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The Ebb and Flow of Talent in the ATP Era

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When looking at the different periods of tennis history, the late 1970s to early 1980s is often considered the “Golden Era,” highlighted by what must be the greatest rivalry in tennis history: Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe. We could say that this era began in 1978 when the young American upstart McEnroe surprised the tennis world by beating Bjorn Borg at the Stockholm Open, the first of 14 matches they played against each other, each winning seven. The natural end of this era, then, would be their last match: the 1981 US Open, when McEnroe solidified his usurpation as the top player in the world by beating Borg in the final, and also Borg’s last Grand Slam contest.

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So from the very end of 1978 to late into the 1981 season was a great era of men’s tennis, dominated by Borg and McEnroe, with older but still excellent Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas rounding out the elite and, in the last half of that span, young Ivan Lendl coming onto the scene. Yet the question that arises is this: Was it the most talent-rich period of tennis history or merely the most celebrated? This set me to doing some research; for the sake of ease I stuck to the Open Era and, in particular, the period of ATP rankings, 1973 to the present. So we can fine-tune the question a bit and ask: How has “talent-richness” changed over the last 40 years of men’s tennis?

I decided to look at only those players who could be considered “all-time greats.” My criteria were flexible, but included all players who had won three or more Slams in the Open Era, or were likely to win three or more, and at more than one venue. This means that I excluded Gustavo Kuerten, who won three Slams at Roland Garros, but included Andy Murray, who has won two Slams at different venues, and seems likely to win at least one more.

I came up with a list of nineteen players; here is a chart that shows their year-end rankings (click on chart for better viewing):

Greats ATP Ranking

Just looking at that chart gives us a sense of the ebbs and flows of upper echelon talent in men’s tennis, although of course it is important to point out that I’m only looking at the very greatest players and not the “near-elites” or players that might have been great for a short period of time (e.g. Lleyton Hewitt, Michael Stich, etc.). The purpose here is to focus on truly great talent and in what density it has shown up over the last four decades.

I then separated those nineteen players into three groups or tiers by their total Slam count, to differentiate levels of greatness:

Tier One (10+ Slams): Rosewall, Laver, Borg, Sampras, Federer, Nadal

Tier Two (6-9 Slams): Newcombe, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Wilander, Edberg, Becker, Agassi, Djokovic

Tier Three (5 or fewer Slams): Ashe, Vilas, Courier, Murray

I think we can safely say, without too much quibbling, that the above list represents the 19 greatest players of the Open Era, roughly arranged in levels of greatness. Strike that; I’m sure there will be quibbling, and I can imagine the protests of, say, Andy Murray’s inclusion but not Gustavo Kuerten’s or Marat Safin’s or Patrick Rafter’s or Ilie Nastase’s. But I think we can at least agree on most of that list; in other words, if we want to quibble about Murray or Ashe or Vilas or Courier, fine, but the other fifteen are clearly all-time greats, and of the four “Tier Three” players we can, at the least, say that they’re deserving of consideration and at least as deserving as anyone else.

That aside, I won’t go into exact numbers for the sake of avoiding complexity and confusion, but I then assigned different points for different rankings, with Tier One getting roughly twice the points of Tier Three, and Tier Two halfway in between. Players would get points for different levels of ranking – #1, #2-5, #6-10, #11-20, etc. Finally, I counted up the points from each year for the above 19 players, from 1973 to 2012, arriving at a number which is meant to indicate “talent-richness” of any given year.

Let me be clear and re-emphasize what I just wrote: This number indicates (or describes); it does not seek to definitively finalize or give us any more than a sense of talent-richness. To get a more accurate, comprehensive picture we’d have to look much deeper than the above nineteen players. What this does show us in a relatively accurate manner is how dense or rich the level of truly great talent has been in any given year. In other words, it tells us for any given year what level of all-time great talent was playing at a high level; it doesn’t tell us the total depth and breadth of talent.

The next chart shows us that number over time:

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There are a few things that stand out for me:

One, there’s an interesting two-year window in 1974-75 which, according to this calculation, were the two most talent-rich years in the last 40 years. The reason for this is that a few of the top players of the 1960s—Laver, Rosewall, and Ashe—were still playing at a high level; at the same time, you had Newcombe in his prime, a young Connors and Vilas, and a teenage Borg establishing himself as an elite player. The number dropped as the older players faded away; in 1976, for instance, Laver finished the year at No. 76 compared to No. 10 the year before.

Secondly, we can see that the 1978-81 period—while talent-rich—is not as much so as the late 1980s when you had three generations all playing at or near their peaks. This is not to say that the ’78-81 period wasn’t talent rich; but this certainly supports the idea that its appellation as the “golden era” of men’s tennis has more to do with the great Borg-McEnroe rivalry than it does with a clear supremacy of talent over other periods.

Moving on, there is an obvious and massive decline in the mid-90s. Wilander and Connors were done as elite players by 1990, McEnroe retired in ’92, Lendl a couple years later, and then Edberg and Becker faded just after that, and Jim Courier—like Wilander—peaked and faded at a young age, so during the mid-to-late 90s there were only two clear elite players, Agassi and Sampras, and Sampras started fading in the late 90s.

The absolute nadir of Open Era talent seems to be 2000. The talent-level began to rise with the arrival of Roger Federer, and then jumped when Rafael Nadal stormed through Roland Garros in 2005. From 2008 through 2012 it has “flat-lined,” with four players dominating the field in a way previously unseen.

Before ending, allow me to indulge in some speculation. It seems clear that Roger Federer has slipped out of the elite; perhaps the best we can hope for is him hanging around the Top 10 for another couple years. Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray should be around for some time, but the big concern is that there are no obvious candidates to join the above list, to turn that list of 19 into 20 or more. Of course we will see more elite players, but it’s hard to imagine Milos Raonic or Jerzy Janowicz or Grigor Dimitrov winning three or more Slams and earning a spot on this list. Who knows? I could be wrong–I certainly hope I am!–but my sense is that for that next great player, we’re going to have to wait two to three years or more before we even know who he (or they) will be.

With Federer unlikely to finish in the Top 5, that number is going to drop for 2013. Not by much, but probably by five points. I could see it holding steady in the upper 40s for another year or two, but after that it all depends upon whether we start seeing signs of that next great player and/or how quickly the current Big Three will decline. The decline of all players is inevitable, and we’re likely going to start seeing signs of the decline of the Big Three within the next two or three years, as they enter their late 20s and are more frequently beaten by the hungry near-elite players below them.

In conclusion, talent ebbs and flows and no era is quite like any other. Neither of the above charts shows a clear pattern or cycle; it would seem that each new era is different and that all we can be certain of is change itself. One of the great joys of tennis, at least for myself, is waiting and watching for the next generation of talent to arise, to try to understand who the next great player will be, and what match – like Stockholm in 1978 – will signal the changing of an era. So I will continue to watch and wait. Meanwhile, we can sit back and enjoy the great tennis play of today.

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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