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The Case of Kyrgios: How Good Will the Young Australian Be and Who are His Historical Comparable Players?

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Nick Kyrgios just turned 21 years old on April 27 and, at #20, is currently the highest ranked player age 21 or younger. #15 Dominic Thiem is the highest ranked 22-year old, and the youngest player ranked above Thiem is #11 Milos Raonic at 25-years old; 26-year old Kei Nishikori is the youngest player in the top 10, currently ranked #6, and the only top 10 player under 28. When Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray turn 29 in less than a month, nine out of ten top 10 players will be 29 or older; when Richard Gasquet and Rafael Nadal turn 30 in June, seven out of ten will be 30 or older (assuming the top 10 stays the same, which is by no means a certainty).

For tennis historians these are shocking numbers, or rather shockingly old numbers, although it is generally well known that the ATP tour has aged, or at least the elite has aged. I won’t go into details here as I want to focus on Kyrgios, but the bottom line is that the elite is the oldest it has been since at least the early 70s, after which the game became younger and younger, with the 80s and early 90s being particularly young (consider that three 17-year olds won Slams in the 80s: Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, and Michael Chang). The sport remained relatively young until the last five years or so, as older stars—the Big Four, but also the secondary cast of characters—grew older and maintained their hold on the sport, with no younger players stepping up.

As I have discussed elsewhere, there is room for optimism—or at least hope—as the players born in the mid-90s look far more promising than the “lost generation” of players born from 1989-93. One of those promising players is Nick Kyrgios, who first came to my attention in 2013 when the then 18-year old was the highest ranked teenager, finishing the year at #182. 2013 was the last of a particularly dark stretch for young tennis players, with only three teenagers ranking in the year-end top 100 from 2008-13: Kei Nishikori in 2008 (#63 at age 19), Bernard Tomic (#42 at 19) and Ryan Harrison (#79 at 19) in 2011. Compare that to 2003-07, when the top 100 averaged more than three teenagers per year.

Kyrgios gained wider attention in 2014 when he defeated Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon, displaying a vicious serve and array of weaponry, although lost to Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. Kyrgios would go on to finish the year ranked #52 and would continue a strong showing in 2015, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals, although slowing down a bit later in the year, finishing at #30. Kyrgios didn’t quite show the rapid rise that nearly all great players display, so expectations were tempered somewhat.

But it seems that Nick has taken another step forward this year, winning his first title in Marseille in February, defeating Marin Cilic, and pushing his ranking to #20.

So the question is, what can we expect from Nick going forward? As I mentioned in my last article series, he is actually off what I call the “Pace of Greatness”–a series of benchmarks that all true great players–which I define as 6+ Slam winners–have met in the Open Era, or at least when we have the information. The first such benchmark is reaching the top 100 before turning 19-years old. Nick was #171 when he turned 19 on April 27 of 2014, although would rise up to #66 just two and a half months later after his strong Wimbledon performance. So perhaps we can be a bit lenient on this account.

But as of his 21st birthday a couple days ago, Nick was ranked #20 in the world and missed another benchmark that all true greats share: a top 10 ranking before turning 21. Now maybe Nick has a strong showing over the next few months and reaches the top 10 this summer—we shall see. But regardless, this leaves us with Kyrgios reaching three of the five benchmarks of true greats so far: a top 50 ranking and Slam QF before turning 20, and his first title before turning 21. Close but no cigar.

Now as I mentioned in that article series, Stan Wawrinka set new precedents for what I was calling “near-greats,” players who won 2-4 Slams, by not reaching the top 5 or winning his first Slam until age 28. The point being, new precedents can and will be set, and there’s no reason to think that Nick Kyrgios couldn’t be the first (future) true great to have not made it into the top 100 until age 19 and reach the top 10 after turning 21. But we won’t know that for some time, and for now I’d like to focus on what we do know: what Nick has accomplished, what benchmarks he has met, and who his historical comparables are.
The Kyrgios Criteria
Nick Kyrgios has met the following three benchmarks, which can call the Kyrgios Criteria:
A Slam QF at age 19
A Top 20 ranking at age 20
A first title at age 20

So here’s the focus of this inquiry: Who has met those benchmarks and what sort of careers did they have? Now first a caveat: there is a wide margin of error here as there is no easy way to look up which players have met those benchmarks. I did find quite a few, as well as a second group of players who met two out of three.

So let’s take a look.

Group A: All-Time Greats
Considering that the Kyrgios Criteria are enfolded within the Pace of Greatness benchmarks, this includes every true great (6+ Slam winners). Not much to say here other than to refresh your memory as to who the names are, in chronological birth order: Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic—undoubtedly the twelve greatest players who played the entirety of their careers in the Open Era, all of whom were #1 and won at least six Slams.

Group B: Non-Greats Who Met All Three Kyrgios Criteria
The next group is comprised of 18 players who met each of the three criteria but aren’t true greats. Of these 18, 11 went on to win at least one Slam, with three winning multiple Slams.

Multi-Slam winners (3): Jim Courier, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt
Single Slam winners (8): Pat Cash, Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Chang, Albert Costa, Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro
Non-Slam winners (7): Henrik Sundstrom, Jimmy Arias, Alberto Mancini, Guillermo Perez-Roldan, Andrei Cherkasov, Andrei Medvedev, David Nalbandian

Group C: Non-Greats Who Met Two of Three Kyrgios Criteria
Finally, in the last group, we have thirteen (and probably more) who met two of the three criteria.

Multi-Slam winners (2): Sergi Bruguera, Andy Murray
Single Slam winners (2): Yannick Noah, Thomas Muster
Non-Slam winners (9): Eliot Teltscher, Aaron Krickstein, Kent Carlsson, Marc Rosset, Mark Philippoussis, Tommy Robredo, Mario Ancic, Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet

Greatest player not on any list: Guillermo Vilas, who met none of the three criteria, reaching the top 20 and winning his first title at 21 and his first Slam QF at 22.

So in all three groups we have a total of 43 players who met all or most of the three of the Kyrgios Criteria, with the following career results:

All-time Greats: 12, or 28%
Multi-Slam winners: 5, or 12%
Single Slam winners: 10, or 23%
Slam winners: 27, or 63%
Non-Slam winners: 16, or 37%

Some further statistics:

41 of 43 (95%) players went on to rank in the top 10 (everyone but Cherkasov and Perez-Roldan)
31 of 43 (72%) went on to rank in the top 5
19 of 43 (44%) ranked #1 at some point
37 of 43 (86%) won either a Masters or Slam
17 of 43 (40%) won multiple Slams

Now those include the true greats who met benchmarks that Kyrgios did not. If we look at only the 31 players who weren’t true greats, but met all or two of the three Kyrgios Criteria, we get:

29 of 31 (94%) ranked in top 10
19 of 31 (61%) ranked in top 5
7 of 31 (23%) ranked #1
25 of 31 (81%) won either a Masters or Slam
5 of 31 (16%) won multiple Slams

As you can see, the main drop is in #1 and multiple Slams. Almost all went on to rank in the top 10 and win either a Masters or Slam, and most ranked in the top 5.

The Verdict
Well, there really is no verdict, although we can make some predictions based upon historical precedents. We can say that Kyrgios almost certainly will rank in the top 10, and probably the top 5. He also will likely win at least one Masters and, if we look only at his 18 nearest comparable players–those who met the three Kyrgios Criteria, but did not meet the other benchmarks of true greatness–he will probably also win at least one Slam. But he probably won’t rank #1 or win multiple Slams.

Now let me be clear: these are simply historical precedents which are, in a sense, made to be (eventually) broken. I am reminded of a scene from Star Wars:

   C3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3720 to 1!
   Han Solo: Never tell me the odds!

Han Solo, of course, successfully navigated the asteroid field.

Now of course Star Wars is a story, a myth of high drama. Tennis is reality. But in reality, sometimes—often, even—high drama and myth sprinkle in.

In the case of Nick Kyrgios, we cannot say for certain how good he’ll be, at least not based upon historical precedents. He is already a very good player, is likely to get better and have a successful career, possibly even a nearly-great one, and with a tiny fraction of a chance of being a true great. We can also look at the context in which he will play his best years, which may work for him. He is 21 now, eight years younger than Djokovic and Murray, nine younger than Nadal, and five and a half or more years younger than everyone currently in the top 10. This means that as these players start aging and declining, Kyrgios will be right there to start stealing tournaments from them.

Cover Photo by Carine06 from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Creative Commons License

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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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