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Looking for the Next Great Player – Part One : The Pace of Greatness

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INTRODUCTION:

Wake Me When We Get to the Bridge; or, Living Under a Serbian Reign

When I was a kid living in Vermont we would drive to Long Island, New York, a couple times a year to visit family for holidays, a drive that would take six hours or so—which was a long and tedious affair, especially for kids in the pre-iPad/iPod days. I remember my brother saying to my parents, “Wake me when we get to the bridge;” I’m not sure which bridge it was, but it was when the slog of a drive became interesting for us Vermont boys.

Anyhow, for all but fans of Novak Djokovic, it seems that men’s tennis is in a bit of a “wake me when we get to the bridge” mode, the bridge in this case being the time when some young player or players are actually able to challenge the great Serb. Don’t get me wrong: Novak is an amazing player and enjoyable to watch, and any fan of the game should appreciate him for that, and for witnessing an all-time great at the peak of his powers, but the problem is that there is just no one to challenge him, not with Roger Federer approaching 35 and Rafael Nadal a couple years from his prime.

Novak’s dominance over the last year and a half is truly incredible. Consider that from the 2014 Paris Masters through the 2016 Miami Masters, Djokovic has won 15 of 19 big tournaments, including:

4 of 5 Slams
2 of 2 World Tour Finals
9 of 12 Masters

That is a level of dominance over a similar span that is unparalleled at least going back to Rod Laver in the late 60s. In the years before, from 2008 to late into 2014, we saw a much more varied cast of champions. Certainly the Big Four reigned supreme, especially Nadal and Djokovic, but the big titles were more evenly dispersed and the eventual champion was rarely a foregone conclusion. But now, because of the last year and a half—and the last seven big tournaments, an unmatched streak—the hoisting of the trophy by Djokovic seems an inevitabilty. Again, good times for Novak and his fans, kind of tedious for the rest of us.

But note that I did not only say that the we’d come to “the bridge” when Novak’s reign ended; the other part of that is when some younger, or players, are good enough to challenge him. Consider that the youngest active Slam winners are 27-year olds Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic, born within five days of each other in September of 1988 (Cilic is younger). That would be a difficult thing to research, but I’m fairly certain that is the oldest an active Slam winner has ever been.

Very simply, tennis has been in a dry spell of young prospects, with the generation born from 1989-93 being particularly weak (as I discussed here). But there are signs that, if we’re not quite at the bridge, it isn’t as far off as it was a couple years ago.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the nature of what will follow: Who will be the next great player(s) and when will he (or they) arrive? To attempt to answer that question I will look at a variety of elements in this two-part series.

Part One: The Pace of Greatness will first seek to define what a “true great” is, and also look at the factors and benchmarks that all greats have reached, determining a “Pace of Greatness” that all true greats have achieved.

Part Two: Candidates of Greatness will look at the young players that have a chance of becoming great, as well as those who fulfiled the Pace of Greatness but failed.

Caveat Emptor 1: As I have said before, I am a fan of tennis but am not an expert on the game itself. So I will not seek to answer this question in terms of scouting reports and knowledge of game play, if only because I am not qualified to do so. As I always do, I will look mainly at historical trends and trajectories, and see what they tell us, although will also try to balance this with eyewitness accounts of various players. I think the best way to look at any “answer” I come up with as less of a conclusive prediction and more in terms of probabilities.

Caveat Emptor 2: If you read El Dude’s Statistical Fetishism, you obviously know that I’m “brevity challenged.” I’ve tried to reduce this in length, but in the end decided to just let it flow, because really what I’m doing here is going on a journey, and taking you along with me. If you find the details tedious, I’d recommend skipping to the end and reading the conclusion. I’ll try to summarize the gist of the “journey” in as few words as possible, but in the off chance that some of you enjoy the journey as much as I do, dig in…

PART ONE: THE PACE OF GREATNESS

Passing (over) the Baton
Tennis is usually defined by a small group of players, often just two or three, who set the tone and dominate the game. If we look at Open Era history, starting in 1968, we see only a small number of what could be called “true greats”–a term I will attempt to define in a moment. The baton of rulership is passed, from one great to the next.

Right now we are in a situation that the sport hasn’t experienced since the halcyon days of the Open Era: the dominant generation is older than the generation that should be peaking. We saw this in the late 60s and early 70s, when Ken Rosewall (b. 1934) and Rod Laver (b. 1938) were still dominating the sport, and then the baton was passed over to players half a decade and more younger, like Arthur Ashe (b. 1943), John Newcombe (b. 1944), and Ilie Nastase (b. 1946).

Similarly, the generation of players born from 1989 to 1993—which historically speaking should be dominating the sport right now—is being passed by; these are players who are turning 23 to 27 in 2016, prime years, yet none yet has won a Slam or even a Masters. Almost certainly, inevitably someone will, but even if we see several Slams and Masters from this group, it will go down as the worst generation since Ashe’s (b. 1939-43), with no great players. It will probably be the third five-year generation of the Open Era, along with 1974-78 and 1939-43, with no players winning 4+ Slams, and could even be the only Slamless generation in tennis history….but I wouldn’t quite bet on that yet. I imagine that eventually someone will win a Slam.

Regardless, the point is that it seems an almost certainty that the next great player is not to be found in the 89-93 group.

Defining Greatness
What is greatness? Certainly it is relative and more a matter of degree than a clear demarcation that separates some arbitrary group from the rest. On the other hand, there is a relatively clear dividing line, a gap that we can use between the true greats of the Open Era and the near-greats (and everyone else). The most important—or at least commonly used and generally agreed upon—marker for greatness is Slam title count. I have gone to great pains elsewhere to point out that Slams aren’t everything, but it would be hard to deny that they are the single most important component of a player’s greatness, and whatever comes next isn’t particularly close.

In other words, start with Slam count and adjust from there. As I said in my Open Era Generations series, there are players who were better than players with more Slams than them and, in quite a few cases, Slamless-players who had better overall careers than single-Slam players; compare, for instance, David Ferrer and Mark Edmondson. Or does anyone question the idea that David Nalbandian was a far greater player than Gaston Gaudio?

But when we think of the true greats, we must start with Slam count. You can be a very good player and never win a Slam; you can be an almost-great player and win only a Slam or two; but you cannot be a truly great player without winning many Slams.

How many Slams is enough to be considered “great”? As I see it, it is actually pretty easy to decide. We are currently in the 49th year of the Open Era; from the French Open in 1968 to the Australian Open in 2016, there have been 192 Slams won by 52 different players. In terms of total Slam count, if we include total Slams before and during the Open Era, 22 won single Slams, 15 won 2-4 Slams, and 15 won 6 or more.

In my opinion, the best demarcation between true greatness and merely almost-greatness is that gap between 4 and 6 Slams. We have two 4-Slam players, Guillermo Vilas and Jim Courier, and two 6-Slam players, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. I feel reasonably comfortable saying that one pair is great and one pair is almost-but-not-quite great. In fact, we could use Courier or Vilas as the “gate-keepers” to true greatness. If a player is a greater than both of them, he might be considered a true great. If he is as good or less, he doesn’t make it through.

That leaves us with 15 true greats that were in peak form or close to it in the Open Era—players that won 6+ Slams and at least one of them in the Open Era, in order of birth year: Ken Rosewall (1934), Rod Laver (1938), John Newcombe (1944), Jimmy Connors (1952), Bjorn Borg (1956), John McEnroe (1959), Ivan Lendl (1960), Mats Wilander (1964), Stefan Edberg (1966), Boris Becker (1967), Andre Agassi (1970), Pete Sampras (1971), Roger Federer (1981), Rafael Nadal (1986), and Novak Djokovic (1987).

Just missing the cut are multi-Slam winners like Arthur Ashe (1943), Ilie Nastase (1946), Guillermo Vilas (1952), Jim Courier (1970), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (1974), Gustavo Kuerten (1976), Lleyton Hewitt (1981) and Andy Murray (1987), who are probably the best “near-greats” of the Open Era. Multi-Slam winners Jan Kodes (1946), Stan Smith (1946), Johan Kriek (1958), Sergi Bruguera (1971), Patrick Rafter (1972), Marat Safin (1980), and Stan Wawrinka (1985) are all on a slightly lower level.

So when we ask the question, who will be the next true great, we have to consider a player that will eventually extend that first list (of 6+ Slam winners) to sixteen, and we also have to be able to differentiate them from the second group (of 2-4 Slam winners), which isn’t always easy—at least early on in a player’s career. While it might seem impossible that any player today will join that illustrious group, remember that it is only a matter of time. History rolls on, and we will see another great men’s tennis player. But who will it be? I’m going to do my best to, at the very least, create a list of possible candidates.

Characteristics of Greatness
Aside from the distinct accomplishments of great players, we can see that in every case of those who have won 6+ Slams, there are various factors and characteristics that align: To start, they are all immensely talented tennis players, although some more than others. But talent is not enough, otherwise players like Vitas Gerulaitis, Cedric Pioline, Henri Leconte, Miroslav Mecir, Michael Stich, Marat Safin, and David Nalbandian would all probably be all-time greats. There are other factors required: a strong degree of consistency and health, a winning mind-set and mental fortitude, and a context in which greatness is possible.

That last factor is of note. It has often been remarked that Roger Federer was so good from 2004-07 partially because of relatively weak competition, what has been called Weak Era Theory and led to endless squabbling on the internet. This same argument has also been used to (partially) explain Novak Djokovic’s current dominance. But even if there is truth to this—an argument which I will leave for a forthcoming study—the capacity to capitalize on weak competition is itself a quality of greatness. For instance, the field was relatively weak from about 1998 to 2003, but no player really took advantage of it and utterly dominated. The closest was Andre Agassi, who had his best years at the advanced age of 29-33 during that span of time. The point being, rather than say that Andre padded his Slam count by winning most of them in a weak era, we could instead say that it speaks to his greatness that he could take advantage of that “wild west” period, winning while largely playing against younger players.

But again, the main point is that it takes a variety of characteristics to be great. It starts with monumental talent, which many players have, but then it requires a certain mental attitude which fewer have, consistency and health, and it also requires the ability to maximize one’s talents within the context of the game one plays within. The true greats combine all of these factors to varying degrees, and it is what separates them from everyone else.

Frequency of Greats
If we go back to our “Fabulous Fifteen,” the first thing to note is the differentials in birth years. Most are 1-6, two are 8 or more years, with the longest being 10 years (between Sampras and Federer).

This pattern can be extended well before the Open Era; if you go back to at least Bill Tilden (born 1893), the gap between Sampras and Federer among 5+ Slam winners (counting amateur, pro, and Open Era Slams) is the largest. We can call this the “Interval of Greatness”: how many years between the births of sequential great players.

So think about that: for over a hundred years of tennis history, there has never been a longer interval of greatness than 10 years, the interval between the birth of Sampras (1971) and Federer (1981). Chances are the next interval won’t be more than that (technically the interval is nine years without a great player being born, but you get the idea).

This Interval of Greatness gives us a span to look within. We know that the youngest true great is Djokovic, born in 1987. If we add 10 years to that we come to 1997. If we want to be flexible and acknowledge the unusual circumstances of the game today—with a particularly weak generation and players seemingly coming to their peaks a bit later—we can cushion that with one more year; which means that the next great was most likely born 1998 or earlier. That gives us two generations, in my Generation Theory model, to look at: 1989-93 and 1994-98. In other words, players who are turning 18 to 27 in 2016.

What this also means is that, unless we’re in an era that completely defies over a century of tennis, the next great player is almost certainly already on tour, or will be on tour this year, and may even be a player whose name you already know. If I had written this a year or two ago it would have been harder to believe than it is now, with the emergence of several promising young players. But we’ll come to that later on.

Benchmarks of Greatness
While it might seem like a daunting task to not only sort through every active player born in 1989 or later, there are ways we can narrow the list—specifically, by looking at what all great players have in common in terms of benchmarks. Consider that every 6+ Slam winner of the Open Era—for whom we have the relevant data—has accomplished the following:

Before their 19th birthday: Ranked in the top 100
Before their 20th birthday: Ranked in the top 50
Before their 21st birthday: Ranked in the top 10; won a title; made it to a Slam QF
Before their 22nd birthday: Ranked in the top 5
Before their 25th birthday: Ranked number 1, won a Slam

Among the 15 players who have six or more Slams, and won at least one of them in the Open Era, every single one has met those criteria, with the caveat that in the cases of the older players we don’t have available data (there were no computerized rankings before 1973, so we don’t have complete data for the rankings of Rosewall, Laver, Newcombe, and Connors, and it is unclear when Newcombe won his first title).

This would imply that every single future 6+ Slam winner will meet those same criteria. Or maybe not?

What Stan Wawrinka Has Taught Us
Stan Wawrinka is not—and at 31 years old and 2 Slams almost certainly won’t become—a true great in the definition that I’m using, a player with 6+ Slams. But he does have two Slams to his name, and he set a couple of precedents in terms of being the oldest multi-Slam winner of the Open Era to do two things: play in his first Slam QF at age 25, and won his first Slam at age 28. Consider that he won his first Slam at an age older than the last Slam win of players such as Borg, McEnroe, Wilander, and Edberg.

Now there are no real outliers among 6+ Slam winners in terms of age; the closest one is Ivan Lendl, who won his first Slam at the relatively advanced age of 24, two years older than the next oldest first-time Slam winning great, Andre Agassi who, despite being in the top 100 at age 16, didn’t win a Slam until he was 22. Barring the collapse of civilization, it seems possible—even probable—that someday a 6+ Slam winner will do what Stan did for 2-4 Slam winners and, say, play in their first QF at 21+, and win their first Slam at 25+ (or something like that). But for now, we have some clear criteria.

In other words, Stan reminds us that there is always room for new precedents, but the weight of history still deserves respect.

Criteria of Near-Greatness and Very Goodness
There are also criteria for 2-4 Slam winners, but they are quite a bit broader, and with Wawrinka’s new precendents, I think we can be more flexible about probability. This is even more the case of single Slam winners, with players like Andre Gimeno winning his lone Slam at age 34, some not ranking in the top 20 until age 27, and some never making the top 10. In other words, there are no clear criteria for single Slam winners.

The one criteria to consider for 2-4 Slam winners is that every one of them was in the top 100 by their 21st birthday, and every one in the top 10 by their 25th birthday. So if you’re looking for players who will win at least two or more Slams in their career, all 22 for whom we have the data fulfilled those two criteria. But clearly they are much broader benchmarks, but it reminds us that even if a player doesn’t keep the Pace of Greatness, they still have a chance of near-greatness.

Here are the benchmarks that every 2-4 Slam winner of the Open Era has accomplished:
Before their 21st birthday: Ranked in the top 100
Before their 22nd birthday: Ranked in the top 50; won a title
Before their 24th birthday: Ranked in the top 20
Before their 26th birthday: Made it to a Slam QF
Before their 29th birthday: Won a Slam

Note the lack of top 10, top 5, and #1 rankings. Of the 15 players who won 2-4 Slams during the Open Era, nine went on to be #1s and six not, the six being: Jan Kodes, Guillermo Vilas, Johan Kriek, Sergi Bruguera, Stan Wawrinka, and Andy Murray. Kriek is the only multi-Slam winner to not reach the top 5. He has the dubious honor of being almost certainly the worst multi-Slam winner of the Open Era, and a lesser player than many single or non-Slam winning players. On the other hand, you could also view this as him being the player who most optimized the talent he had in terms of turning it into Slam trophies, although it is worth noting that while rankings from the early 80s are sparse, it looks like he didn’t defeat a single top 10 player on route to either of his Australian Open titles in 1981 or 1982. In many years of the AO during that era, the competition was closer to what an ATP 500 is now than even a Masters.

One final note about the “near-greats.” While we don’t have adequate information on the early players—Ashe, Kodes, Smith, and Nastase—every one of the other eleven had at least one of the benchmarks of greatness, except for one: Stan Wawrinka. Stan was late on every benchmark for true greatness, and as already mentioned he actually set new precedents for several benchmarks among 2-4 Slam winners: oldest to reach the top 20 (23), top 5 (28), reach his first Slam QF (25), and win his first Slam (28).

The First Benchmark on the Pace of Greatness: Top 100 at 18
The first benchmark, by its very nature, is the easiest to fulfill: a top 100 ranking before one’s 19th birthday. Since the beginning of computerized rankings in 1973, there have been approximately 70 players who have accomplished that feat. I say “approximately” because due to poor statistical accounting there is a margin of error, which is exacerbated by the lack of accurate rankings in the early 1980s. I found 69 players who ranked in the top 100 in the ATP era (1973-present) sometime before their 19th birthday, from Buster Mottram (born 1955) to Taylor Harry Fritz (b. 1997).

Of those 69 players, 67 are eligible for the next criteria: top 50 before age 20. Of those 67, 55 (82%) accomplished the feat. The next benchmark is top 10 before age 21; 65 players are applicable and only 27 (42%) were successful. So we see a big drop for that criteria.

Here is how the 65 players who ranked in the top 100 as 18-year olds, and are currently at least 20 years old, break down:

11 All-time Greats (6+ Slams): Bjorn Borg (born 1956), John McEnroe (59), Ivan Lendl (60), Mats Wilander (64), Stefan Edberg (66), Boris Becker (67), Andre Agassi (70), Pete Sampras (71), Roger Federer (81), Rafael Nadal (86), Novak Djokovic (87).

13 Near-Greats/Slam winners (1-4 Slams): Yannick Noah (60), Pat Cash (65), Thomas Muster (67), Jim Courier (70), Sergi Bruguera (71), Goran Ivanisevic (71), Michael Chang (72), Albert Costa (75), Marat Safin (80), Lleyton Hewitt (81), Andy Roddick (82), Andy Murray (87), Juan Martin del Potro (88).

7 Very Good Players (0 Slams, but top 5 ranking and/or 10+ titles): Guy Forget (65), Andrei Medvedev (74), Thomas Enqvist (74), Alex Corretja (74), Guillermo Coria (82),  Tomas Berdych (85), Kei Nishikori (89).

14 Good Players (top 10 and/or 5+ titles): Henrik Sundstrom (64), Jimmy Arias (64), Aaron Krickstein (67), Kent Carlsson (68), , Marc Rosset (70), Sjeng Schalken (76), Mark Philippoussis (76), Dominik Hrbaty (78), Mikhail Youzhny (81), Mario Ancic (84), Gael Monfils (86), Richard Gasquet (86), Ernests Gulbis (88), Bernard Tomic (92).

10 Solid Players (top 20 and/or 2+ titles): Buster Mottram (55), Jaime Yzaga (67), Horst Skoff (68), Alberto Mancini (69), Guillermo Perez-Roldan (69), Andrei Cherkasov (70), Jason Stoltenberg (70), Franco Davin (70), Fabrice Santoro (72), Jose Acasuso (82).

10 Mediocre Players and/or Busts (never top 20, 0-1 titles): Billy Martin (56), Jimmy Brown (65), Horacio de la Pena (66), Bruno Oresar (67), Leonardo Lavalle (67), Diego Nargiso (70), Aki Rahunen (71), Andreas Vinciguerra (81), Evgeny Korolev (88), Donald Young (89).

Total Players: 65
Greats: 11 (17%)
Near-Greats/Slam winners: 13 (20%)
Very Good players: 7 (11%)
Good Players: 14 (22%)
Solid Players: 10 (15%)
Busts: 10 (15%)

Good or Better: 45 (70%)
Very Good or Better: 31 (48%)
Slam winner: 24 (37%)

It is important to point out that these are only players who fulfilled the criteria of top 100 at age 18 and currently 20 years old or older. You will see some players in that list whose careers are far from over—like Gulbis, Tomic, or Nishikori—and still could move up. But I placed them where they currently belong.

One other point to remember: there are many Slam-winners and very good players not on the above lists. Again, these are only players who fulfill the first criteria of true greatness: top 100 at age 18.

There are currently four young players who have already reached that benchmark, another who came very close, and several who have a good chance of fulfilling it this year or the next. We’ll meet those players—our candidates for greatness—in the next part.

Summary of Part One
There are clear criteria for greatness, benchmarks that all true greats—which we are defining as 6+ Slams (although if we include pre-Open Era players, we might have alter that, but that’s another discussion) fufill at various stages of their career, which I am calling the Pace of Greatness. New precedents can and will be set, but we’ll use these criteria as guidelines as we look at possible candidates for the next great player in Part Two.

Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Yann Caradec

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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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