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From Small to Big (Titles): When Young Players Breakthrough


One of the holy grails of tennis speculation is being able to differentiate between those young players who will become stars and those who will not. Right now we’re amidst somewhat of a tide of upcoming  young players: from highly touted Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, to the large number of young players in or approaching the top 100. Yet how can we possibly tell who will become an elite player and who will plateau somewhere on the way to the top?

The Pace of Greatness
There is no easy answer. I have put forth a system of benchmarks that every all-time great (6+ Slam winner) of the Open Era has reached; there is a similar set of benchmarks for multi-Slam winners (2-4 Slams), although these were just greatly expanded by Stan Wawrinka, who reminded us that tennis is always changing and boundaries are meant to be surpassed.

The first of the benchmarks is entering the top 100 before one’s 19th birthday. Of the young players currently on tour, only a few have accomplished this so far: Alexander Zverev, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Hyeon Chung, and Borna Coric. Missing the mark already are Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Michael Mmoh, Stefan Kozlov, and many others. Now this is a benchmark that all 6+ Slam winners of the Open Era—or at least going back to accurate ATP rankings, so from Bjorn Borg on—have reached. But that doesn’t mean that all future 6+ winners must. And it is also a rather rarified company to begin with; to begin with, we shouldn’t expect more than several players from any generation—and perhaps not even that—to win 6+ Slams.

Given that the age in which players are peaking may be rising, or at least expanding, and given Stan’s reminder, these benchmarks should probably be considered “probable guidelines” than strict rules. Surely there must be something else we can look for, to try to ascertain who will rise to the top of the sport? I don’t have a clear method, but I did stumble across something that will at least give us something to look for.

Two Breakthroughs
When I was working on my “career skyscrapers” tool, I noticed that it did a nice job of illustrating how players develop in their early years. The skyscrapers only include titles and quarterfinal or better Slam appearances so are, intentionally, a snapshot of when a player was at or near elite level. But when we talk about breakthroughs, there are many small stages in that process, but two that I find to be of utmost importance: One, winning a title. This is the rite of passage that every good tennis player must go through. The second is winning a big tournament; by “big” I don’t only mean Slams, but Masters (or their equivalent) or a World Tour Finals. This is the point that a player generally reaches elite status and has shown they can play with the big boys.

What I noticed was that in almost every case, the true greats went from winning their first title in one year, to their first big tournament within the same year or next. The only exception in the Open Era is Andre Agassi, who won seven minor tournaments over three years (1987-89) before winning his first big tournaments in 1990. But everyone else—from Jimmy Connors to Novak Djokovic—went from winning their first tournament (whether big or small) to a big tournament within a calendar year.

This gives us another benchmark to look for. Again, it doesn’t mean that it has to happen for a player to become a true great, that it probably will, and the probability is quite high: 12 of 13 6+ Slam winners of the Open Era fit this criteria (interestingly, neither Ken Rosewall or Rod Laver did this; it took them a couple years – but they began their careers in a very different context than the Open Era).

I think the real important insight gleaned from this is that the pattern seems quite different for lesser Slam winners. Of the seven players winning 3-4 Slams in the Open Era, only three–Guillermo Vilas, Jan Kodes, and Gustavo Kuerten–went from a small to big title in sequential calendar years; Arthur Ashe, Jim Courier, Stan Wawrinka, and Andy Murray all took longer.

Of the eight two-Slam winners, only three did it: Ilie Nastase, Sergi Bruguera and Marat Safin who, at the time, was considered a probable future great but ended up having a disappointing career. Bruguera was a clay court specialist who played during a time when courts were quite different from each other and specialists–who were otherwise relatively mediocre on other surfaces–could compete for the biggest prizes on their best courts. Nastase was a borderline great player, whose level isn’t adequately expressed by his mere two Slams.

Of the twenty-four single Slam winners of the Open Era, only six did it: Andres Gimeno, who played much of his career in the very different context before the Open Era, so as with Rosewall and Laver, isn’t that relevant; Mark Edmondson, who is the definition of “one-Slam wonder;” Andres Gomez; Michael Stich; Michael Chang; and Juan Martin del Potro. Stich and Del Potro, like Safin, were considered viable candidates for future greatness, but didn’t reach that mark.

To sum up, consider who went from their first title to a big title (Masters or greater) within the span of a calendar year, among players who played the bulk of their careers, or won most or all of their Slams, in the Open Era:

  • 12 of 13 (92%)  6+ Slam winners
  • 6 of 15 (40%) of 2-4 Slam winners
  • 6 of 23 (26%) of 1 Slam winners

As I said above, these numbers start changing if we look before the Open Era, but that was a very different context of play.

For Whom Is The Clock Ticking?
There is no clear year that the proverbial “NextGen” starts, although we can say it definitely includes all of those players who will be eligile for the Milan NextGen Finals later this year, so those who don’t turn 22 until December (so generally born in 1996 and later); but for this, we will also look at slightly older players, who are still considered young on today’s tour.

So who “has to” win a big title in 2017, to reach this benchmark?

Dominic Thiem won his first title in 2015, but although he improved his performance in 2016, did not win a big title – so he missed this benchmark last year. As I have mentioned elsewhere, his career pattern so far fits that of a second tier player more than a true elite.

Then we have a group of players: Lucas Pouille, Nick Kyrgios, Karen Khachanov, and Alexander Zverev. These are the four young players who all won their first titles in 2016, and thus have started their “clock” and must win a big title in 2017 to reach this benchmark.

We should see several other young players win their first ATP titles in 2017, thus “starting the clock” for 2018.

In Conclusion
I will say it again: records—and benchmarks—are continually broken. Just as Stan Wawrinka set new benchmarks for multi-Slam winners, winning his first at age 28, so too might we eventually see a future 6+ winner take a delayed career path. Ivan Lendl was an elite player in his early 20s, winning tons of tournaments and even reaching #1 before winning a Slam, but did not win his first Slam until he was 24. Andy Murray was 25 and is arguably the greatest Open Era player with less than six Slams, and he only has three (so far).

The shape of what is possible is always changing, yet we also have almost five decades of Open Era history to draw upon for trends and trajectories. This study shows that the vast majority (92%) of all-time greats won their first big title (Masters equivalent or greater) within a calendar year of winning their first ATP pro title. It also shows that of 2-4 Slam winners, only 40% accomplished this, and of single Slam winners only about a quarter. This implies that a major defining feature of the truly great is the pace at which they reach their peak. I’ve noted this before, but this study furthers the point: one of the differentiations between the true elites and the second tier, is the rate at which they rise to the top. A group of talented players might show up in the top 100 at similar ages, yet the future elites tend to continue rising quickly, while the future second (top 10ish) and third tier (top 30ish) players tend to stall at various levels, taking longer to climb the ladder to their peak.

Now poor Alexander Zverev didn’t win his first title until late last year, in September, and Khachanov not until October– so for them the one calendar year gap is especially small – only about an actual year – whereas for Nick Kyrgios, who won his first last April, he has (or has had) a year and a half. So continue watching, and we shall see.

Cover photo by robbiesaurus, courtesy of Creative Commons License

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About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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