Breaking In and Breaking Through

Yesterday we looked at players who broke into the top 100 when they were teenagers.  As expected, those guys generally went on to great success–17 of the last 25 eventually reached the top 10, and at least two more may still do so.

We can gain a broader perspective by analyzing more than just teenagers.  If a 19-year-old entering the top 100 is likely to become a top-10 player, what chances do 22-year-olds or 26-year-olds have?  By examining a few decades of the ATP ranking system, we can begin to answer these questions.

I used a sample of 590 players–everyone who entered the top 100 between 1980 and 2005.  (It’s possible that a few recent players will continue to improve, but the vast majority of players get close to their peak within five years, so 2005 seems like  a reasonable cutoff date.)  A bit less than half of those 590 broke into the top 100 between the ages of 20 and 22, about a third were older, and the remainder were teenagers.

As you can see in the table below, there is a clear correlation between breaking into the top 100 at an early age and reaching the higher echelons of the pro game.  In the last 30 years, only one #1-ranked player (Pat Rafter) hadn’t reached the top 100 as a teenager, and he made it into the top 100 when he was 20.  Almost every eventual top-10 player had broken into the top 100 by age 21.

Age  Players  Top50  Top20  Top10  Top5  Top1
16         4   100%   100%   100%   75%   50%
17        16   100%    88%    69%   56%   38%
18        38    87%    76%    61%   34%   11%
19        61    89%    48%    41%   20%    8%
20        88    86%    48%    25%   13%    1%
21        99    63%    22%    12%    7%    0%
22        83    47%     8%     5%    2%    0%
23        61    44%    16%     3%    0%    0%
24        62    31%     3%     0%    0%    0%
25        32    25%     0%     0%    0%    0%
26        10    60%    10%     0%    0%    0%
27        16    31%     0%     0%    0%    0%
28        10    20%     0%     0%    0%    0%
29+       10     0%     0%     0%    0%    0%

It’s not entirely clear that these trends are consistent from decade to decade–yesterday, I noted that fewer teenagers had reached the top 100 in the last ten years or so.  It’s possible that as the quality of the game improves and a larger amount of training is necessary to prepare for the pro tour, there will be fewer prodigies like Nadal, who broke in at age 16, and Richard Gasquet, who arrived as a 17-year-old.

But even if the ages shift by a year or two, the overall conclusions should hold.  The older you are when you arrive in the top 100, the less likely it is that you will advance considerably further.

One obvious application of this data is to make predictions regarding players as they enter the top 100.  The last two men to break in are Benoit Paire (age 22) and Matthias Bachinger (age 24).  Paire is still young enough to have an outside shot at the top 10; Bachinger will have a hard time doing much better than #50.  Another recent newbie is Go Soeda, a 26-year-old.  To find someone who made a top-20 success out of so late a breakthrough, you have to go back to Steve Denton in the mid-80s.

Another way to use this information is to find top prospects among current players.  Among active tour pros, the four men who broke in at the youngest ages are Nadal, Gasquet, Juan Martin del Potro, and Novak Djokovic.  The next two might surprise you: Kei Nishikori and Donald Young.  Nishikori has only now recovered from battles with injury–perhaps he will start to make good on his promise.  Young may be a unique case–were it not for his many, many wildcards, he would not have reached the top 100 so early.

Another surprise is the active player with the 10th-youngest age-of-reaching-100: Evgeny Korolev.  The Russian has also struggled with injury, but he did crack the top 50 last year.

The more oft-mentioned “prospects” are a little further down the list.  Grigor Dimitrov broke in at 19.7 years of age, while Milos Raonic appeared just after his 20th birthday–a few days older than the first appearance of Mischa Zverev.  Alexander Dolgopolov is further down than you might expect, having broken in at age 21.3, while Ryan Sweeting didn’t get there until 23.5.

Of course, “age of first appearance in the top 100” is just one metric, and it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Perhaps players who spend several years in college account for that blip in the table at age 23–John Isner, for instance, didn’t reach the top 100 until he was nearly 23, and he has already hit a peak ranking of #18.  The metric might also underrate the chances of those who suffer prolonged injury at an early age–perhaps if Nishikori had lost his two years to injury one season sooner, he would have only recently reached the top 100 with the same skills and potential.

Warts and all, this angle is a good reminder of why we should keep a close eye on youngsters in the futures and challenger tours–the latest, greatest 23-year-old is almost guaranteed not to be the future of the sport.

5 thoughts on “Breaking In and Breaking Through”

  1. Your analysis has some scary implications. On the one hand, as you quite rightly observe, it’s probably getting steadily harder to get into the Top 100 at all, as more people play seriously worldwide and the big rewards of Top Ten membership attract a wider variety of ambitious young men.

    On the other hand, if you don’t get into the Top 100 by the time you are 21-22, you probably will never get to the very top and make those Big, Big Bucks.

    That’s a narrow window to hit – and getting narrower all the time.

  2. Enjoyed this angle and look at entry to top 100. Do you think this is widely enough known to influence young American players in how they think about college?
    Rick Devereux

  3. One other thought related tangentially to your post on players’ age entering the top 100: the rankings system is weighted to have more movement possible for players in the top 30 or so, who qualify for the ATP 1000 events. It seems very difficult and slow to come up to this level.
    I would like to see the tennis schedule replace several ATP 1000 events with TPC events, where everyone who has won any ATP tour title in the previous 12 months qualifies to play for points at the 1000 level.
    I think this would create exciting match-ups between the game’s stars and the lesser knowns, and facilitate a little more upward mobility for players at all ages.
    Might this theory be explored first by looking at when players won their first tour title and what happened to them afterwards (how high they went, and how long after first wining)?
    Rick Devereux

    1. On your first comment: I doubt that the numbers are widely known, but I would think that each individual player is seeking out the toughest level at which he can compete. If that’s not the pro circuit, then they go to college … in some cases, like Devin Britton and Ryan Sweeting, they go to college, dominate, then seek out the higher level before four years are up.

      On the second: I’m not sure it’s true that “the rankings system is weighted to have more movement possible for players in the top 30 or so” — sure, those guys have more points at stake every week, but even a very good player isn’t going to shift much in the rankings unless he does something impressive, like, say, Bellucci’s SF showing or Florian Mayer’s recent run. But one or two challenger titles or even finals can jump you several dozen spots in the rankings.

      You’re right that it is difficult to reach the top level, but I think that is in large part because it’s very difficult to play at the top level. Lower-ranked players get plenty of chances to challenge the top guys, but rarely succeed — the top 100+ get four shots a year at the grand slams; nearly everybody in the top 100+ can qualify for any ATP event; lots of players ranked a ways down get into lower-tier ATP events (the cut in Nice this week was 77); AND young players who show much promise (e.g. by winning junior titles) get piles of wild cards, especially if they are natives of countries which host lots of tournaments.

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