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The Curious Case of Grigor Dimitrov: Is “Baby Federer” (Finally) Growing Up?

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I can’t help but cheer for Grigor Dimitrov. Maybe it is his fluid grace that is reminiscent of a certain great Swiss player (in style, although not potency). Maybe it is his blasé demeanor which is often interpreted as not caring, but also could be indicative of a happy-go-lucky attitude which, while admirable as far as his seeming amiability is concerned, may prove detrimental to the resolve needed for a championship attitude. Regardless, I like young Mr. Dimitrov and want to see him succeed.

Over the last year Grigor has established himself as one of the premier talents of his generation, rising from No. 46 at the end of 2012 to No. 23 as 2013 comes to a close.  Just a couple weeks ago, Dimitrov finally won his first ATP title at Stockholm, an ATP 250 event. That win, coupled with his overall improvement in 2013, has led to a response that seems to be cautiously optimistic, that this could be the breakthrough that the talented but seemingly listless young player needs to start actualizing the potential and smooth play on the court that has earned him the appellation “Baby Federer.”

But not so fast. Let us not forget that Grigor is already 22 and part of a generation that has been either slow to develop, or lacks elite talent.

 A Lost Generation?

It is well known that there aren’t many highly ranked young players on tour at the moment; in fact, above Grigor’s rank of No. 23 there are only two players—Milos Raonic at No. 11 and Jerzy Janowicz at No. 21—that were born in the 1990s (Kei Nishikori, at No. 17, misses the cut by a few days), and both Janowicz and Raonic turn 23 years old later this year. After Dimitrov, the players born in the ‘90s are few and far between; here is a complete list of those players in the Top 100:

11. Milos Raonic (22)

21. Jerzy Janowicz (22)

23. Grigor Dimitrov (22)

32. Vasek Pospisil (23)

52. Bernard Tomic (21)

56. Federico Delbonis (23)

65. Pablo Carreno Busta (22)

79. Evgeny Donskoy (23)

82. Jiri Vesely (20)

91. Jack Sock (21)

Perennial disappointment Ryan Harrison (21), Denis Kudla (21), and David Goffin (22) have all slipped just outside of the Top 100, with quite a few others in the No. 101-200 range.

Jiri Vesely is the youngest player in the Top 100 at age 20. To get to the first teenager, you’ve got to go all the way to promising 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios ranked No. 181.

It is clear that the rankings—especially the Top 50—are light with young players. The question is why – and there are two general theories. One is that players are simply maturing later, perhaps due to the more physical nature of the game. If this is true we won’t know for another year or two, as the players listed above enter their mid-20s. So we’ll leave that one aside for the time being.

The second is that we’re in a bit of a generational lull; meaning, the young players on tour—which we can loosely define as anyone born in the 1990s—are not a very talented generation, perhaps harkening back to the generation of players born in the late 70s, of whom Gustavo Kuerten was probably the best.

As an aside, I’m defining a “tennis generation” as a span of five years. I am dividing generations by half-decades; this is obviously arbitrary but I’m not sure if there’s any way around that.

Anyhow, Kuerten’s generation – those players born from 1975-79 – won only a total of seven Grand Slams. Compare that to other generations of the Open Era:

1985-89:  22 (Nadal 13, Djokovic 6, Murray 2, Del Potro 1)

1980-84: 23 (Federer 17, Hewitt 2, Safin 2, Roddick 1, Ferrero 1)

1975-79: 7 (Kuerten 3, Moya 1, Gaudio 1, Johansson 1, Costa 1)

1970-74: 34 (Sampras 14,  Agassi 8, Courier 4, Bruguera 2, Kafelnikov 2, Rafter 1, Chang 1, Krajicek 1)

1965-69: 15 (Becker 6, Edberg 6, Muster 1, Korda 1, Stich 1)

1960-64: 18 (Lendl 8, Wilander 7, Cash 1, Gomez 1, Noah 1)

1955-59: 20 (Borg 11, McEnroe 7, Kriek 2)

1950-54: 16 (Connors 7, Vilas 4, Edmondson 1, Gerulaitis 1, Panatta 1, Tanner 1, Teacher 1)

Going back further, you’ve got Stan Smith, Jan Kodes, Tony Roche, and Ilie Nastase born in the late 40s; John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe born in the early 40s; Rod Laver and Roy Emerson born in the late 30s; Ken Rosewall in the early 30s, etc.

The generation born in the late 70s is easily the worst of the Open Era, and probably going back much further. This new generation born in the 1990s could very well vie for that honor.

Either way, they’re both theories. What we do know is that this younger generation is not—yet, at least—as strong as past generations.

Back to Grigor. In the same way that we won’t be able to answer the questions above, at least not for another couple years when the top players in the early 90s generations start reaching age 24 and 25, so too can we not know if Grigor’s win at Stockholm is the beginning of an elite player coming into his own. Grigor has been lauded as one of the few of his generation with the talent to win Grand Slams, yet it is also true that most No. 1 players and Grand Slam winners are already playing at a very high level by the time they are Dimitrov’s age.

What Does History Tell Us?

What we can do is look at historical precedent. If Dimitrov’s generation is peaking later, then this information is less useful – but it still gives us a starting place.

I’ve created a few criteria to look at:

  • Active players who have won at least 2 ATP title events of any level
  • Active Players who have won an ATP 500 or higher in their careers
  • All players who have won an ATP 1000, WTF, or Grand Slam in the 21st century (2000-present)

This gave me a list of 67 players, ranging from the greats of the 1990s like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, to young players like Raonic and Janowicz.

I then looked at the first tournament each player won, and the age they were when they won it.  Finally, I accounted for each title they won, giving “points” for them as follows:

  • 8 Grand Slam
  • 5 WTF/Masters Cup, Olympics Gold
  • 4 ATP 1000
  • 2 ATP 500
  • 1 ATP 250

You will note that a point is equal to 250 ATP points, except for the case of the WTF, Masters Cup, and Olympic Gold, all of which I somewhat arbitrary gave 5 points for – because I feel like they are all of similar difficulty to win and thus roughly equal in value, for the sake of this study at least. Anyhow, the point is not to quibble with the particularities of the system; it is only a means to an end, which is to look for similar players to Dimitrov and see how they did.

Of the 67 players, 27 of them won their first title at age 22 or later. Using my point system, of those 27 players the highest point totals were Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio, Ivan Ljubicic, Tim Henman, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. To put it another way, if Grigor Dimitrov follows historical precedents for recent players, he will not have a career greater than any of those five players.

Johansson and Gaudio are the only players of the 67 who won a Slam and didn’t win their first titles until age 22 or later. The ten multi-Slam winners of the 67 all won their first ATP title before turning 22 years old; actually, all 10 won their first title before turning 21, and only one – Gustavo Kuerten – didn’t win their first title before turning 20. Lleyton Hewitt was 16 when he won his first title, Agassi 17; Nadal, Sampras, Murray, Roddick, Ivanisevic, Enqvist, Berdych, Gasquet, and Nishikori were all 18; and Federer, Djokovic, Kafelnikov, and Safin were all 19.

Now, of the 27 players who won their first title at age 22 or later, the highest ranking any attained was Ivan Ljubicic at No. 3; Tim Henman and Sebastian Grosjean were No. 4; Gaudio, Tsonga, and Cedric Pioline were No. 5.

Furthermore, none of the 27 players won more than a single ATP 1000 level event – and only 9 of the 27 (33%) did so. None won more than 2 ATP 500s, and only 4 of them won two (15%). That said, only 4 of the 27 only won ATP 250 events – Nicolas Mahut, John Isner, Albert Montanes, and Janko Tipsarevic (although, remember that these 67 are all multi-titlists and/or players who won an ATP 500 or higher; so Grigor has to win at least one more title before he’s officially in the demographic).

Final Thoughts

Putting all of that together, we see a rather clear picture. If Dimitrov holds to historical norms – that is, if he doesn’t break new territory and have a more successful career of any player to have won their first title at age 22 – then his upside is that of a Top 10 player, perhaps a Top 5 player, and just maybe someone who wins a single Slam (although this is very unlikely, in terms of historical precedents) and/or an ATP 1000 event.

But again, history is being re-written all of the time. And it could be that the first theory discussed above – that the younger generation is taking longer to mature – will support new horizons being reached. Couple that with the complexity of Grigor’s game, and the possibility that it might have just taken this long for everything to start to click together. But let us be cautious in our optimism; right now Grigor’s upside looks like that of a second tier player, someone like Berdych or Tsonga – and there is certainly no shame in that. Further, unlike Berdych and Tsonga, Dimitrov has no elite-talent peers; as Nadal (27), Djokovic and Murray (both 26) start to show signs of age, opportunities may arise for Dimitrov–and Janowicz, Raonic, and perhaps one or two others–to surprise and sneak out a Grand Slam title. Yet it also may be that he turns into someone more like Gasquet or Cilic, neither of whom have (yet) won a tournament above an ATP 250.

2014 Prediction: I think Grigor will continue his upward trend and is a good bet for an ATP 500 title, and a dark horse candidate for an ATP 1000. Where in 2012 he established himself as a Top 50 player and in 2013 he ended on the cusp of the Top 20, in 2014 he’ll establish himself as a perennial Top 20 player – and on the upper half of that range, even with a chance to challenge for the “soft bottom” of the Top 10, the spots that players like Tipsarevic, Gasquet, and Wawrinka vie for – and which he, Janowicz, Raonic, and Nishikori will fight for in 2014. He won’t yet challenge the near elites for a spot in the Top 8 – that will come in 2015.

In the long-term, I like Grigor’s chances of winning a Slam some day. I don’t see it in 2014, and probably not 2015, but come 2016 – the year Nadal turns 30 and Djokovic and Murray 29, while Dimitrov will be in his prime at 24-25 – anything is possible.

Photo by Marianne Bevis (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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