Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Tommy Robredo, Fernando Verdasco… a group of veteran players that have helped keep Spanish tennis at the forefront of the sport over the past decade.
They are five of 14 Spaniards currently ranked in the top-100 of the ATP rankings and their names are synonymous with what is referred to as the country’s ‘golden generation’ of tennis stars.
While 14 top-100 players is a remarkable figure for one country to produce, it’s worth noting that the average age of those players is 30.
It’s not likely many of those guys will be around that much longer. A quick scan of the ITF world junior rankings reveals only two Spanish boys are ranked in the top-100 – Alvaro Lopez San Martin at No 14 and Eduard Guell Bartrina at No 97.
You’d think having a superstar like Nadal, a 14-time grand slam champion and one of the greatest of all-time, would have sparked a tennis revolution in a country that already has the sport rooted in its tradition. But since Nadal & Co. have risen to the top, very few Spanish men have emerged.
The youngest Spaniard in the top-100 is 24-year-old Pablo Carreno Busta. The Gijon native is No 60 in the world and his name is constantly brought up when any of the older players are asked about the future of Spanish tennis.
Carreno Busta is talented and has an impressive record of winning 10 out of 10 Challenger finals, but at 24, he’s only managed to make two ATP semi-finals and is hardly the great big hope his compatriots are building him up to be.
The lack of young blood is evident in the Spanish field with only four players aged under 25 out of the 24 players that are ranked in the top 300.
And while waiting for another Nadal is not realistic, it’s also not normal that it is now 10 years since the Mallorcan won his first major yet very few Spanish juniors are coming up. It’s almost like the well that has been producing champions is drying up and very few can pinpoint the reasons why.
“Unfortunately, Spanish tennis has not renewed itself enough in recent years, in my opinion,” said Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni Nadal at the French Open last May.
“The youngest Spanish player is Pablo Carreno and he is 24. This is a fundamental problem. We should adapt to the new situation of tennis because the game is getting quicker and quicker. Those who are governing the sport must do something.
“It’s also true that it’s an individual job of each coach and each club but it is symptomatic that this chain of very good players that has formed over many years is coming to an end.”
The average age of the Spanish players in the top-100 has gone up from 24 to 30 over the past 10 years and while the sport in general has aged, this is still a stunning leap.
Toni Nadal implies that with big-servers and huge-hitters taking over the game, the slower, counterpunching style typically associated with Spanish tennis is no longer as effective as it used to be, but that cannot be the only reason the sport is stagnating there.
The financial crisis that rocked the Spanish economy in 2011 has had a major impact on sport and tennis certainly did not escape the ramifications.
The latest numbers available on the website of the Spanish Tennis Federation (RFET) show that licenses issued by the national governing body had gone down to 89,830 in 2013 compared to 102,900 in 2006.
“I don’t think in Spain there’s this relation where ‘I admire Rafa therefore I play tennis’. Whereas ‘I admire Messi, I want to play football’ is more common, or Ronaldo or whoever. Tennis is related probably to a specific type of income and therefore with the crisis it’s going down in Spain,” says Marta Mateo, a tennis reporter for Spanish daily La Vanguardia.
“There is a crisis in clubs and federations. There’s a huge debt that is asphyxiating the regional federations and the licenses are decreasing massively.”
The RFET have been criticised for their misuse of funds and earlier this year, the government sports council (CSD) has been attempting to track down what happened to at least €700,000 the RFET paid out to the Spanish Tennis Foundation (which was controlled by RFET expresident José Luis Escañuela who resigned in July) and the Spanish Tennis Observatory.
A report in Spanish daily newspaper La Voz de Galicia published last June said that they had access to the books of the Spanish Tennis Foundation which revealed they had spent €12,000 on candy in 2012 and 2013.
Nadal and many of the top Spanish players had voiced their anger at the RFET for mishandling several issues, including Davis Cup-related problems, and said the federation was deterring the development of tennis in Spain.
“The RFET didn’t help a lot of young players. And not only young players, we, the experienced players as well. So we have covered a lot of ground ourselves without the full support of the Spanish Federation,” Nadal told reporters in Paris last May.
“I took part in the Wimbledon juniors tournament and I had to pay for the hotel, for the trip, for almost everything…
“The Davis Cup is a vital source of money for Spanish tennis, and the RFET should help support young players. So the RFET decided not to focus too much on the Davis Cup. What’s happening now? In fact, we are not making the right decisions in order to make money, so I cannot understand their stance. I can’t understand why they undermine the future of Spanish tennis.”
World No 16 Feliciano Lopez shares Nadal’s views but also says their generation is a rarity and it was only normal for the level to drop after them.
“There won’t be a generation like ours,” Lopez, 34, said at the Australian Open last year. “There will be guys who will play great tennis for sure, and be professionals, but I don’t think any new generation will equal five Davis Cups in 10 years or having twelve men in the top-100 almost permanently.
“It will come to an end. Like with the football or the basketball. The talent is the most important thing, not just what federations plan. Look at Sweden, they had amazing players and now they struggle to get one in the top 100.”
Indeed Spain’s golden generation is tough to comprehend and will be tough to replicate.
“I am No 60 in the world and I am Spanish No 11 (now No 9). It’s amazing, you can’t understand this,” Carreno Busta told Sport360 at Wimbledon last July.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) September 17, 2015
“I think I have to be better. I know I can be better, I have to practice, I need to focus on tennis, not on anything else and I think I will be better in a few years.”
While the current stars will soon hang up their racquets one by one, the future is not completely bleak for Spanish tennis, especially on the women’s side.
“In terms of juniors, I would say Jaume Munar is the only one that is kind of giving something,” said Mateo. “He played the final of Roland Garros juniors last year and he’s under the Nadal umbrella. I don’t think he can be No 1 in the world but perhaps the same potential as Pablo Carreno.
“Whereas the men are stagnating, I would say with the girls the timing has been perfect because of Garbine Muguruza (Wimbledon runner-up this year) and Carla Suarez Navarro (world No 12).
“Obviously, you have Paula Badosa coming up, Aliona Bolsova as well. Paula is giving signs that she’s going to be really really good. She won Roland Garros juniors this year but she’s already playing professional tournaments.”
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