who are solid off both wings, excellent movers and even better counterpunchers. This fits Vera Zvonareva down to a tee, and it's also a pretty accurate description of former star Elena Dementieva and current players Maria Kirilenko, Maria Sharapova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, all top-20 players. Nadia Petrova and Alisa Kleybanova are slower and more powerful, but their game, too, is dictated by their baseline capabilities.
Further showing the strength of the nation, the Fed Cup team has won four titles in the last six years and is only second best to the Italian team, which features four players inside the world's top 40.
The emergence of Spain is less of a surprise, but they have also come a long way in the past few decades.
In 1980, they had four men in the top 100. Today, it's eight men in the top 20, with the nation hosting two ATP 500 events and one ATP 1000 tournament for the men and a pair of International events and the highly-popular Premier meeting in Madrid for the ladies.
The stunning Agora in Valencia—opened in 2009 for the ATP 500 event—and the $3 million Caja Mágica complex—opened in Madrid in the same year for the Masters—shows the kind of development the Spanish are putting into their tennis facilities.
Rafael Nadal is the best thing to happen to the country since 1994 when Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui played in the first all-Spanish Grand Slam final, Conchita Martínez became the first Spanish woman to win Wimbledon, and the country won a total of 26 titles (14 ATP and 12 WTA) and its third Fed Cup.
Then there's China. The WTA says recreational tennis has grown almost exponentially since the sport came back to the Olympic Games, from one million people in 1988 to 14 million today. The development of 30,000 courts has helped that project, and the Chinese Government is hoping to double its number of people playing tennis by 2016.
The Swing for the Stars partnership, promoting the development of tennis practices in China, was unveiled in 2008, providing training to 250 junior players under 12, as well as 100 junior coaches. Add to that China's new national amateur tennis league, the Open Rating Tour, launched in '09, the creation of the Michael Chang Mission Hills Tennis Academy in Shenzhen and the investment in the sport in the run up to the Beijing Olympics the previous year and you start to see why tennis has erupted at the grassroots level.
The WTA has also opened offices in the country, and the China Open, being held for the third time this October in Beijing, is one of the most prestigious tournaments on the calendar. The hi-tech Olympic Green Tennis Center, with 10 air-conditioned courts and six practice facilities, is a perfect venue, only seven years old and purposely built for the Olympics.
After Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won gold in the women's doubles at the Athens Olympics in 2004, coach Sun Jinfang told China.org reporter Li Xiao: "Tennis is different from many other sports, because you cannot make any progress without heavy investment." The Chinese Tennis Association backed up this claim, investing $725,000 in sending its women tennis players to compete abroad. Spending in developing men's tennis took the total to over $1.2 million.
The investment has now come to fruition. Li Na and Jie Zheng became the first Chinese pair to make it to the semifinals of the same Grand Slam when No. 16 Li and unseeded Jie got to the final four in Australia in 2010. Li was also one good set of tennis away from a Grand Slam in Melbourne this year, and many pundits think that 2011 will really be her year to shine. Li's captivating personality and no-nonsense approach has won her a lot of fans, all while helping tennis' popularity continue to grow back home.
Tennis will remain one of the top three sports in China for a long, long time and people are starting to get behind their players like never before.
Just as Serbia came out of nowhere in 2008, through the emergence of Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, the tennis world is now looking forward to seeing what will happen next.
Australia is not nearly as strong as it once was and America has only a few legit prospects coming through the system. People have questioned America's development program, even John McEnroe. He decided to open his own academy on Randall's Island when he was told that his developmental objectives did not mesh with those of the USTA, headed up coincidentally by brother Patrick.
Outside of the US, Eastern Europe, and, in particular, Central Asia, are set to make massive strides in the next 10-15 years. While there's no sign of France and Spain slowing down, competition will increase at a rapid rate.
China is also going to continue to grow, and if it keeps putting the investment in, it's only a matter of time until its men catch up with the women. I believe a Chinese woman will win multiple Grand Slams in the next decade.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have also started to produce top-50 players, something unheard of a decade ago, and there's every chance growth will continue, if slowly, over the coming years. The Presidents' Cup has been held in Kazakhstan for the last four seasons, and the rapid growth of its Davis Cup team, promoted from the Asia/Oceania Zone of Group II in 2006 and now in the World Group for the first time, shows the sport is on the rise.
The Kazakhs are on similar footing with Sweden right now, and we know the pedigree and history there. Don't count out smaller tennis countries like Japan and South Korea producing top-20 players in the not-so-distant future, either.
In Western Europe, Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova became the first person to make the semifinals of a Grand Slam in the Open era when she got to the final four of Wimbledon in 2010, but this is an exception to the norm, and there's nothing to support the idea that the nation will be a legit threat any time in the future.
Great Britain is another nation that has struggled in the tennis world for several years now, and Sport England says it is one of the five most underperforming participation sports in the country. However, with $40 million being invested between 2009 and 2013, partly because of the 2012 Olympics in London, there's every reason to believe the Brits will rise again.
The popularity of Andy Murray has certainly helped tennis there, and even though he's only 23 years old, you have to think his best days will be behind him in five or six more years. Likewise, Elena Baltacha (No. 57) and Anne Keothavang (No. 91) are the best British ladies, but they're both 27 and unlikely to usher in a new era of elite tennis.
I'm high on teenagers Heather Watson and Laura Robson, and having watched them play a bunch of times, I think they both have bright futures ahead of them. Watson is now getting Fed Cup experience and Robson, a lefty who won Wimbledon as a junior, is a big-serving, hard hitting talent who has been working with Ana Ivanovic. Even so, Britain has a lot of work ahead of itself if it is to ever get out of the Europe/Africa group, a place they have been in for the last seven years.
Moving on to South America, if you're talking about Olympic investment then Brazil, too, has to be on your list because of the fact they will be pumping money into the sport ahead of the 2016 Games.
The Marapendi Club in Rio de Janeiro, used during the 2007 Pan American Games, is a suitable venue, but the Olympics will bring a state-of-the-art facility in about 18 months' time.
The country will spend an estimated $46 million on the four-court Olympic Tennis Center in Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro and the newly-created Brazil Open Series, a low-level Challenger event, will increase the reputation of the sport in and around Curitiba.
Just as Spain, America, Australia and China invested in tennis in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2008 respectively, Brazil will look to return to tennis prominence and prove that it's not just Argentina leading the way down there.
Whatever happens, tennis is as exciting and global as it ever was before, and it's only going to get stronger. From the Americans and Europe to Asia and Australia, we're lucky to be witnesses to this part of tennis history. The future looks bright, and we're at the center of it.