NEW YORK — Thirty years ago, the quintessence of tennis was the country club. Suburbanites in their dress whites volleyed in the summer sun.
Today, the United Nations seems a better model, as more and more doors are opening for players around the world to enter the top ranks of tennis.
As the US Open hits mid-stride this week, fans are likely to see players from countries known more for their exotic locales than their tennis - like Zimbabwe, Korea, and Thailand.
The No. 1-ranked female player, Martina Hingis, was born in the former Czechoslovakia. Marcelo Rios, the men's No. 2, was born in Chile.
"Worldwide, tennis among countries is as competitive as it's ever been," says Randy Walker, a spokesman for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which sponsors the event. "You look at any draw sheet 25, 30 years ago, and 60 to 70 percent of the players were American."
The growing reach of tennis is due largely to two men from the International Tennis Federation: David Gray, a British journalist, and Philippe Chatrier, former ITF president. The two extended ITF's financial and technical assistance to struggling tennis federations around the world.
International recruitment and the lure of college scholarships in the United States have also been factors. Eline Chiew, for example, is now at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, after having played for Malaysia in the international circuits. The desire for more competitive play was a large part of her decision to come to school in the US.
"When I was growing up, I sort of represented the whole country in tournaments," says the college senior, who is ranked 17 in the women's NCAA Division I.
Doug MacCurdy, director of USTA Player Development, has traveled from Central Asia to West Africa to the Caribbean and Central America over the past 20 years.
During a trip to Mongolia, known for one of the harshest climates in the world, he discovered that seven- and eight-year-old children had plastered the walls of their one-room schoolhouse with posters of tennis greats Gabriela Sabatini, Steffi Graf, and Pete Sampras. To spark fascination there required no more than the introduction of three or four rackets, "and people started to play. That's how tennis starts," says Mr. MacCurdy.
Once a non-American tennis player starts to develop, he or she may find a recruiter for an American university on the doorstep. Close to half of the top 100 players in NCAA Division I tennis, both men's and women's, are international students.
Some coaches maintain that recruiting players like Malaysia's Chiew is the only way to win. "Since schools like Stanford, UCLA, Duke, and Florida have the drawing power [for top American talent], there are just not enough Americans to fill the other teams," explains Sheila McInerney, coach at Arizona State University. She refers to the issue of international versus American "as a point of contention for coaches."
For example, Craig Tiley, coach at the University of Illinois and a South African, holds no reservations about his largely all-American team. "If we recruit from overseas, we will have less-developed American talent."
That may be true, but it won't necessarily win titles. Just ask Barry Goldsmith, coach of Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College, which captured the Division III men's national title this year with a team composed of players from the Ukraine, Ireland, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Pakistan.
"American kids just aren't good enough. You need foreign kids to win," says Goldsmith, whose school does not give athletic scholarships. "If one kid like Marcelo Rios becomes a national winner, you're going to see more and more people from that country start playing."
From the US perspective, this is an opportunity. "It gives the US a challenge to maintain a role as the preeminent tennis superpower," says the USTA's Walker.