All good things come to an end. It is the inevitable tragedy of life, although of course it also allows for greater appreciation of the moments we do have. And so it is with tennis greats, whether the current twilight years of Roger Federer or, as is the focus of this piece, the inevitable decline of Rafael Nadal from an unstoppable force of nature to merely a great, but beatable, player.
Before you protest that all players have their ups and downs, let us consider the simple fact that Rafael Nadal is in an age window when most great players drop a notch; even if he’s not dropping yet, it is inevitable that at some point soon he will. But a notch from his peak level still makes him one of the best players in the game – just as in Roger’s “twilight years” he is still probably the third greatest player on tour.
Perhaps by understanding the career trajectories of other great players we can better understand where Nadal might be in his own career, and what might be ahead. For a player of Nadal’s stature there are few peers – we have to look at players who were for a significant portion of their careers considered the best in the game. Going back through Open Era history, we have Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Rod Laver. With apologies to other dominant players such as Novak Djokovic, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, and Jimmy Connors, I’m looking at players who were the best for an extended period of time (Djokovic is close, but he’s younger than Nadal so doesn’t really qualify). Borg also has to be taken out of the equation as he retired at 25.
That leaves us with Federer, Sampras, Lendl, McEnroe, and Laver. Considering that Nadal turns 28 this year, let’s keep in mind the year those five turned 28 for a reference point:
- Federer: 2009
- Sampras: 1999
- Lendl: 1988
- McEnroe: 1987
- Laver: 1966
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, most players follow a career pattern in four major phases (with general age averages): development (17-21), peak (22-26), plateau (27-31), and decline (32-). Obviously players veer out of those ranges, but those are typical. I would maintain that one way to define the peak phase is that it is the period of a player’s career in which their results, especially winning percentage, are solidly over their career average, while the plateau phase is more around the career average or a bit below. Now the question at hand in this context is whether or not Rafael Nadal is transitioning from his peak to plateau phase, which is a step below peak but still very high.
Let’s take a look at the five players and see at what point they transitioned from peak to plateau. To get a sense of that, we’ll be focusing on their Grand Slam results and match winning percentage.
The Swiss Maestro was clearly in his peak from 2004 to 2007. When he actually dropped a notch into his plateau phase is a bit unclear, however. Many consider the great 2008 Wimbledon match as when Roger passed the baton to Rafa for greatest player in the game. But not only was that match a complete toss-up, but Roger went out and won the next Slam and four out of the next six. Rather, I would maintain that what the 2008 Wimbledon marked was Nadal joining Federer as the best in the game, a partnership which was maintained–some some passing of the baton back and forth–until 2010 when two things happened: Rafa had probably his best year and Roger dropped a notch, leaving Rafa as the sole king of the tour.
Regardless of when Federer’s skills began to erode, greatness is always defined relative to others, thus the results offer a reliable barometer for his drop in performance. Looking at the statistical record, Roger’s career definitely dropped a solid step after the 2010 Australian Open, his penultimate Slam victory (so far, at least). Whereas Roger won a remarkable 16 of 27 Grand Slams from Wimbledon 2003 to the 2010 Australian Open, playing in a perhaps even more remarkable 22 of 27 Finals, from 2010 Roland Garros to the present, Roger has won only 1 and played in 2 Finals of 16 Slams. He is still a very, very good player, but clearly a step down from his previous peak.
Looking at Roger’s winning percentage confuses the matter a bit, as he dropped quite a bit from 88% in 2007 to 81% in 2008, and then equalized in the 83-86% range from 2009 to 2012, and then plummeting to 73% in 2013 before rising to 87% (so far) in 2014. But winning percentage is only part of the equation, the other being Slam results, and Roger remained pretty dominant through the Australian Open in 2010 so I would argue that he entered his plateau phase around Roland Garros in 2010 – when he was 28 years old, turning 29 a few months later.
Pistol Pete was the No. 1 ranked player in the game for an unparalleled six years in a row, from 1993-1998, the year he turned 27. While Pete was No. 1 as late as November 2000 when he was 29 years old, his reign of dominance had clearly ended, or at least diminished.
In 1998, Pete’s last year at No. 1, his winning percentage had dropped for the second straight year and, at 78.2%, was about at his career average (77.4%). But then in 1999 it shot up again to 83.3%, the highest it had been since 1996 and the fourth highest of his career. Yet it dropped again in 1999 to 76.4% and continued to drop over his last couple years.
So in one sense we could say that Pete was as good as ever in 1999, the year he turned 28, yet on the other it was in far fewer matches than usual – he only played 48, the fewest he had played since 1989, and far fewer than his average of 81 per year from 1990-98.
Regardless, it seems clear that Pete entered his plateau phase sometime between 1998 and 1999. He lost the No. 1 ranking in late March of 1998 after holding it for 102 weeks straight. He did regain it again before the end of the year so that he still finished No. 1, but I think at that point the writing was on the wall. So I’d maintain that he transitioned into his plateau phase around age 27.
Some might take issue with Lendl’s inclusion, as his early career was overshadowed by Borg, McEnroe, and Connors, and later on he vied with Wilander, Becker, Edberg, and then Sampras and Agassi. (Actually, as an aside, Lendl may be one of the most underrated players in tennis history because of all great players—at least during the Open Era—no one else played alongside other greats playing at or near their peaks, and Lendl held his own, and then some.) Let us remember that Lendl finished three years in a row, 1985-87, at No. 1, and a fourth year in 1989. He also finished in the Top 3 for nine straight years and the Top 8 for thirteen straight years, both of which only Roger Federer has equalled since (Fed finished in the Top 3 for ten straight years and assuming he finished 2014 in the Top 8, will equal Lendl’s thirteen straight years in the Top 8).
Lendl’s fall to his plateau is relatively easy to determine. In 1989, his last year finishing No. 1, he had a winning percentage of 92% which fell to his career average of 82% in 1990, which was also the last year he won a Slam, and then 75% in 1991. So the fall came between 1989 and 1990 – perhaps after his last Slam at the Australian Open in 1990, so when he was 29, almost 30 years old.
Johnny Mac is a bit of an outlier to this group because his later career was marred by personal issues. But he was still a similarly dominant player as the others on this list during the first half of his 20s, ranked No. 1 for four years in a row, and the only player to be considered the great Bjorn Borg’s equal, even surpassing the great Swede towards the end of their rivalry.
Anyhow, McEnroe’s drop is quite clear. His very greatest year was 1984 when he had an amazing 96% winning percentage (82-3). Yet 1985—despite not winning any Slams—was also great, with an 89% winning percentage and far above his career average of 81.5%. But then he missed a lot of time in 1986-87 and never came back even close to peak form, so we could say that there’s a clear separation between peak and plateau/decline between the years 1985 and 1986. Johnny Mac turned 27 in early 1986, so the drop was at age 26-27.
I include Laver with some hesitancy considering that he played in the mists of ancient tennis history. Yet he was a similarly dominant player to Nadal and Federer, and had his last great year in the Open Era.
It is more difficult to example the statistical records from before the ATP era (1973), but from what the statistical record shows us, Laver maintained a peak level of performance throughout his 20s and through his great year in 1969 when he won all four Grand Slams. He turned 31 that year.
Laver remained a good player for a few more years, but was never the same. So his peak ended quite late – at age 31.
So when we look at our five comparable greats to Nadal, we see the age that they transitioned from peak to plateau form as follows:
- Federer: ~28
- Sampras: ~27
- Lendl: ~29
- McEnroe: ~26
- Laver: ~31
Looking back over the last year or so, Rafa was playing at a very high level through the summer of 2013. After dominating the North American section of the tour by winning the US Open and both the Canadian and Cincinnati Masters, Nadal slowed down a bit, not winning a tournament for the rest of the year. He started 2014 by winning the Qatar Open, although then lost in the Australian Open final, partially due to injury. He also won his second tournament of the year in Rio, but both his wins so far are relatively minor (an ATP 250 and 500, respectively), and he hasn’t won any of the three Masters and just lost in Barcelona in the quarterfinal. His 91% winning percentage in 2013 was the best of his career, while his 82% so far this year is actually a bit below his career average of 83.6%, so there is cause for concern.
Nadal will turn 28 years old in a little over a month, so he is certainly within range of the norm for transitioning from peak to plateau. Right now he is the same age that Roger Federer was when he won the 2009 Wimbledon and when Sampras won the 1998 Wimbledon. At Rafa’s current age, both Roger and Pete won three more Slams; Lendl won only two more, but had fewer total.
So if we want to guess what is before Rafa, we can look at Federer and Sampras in particular. If Rafa truly is transitioning from his peak to his plateau—and it seems likely, in my opinion—he still has many good years ahead of him. And if I were to guess how many more Slams he will win, like Federer and Sampras at the same age, three is as good a guess as any. Both Roger and Pete won two more at their best Slam (Wimbledon) and one more at another. Perhaps, then, an educated guess would be that Rafa will win two more French Opens and one more on another court, which would bring him to a total of 16 for his career – one shy of Roger Federer’s current total, but more than anyone else.
But of course there are always exceptions to the rule, and Rafa is as good a candidate to be one as any other. Every player has a different career trajectory; but if he follows the typical trajectory of a great player, while he would truly be transitioning into his plateau phase now, he also likely has a few good years—and a few Slam titles—left in him.