Tuesday, December 13, 2016

France takes over as the top country on the ATP

For the last decade, Spain has dominated men's tennis with more representation at the top of the ATP than any other country, but in 2016, that domination came to an end. I've been forecasting the downfall of Spanish tennis for a while, but it has taken longer than expected and even now has only just begun and it began with France becoming the ATP's new best country.

Every few months I release my power rankings of the top tennis countries on the ATP based on a simple formula: the sum of ranking points earned in the last 52 weeks by all members of that country ranked inside the top 140. Why 140? I honestly don't have a good answer, but I'm stuck with it for the sake of consistency.

Ever since I started tracking these rankings in 2012, Spain has been the No. 1 country every time, while France and Serbia battled for a distant No. 2. However, as the Spanish stars have started to age, there haven't been any young Spaniards to take their place, leading to the predictable downfall of Spanish tennis.

Meanwhile, Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Great Britain's Andy Murray have split time dominating the ATP in 2016, while receiving very little support from their countrymen. Switzerland also took a hit with Roger Federer missing a large chunk of the 2016 season.

All of this left the door wide open for another country to grab the No. 1 position and France did so with its most impressive season since 2013. In the year-end rankings, France had four players in the top 20, including a couple surprises in the form of Gael Monfils and Lucas Pouille. They were joined by the reliably successful Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Overall, France placed 13 players inside the top 140 of the year-end rankings, which is the most since the end of the 2014 season. The United States actually led the world in players ranked inside the top 140 with 14, but John Isner was ranked No. 19, leading all Americans.

Here are the previous year-end rankings before this year.

No. 2012201320142015
1. Spain SpainSpain Spain
2.Serbia France France Serbia
3.FranceSerbia Switzerland France
4. SwitzerlandArgentina Serbia Switzerland
5. Argentina GermanyCzech Republic United States
6. United States United StatesUnited States Great Britain
7. GermanySwitzerland Germany Japan
8. Great BritainCzech RepublicCroatia Australia
9. Czech Republic RussiaJapanCzech Republic
10. ItalyGreat Britain Argentina Italy
11. Russia Canada CanadaCroatia
12. Croatia Italy Great Britain Argentina
13. JapanAustraliaAustralia Germany
14. Australia Poland Italy Belgium
15. Canada Croatia Bulgaria Canada
16.Belgium JapanRussiaRussia
17. Ukraine AustriaLatvia Ukraine
18. Netherlands NetherlandsColombia South Africa
19. Brazil Ukraine Ukraine Austria
20. Slovakia ColombiaAustria Slovakia

The countries that are well-represented in the top 100 such as Spain, France, United States, and Italy don't tend to jump around a lot on this list. Argentina is the exception to that, taking a major dip in 2014 and 2015 with the injury to Juan Martin del Potro mixed with the retirement of several players. On the other hand, countries like Great Britain, Switzerland and Japan bounce around on this list a lot because the success or failure of one player determines the ranking of the entire country. Latvia, Bulgaria, Belgium and South Africa are all extreme examples of that.

Here are the final rankings for the 2016 season.

1. France (18,100) - For the first time ever, France is No. 1 on this list, knocking off Spain with 13 players inside the top 140, but more importantly four players inside the top 20. The resurgence of Gael Monfils was the top story out of France in 2016 and it began with his run to the final in Monte Carlo, where he met fellow Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals. The other big story was Lucas Pouille, who made the most of a lucky loser in Rome to catapult the best season of his career so far. Nicolas Mahut was another big story in French tennis with his improbably comeback after being ranked as low as No. 240 just three years ago. At age 34, Mahut won his fourth career title, had a winning record and finished the year inside the top 40. Stephane Robert and Paul Henri Mathieu also defied their age to put together very impressive 2016 seasons. It's still to be determined how long France can remain No. 1 since Pouille and Pierre-Hugues Herbert are the only Frenchmen inside the top 150 that are less than 27 years old right now. There don't seem to be any challengers on the horizon though, which will give France some time to let some of its young talent to develop before picking up the torch.

2. Spain (16,637) - It's only the beginning of what I've been forecasting as a massive downfall for Spanish tennis, which will struggle to simply stay in the top 20 on this list. The average age of the 12 Spaniards in the top 140 is more than 30 years, meaning that most of them will be retiring in the next five years and there is nobody to take their place. The Spaniards have shown that their downfall is taking longer than anticipated, which only means it will be more drastic when it finally hits. A lot of Spaniards are defying their age with the amount of success they had in 2016, but that is only delaying the inevitable. Spain might be No. 2 right now but it will be decades before we see Spain contend for No. 1 again.

3. Great Britain (14,739) - This is Great Britain's highest ranking since I began tracking this list and I'm willing to bet that it's the highest ranking since the ATP began using computer rankings in 1973. Andy Murray became the first Brit ever to become No. 1 in the World and unlike previous years, there were other Brits helping boost the nation's ranking. The 21-year old Kyle Edmund reached a career-high ranking of No. 40 in October and finished the year No. 45 with a 21-20 record. Daniel Evans also reached a career-high ranking this year and finished the season ranked No. 66.

4. Serbia (13,792) - To be No. 4 in the world as a country and have two grand slam titles is a great season for any country other than Serbia, which is actually at its lowest points total in two years. The tennis world grew accustomed to Djokovic's dominance and the year-end No. 1 ranking seemed like a foregone conclusion once he won Roland Garros. Djokovic went on to win Canada and reach the final of the US Open and the World Tour Finals, but by his standards, that was a slump. Djokovic won't regain the No. 1 ranking any time soon, but Serbia should be able to stay comfortably in the top four for a while.

5. United States (11,731) - If anyone is going to pass Serbia in the upcoming months, the United States would be a good candidate considering the wealth of young talent. Ivo Karlovic is proving right now that age isn't much of a factor for players with big serves, so John Isner and Sam Querrey will be fine for a while longer. Other than those two, nobody else has even reached their peak yet. The United States can only go up in 2017. At some point, the United States will pass Spain. The only question is if 2017 is the year that happens. I'm going to say yes.

6. Argentina (8796) - With Juan Martin del Potro back from injury, Argentina had a fantastic 2016 season. Federico Delbonis, Diego Schwartzman, and Facundo Bagnis showed off Argentina's depth. The rankings don't fully reflect the success of the Davis Cup champions, since both the Davis Cup and the Olympics no longer reward ranking points. However, the rankings always get it right with time, so Argentina could be in five digits not long from now.

7. Switzerland (8394) - It's weird to see Stan Wawrinka ranked ahead of Roger Federer. The US Open champion is the reason Switzerland is in the top 10 of this list. Federer missed a large chunk of the season, but Wawrinka didn't miss a beat. Hopefully both players can play to the best of their abilities at the same time in 2017.

8. Germany (7223) - Germany was once known for its depth, but that has all but disappeared. Alexander Zverev is already the German No. 1 at the age of 19. He is 14 years younger than any other German in the top 50. With Boris Becker ending his working relationship with Djokovic, it would be very interesting to see Becker in the Zverev camp in 2017.

9. Japan (6992) - Japan's youth is exciting, but it lacks depth. The efforts of Kei Nishikori are the main reason for Japan being No. 9 on this list. He is arguably the best player in the world when he is healthy. Even if he misses some big tournaments in 2017, he shouldn't have any issues staying in the top five of the rankings. Meanwhile, Yoshihito Nishioka and Taro Daniel can still improve their ranking a lot.

10. Croatia (6390) - The 2016 season was a special one for Croatia. Marin Cilic finished the year with a career-high ranking at No. 6. Ivo Karlovic didn't let age stop him. At 37 years old, he finished No. 20 in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, Borna Coric was the second youngest player in the top 50, finishing No. 48. This is Croatia's second top-10 finish in three years.

11. Canada (6358) - Milos Raonic had an incredible 2016 season, finishing with a career-high ranking of No. 3. Still, he only won one title all year. The Canadian is still struggling in the big moments. He reached his first grand slam final, but was never competitive in the the match. In his next chance against Murray, he squandered match points. Unfortunately, those will be the most memorable moments from his incredible 2016 campaign.

12. Australia (5856) - I thought the 2016 season would go better for Australia, but Bernard Tomic showed little improvement, Nick Kyrgios had a predictably unpredictable season, and Thanasi Kokkinakis missed the whole year with an injury.

13. Czech Republic (5695) - Jiri Vesely beat Djokovic in the biggest upset of the year, but it was a quiet year for the Czechs apart from that.

14. Russia (4860) - Karen Khachanov is the real deal. He is going to be good for a while. Roman Safiullin is healthy now too, so the future of Russian tennis is bright once again.

15. Austria (4143) - Dominic Thiem was one of the most fascinating players to watch in 2016. He played a packed schedule and racked up wins quickly. Everyone else wants to tell him how to schedule better, but I think he knows what he's doing better than anybody else, because it's working.

16. Belgium (3864)
17. Italy (3649)
18. Brazil (2549)
19. Bulgaria (2035)
20. Ukraine (2007)
21. Uruguay (1780)
22. Portugal (1705)
23. Slovenia (1444)
24. Luxembourg (1255)
25. Slovakia (1230)
26. Cyprus (1140)
27. Tunisia (814)
28. Netherlands (795)
29. Chinese Taipei (754)
30. South Africa (735)
31. Bosnia & Herzegovina (699)
32. Kazakhstan (634)
33. Colombia (632)
34. Lithuania (630)
35. Georgia (618)
36. Israel (616)
37. Moldova (614)
38. Dominican Republic (586)
39. Korea (571)
40. Uzbekistan (492)
41. Romania (457)

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