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Nadal the Great, Part 1: Rafa’s Window of Opportunity

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[This is the first of two thematically-linked articles focusing on Rafael Nadal and his quest for greatness; the second article will be out in a day or two.]

Rafael Nadal turned 27 years old a few months ago, about a week before winning his 8th French Open and 12th Slam overall, at that point and now, with his 13th Slam victory, standing behind only Pete Sampras (14) and Roger Federer (17) for the most Slams in the Open Era; if we include pre-Open Era Pro Slams–as I think we should–we add a few others so we get the following list:

Most Slam Wins in Tennis History (Pro, Amateur, and Open Era)

23 Ken Rosewall
19 Rod Laver
17 Pancho Gonzales, Roger Federer
14 Bill Tilden, Pete Sampras
13 Rafael Nadal

With 13 Slam wins and, still only 27 years old, playing some of the best tennis of his life, it’s reasonable to start taking seriously the idea that Nadal could surpass Federer. Now with a player as great as Nadal there are few comparable players – once you get to this level anything is possible and new benchmarks can be made. And of course Nadal, like all of the greats, has his unique style of tennis: a blend of tremendous athleticism, defensive prowess, unrivaled topspin that has been the bane of many a player, and of course his perhaps unparalleled tenacity. (For those watching the US Open Final, you might have heard John McEnroe say that he thought Jimmy Connors tried harder than any player in tennis history until Rafa came along.) But it is still important to ask: What are the precedents? In particular, how many Slams did the above players win after turning 27? And of players with fewer Slams, how many of their total were won after their 27th birthday?

Click here to discuss “Nadal the Great, Part 1: Rafa’s Window of Opportunity” in our discussion forum.

Let’s take a look. We’ll start with the above list of “inner circle greats” with the seven highest total Slam victories. We’ll also look at those players in the Open Era that won 6+ Slams, although will exclude those players who did not (or have not yet) played at age 27: Bjorn Borg – who played his last Slam at age 25 – and Novak Djokovic, who is 26. I’m also going to exclude Bill Tilden because he played tennis during a very different era; coupled with the fact that he didn’t win his first Slam until age 27 and won his last at age 42 (!), he skews the numbers in a way that has little relevance to the current game. In truth, we could easily exclude Gonzales, Rosewall, and Laver as well, but I’d like to include them as other “GOAT” candidates (more on this in the second part).

This gives us a list of 14 players: GOAT candidates Rosewall, Laver, Gonzales, Federer, Sampras, and Nadal, as well as “outer circle” all-time greats John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, and Andre Agassi. As of last night, those 14 players have won a total of 160 Slams.

To start, let’s take a look at the age at which those Slams were won. For the sake of ease, by age I mean the age a player turned in a given year, not the time period between their birthdays. So, for example, any Slam in 2013 is part of Nadal’s “age 27 season” – even the Australian Open, during which he was still 26. Obviously this isn’t exact, and it doesn’t differentiate between players who were born in January versus December, but it’s close enough for the purpose of this study. We’ll be more exact in a moment when we turn our gaze to his closest contemporaries.

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As you can see, plenty of Slams were won up until the age 31 season but there’s a steep and remarkable drop-off at age 32 and beyond. (As a side note, it is worth mentioning that 2012 was Federer’s age 31 season, and this year is his age 32 season, so he follows this pattern quite well.)

Of those 14 players, three did not win a Slam at Rafa’s current age – Wilander’s last was at age 24, McEnroe’s at age 25, and Edberg’s at age 26. The rest, however, did win Slams at age 27 and older.

Rafael Nadal has 13 Slams through his age 27 season. Of the 160 Slams above, 107 were won through age 27, or 67%. If Nadal follows that same ratio, it means he’ll end up with 19 Slams. But note that of those 53 Slams won at age 28 and later, 32 were won by Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, and Rod Laver – players whose primes were in a very different era. If we take those three out of the mix, we’re left with 101 Slams total and 21 won at age 28 and older – only 21% compared to the 33% total. If Nadal follows that trajectory, it means that he’ll finish with 16, maybe 17.

Now let’s look more closely at Nadal’s closest contemporaries: Federer, Sampras, and Agassi. Between the three they won 39 Slams. Of those 39 Slams, 12 were won at age 28 or later – or 31%. If Nadal follows a similar pattern, that means his 13 Slams is 69% of his total, and that he’ll win 17 or 18 total.

Those numbers are somewhat skewed by Andre Agassi’s remarkable longevity. Agassi is the rare player who was better in the second half of his career than he was in the first half, winning five of his eight Slams during his age 29 and later seasons. Sampras and Federer, on the other hand, won seven of their 31 total at age 28 and later – or 23%. So it really depends upon whose career path Nadal is closer to.

Let’s be a bit more specific with Federer and Sampras. Federer turned 27 on August 8, 2008, shortly before winning his fifth and last US Open. From his 27th birthday on, he’s won five Grand Slam tournaments (so far!), 29.4% of his total. Three of those five were before his 28th birthday, so after turning 28 he has won only two Slams.

As for Sampras, he turned 27 on August 12, 1998, shortly after winning his 11th of 14 Grand Slams. He won his 12th just before turning 28, his 13th just before turning 29, and his 14th just after turning 31.

Between Federer and Sampras, they won 23 of their Slams before turning 27 (74%), four at age 27 (13%), and four after turning 28 (13%).

Nadal has one more Slam before his 28th birthday — the 2014 Australian Open. So far he’s won two Slams at age 27, so has a chance of equaling Federer’s three while 27-years old. Yet here’s where the “window of opportunity” starts to close. Both Sampras and Federer won only two more Slams each after turning 28 (again, so far – we should completely write Roger off…yet). So if Nadal follows their career pattern – and even if he wins the AO to get to 14 – he’ll finish with 16 Slam wins; that’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about but not quite enough to catch Federer.

But remember also that Andre Agassi won five Slams after turning 28 – and he isn’t the only player to do so; Rosewall, Laver, and Gonzales all won that many or more after turning 28. It could also be said that, in some ways, Nadal plays a style more similar to Agassi than Sampras and Federer. While it should be said that one commonality that just about every all-time great has, especially the inner circle greats, is that they were adept at offense and defense, like Agassi, Nadal plays a more defending than attacking tennis. Whether there is any correlation between this and longevity is questionable.

Some have explained Agassi’s longevity – which is unmatched in terms of maintaining an elite level of play, at least since Ken Rosewall in the 1970s – to him missing significant periods of time earlier in his career, and thus avoiding the grueling schedule that Sampras and, more so, Federer has undergone. Rafa has missed some time, although not nearly as much as Andre.

Another thing to bear in mind is that both Sampras and Federer were great servers – Sampras arguably the greatest in tennis history, and Federer certainly among the greatest – while Nadal has been considered a particularly weak server for such a great player (although his serve of late seems to have taken on new guile and spin, last night notwithstanding). Just recently some commentator or analyst—unfortunately I can’t remember whom—said that the reason Federer is struggling so much is that his serve has been off. It makes me wonder if the fact that a larger portion of Sampras’s and Federer’s greatness comes from their serve than, say, Agassi or Nadal, which makes decline after losing an edge on serve more certain.

Obviously Nadal’s longevity is tied into his health, particularly his knees. It is hard to imagine his knees holding out for another half decade of healthy tennis. But until they go, that is, until Nadal finds himself missing more tournaments than not, and struggling with recovery times, he should remain a top player. I would guess that when he starts to “go”, it will happen fast. I can’t help but imagine that Nadal is currently playing on borrowed time, although as a fan of the game I certainly hope not.

In conclusion, we started with asking the question: What is Rafa’s window of opportunity for continued greatness and Slam contention? Is it closing? If not, when will it close? There really is no way to definitively answer those questions – but that’s not the point of this article. What I’m trying to do is develop an informed opinion, one that is flexible but has an awareness of context.

In the end I’m left with this: It all depends upon the health of the knees, which he relies upon for his incredible speed and endurance. But given his incredible will and tenacity, I suspect that Rafa has a few good years left in him. There may be bumps in the road, and the older one becomes the longer recovery from injury takes, but Rafa has given us reason to believe that he will—like other all-time greats—remain effective into his 30s. After age 31, all bets are off, but that still gives us about four years of potential greatness from the Spanish Maestro, and in that time he has a chance to build a case to be considered the greatest player of all time. But more on that next …

Photo by globalite (Creative Commons license)

Original chart made using onlinecharttool.com

Comment below, or you can also discuss in detail with fellow tennis fans on the Tennis Frontier Message Board Forum

 

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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