It started out as a trickle.
In 1993, the relatively unheralded Sergi Bruguera won the first of his two consecutive French Open titles, becoming the first Spaniard to win a major men’s title since Manuel Orantes’ triumph at the 1975 US Open (Arantxa Sánchez Vicario had won the women’s title in Paris). in 1989). Then a few years later, in 1998, Bruguera’s compatriot Carlos Moya won the French Open. He was followed by two other Spaniards: Juan Carlos Ferrero’s triumph in Paris in 2003 and Albert Costa’s victory there a year later. For a country of rather humble origins, Spain is becoming a fixture in men’s tennis.
And then of course the flood came.
When Rafael Nadal took to the stage in all his daring capris-wearing glory at the French Open in 2005, it was clear the Spanish armed forces had arrived. Not only did Nadal embark on a triumph of dominance unprecedented in tennis, or perhaps any other sport – he claimed 14 French Open titles – he also shattered the stereotype that the Spanish men were only played on clay; Nadal reached six Wimbledon finals between 2006 and 2011, winning two of them. He has also won four US Open and two Australian titles. (Nadal is currently recovering from hip surgery and hopes to play one final full year of touring in 2024, so a 15th French title can’t be ruled out just yet.)
And just as Nadal’s career inevitably comes to an end, another superstar from Spain is gradually appearing.
Like Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz was promised great things when he was young and he did not disappoint. Alcaraz, who is just 20, is aiming for his third Grand Slam title when he begins his US Open campaign next week. There is a growing consensus among tennis watchers that a haul of 10 Majors is a conservative prognosis for Alcaraz.
An all-around opponent, Alcaraz has such a remarkably varied game that it’s hard to see his greatest strength. Despite being of the same nationality, he and Nadal have different playing styles – with some overlap – to overwhelm their opponents.
So a big time player is immediately followed by another Superstar from the same country with a different playstyle… sounds familiar? Maybe not for younger fans, but there was a time when there seemed to be an endless parade of American men fighting for Slam titles.
Aside from the time of Jack Kramer’s Pro-Tour/Pre-Open era in the 1950’s and 1960’s when many American players like the great Pancho Gonzalez ditched their amateur status and retired from the majors to make a living in the In the nearly 150-year history of the sport, never more than a few years went by without a Slam victory for the American men.
Consider since the start of the Open era in 1968: Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were succeeded by Jimmy Connors, who then passed the baton to John McEnroe. Then, after a – gasp! – four-year hiatus which featured Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. Sampras and Agassi were the defining rivalry of the 1990s. And after Sampras prompted arguably the biggest exit in sports history by retiring after his US Open win over Agassi in 2002, Andy Roddick won the tournament in 2003 and it seemed all was normal for American men’s tennis.
But this year’s US Open marks an inglorious anniversary of futility: It’s now 20 years since Roddick defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero to become the last American to win a Grand Slam singles title. In a sport where generations can often be defined in increments of seven years, ages have passed since Roddick’s triumph.
It must be noted that this drought is only affecting the men, as America’s women – led by the Williams sisters – have won 35 major titles since the 1998 US Open. And Coco Gauff, America’s newest star, will certainly be among the favorites in New York, especially after her win in Cincinnati on Sunday. Although even the women are going through a relative dry spell: the last American to win a Grand Slam singles title was Sofia Kenin at the Australian Open 2020.
Why couldn’t the Americans, who dominated the sport for more than 100 years, produce a male Grand Slam winner for so long? In a country of great wealth, a diverse population and a climate conducive to sport, that’s a glaring question.
There are different theories. Some say this is because young athletes in the United States have too many choices between sports and other activities. Others believe that American men are too one-dimensional and have strong forehand and serve players, but lack an awareness of the entire court. Or some suggest it’s because American juniors don’t train adequately on clay, where you’re forced to be more creative and score points, or because the United States suffers from a lack of a strong national training program, or because it doesn’t there is much of an emphasis on footwork found in soccer-playing countries.
Some will counter this negativity and claims of American hopelessness by rightly saying that this is an unfair argument considering there is more Americans in the ATP Top 50 – eight – than any other country, including three in the top 15: Taylor Fritz (ninth), Frances Tiafoe (10th) and Tommy Paul (14th). And the American men, whom tennis connoisseurs see as having the greatest potential, aren’t far behind – injury-plagued Sebastian Korda, ranked 33rd, and Ben Shelton, currently ranked 46th.
But if you were promoting American tennis, would you rather have the best player in the world, or several in the top 50, to represent the sport in the US?
France could prove to be a useful comparison. In the age of the Big Three, France produced several players many believed capable of winning a Slam – Richard Gasquet, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Gaël Monfils – but they always fell behind, as did almost everyone else against Federer , Nadal and Djokovic .
And then there are the countries that produce clusters of elite players, such as Switzerland. Who could have predicted that the small country would produce the great Federer as well as Stan Wawrinka and Martina Hingis, all born just a few years apart?
It is too early to say if Spain will become a lasting power like the United States once was. Or whether Sweden could serve as a more appropriate analogue? Beginning with Bjorn Borg’s first Slam title at the French Open in 1974, Sweden enjoyed a 20-year streak of uninterrupted brilliance, with Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg immediately following Borg. This trio amassed 25 majors. But apart from Tomas Johansson’s surprise win at the Australian Open in 2002, Sweden hasn’t come close to a Grand Slam title since (and the country has never had a female champion in a Major).
As tennis has grown internationally and access to the sport has exploded, it may be impossible for a country to have a century-long impact on slams like US men once enjoyed. But at least for the time being, Spain in Alcaraz are undoubtedly riding a wave of dominance that could well last nearly three decades.