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Why Was Sampras More Prone to Upset Than Current Greats?

It seems to me that the current greats – namely Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic – aren’t being upset in early rounds as often as greats in the past were. Most great players during their very prime seem to make it to at least the QF of every Slam, if not the SF or beyond. But it seems that the current crop are particularly “un-prone” to an early upset.

For example – if we count a player’s “peak” as being between their first Slam win and their last (which of course is rather artificial and not true, but gives us something to look at), we get the following numbers:

Federer: First – Wimbledon, 2003; Last – Wimbledon 2012. 37 Slams, 37 played. 35 were QF or beyond; 32 SF or beyond.

Nadal: First – FO, 2005; Last – FO, 2013. 33 Slams, 29 played. 24 were QF+, 21 SF+.

Sampras: First – USO, 1990; Last – USO 2002. 49 Slams, 47 played. 34 QF+, 28 SF+.

Just looking at those three we can see that Sampras was a lot more prone to be upset before the QF. Between his first Slam victory and his last he went out of 13 Slams before the QF. Now with Sampras we should note that he both won a Slam very early – almost three years before his second – and one very late, over two years after his second to last. But if we look only at Sampras’ very highest peak – from Wimbledon of 1993 to 1997, a span of 17 Slams, we still have four upsets before the QF.

If we look at other greats we see similar patterns, except for perhaps Lendl, who only went out twice between his “bookend Slams”, but that’s a rather narrow span of only 23 Slams, partially because he won his first quite late. And Borg of course, who went out early only three times in the 21 Slams between his first and last wins, but he had a rather narrow span, and of course didn’t play the Australian Open at all during that span. But Becker, Edberg, Wilander, Agassi, Connors, and of course Sampras were all prone to be upset, some quite frequently.

Now maybe we should just stick to “inner circle greats” – those with 10+ Slams: Borg, Sampras, Federer, Nadal, and we’ll include Djokovic because he looks like he’s heading there. We don’t have enough info to go on, but it’s at least notable how many times Sampras alone went out earlier compared to the more recent players.

So my question: Why is this? I see a few possible reasons:

1) Sampras was not as good during his prime as the current greats (or Borg, for that matter), or at least was more erratic
2) The courts were more diverse in the 90s making utter dominance more difficult
3) The second tier talent during Sampras’ era was a lot higher than it is today

Discuss this train of thought with fellow tennis fans on our discussion forums.

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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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