Let me define “elite player” as someone who is both a contender to win Grand Slam events and perennially in the top 5 – so right now there are only the Big Four (Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Nadal). There are a few “semi-elite” players (del Potro, Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga) who are dark horse candidates and possible spoilers, but they aren’t really taken all that seriously as contenders to win any Slam.
As I see it, none of the young players on tour – age 22 and younger – show true elite potential. At best, Raonic and Janowicz look like semi-elite players (and even that’s not guaranteed); Dimitrov just doesn’t seem to have the head for the elite, and no other young player in the top 100 has the talent, in my opinion.
So in lieu of various conversations about peak years and young guns, a question emerged: What is the soonest that we could reasonably expect a new true elite player? If no one that we know about – or at least that your average, serious tennis fan knows about – is a potential elite player, then any potential elite players are playing in obscurity right now – either just starting on the pro tour and deep in the rankings, or still on the junior circuit.
So here’s the refined question: How quickly do players rise from obscurity (say, ranked below #100) to elite (say, top 5)? And what sort of steps occur in-between? To figure this out is relatively straightforward: Look at the rankings of historical elite players and see how many years it took them to rise from obscurity to being in the top 5. For this study I’ll use the following criteria:
1) Players that developed during the ATP Era (1973 and later) – that is, players who were not yet in their prime when the ATP rankings begain. One exception is Jimmy Connors who was already the #3 ranked player at the end of 1973, but we can get a good enough sense of his development from 1970 onward. This cuts out some early greats like John Newcombe, and of course Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. It also excludes players like Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase, Jan Kodes, and Arthur Ashe. We just don’t have good rankings to go on before the ATP era.
2) I used a “Slam Greatness” statistic to differentiate elite from near-elite. This system assigns 12 pts for a Slam win, 5 pts for a Final, 2 pts for a Semifinal, and 1 pt for a Quarterfinal. I then somewhat arbitrarily cut the list off at 35 or higher; this include Vitus Gerulaitis, but excluded Juan Carlos Ferrero and Sergi Bruguera (both with 31 pts). If anything, I would have liked to cut it off at a higher point level but I wanted to include Gerulaitis as an example of a player who was consistently the “best of the rest” amidst one of the greatest fields in tennis history.
So here are the players, listed by their “Slam Greatness Quotient” (or SGQ):
(In case you’re wondering, the current “near-elite” players have the following SGQ: Del Potro 21, Tsonga 16, Ferrer 15, Berdych 13; these are comparable to players like Nalbandian with 18, Henman with 16, and Davydenko and Soderling both with 14).
That gives an a range of the all-time greats to players that were great for a short period of time (e.g. Courier, Kuerten) or truly excellent for a significant period of time (e.g. Chang, Ivanisevic). You might notice that the only multi-Slam winner–other than pre-ATP era players–not on there is Sergi Bruguera; he’s actually one of the reasons I cut the points off where I did. Bruguera is an example of a player who wasn’t a true great, and lesser than many players that won one or even no Slams, in my opinion – he was a clay court specialist who won the French Open twice, but didn’t make it past the 4R in any other Slam. Gerulaitis, on the other hand, while only winning one Slam – and the AO at that – was a consistent top 5 performer for seven years and competitive at all Slams. I suppose you could say that, statistically at least, Vitas was a bit like Nalbandian if David had won a Slam, or like a slightly lesser version of Andy Murray if Andy didn’t continue at a high level for the next few years.
On a side note, and not particularly relevant to this discussion, we can also see that using the SGQ, there are clear tiers of players – with big gaps between Agassi and McEnroe, and then again between Djokovic and Vilas, and Courier and Murray. I think it is safe to say that A) Djokovic will (probably/at least) join the non-GOAT inner circle elite of Lendl/Connors/Borg/Nadal/Agassi, and B) Murray will (probably/at least) join Courier and Vilas as the “gatekeepers” between the true greats and the lesser greats.
So that lays the groundwork for the next stage, which will be to look at each of those 23 players and their rankings – how long it took them to rise from obscurity (outside the top 100) to elite (top 5), and thus get a sense of the earliest we could hope to see a new elite player.