The project started as a way to try to figure out what ages do players have their best year(s) in. I fiddled with a rating system that would be relatively comprehensive but also simple enough not to take an enormous amount of time figuring out. I came up with the following point follows:
GRAND SLAM: W 10, F 5, SF 3, QF 1
WT FINALS (& Similar): W 5
ATP 1000 (or “Super High”): W 4
ATP 500 (or “High”): W 2
ATP 250 (or “Low”): W 1
Tiebreakers are handled by looking at Grand Slam results and Year-End Rankings and ascertaining which, together, points to a stronger season.
So let’s look at the numbers. I looked at every 4+ Slam winner of the Open Era that played the bulk of their career in the Open Era. I didn’t include players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe because of inadequate data and/or a good portion of their careers being before the Open Era. I might try to revisit them at some point and do some more research, but it isn’t necessary for the sake of this study.
So that leaves us with a total of 14 players – probably the 14 greatest players of the Open Era, not including Laver, Rosewall, and Newcombe – with Andy Murray “pending.”
Just a technical note: A player’s age does NOT necessarily refer to their age at the time of a given tournament, but at the end of the year. Unfortunately this means that a player whose birthday is January 1 and December 31 are considered the same age for that year, but thankfully there wasn’t anything that bad!
So here we go. Some various stats to begin:
- The best season overall was Roger Federer in 2006 (61 pts), his age 25 season. Novak Djokovic’s 2011 (age 24) and John McEnroe’s 1984 (age 25) are tied for second (56 pts).
- The player with the three best seasons, in order, are: Federer (54.7 avg), Lendl (48.0), and Borg (43.7).
- It is interesting to note that Borg and McEnroe have the exact same five-year average (37.0), with Borg’s three-year average (43.7) being just slightly higher than McEnroe’s (43.0). McEnroe has the best season of the two – 1984 (56.0). Borg’s next three seasons are better than any other seasons of McEnroe’s.
- Jim Courier’s three best years – 1993 (age 23, 32 pts), 1992 (age 22, 30 pts), and 1991 (age 21, 24 pts) are right along the lines of Edberg, Becker, Wilander, and Agassi, but his fourth and fifth best seasons (9 and 6 pts) are by far worse than any of the five best seasons of any other player. In other words, this system verified what we already knew – that for three years Jim Courier was looking like an all-time great, but then he declined and is stuck in the a lower category, as a “semi-great” along with Vilas.
So here’s where it gets interesting, and I’ll highlight this in bold because it “answers” my original query: Of the 14 players, every single one had their best year in the age 22-25 range.
I find that remarkable. Here is how it breaks down:
Age 22 – Connors, Becker
Age 23 – Borg, Courier, Sampras
Age 24 – Wilander, Edberg, Nadal, Djokovic
Age 25 – Vilas, McEnroe, Lendl, Agassi, Federer
This means that none of the players had a better year after age 25 as they did age 25 or younger. Some were close, but all had their very best years age 25 or younger.
Looking at second best years, the range is much wider – from Wilander at age 19 to Agassi at age 29. Other than those two, however, the range is age 21-26, still quite narrow.
Third-best years vary more widely – from age 19 to 31.
The point being, tennis players almost without fail play their very best tennis at age 25 or younger, although still play some great tennis afterwards – but no truly great player has yet surpassed their earlier peak year (with the possible exception of Rod Laver in 1969 at age 31, but it probably wasn’t better than his 1962 season when he was 24).
Of the 11 players who have played into their 30s (so not including Borg, Nadal, and Djokovic), only Connors, Vilas, and Agassi had age 30+ seasons in their top five – and Agassi actually had two, his age 31 season (2001, 24 pts), and his age 33 season (2003, 20 pts) – although the latter is tied with a couple others from his 20s. Federer’s 2012 (age 31, 35 pts) was his 6th best season.
Speaking of Federer, according to this system he has six seasons better than any produced by Edberg, Becker, Courier, or Agassi. Unreal.
So looking at players like Nadal, who is in his age 27 season, and Djokovic and Murray, both in their age 26 seasons – and thus all past that magical 22-25 window – what can we conclude? A couple things:
1) It is very unlikely that any will have better seasons in 2013 and beyond than their best season thus far. If any of the three do, they will be the first of the 4+ Slam winners to do so (I think Andy Murray is the only one with a good chance – Djokovic’s 2011 will be nearly impossible to surpass – but he has only won a single Slam, so we can’t assume anything).
2) All three should still have great seasons left. While all 11 other players never surpassed their age 22-25 best year, all of them had years of a greater age in their top 5 with the exception of Mats Wilander, all of whose #2-5 seasons were at younger ages than his #1 season. Courier is similar in that there is a huge drop-off between his top three and other seasons, and his top three are age 23, 22, and 21 and the other two are older.
So in other words, don’t expect Djokovic to ever have a season like 2011. He could surpass 2012 (age 25, 42 pts), but that too will be difficult. But he almost certainly will surpass his third best so far, 2008 (age 21, 29 pts).
I may post some raw numbers later but I’m beat.