The Skiing Country Shines on the Courts
René Stambach could not have dreamed of a better Monday. The president of Swiss Tennis awoke on August 17 to see that two Swiss men were in the top five – Roger Federer at no. three and Stan Wawrinka no. five – and that two Swiss women had moved into the top 15 – Belinda Bencic at no. 12 and Timea Bacsinszky at no. 14. Not only is Switzerland the reigning Davis Cup champion, but with the two women in the top 15 and the world’s second-ranked women’s doubles player, Martina Hingis, the Swiss are realistic challengers for the Fed Cup, the World Cup of women’s tennis.
To put this feat in perspective, and for all of those in Switzerland who feel victimized by the United States as a Big Brother rather than a Sister Republic, the highest American men’s rankings on August 17 are John Isner at no. 12 and Jack Sock at no. 30. Since 2003, the last time an American won a Grand Slam tournament, Roger and Stan have won 19 titles between them. On the women’s side, the highest American rankings this week, beside Serena Williams at no. one, are Madison Keys at no. 19 and Venus Williams at no. 22. Since 2002, no American woman has won a Grand Slam title beside the Williams sisters.
How does a country with a population of 8 million and better known for skiing suddenly become such a tennis powerhouse? Rather than promote his federation, if René Stambach were honest, which he is, he would point to the Federer phenomenon. Rather than take all the credit for Swiss Tennis, he would admit that the Balois has inspired a generation of young athletes to hit the courts rather than the slopes. One player, by his on-court genius and off-the-court exemplary demeanor, has thousands of children and their parents sacrificing the glorious trails of Verbier, Gstaad, Villars and Wengen to pass their after-schools, weekends and holidays hitting yellow balls instead of slalom pistes.
The French, for example, with an outstanding tennis federation and the prestige of Roland Garros every year, have not had a male Grand Slam winner since the magic moment of Yannick Noah’s victory in 1983. The United States has poured money into player development, but since McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras and Courrier, in the 1980s and 90s, the well has gone dry. Yes, the United States has other attracting sports such as basketball, football and baseball. But at the very moment Swiss tennis is peaking, there has never been so many Swiss soccer stars playing at the highest levels throughout the world.
Realists and pessimists will say that Roger is a unique case who cannot be replicated in any federation or tennis academy. Like Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, great champions are special, whether in physical ability or mental toughness. There are things you cannot teach. The Swedes have produced no recent Borgs, Wilanders or Edbergs. The best example of continuity is from Down Under. For years the Australians were able to develop outstanding players, from Laver and Rosewall to Anderson, Rose, Emerson, Newcombe and Roche. Their great coach, Harry Hopman, was able to mold more than one generation of stars. There was an Australian tradition. That well seems to have run dry too. Different countries, many newly independent, are producing top-flight competitors now. Tennis has become a global sport.
This makes the Swiss case all the more unusual. Tiny Switzerland is riding a wave of tennis success against truly global competition. Will it last post-Federer? Without him the team will be threatened with Davis Cup relegation. Certainly on the women’s side there is great promise. Belinda and Timea are young and up-and-coming. But whether or not this success continues, we should all pause to marvel at how little David (see Belinda, Timea or Stan) continues to slay the giants. No Cocorico, please, but do play the Alpenhorns loudly.