The Men Are Old, and The Best Men Are Even Older

It’s been one of the main talking points in men’s tennis for years now: The sport is getting older. Every year, a bigger slice of Grand Slam draws are taken up by thirty-somethings, and now, the entire big four has entered their fourth decades.

I don’t want to belabor the point. But my interest was piqued by an observation from commentator Chris Fowler this week:

When we talk about the sport getting older, this is what we really mean — the best guys are getting up in years.

When we calculate the average age of a draw, or the number of 30-somethings, we weight every player equally. Democratic as it is, it gives most of the weight to guys who are looking for flights home before middle Sunday. As substantial as the overall age shift has been over the last decade, the shift at the top of the game has been even more dramatic.

To quantify the shift, I calculated what I’ll call the “projected winner age” (PWA) of every Wimbledon men’s field from 1991 to 2017. This captures in one number the notion that Fowler is hinting at. We take a weighted average of all 128 men in the main draw, weighted by their chances of winning the tournament, as determined by grass-court Elos at the start of the event.

For example, last year’s Wimbledon men’s draw had an average age of 28.5 years, but a projected winner age of 30.0. We don’t yet know the exact average age of this year’s draw (it looks to be about the same, maybe a tiny bit younger), but we can already say that the PWA is 31.4.

An observer a decade ago would’ve thought such a number was insane. Here are the average ages and PWAs for the last 27 Wimbledons men’s events:

As recently as 2011, there wasn’t much difference between average age and PWA. Until 2015, the difference had never been greater than two years. Now, the difference is almost three years, and the point of comparison–average age–is nearly its own all-time high.

A lot of this, of course, is thanks to the big four. Even as the aging curve has shifted, allowing for late bloomers such as Stan Wawrinka, the biggest stars of the late ’00s–Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal–have declined even less than the revised aging curve would imply. In a sport hungry for new winners, we might have to settle for winners who are newly in their 30s.

Is Jelena Ostapenko More Than the Next Iva Majoli?

Winning a Grand Slam as a teenager–or, in the case of this year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, a just-barely 20-year-old–is an impressive feat. But it isn’t always a guarantee of future greatness. Plenty of all-time greats launched their careers with Slam titles at age 20 or later, but three of the players who won their debut major at ages closest to Ostapenko’s serve as cautionary tales in the opposite direction: Iva Majoli, Mary Pierce, and Gabriela Sabatini. Each of these women was within three months of her 20th birthday when she won her first title, and of the three, only Pierce ever won another.

However, simply comparing her age to that of previous champions understates the Latvian’s achievement. Women’s tennis has gotten older over the last two decades: The average age of a women’s singles entrant in Paris this year was 25.6, a few days short of the record established at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year. That’s two years older than the average player 15 years ago, and four years older than the typical entrant three decades ago. Headed into the French Open this year, there were only five teenagers ranked in the top 100; at the end of 2004, the year of Maria Sharapova’s and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s first major victories, there were nearly three times as many.

Thus, it doesn’t seem quite right to group Ostapenko with previous 19- and 20-year-old first-time winners. Instead, we might consider the Latvian’s “relative age”—the difference between her and the average player in the draw—of 5.68 years younger than the field. When I introduced the concept of relative age last week, it was in the context of Slam semifinalists, and in every era, there have been some very young players reaching the final four who burned out just as quickly. The same isn’t true of women who went on to win major titles.

In the last thirty years, only two players have won a major with a greater relative age than Ostapenko: Sharapova, who was 6.66 years younger than the 2004 US Open field, and Martina Hingis, who won three-quarters of the Grand Slam in 1997 at age 16, between 6.3 and 6.6 years younger than each tournament’s average entrant. The rest of the top five emphasizes Ostapenko’s elite company, including Monica Seles (5.29, at the 1990 French Open) and Serena Williams (5.26, at the 1999 US Open).

Each of those four women went on to reach the No. 1 ranking and win at least five majors–an outrageously optimistic forecast for Ostapenko, who, even after winning Roland Garros, is ranked outside the top ten. By relative age, Majoli, Pierce, and Sabatini are poor comparisons for Saturday’s champion–Majoli and Pierce were only three years younger than the fields they overcame, and Sabatini was only two years younger than the average entrant. By comparison, Garbine Muguruza, who won last year’s French Open at age 22, was two and a half years younger than the field.

Which is it, then? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to that, and we probably won’t have a better idea for several more years. For most of the Open Era, until about ten years ago, the average age on the women’s tour fluctuated between 21 and 23. Thus, for the overall population of first-time major champions, actual age and relative age are very highly correlated. It’s only with the last decade’s worth of debut winners that the numbers meaningfully diverge. For Ostapenko and Muguruza–and perhaps Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova–we have yet to see what their entire career trajectory will look like. To build a bigger sample to test the hypothesis, we’ll need a few more young first-time Slam winners, something we may finally see with Sharapova and Williams out of the way.

For more post-French Open analysis, here’s my Economist piece on Ostapenko and projecting major winners in the long term. Also at the Game Theory blog, I wrote about Rafael Nadal and his abssurd dominance on clay in a fast-court-friendly era.

Finally, check out Carl Bialik’s and my extra-long podcast, recorded Monday, with tons of thoughts and the winners and the fields in general.

Jelena Ostapenko and Teenage Slam Breakthroughs

Jelena Ostepenko is looking ahead to a big day on Thursday: She’ll celebrate her 20th birthday by playing her first Grand Slam semifinal.

A generation or two ago, a breakthrough accomplishment at age 20 would barely merit acknowledgement. In the late 1990s, women’s tennis was dominated by teens a recent teens: Serena Williams and Martina Hingis both won majors before their 20th birthday, and Venus Williams won her first Slam only a few days into her third decade. That youth brigade wasn’t just a couple of once-in-a-generation talents, either: 19-year-old Iva Majoli won a major, and Mirjana Lucic, Jelena Dokic, and Anna Kournikova all reached semifinals before their 18th birthdays.

Times have changed. The last teenage Slam champion was Maria Sharapova in 2006, and we haven’t had a teenager in a major final since Caroline Wozniacki in 2009. Since then, only four players–Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, and Madison Keys–have reached Grand Slam semifinals before their 20th birthdays. (To simplify matters, I’m defining tournament age as age at the beginning of the event, so Ostapenko is a 19-year-old for the purpose of this discussion.)

By just about any measure you can dream up, the sport is getting older. In 1990, the average age of the women in the French Open main draw was 21.8 years. In 2000, it was 23.5. This year, the average age at the start of the tournament was 25.6, just a tiny bit short of last year’s record–set at Roland Garros and Wimbledon–of 25.7. Veterans are sticking around longer, and it takes longer for young players to develop tour-ready games.

Accordingly, we need to revise our notion of what constitutes a big breakthrough. 20 years ago, the semifinal debut of a 19-year-old was a nice achievement for the player herself, but nothing earth-shaking. Today, it’s a once-in-two-years event, and immediately puts the debutante in elite company. While Stephens and Bouchard have stumbled since their own breakthroughs, they (along with Keys) are still among the most promising young players in the game.

To quantify Ostapenko’s achievement, let’s consider her age relative to the average of all main draw players–just the raw difference between those two numbers. Ostapenko is 5.68 years younger than the average woman at Roland Garros this year, making her the 7th youngest (relative to the field) semifinalist at a major since 2000:

Slam     Youngest SF         Age  Avg Age  Diff  
2004 W   Maria Sharapova   17.17    24.17  7.00  
2006 FO  Nicole Vaidisova  17.10    23.63  6.53  
2000 W   Jelena Dokic      17.21    23.69  6.48  
2005 W   Maria Sharapova   18.17    24.45  6.28  
2005 AO  Maria Sharapova   17.75    23.99  6.24  
2007 AO  Nicole Vaidisova  17.73    23.48  5.75  
2017 FO  Jelena Ostapenko  19.97    25.65  5.68  
2001 FO  Kim Clijsters     17.97    23.62  5.65  
2005 US  Maria Sharapova   18.36    23.78  5.42  
2015 AO  Madison Keys      19.92    25.33  5.41

Only three players–Sharapova, Dokic, and Nicole Vaidisova–have reached a Slam semifinal this century at such a young age compared to the rest of the draw.

Of course, names like Dokic and Vaidisova aren’t the most encouraging comparisons for an emerging star. Both players peaked in the top ten, but neither ever reached a major final. The WTA’s past is littered with teenage rising stars who ultimately fizzled.

Yet if we are to see one historically great player come from among today’s young players, she should start building her trophy collection now. It’s tough to put together a Hall of Fame-caliber career without winning some big titles by one’s early 20s. Madison Keys has put herself in that conversation, and this week, Ostapenko has done so as well.

The Case for Novak Djokovic … and Roger Federer … and Rafael Nadal

By winning the US Open last weekend and increasing his career total to ten Grand Slams, Novak Djokovic has pushed himself even further into conversations about the greatest of all time. At the very least, his 2015 season is shaping up to be one of the best in tennis history.

A recent FiveThirtyEight article introduced Elo ratings into the debate, showing that Djokovic’s career peak–achieved earlier this year at the French Open–is the highest of anyone’s, just above 2007 Roger Federer and 1980 Bjorn Borg. In implementing my own Elo ratings, I’ve discovered just how close those peaks are.

Here are my results for the top 15 peaks of all time [1]:

Player                 Year   Elo  
Novak Djokovic         2015  2525  
Roger Federer          2007  2524  
Bjorn Borg             1980  2519  
John McEnroe           1985  2496  
Rafael Nadal           2013  2489  
Ivan Lendl             1986  2458  
Andy Murray            2009  2388  
Jimmy Connors          1979  2384  
Boris Becker           1990  2383  
Pete Sampras           1994  2376  
Andre Agassi           1995  2355  
Mats Wilander          1984  2355  
Juan Martin del Potro  2009  2352  
Stefan Edberg          1988  2346  
Guillermo Vilas        1978  2325

A one-point gap is effectively nothing: It means that peak Djokovic would have a 50.1% chance of beating peak Federer. The 35-point gap separating Novak from peak Rafael Nadal is considerably more meaningful, implying that the better player has a 55% chance of winning.

Surface-specific Elo

If we limit our scope to hard-court matches, Djokovic is still a very strong contender, but Fed’s 2007 peak is clearly the best of all time:

Player          Year  Hard Ct Elo  
Roger Federer   2007         2453  
Novak Djokovic  2014         2418  
Ivan Lendl      1989         2370  
Pete Sampras    1997         2356  
Rafael Nadal    2014         2342  
John McEnroe    1986         2332  
Andy Murray     2009         2330  
Andre Agassi    1995         2326  
Stefan Edberg   1987         2285  
Lleyton Hewitt  2002         2262

Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras make much better showings on this list than on the overall ranking. Still, they are far behind Fed and Novak–the roughly 100-point difference between peak Fed and peak Pete is equivalent to a 64% probability that the higher-rated player would win.

On clay, I’ll give you three guesses who tops the list–and your first two guesses don’t count. It isn’t even close:

Player           Year  Clay Ct Elo  
Rafael Nadal     2009         2550  
Bjorn Borg       1982         2475  
Novak Djokovic   2015         2421  
Ivan Lendl       1988         2408  
Mats Wilander    1984         2386  
Roger Federer    2009         2343  
Jose Luis Clerc  1981         2318  
Guillermo Vilas  1982         2316  
Thomas Muster    1996         2313  
Jimmy Connors    1980         2307

Borg was great, but Nadal is in another league entirely. Though Djokovic has pushed Nadal out of many greatest-of-all-time debates–at least for the time being–there’s little doubt that Rafa is the greatest clay court player of all time, and likely the most dominant player in tennis history on any single surface.

Djokovic is well back of both Nadal and Borg, but in his favor, he’s the only player ranked in the top three for both major surfaces.

The survivor

As the second graph in the 538 article shows, Federer stands out as the greatest player of all time at his age. Most players have retired long before their 34th birthday, and even those who stick around aren’t usually contesting Grand Slam finals. In fact, Federer’s Elo rating of 2393 after his US Open semifinal win against Stanislas Wawrinka last week would rank as the sixth-highest peak of all time, behind Lendl and just ahead of Andy Murray.

Here are the top ten Elo peaks for players over 34:

Player         Age   34+ Elo  
Roger Federer  34.1     2393  
Jimmy Connors  34.1     2234  
Andre Agassi   35.3     2207  
Rod Laver      36.6     2207  
Ken Rosewall   37.4     2195  
Tommy Haas     35.3     2111  
Arthur Ashe    35.7     2107  
Ivan Lendl     34.1     2054  
Andres Gimeno  35.0     2035  
Mark Cox       34.0     2014

The 160-point gap between Federer and Jimmy Connors implies that 34-year-old Fed would win about 70% of the time against 34-year-old Connors. No one has ever sustained this level of play–or anything close to it–for this long.

At the risk of belaboring the point, similar arguments can be made for 33-year-old Fed, all the way to 30-year-old Fed. At almost any stage in the last four years, Federer has been better than any player in history at that age [2].  Djokovic has matched many of Roger’s career accomplishments so far, especially on clay, but it would be truly remarkable if he maintained a similar level of play through the end of the decade.

Current Elo ratings

While it’s not really germane to today’s subject, I’ve got the numbers, so let’s take a look at the current ATP Elo ratings. Since Elo is new to most tennis fans, I’ve included columns to indicate each player’s chances of beating Djokovic and of beating the current #10, Milos Raonic, based on their rating. As a general rule, a 100-point gap translates to a 64% chance of winning for the favorite, a 200-point gap implies 76%, and a 500-point gap is equivalent to 95%.

Rank  Player                  Elo  Vs #1  Vs #10  
1     Novak Djokovic         2511      -     91%  
2     Roger Federer          2386    33%     84%  
3     Andy Murray            2332    26%     79%  
4     Kei Nishikori          2256    19%     71%  
5     Rafael Nadal           2256    19%     71%  
6     Stan Wawrinka          2186    13%     62%  
7     David Ferrer           2159    12%     58%  
8     Tomas Berdych          2148    11%     56%  
9     Richard Gasquet        2128    10%     54%  
10    Milos Raonic           2103     9%       -  
                                                  
Rank  Player                  Elo  Vs #1  Vs #10  
11    Gael Monfils           2084     8%     47%  
12    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     2083     8%     47%  
13    Marin Cilic            2081     8%     47%  
14    Kevin Anderson         2074     7%     46%  
15    John Isner             2035     6%     40%  
16    David Goffin           2027     6%     39%  
17    Grigor Dimitrov        2021     6%     38%  
18    Gilles Simon           2005     5%     36%  
19    Jack Sock              1994     5%     35%  
20    Roberto Bautista Agut  1986     5%     34%  
                                                  
Rank  Player                  Elo  Vs #1  Vs #10  
21    Philipp Kohlschreiber  1982     5%     33%  
22    Tommy Robredo          1963     4%     31%  
23    Feliciano Lopez        1955     4%     30%  
24    Nick Kyrgios           1951     4%     29%  
25    Ivo Karlovic           1949     4%     29%  
26    Jeremy Chardy          1940     4%     28%  
27    Alexandr Dolgopolov    1940     4%     28%  
28    Bernard Tomic          1936     4%     28%  
29    Fernando Verdasco      1932     3%     27%  
30    Fabio Fognini          1925     3%     26%

Continue reading The Case for Novak Djokovic … and Roger Federer … and Rafael Nadal

The Dream of the Nineties is Alive

Last weekend, the four finalists in ATP events were David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, Vasek Pospisil, and Milos Raonic. All were born in the 1990s, making the Kitzbuhel and Washington finals the first all-nineties championship matches in tour history.

It’s about time. The first half of the 1990-born cohort is already 24 years old, an age that used to suggest a tennis player was approaching his prime. Of the four finalists, only Thiem wasn’t born in 1990. (He was born in 1993, making him the youngest finalist of the season so far.)

It has never taken so long for a single-year-or-younger group of ATP players to play each other in a final. For the thirty-one years between 1960 births and 1990 births, it has, on average, taken less than 21 years before youngsters in each cohort face off for a title. It took 24 years and seven months before the 1990 group–with the help of Thiem–finally reached this milestone.

Here are the breakthrough finals for each age group in five-year intervals, to put the 1990 group in perspective:

The age of these milestone finals has been steadily creeping up over the last few years. The class of 1987 was a good one, giving us Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but even those two stars didn’t meet in a final until the 2008 Cincinnati Masters, when both had passed their 21st birthdays.

There’s a sharp downturn after that 1987 class. The ATP didn’t see a 1988-or-younger final until three years later, when Alexandr Dolgopolov faced Marin Cilic in the 2011 Umag title match. In the three years since then, there have been only six more 1988-or-younger finals, including the two last weekend.

Thiem, along with a few other young players, offers hope that the tides are beginning to turn. This week, for the first time since 2005 (when, as we’ve seen, Nadal and Berdych played the last all-teenage final), the ATP top 200 features four teenagers, two of whom–Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev–are not yet 18. Then again, neither Goffin nor Pospisil reached a final until they had been inside the top 200 for three years. We may need to keep looking to 23-year-olds for ATP firsts.

Nick Kyrgios and the First Fifty Matches

When Nick Kyrgios lost the Wimbledon quarterfinal to Milos Raonic yesterday, he was playing his 50th career match at the Challenger level or above. Round numbers invite big-picture analysis, so let’s see how Kyrgios stacks up to the competition at this early milestone.

When Monday’s rankings are released, Nick will debut in the top 100, all way up to #66. Only Rafael Nadal (61), Gael Monfils (65), and Lleyton Hewitt (65) have been ranked higher at the time of their 51th Challenger-or-higher match.  Roger Federer was #93, Novak Djokovic was #128, and Jo Wilfried Tsonga was #314. Of the current top 100, only ten players reached a double-digit ranking by their 51st match.

The wealth of ranking points available at Grand Slams have played a big part in Kyrgios’s rise, but they don’t tell the whole story. He has won 36 of his first 50 matches, equal to the best of today’s top 100. Nadal went 36-14, and next on the list is Djokovic and Santiago Giraldo (who played almost all Challengers) at 34-16. Most of Nick’s wins before this week came at Challengers, and he has won four titles at the level.

No other active player won four Challenger titles in his first 50 matches. Eight others, including Djokovic, Tsonga, Stanislas Wawrinka, and David Ferrer, won three. All of them needed more events at the level to win three titles than Kyrgios did to win four.

Nick’s short Challenger career is another indicator of a bright future. He has only played nine Challenger events, and with his ranking in the 60s, he may never have to play one again. As I’ve previously written, the best players tend to race through this level: Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all played between eight and twelve Challengers. It’s a rare prospect that makes the jump in fewer than 20 events, and when I researched that post two years ago, more than half of the top 100 had played at least 50 Challengers.

One category in which the Australian doesn’t particularly stand out is age. When he plays his 51st match, he’ll a couple of months past his 19th birthday. Roughly one-quarter of the current top 100 reached that match total at an earlier age. Nadal, Richard Gasquet, and Juan Martin del Potro did so before their 18th birthday, while Djokovic, Hewitt, and Bernard Tomic needed only a few more weeks beyond that.

Without knowing how Kyrgios would’ve performed on tour a year or two earlier, it’s tough to draw any conclusions. His 36-14 record at 19 certainly isn’t as impressive as Rafa’s equivalent record at 17.

Cracking the top 100 at 17 or 18 is a much better predictor of future greatness than doing so at 19, but as the tour ages, 19 may be the new 16. Grigor Dimitrov didn’t enter the top 100 until he was three months short of his 20th birthday, while Dominic Thiem and Jiri Vesely were still outside the top 100 on their 20th birthdays. Among his immediate cohort, Kyrgios stands alone: No other teenager is ranked within the top 240.

As predictive measures go, Nick’s Wimbledon performance–built on his poise under pressure–is the best sign of them all. Only seven active players have reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal as a teenager, and four of them–Fed, Rafa, Novak, and Lleyton–went on to reach #1. (The other three are Delpo, Tomic, and Ernests Gulbis.)

For a player with only fifty matches under his belt, that’s excellent company.

Teenagers, Thirty-Somethings, and Americans at Grand Slams

I’ve put together a few reports showing how age distributions and US presence have changed over the years at Grand Slams.  Let’s start with player age.

The average age of players in the Wimbledon men’s singles draw is 27.7 years, which is just short of the all-time record, 27.8, set at Roland Garros last month, and equal to last year’s figure at Wimbledon. There are two teens in the draw (up one from last year), and 34 thirty-somethings, which is tied for third-most since 1982.

This report shows the complete year-by-year breakdown for the last 30 years’ worth of men’s slam draws.

The average age in the Wimbledon women’s draw is also very high by historical standards.  At 25.2 years, it’s tied with this year’s French Open and 2012 Wimbledon for the highest ever.  43-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm moves the needle all by herself; without her, the average would be 25.0, still considerably higher than any other pre-2010 slam.

There are ten teenagers in the draw, which is very low for the WTA, but safely above the all-time low of 7, set at Wimbledon two years ago. The total of 16 players aged 30 or over is good for third-most of all time, behind this year’s and last year’s French Opens.

Here’s the WTA report showing these numbers for each slam in the last 30 years.

(All of the figures above for 2014 Wimbledon could change slightly if more lucky losers are added to the draw.)

I also put together a couple of reports showing the number of Americans in each slam draw, broken down by direct entrants, qualifiers, lucky losers, and wild cards, along with the top seed, the number of seeds (and top 16 seeds), plus the number of Americans in each round:

Enjoy!