The Ever-Expanding Top Ten

Tennis fans talk about “cracking the top ten,” “top ten scalps,” and “top ten talent,” suggesting that this ranking milestone is a failsafe marker of the current elite.  While the top ten isn’t quite the same as the big four, the connotation is that the top ten is a class above.

Yesterday, Juan Monaco joined that group.  His Hamburg title earned him the 500 points to put him over the top, capping the best 52-week span of his career.  Since this time last year, he’s played five finals, won three titles, and reached the semis at the Miami Masters.

Job well done, Pico: We can now add you to an illustrious list featuring such names as Mikhail Youzhny, Nicolas Massu, Radek Stepanek, Arnaud Clement, and Marcos Baghdatis.  Kind of like an Olympic medal, an appearance in the top ten is something they can never take away from you.

As my snark implies, the top ten mystique is misplaced.  Sure, a berth in the top ten is an impressive accomplishment.  For that matter, a spot in the top 100 is far out of reach of mere mortals.  But with so many top-tenners hanging around, there’s barely enough mystique to go around.

Any given week, of course, there’s only room for ten men in the top ten.  But the last few spots are–and always have been–a revolving door.  At any given time, there are a staggering number of past, present, and future top ten players in the active ranks.

In fact, of the 146 players ever to reach the ATP top 10, 36 of them are in this week’s rankings.  A few, such as Massu, Thomas Muster,  and Fernando Gonzalez are retired (or might as well be).  But that still leaves more than 30 “top-tenners” among active players.  Even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For a fuller perspective, head back a decade to the 2002 end-of-year rankings.  In December of that year, 70 of the men who appeared in the ATP rankings would, at some point in their career, crack the top ten.  If we set aside youngsters like Monaco and Rafael Nadal who were on the way up in late 2002, we find that of the top 100 on December 16, 2002, 47 could write “former top-ten player” on their Wikipedia pages.

Dwell on that for a moment.  Nearly half of the top 100 had this elite status.  You could nearly fill the Paris Masters draw with past, present, and future top-tenners.

Ten years from now, the same will probably be said about the class of 2012.  “Only” 28 of the current top 100 have spent time in the top ten, but for many of the other 72, there’s plenty of time to add to the list.  It seems a given that Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, and Kei Nishikori will at some point crack the top 10, while players like Alexandr Dolgopolov, Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov, Vasek Pospisil, and Cedrik Marcel Stebe are poised to follow them to the top.

Your list may be different than mine, but the details don’t matter.  A year ago, most people wouldn’t have guessed Monaco would crack the top 10.  When Janko Tipsarevic was ranked around #50 on his 26th birthday, no one imagined he’d spend months at #8.  To say that Dimitrov, or Pospisil, or David Goffin is a future top-tenner doesn’t mean he’s going to take over the sport and beat all comers, it just means that he’ll put together a year with a couple of 250 titles and a handful of solid wins against other top players.

Next time someone offers you to bet you that so-and-so won’t ever reach #10 in the world, it’s worth careful consideration.  The top ten is bigger than it sounds.

5 thoughts on “The Ever-Expanding Top Ten”

  1. Jeff,
    So glad you quantified this question so many of us have wondered about. It’s tiring hearing commentators focus their raves about the latest shoe-in to the top 10, knowing that almost half of everyone in the top 100 will have their day in the sun.
    The same analysis on the top 5 would be a meaningful one, producing a shorter list including some major contenders who never joing the only club that’s getting harder to crack, the Slam Club.

    1. A quick check shows that even the top 5 isn’t quite as exclusive as we’d think. An approximate rule of thumb is that if x players have reached the top n, the number of players that have reached the top n/2 is between 0.5x and 0.6x. In English, more than half of the guys who have made the top 100 also made the top 50 … and the same applies to 10 and 5. Of the 146 who have made the top 10, 81 have become top-5ers.

      Incidentally, there have been 46 slam winners since 1973, and as you note, that number isn’t increasing as fast as the others.

  2. Out of interest, how many of the 36 currently ranked top-tenners have never reached a slam quarter-final?

    Monaco and Massu and I guess no one else?

    Granted some of the others may have reached top 10 before their maiden QF. (Tomas Berdych is one example)

    1. Those are indeed the only two of the current 36.

      The others who made the top 10 but never a slam QF are Kent Carlsson, Juan Aguilera, Paradorn Srichaphan, Carlos Costa, and Thierry Tulasne.

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