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Historical Smash Shots 1: Generational Diversity in the 1974-75 Rankings

Guillermo Vilas, Bjorn Borg, John Newcombe

While researching Part Five in my Open Era Generations series (coming later this week), I ran across an interesting little tidbit that I wanted to share (and in so doing decided to start a new segment for this blog, with random statistical bits or “smash shots” that provide angles on tennis today and in the past). Using my Generation Theory, in most years anywhere from two to four generations inhabit the Top 10, with three being the most common; but in 1974 and 1975 fully five different generations were represented in the Top 10 – the only time this has happened in the Open Era.

Take a look at the 1974 year-end Top 10 with their birth years:

  1. Jimmy Connors (1952)
  2. John Newcombe (1944)
  3. Bjorn Borg (1956)
  4. Rod Laver (1938)
  5. Guillermo Vilas (1952)
  6. Tom Okker (1944)
  7. Arthur Ashe (1943)
  8. Ken Rosewall (1934)
  9. Stan Smith (1946)
  10. Ilie Nastase (1946)

What are we looking at here? On first glance it looks like a bunch of all-time greats. But notice a couple things. First, as an aside to the point of this article, notice the sheer talent. If we include Pro, Amateur, and Open Era Slams, the above Top 10 includes a whopping 79 major titles. OK, that amazing fact aside, the main point is to look at the wide range of players – the youngest being Bjorn Borg, the oldest Ken Rosewall. The difference? 22 years.

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Now here’s the fun part. Let’s translate that to today. Let’s place players of a similar age differential in the above list into a hypothetical Top 10 for 2015. Jimmy Connors was 22 in 1974, so we need someone born in 1993 for the number one spot. Swapping age-appropriate players, we get something like this:

Jiri Vesely, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev

“Fantasy 2015”

  1. Dominic Thiem (1993)
  2. Stan Wawrinka (1985)
  3. Alexander Zverev (1997)
  4. James Blake (1979)
  5. Jiri Vesely (1993)
  6. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (1985)
  7. Robin Soderling (1984)
  8. Marcelo Rios (1975)
  9. Novak Djokovic (1987)
  10. Andy Murray (1987)

Look at that range – A 40-year old Marcelo Rios still in the Top 10, with 18-year old Alexander Zverev No. 3 in the world — two players 22 years apart!

We really haven’t seen anything like this in some time. The closest thing in recent years, and the last time there were four generations in a year-end Top 10, was 2005 – when Federer’s generation (b. 1979-83) ruled the rankings, with a young teenage upstart named Rafael Nadal (b. 1986) finishing No. 2, and 35-year-old Andre Agassi (b. 1970) making his last appearance in the Top 10. Before that you have to go all the way back to the 80s when it was relatively common for four generations to be represented, although this was mainly due to the anomaly that was Jimmy Connors.

It would require a longer study to look further into historical trends, and when we get to more recent generations in the Open Era Generations Theory we will look at how things look now compared to in the past. But for now I think it is clear that there is much greater “generational homogeneity” at the top of the men’s game, with seven of the Top 10 being in the generation born 1984-88, with only Roger Federer and David Ferrer from the older generation (b. 1979-83), and only Kei Nishikori from the younger generation (b. 1989-93). As I will discuss later, this is likely to change relatively soon.

Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): cwkarl / patrickpeccatte / 43555660@N00

(Photo (Creative Commons License): mirsasha / mirsasha / stevenpisano)

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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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