Parked on the edge of Europe with nothing between them and other continents, the Portuguese since the 15th century have historically been explorers. That they have not yet come to dominate professional tennis, one of the few sports with tournaments in each region, cannot accordingly be attributed to a genetic flaw.
Happily, though, in terms of rankings, Portuguese tennis is probably in the best place it’s ever been. Against the backdrop of the second edition of the Millennium Estoril Open starting in earnest today and dominating local media coverage, Portuguese tennis received an additional boost over the weekend. Gastao Elias, a local tennis player due to face Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round, made the news on Sunday for winning an ATP Challenger title in Italy (Challenger tournaments are on the second tier of the tour below tournaments like the Estoril Open). As a result Elias is ranked within the top 100 for the first time – “a dream since childhood”. Elias is the fifth Portuguese man to rank inside the top 100, following Nuno Marques (in 1991), Frederico Gil, Rui Machado and Joao Sousa (all since 2008).
There are two principal reasons for optimism: this is the first time since 2012 that Portugal has had 2 players ranked at this level at the same time; Joao Sousa is currently ranked 34th. And the future looks good too: Frederico Silva, a wildcard here who lost to Almagro today, is Portugal’s third highest ranked player at 249 and is only 21 years old. Two other players within the top 500 are only 22 years old. Even Spain’s highest ranked played aged 22 years or younger is ranked at 256.
Analysis of Portugal’s top 5 ranked players since 1990 shows that in aggregate today’s Portuguese top 5 may not be the country’s best ever – that belongs to the 5 players ranked inside the top 250 during 2012 (Sousa J, Sousa P, Gil, Machado and Elias, see chart below).
But they could be.The 2012 group didn’t at that point have a grand slam seed or an ATP main tour title winner as a talisman – Joao Sousa would win his first ATP title in 2013 – nor a large group of young players with the opportunity to break through.
The difficulties of converting potential into achievement on the ATP tour are well known (some of the structural obstacles are set out here) but Portuguese tennis is in probably as good a place as it’s ever been.
Portugal – Men’s ATP Tennis Rankings 1990-2016; ranking of Top 5 players and the average of their combined rankings