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Looking for the Next Great Player – Part Two: Candidates of Greatness

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Revisiting the Benchmarks: the Pace of Greatness
To recap the last installment, we have clear benchmarks that all true greats (6+ Slam winners) hold in common:

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

We also found that there are about 70 players in the ATP ranking era (1973-present) who met that first benchmark—a top 100 ranking at age 18. Of those 70, 17 are active today, a list we’ll get to in a moment.

“Failed Greats”
Now just because a player meets all of those criteria does not mean they will become a great player. There are players who met all of those criteria and only won a Slam or two. There are also players who met all of the criteria except for one or both of the “fruition” benchmarks met by age 25, the Slam and number one ranking. These two groups combined are players that we could call “failed greats”–they passed all, or almost all, of the benchmarks, but failed to become true greats.

Here are two lists of players, the first being those who accomplished all benchmarks, the second all but the age 25 criteria, the Slam and number one ranking:

All benchmarks: Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick
All except age 25: Goran Ivanisevic, Andrei Medvedev, Juan Martin del Potro

So these are eight players in the Open Era who were on the “pace of greatness,” including five who actually met all of the benchmarks, but eventually fell short of true greatness. It is a surprisingly small number, and tells us that most players who reach the various benchmarks along the way will become great players. If we go back to those players for whom we have all the data, from Borg to Djokovic, we have 11 all-time greats (6+ Slam winners). That means that 11 of 16 players (69%) who met all of the benchmarks became greats, and 11 of 19 (58%) who met all except the age 25 benchmarks.

The main thing these eight players have in common with the true greats is that they all developed very quickly. Consider the fact that one of the criteria is to reach the top 5 before turning 22 years old. That in itself is a difficult benchmark that erases many other players from contention.

Let’s take a look at each of these players, to get a sense of what “went wrong” in their careers. First we have four players born in the first half of the 1970s:

Jim Courier (b. 1970) was one of the top players on tour for a few years, the first of his generation to become #1, four months before Agassi and more than a year before Sampras. But Courier declined quickly, dropping from a top 3 player in 1993 to #13 in ’94, #8 in 95, and out of the top 20 for the remainder of his career. His mid-20s decline is similar to later number one players like Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt. There was always the sense with Courier that he was playing over his head and ability, and was less talented than his peers Sampras and Agassi. Courier’s decline coincided with Sampras’s rise to dominance; un-surprisingly, Courier won only 4 of his 20 matches with Sampras. Still, Courier ended his career with 4 Slams, 23 titles overall, a year-end #1 ranking in 1992 and, along with Guillermo Vilas, is one of the two players who I consider the “Gatekeepers” of true greatness.

Goran Ivanisevic (b. 1971) was one of the better players of the 90s who was unable to get past the dominance of Sampras and Agassi, losing two Wimbledon finals to Sampras and one to Agassi. Yet despite fading in the latter part of the decade, he entered the 2001 Wimbledon ranked #125 and miraculously won it, which was the inspiration behind the film Wimbledon. Known for his tremendous serve, Ivanisevic wasn’t very multi-dimensional, although not nearly as one-dimensional as, say, Ivo Karlovic, and was probably a bit better than Milos Raonic is now.

Michael Chang (b. 1972) was the youngest player of the Open Era to win a Grand Slam: the 1989 French Open at the age of 17 years and 4 months, one of only three players—along with Mats Wilander and Boris Becker—to win a Slam before his 18th birthday (Martina Hingis is the youngest woman, winning her first at 16 and 4 months). Yet Chang had a lower ceiling than other early bloomers. While he had a long and prolific career, including 34 titles and 7 Masters, he never ranked higher than #2 or won another Slam. In a way he was the David Ferrer of his generation (although more successful in big tournaments): never in contention for the best on tour, but always right there behind the top players.

Andrei Medvedev (b. 1974) was an early bloomer who looked destined for greatness after ranking #6 in 1993 at the age of 19, and then winning two Masters the following year. Yet Medvedev floundered and was never able to take that next step up. His best years were 1993-95 when he was 19-21 years old.

And then we come to the trio of Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, and Andy Roddick—the best peers of Roger Federer.

Marat Safin (b. 1980) won his first Slam in 2000 at the age of 20 but only won one other and goes down as one of the biggest underachievers in tennis history. He was a very talented player who was capable of an extremely high level and very well could have formed a duo of greats with Federer, but he didn’t have the requisite focus and had the well-earned reputation of being something of a playboy.

Lleyton Hewitt (b. 1981) was the youngest player in the ATP era to reach the number one ranking, which he did in 2001 at the age of 20 years old and 9 months. Hewitt was a very strong player for the first half of the 00s, and was the year-end #1 player in 2001 and 2002, but was more the first among near-equals than truly dominant over the field, and was eclipsed first by Roddick and then Federer in 2003 and never could climb back to the top. He fell out of the top 10 in 2006 and was never to return, playing a long second-half of his career as a non-elite player.

Andy Roddick (b. 1982) is perhaps the player whose career was most damaged by Roger Federer’s greatness. Roddick won the US Open and the year-end #1 ranking in 2003 at 21 years old, and seemed destined for greatness. But Federer became simply better at almost every facet of the game, and Roddick’s relatively one-dimensional game became exploited by others. He was an excellent player and remained a consistent top 10 player throughout the 00s, but never won another Slam, going 1-4 in Slam finals.

Finally we come to Juan Martin del Potro (b. 1988), who through 2009 had met all of the benchmarks of greatness: he was 21, had won a Slam, and was ranked in the top 5. And then injury struck and he hasn’t been the same since. While still a dangerous player when healthy, we’ll never know what a fully healthy del Potro would have looked like. My guess is that he would have vied with Andy Murray for the title of third greatest player of his generation, perhaps even surpassed him. But “Delpo” turns 28 later this year and is unlikely to ever reach his full potential.

In all eight of these we see players who developed early and to a high level, but for various reasons were unable to take that next step, whether due to talent, mentality, or injury. Again, we can return to our “characteristics of greatness,” which all greats have had, and the failed greats have lacked one or more of.

It is also interesting to note that these are all players born 1970 or later; 18 years old in 1973 is the starting point of these criteria because that is the beginning of the computerized rankings. This means that, for whatever reason, for the first 15 years there were no failed greats. Every player that met all of the criteria up to age 25 became greats, including Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker—a 100% “conversion rate.” Since 1970  we’ve had the eight failed greats along with Agassi, Sampras, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic—so 5 of 13, or a 38% rate. Why exactly this is, I don’t know, although it could simply be that, as we saw in Part One, there were many more 18-year olds in the top 100 in the late 80s and early 90s than any other period of the Open Era.

I would also add one more possibility. Note that the first four players—Courier, Ivanisevic, Chang, and Medvedev—were all peers of Sampras, while the next three—Safin, Hewitt, and Roddick—were peers of Federer. It could be that part of the reason these players “failed” in becoming true greats was because they were eclipsed by an even greater player in Sampras and and Federer (del Potro was close to Nadal and Djokovic, although his failure to achieve greatness has been blocked by injuries. We simply cannot know what a healthy del Potro would have looked like).

Current Players: Off the Pace of Greatness
So of active players, who was initially on the pace but has since fallen off? We’ll start with the oldest and work our way forward.

Mikhail Youzhny (b. 1982) met the first criteria, and also won his first title at age 20, but slowed in his development. He has had a solid career, been a top 10 player and won 10 titles, but is far from great; I ranked him as the tenth greatest player of his generation (b. 1979-83), behind Tommy Robredo and ahead of Fernando Gonzalez and Guillermo Coria, although the latter two were better players and possibly deserved to rank higher than Youzhny, although Mikhail’s longevity was better.

Tomas Berdych (b. 1985) met the first several benchmarks, ranking in the top 100 at age 18, the top 50 at age 19, winning his first title at 19 and even reaching the top 20 as a 20-year old. But he didn’t reach the top 10 or a Slam QF until a year later, at 21, and only made the top 5 at age 27.  Berdych won the Paris Masters in 2005 at 20 years old, but has not won a Masters since. He is what could be called an “aborted great:” he had the early signs, but never blossomed beyond the level of a very good player, which he remains today.

Richard Gasquet (b. 1986) reached the top 100 at 17 years old, the top 50 and his first title at 18, and the top 20 as a 19 year old. But like Berdych, he didn’t reach a Slam QF or the top 10 until he was 21 and approaching 30-years old in June has never ranked in the top 5 or even won a title above an ATP 250. He is often cited as one of the more disappointing players of his generation, although I think in hind-sight it now looks like he simply had a lower ceiling of talent than his teenager career promised.

Gael Monfils (b. 1986) showed immense promise at a young age, winning three Junior Slams in 2004. Monfils ranked in the top 50 at age 18 but took another four years to reach the top 10. He remains an enigmatic player on tour, extremely talented but the classic “head-case.”

Andy Murray (b. 1987) was on the pace until his 21st birthday. He met all of the ranking benchmarks, won his first title, but failed to win a Slam QF until just after his 21st birthday. He also didn’t win his first Slam until 25 and has yet to rank number one. As we all know, Andy is known for his temper and penchant for falling apart in tight matches, as illustrated in his 2-7 record in Slam finals. While he could still win another Slam or two, especially as Federer and Nadal fade away, he turns 29 in a couple months and seems on the wrong side of his peak.

Juan Martin del Potro (b. 1988) is in the “failed great” category and accomplished all of the benchmarks except the number one ranking, so he was even closer than Murray. He is 27, so it hard to imagine him winning 5+ more Slams to become a true great.

Ernests Gulbis (b. 1988) is another of the same type as Gasquet and Monfils: very talented, but considered an underachiever. Gulbis reached the first two ranking benchmarks and also won his first title at age 19, but stalled out in his early 20s, not reaching the top 10 until 25, and then only briefly.

Donald Young (b. 1989), as I have said elsewhere, represents both the failure of his generation and American men’s tennis. He made the top 100 at 18 but has floundered since, still as yet not winning a title, reaching a Slam QF, or ranking higher than #38. According to my research, he has the dubious honor of being one of the half a dozen or so worst players in the ATP era to reach the top 100 as an 18-year old.

Kei Nishikori (b. 1989) won his first title at age 18, but slowed until his early 20s. He has met all of the criteria of 2-4 Slam winners, although at age 26 has yet to win a Slam. Kei has 11 titles so far, including 6 ATP 500s, and is the only player on tour with more than two ATP 500 titles and no Masters or Slams. While he’s a good candidate to eventually win a Masters, if he fails to do so he could end up being one of the greatest players ever not to win a Masters tournament or higher.

Bernard Tomic (b. 1992) reached the top 50 and a Slam QF at age 18, and won his first title at age 20, but then floundered around #50 for a couple years and is now well off the pace of greatness. He is still just 23-years old, although looks more like a top 20 type than a future Slam winner.

Nick Kyrgios (b. 1995) technically already missed one of the benchmarks, as he did not reaching the top 100 until he was 19 years and three months. But I do not think that three months should disqualify him. He did reach the top 50 before turning 20, win his first title and reach his first QF before 21, and he has a shot at reaching the top 20 by age 21, but probably not the top 10 (he turns 21 on April 27). So it could be that Kyrgios turns 21 with three of the first five benchmarks (not including a Slam title), which is pretty good. We’ll need to see a quick rise over 2016 and into the top 10 and, to get back on the pace, he would need to rank in the top 5 by his birthday in 2017. A tall order, but we’ve seen some positive signs of late, a high level of play that, if he can access on a regular basis, could make him a truly great player.

Active Players: On the Pace (So Far)
There are currently only four players who have both reached the first benchmark, the top 100 at age 18, and not yet failed one: Hyeon Chung, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, and Taylor Harry Fritz.

Hyeon Chung (b. 5/19/1996) reached the top 100 at 18 but has not yet broken into the 50, which is the benchmark that he must meet before his 20th birthday, on May 19 of this year. That said, he did reach as high as #51, so maybe we can give him some slack. He’s currently ranked #71 so has been stagnating for awhile now; hopefully we see a step forward this year.

Borna Coric (b. 11/14/1996) is 19 years old, turning 20 in November. He is the only player who has reached two benchmarks and is still on the pace: he was in the top 100 at age 18 and top 50 at age 19. Actually, Coric has accomplished one remarkable feat: he has out-paced Novak Djokovic in rankings on their17-19th birthdays; compare:

Djokovic: 515, 128, 63
Coric: 396, 89, 45

Just looking at those numbers point to potential great things for Coric. But beyond that, there are worrying signs. First of all, at 19 years and 4 months, Coric has yet to win a title; at the same age, Djokovic was about to win his second (both ATP 250s) and was about half a year away from his first Masters title and a little over a year from his first Slam.

Where Djokovic went from #63 on his 19th birthday to #6 on his 20th birthday, Coric has been stagnating for about a year now. That said, he doesn’t need to keep pace with Djokovic to be a future great. In order to remain on the pace, he needs to reach the top 10, win a title, and reach a Slam QF all before November of 2017. So he’s got plenty of time to develop his game further. That said, it seems more likely that he becomes closer to Richard Gasquet than Djokovic.

Alexander Zverev (b. 4/20/1997) turns 19 on April 20, and has already reached his first benchmark. In fact, he will turn 19 ranked #50, which is the next benchmark that he needs to reach—but not until April of 2017, so he’s a year ahead of schedule. After that, Zverev would need to reach the next round of benchmarks—top 10, a title, and Slam QF—all before April of 2018, which is two years away. He seems to have a good chance of all of that. So it is quite early for Zverev, which is a good sign. His recent three-set loss to Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells shows us both his potential and that he still needs a lot of work. But signs are encouraging.

Taylor Fritz (b. 10/28/97) is in a similar situation as Zverev. He’ll be 19 later this year, about a year younger than Coric. Fritz is in the top 100 and doesn’t need to reach his next benchmark, the top 50, for a year and a half; he’s currently ranked #68, so is close already. His game is still raw, but he shows a lot of promise and the fact that he’s risen so quickly is a very good sign.

Active Players: On the Cusp
Those are only players who have reached at least one or more benchmark, but there are several others that are “due” for that first benchmark and look to have a solid chance to reach it.

Andrey Rublev (b. 10/20/97) is about a week older than Fritz and currently ranked #154. He needs to squeeze into the top 100 by his birthday to be on pace, which seems very possible. He seems like a player that is ripe to start a quickened pace of development, so bears watching this year.

Frances Tiafoe (b. 1/20/98) just turned 18 a few months ago, so has a lot of time to reach the top 100. He shows a lot of promise, including a three-set loss to David Goffin that showed some of his potential. He is currently the youngest player ranked in the top 200, at #182.

Tommy Paul (5/17/97) and Omar Jasika (5/18/97) turn 19 in May, and are distant possibilities, but need to move very quickly, ranked #192 and #313 respectively.

Duckhee Lee (5/29/98) is quite young and looks to have a good shot. At #206, he is the highest ranked 17-year old on tour, and the only one to be ranked in the top 400.

Stefan Kozlov (2/1/98), ranked #224, and Michael Mmoh (1/10/98) ranked #322, are two young foreign-born Americans that bear watching.  Kovlov made a big jump recently, losing in a Challenger final. He is a good candidate to at least come close to the top 100 by year’s end.

Beyond them you have 17-year olds Stefanos Tsitsipas (8/12/98) and Mikael Ymer (9/9/98) and even younger players for him it is just too soon to tell—like Denis Shapovolov (4/15/99) Felix Auger Aliassime (8/8/2000) and Rayane Roumane (9/11/2000), the only ranked players that were born in 2000. Again, it is way too soon for these kids, but theirs are names to remember.

Missing the Cut
There are also quite a few young players who show promise, but did not make that first benchmark. I will mention their names, though, given the possibility that this newer generation simply might be peaking later. Still, I think all of them are far less worthy candidates for the next great player, but could be names we see in the top 50 within the next new several years.

Jared Donaldson, Elias Ymer, Karen Khachanov, Yoshihito Nishioka, Kyle Edmund, Quentin Halys, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Noah Rubin.

Kokkinakis met the first benchmark and ranked as high as #69 last June, but has struggled since and is ranked #143 just after turning 20.

“Stanislas Potential”
There is one final player that I’d like to mention, who is far off the pace of greatness but has drawn attention of late: Dominic Thiem (b. 9/3/93). While I think it very unlikely that he becomes a 6+ Slam winner as he is so far off the pace, Thiem—at 22—has reached the various benchmarks of the near-greats, the 2-4 Slam winners. He reached the top 100 and then top 50 as a 20-year old, then won his first title and the top 20 as a 21-year old, and is currently on the verge of the top 10 and has a good chance to reach it, and play in his first Slam QF, before his 23rd birthday in September.

And then there’s our old friend, Grigor Dimitrov (b. 5/14/91), who at almost 25 is no longer a prospect. We might have to accept Grigor for who he is and will never be. That said, while Grigor did not fulfill any of the criteria for greatness, he has fulfilled almost all of the criteria for near-greatness: reaching the top 100 at 19, the top 50 at 21, the top 20 at 22, and the top 10 at 23. He also made his first Slam QF at 22, although did not win his first title until 22: all multi-Slam winners won their first title at age 21 or younger. So while Grigor will not be a 6+ Slam winner, he is a darkhorse candidate, albeit a fading one, to expand the horizons of near-greats.

Ranking the Candidates
So when all is said and done, where does that leave us? As of right now, I would categorize the candidates the following groups:

Best Candidates for Greatness: Alexander Zverev, Taylor Fritz
Borderline/Outside Chance: Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Hyeon Chung
The Stanislas Darkhorse: Dominic Thiem
Too Soon to Tell, but Promising: Andrey Rublev, Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlov
On the Edge of the Radar: Duckhee Lee, Mikael Ymer, etc
Very Unlikely: Everyone else

Finally, there are the kids—players of the next generation, 1999-2003, for whom it is just far too soon, but we are at least starting to see some names pop up in Futures tournaments.

Which of these players will become true greats? Your guess is as good as mine, but chances are at least one of them will. If in 5 or 10 years we look back and the next 6+ Slam winner wasn’t mentioned in this article, I’ll have to eat my words, but I think there’s a very good chance that won’t be the case.

Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons, By Tomas-ko0 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45898208

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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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