Spain in search of fresh talent

Things aren’t rosy for the clay giants, with many of their men on the wrong side of 30.

The future of Spanish tennis may not be Spanish in the future. Garbiñe Muguruza, who upset Serena Williams in the second round and was edged out by Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals of the French Open, is the one we are talking about.

For now, the 20-year-old Muguruza represents Spain, which is where she is based and is the country of her father, but she may well decide before the end of the year to represent Venezuela, which is where she was born and is the country of her mother.

Her decision, which she expects to make in October or November, will come at a pivotal time for Spain, the tennis superpower that is showing clear signs of resurgence in the women’s game and still has Rafael Nadal at No 1 in the men’s game along with 13 other Spanish men in the top 100.

But Muguruza is the only rising Spanish (or Venezuelan) woman with clear top-10 potential, and nearly all of Spain’s top-100 men’s players are well-established veterans. Several are older than 30, and only one is younger than 26: 68th-ranked Pablo Carreno Busta, who is 22. And though there have been some promising junior results of late, there is also only one Spanish man younger than 27 ranked between 100 and 200.

Where is the rest of the next generation?

“Pablo has a good level of tennis and is very good person,” Nadal said in a recent interview with the Spanish website Tennistopic. 

“I get along with him very well and wish the best for him, but how old is he? Twenty-two? It’s not like he’s 18. He’s got plenty of road ahead of him, but he’s 22 already. And the next ones coming after that, we still don’t see them.”

Spain’s recent economic struggles perhaps have played a role. For Nadal, part of the explanation is that players are maturing later in general (no teenager is in the top 100 from any nation) and that young Spaniards are focusing more on the International Tennis Federation junior circuit instead of forging their games against their elders in professional satellite events, as Nadal did.

“Playing against older people forces you to find solutions,” he said. “You have to adapt to the speed earlier, and that matures you.”

That said, you cannot plan for a champion like Nadal. He just happens. But you can understand Nadal’s concern about the next wave, considering that he won his first French Open at 19 and was No 1 in the world by 22. You can also understand Nadal’s concern, considering he turned 28 last Tuesday and the second-best Spanish player of his era, David Ferrer, turned 32 in April.

This has hardly been Nadal’s finest clay-court season, with three defeats and only one Masters 1000 title in Madrid. But in his first four matches at Roland Garros, he didn’t lose a set or even been pushed to a tiebreaker. 

The draw has been very kind, but he has fully capitalised, losing only 23 games in reaching the quarterfinals. He has spoken (when asked) about his back pain: significant, given that back problems probably cost him the final of this year’s Australian Open against Stan Wawrinka. 

Two other Spanish veterans failed to reach the quarterfinals: 30-year-old Guillermo García-López lost to Gaël Monfils, and Fernando Verdasco, also 30, lost to Andy Murray, both in straight sets.

But the Spanish women, like the men, have two representatives in the final eight: Muguruza and Carla Suárez Navarro. It was hard to imagine that Muguruza and Suárez would not be playing Fed Cup together for Spain. But Muguruza repeatedly has made it clear that she feels a strong connection to both her countries.

“I don’t sense that they’re fighting over it,” she said. “What matters to me is that both countries respect me a lot, and have given me all the time I need.”

Spain is clearly the stronger tennis nation, but Venezuelan tennis officials — who have not seen a talent like Muguruza since Nicolas Pereira was the world’s No 1 junior in 1988 - have been actively lobbying.

Muguruza has big-stage presence and big-title potential. She is tall and lean with great leverage and, is an aggressive flat hitter who would rather end a rally in a hurry than extend it and wait for the ideal opportunity.


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