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Why We’ll See A New Slam Winner in 2017

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Fact: In the history of Open Era tennis, going back to 1968 through 2016—a span of 49 years and 195 Grand Slam tournaments—there has never been more than two years in a row without a new Slam winner. Of those 49 years, only 15 have been years in which at least one of the Slams wasn’t won by a new winner. To put that another way, in about 70% of the Open Era years, at least one Slam was won by a new Slam champion. The years without a new winner are: 1969, 1973, 1978, 1986, 1993-94, 1999, 2006-07, 2010-11, 2013, and 2015-16.

You’ll notice that a high percentage of those years are recent; six out of the fourteen are all within the last eleven years. You’ll also note that three out of the four two-year gaps are also within the last eleven years. Clearly this points to the homogeneity of Slam winners in recent years. We can also look at the fact that starting with Rafael Nadal’s first Slam, the 2005 French Open, just seven players have won 47 Slams: Nadal (14), Roger Federer (13 of his 17), Novak Djokovic (12), Juan Martin del Potro (1), Andy Murray (3), Stan Wawrinka (3), and Marin Cilic (1).

Which brings me to the topic: Going purely on this pattern, there will be a new Slam winner in 2017. Who will it be? Who knows? But if I were to make wagers, here are the players who are most likely, in rough order:

1. Milos Raonic: The blazing server is coming off his best year in which he finished #3—only the second player after David Ferrer in 2013 to finish in the top three in the last ten years, other than the Big Four. He also reached his first Slam final, losing to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. Raonic doesn’t have the well-balanced game to dominate for an extended period of time, but he does have enough weapons to challenge for a Slam title, being particularly dangerous at Wimbledon.

2. Dominic Thiem: With Rafa questionable and Novak shaky, Andy having not yet truly dominated clay and Stan Wawrinka always erratic, Roland Garros is up for grabs this year. Now it probably won’t be Thiem, but it is his best surface and if anyone other than the usual suspects wins the French Open, it will probably be Thiem, who has a good chance of being the best clay court player over the next half decade or so.

3. Nick Kyrgios: If the temperamental Australian starts showing an ounce of composure and maturity, the rest of the tour needs to look out: he can be a very dangerous player, capable of beating anyone on the right day. But he may be two or three years from that level of maturity, if he ever finds it, but with another year of steady rising—and his first three titles—Kyrgios is a player to watch (and watch out for, if you’re a player) in 2017.

4. Kei Nishikori: I haven’t done the research, but I suspect that Kei may be the best player in Open Era history never to win at least a Master tournament. With just a cursory search, other candidates include Raonic, Richard Gasquet, Fernando Gonzalez, Mikhail Youzhny, Todd Martin, Marc Rosset, Aaron Krickstein, Brad Gilbert, Gene Mayer, Eddie Dibbs, and Alex Metreveli. He’s won 11 tournaments so far, including 6 ATP 500s; he’s reached a Slam final and three Masters finals. It seems inevitable that he’ll win a Masters, although a Slam seems less likely as he hasn’t shown the fortitude that it takes to win seven best-of-five matches in a row. Still, he came very close in 2014 and could conceivably threaten again. If Kei were to reach a final against an exhausted Nadal or Federer, he could pull it off.

5. Alexander Zverev: It isn’t a matter of if, but when. If there is one player on tour that we can be most certain will eventually win at least one Slam, it is Zverev. But 2017 is probably unlikely; he turns 20 years old in April and has yet to even make it to the fourth round of a Slam. If I were to guess, his first Slam will be in 2018 or 2019. Still, he is talented enough that he should be factored into consideration, especially for later in the year.

Less Likely Candidates: I’d love to see Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Tomas Berdych finally win one, but these guys turn 32 in 2017 and both look to be showing signs of decline. I’d give Tsonga a slightly better chance. I almost can’t bear to type his name, but Gael Monfils is exactly the type of brilliant player who could be a one-Slam wonder. Yeah, right. Monfils might be a more likely candidate if it weren’t for his abyssmal record in ATP title finals: 6-19! Another of his ilk is Grigor Dimitrov, who has the talent but not the mentality; still, you just never know.  Lucas Pouille is an unlikely candidate, but at 22 years old and ranked #15 in the world, with two QF Slam appearances in 2016, he’s on the map. I’d like to say that David Goffin has a chance, but he just doesn’t have the upside. Similarly with Jack Sock, who seems to be a similar low-ceiling player as Goffin. One final mention: Karen Khachanov. At 20 years old to start the year and #53 in the world, he’s unlikely in 2017, but he made a big jump up the rankings and is exactly the type of “out-of-nowhere” player that could surprise. But along with every other 21-and-under player not named Zverev and Kyrgios, we have to wait and see before considering him a legit Slam threat.

So there you have it. Statistically speaking, there should be a new Slam winner in 2017. Now this is far from a certainty, and given the composition of the tour in 2016, it is quite conceivable that we will see our first three-year gap of no new Slam winners. But I think those five are the top candidates, with a few others being distantly possible.

If it isn’t 2017, it certainly will be 2018. But I’m guessing we’ll see a new champ in 2017. I certainly hope so!

Addendum: New Slam Winners of the Open Era
I thought some might like to see the whole list, so here goes:

2016:
2015:
2014: Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic
2013:
2012: Andy Murray
2011:
2010:
2009: Juan Martin del Potro
2008: Novak Djokovic
2007:
2006:
2005: Rafael Nadal
2004: Gaston Gaudio
2003: Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick, Roger Federer
2002: Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa
2001: Goran Ivanisevic, Lleyton Hewitt
2000: Marat Safin
1999:
1998: Petr Korda, Carlos Moya
1997: Gustavo Kuerten, Patrick Rafter
1996: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Richard Krajicek
1995: Thomas Muster
1994:
1993:
1992: Andre Agassi
1991: Jim Courier, Michael Stich
1990: Andres Gomez, Pete Sampras
1989: Michael Chang
1988:
1987: Pat Cash
1986:
1985: Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker
1984: Ivan Lendl
1983: Yannick Noah
1982: Mats Wilander
1981: Johan Kriek
1980: Brian Teacher
1979: John McEnroe
1978:
1977: Roscoe Tanner, Vitas Gerulaitis
1976: Mark Edmondson, Adriano Panatta
1975: Manuel Orantes
1974: Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg
1973:
1972: Andres Gimeno, Ilie Nastase
1971: Stan Smith
1970: Jan Kodes
1969:
1968: Arthur Ashe

Cover image by DanielJCooper 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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