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Feast of the GOATS: How tennis players across generations stack up against each other

Federer, the elder statesman of the men’s circuit, currently leads the pack with 20 grand slams to his name.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 23, 2019, 03.24 PM IST
In the sporting arena, a cursory glance at the statistician’s ledger can throw up conclusions contrary to the actual outcome of a contest.
In sport, as in life, the numbers do not often add up. A high score in school-leaving exams does not always correlate with professional success. A bigger paycheck does not guarantee happiness. In the sporting arena, a cursory glance at the statistician’s ledger can throw up conclusions contrary to the actual outcome of a contest.

The recently-concluded Wimbledon men’s singles match is a case in point. Roger Federer amassed more points, served more aces, and smashed more winners. But in the first fifth-set tie break in the tournament’s history, Federer was left clutching at straws. After the last point was played, Djokovic, the victor, slumped to the ground, plucked a few strands of grass, and popped them into his mouth. Champagne could wait.

Djokovic was outplayed by Federer for the majority of the match, but the scoreboard tells another tale. Federer fans will argue that the Swiss ace played better, but Djokovic held his nerve in the final set to clinch victory. But, at 32, is Djokovic as dominant as Federer was at that age? How would Djokovic have fared against a peak Bjorn Borg? Despite its flaws, statistics can help compare players across generations, and consequently, quantify sporting excellence.

Grand slam
Grand slam tally by age.

Federer, the elder statesman of the men’s circuit, currently leads the pack with 20 grand slams to his name. Nadal leads the chasing pack with 18 titles, followed by Djokovic, who has 16. However, both Nadal and Djokovic stand the chance to usurp the honour from Federer if they can maintain their current performance levels over the next few years. Nadal, who has a had a chequered history with injuries, is 33, while Djokovic is 32.

But the career graph of top players reveals that Bjorn Borg could have lifted more grand slams had he not retired early. An early bloomer, Bjorg won his first major title at 18, and expanded to his tally at a rate swifter any other player his history. By the time he was 25, Borg had won 11 grand slams, three more than Sampras, four more than Federer, and five more than Djokovic.

Only Nadal has a comparable early-career record, having won his first grand slam at 19, collecting ten pieces of silverware by the time he was 25. Fitness is also an integral part of the game, and Federer’s consistent career graph is a testament to his longevity. He was won five Slams since turning 30, as opposed to Sampras, who retired at 31, having played his best tennis in his late twenties.

Elo ratings offer a solution to equalize differences in the level of competition across eras. This method of rating player performance was devised by the Hungarian physics professor, Arpad Elo, and is popular in measuring the relative skill of players in zero sum games. It achieves this by updating player ranking after considering the quality of the opposition – a higher-ranked player prevailing over a lower-ranked counterpart will generate fewer points for the victor than what he stands to lose were he to be upset.

For instance, Cori Gauff would’ve gained more points by her run at Wimbledon than Serena Williams, despite the latter having progressed further in the tournament. The scoring system maintains that in a head-to-head contest, the player with the greater Elo ranking is more likely to win. A higher score indicates better performance in a season.

goat 12

On this count, Borg fare much better than contemporaries like John McEnroe, as well as Federer and Nadal. With a peak Elo rating of 2,609, achieved in 1980, According to data compiled from sports analytics website Ultimate Tennis Statistics, Borg comes second on the list behind Djokovic, who touched a score of 2,620 after the 2016 Australian Open. Federer had a peak Elo score of 2,550 in 2007 - the year he won eight titles, including three grand slams.

Djokovic’s high ranking in 2016 represent an inflection point in modern tennis, as he accumulated more Elo points on account of besting more fancied rivals including Federer and Nadal. The three have cumulatively won 53 of the 63 grand slams contested since 2004, highlighting their sustained dominance.

Comparative analyses of peak Elo scores across surfaces can help identify the turf on which players exert greater relative dominance. With a peak Elo score of 2,668, Nadal is the best performer on clay, with Borg coming in second place with 2,638. Federer remains the best player on grass with a peak career score of 2,547, followed by Borg, who has ten points less. However, Djokovic’s dominance on hardcourts eclipses even that of Nadal on clay.

With a peak Elo score of 2,670, the Serbian is by far the best hardcourt player. Across all surfaces, Djokovic has an Elo score of 2,629, making him the most versatile player. According to the data, Borg and McEnroe were more adaptable to surfaces outside their respective comfort zones.

pressure points
Pressure Points: How players handle crunch situations.

Another measure of a player’s dominance is ‘points dominance’ – the ratio between the number of points a player wins of the opponent’s serve and that in which they lose their serve. A high score on this metric indicates greater domination as the player would’ve held serve comfortably while enjoying success against the opposition’s serve. With a points dominance ratio of 1.31, Federer is the most emphatic player in the trinity of modern greats.

A corollary to the points dominance metric is the break points ratio – the number of breakpoints converted to that lost. As Djokovic demonstrated against Federer at Wimbledon, points won in high-pressure situations have a significant bearing on the outcome of match. Nadal leads Federer and Djokovic on this measure with a score of 1.34. Federer, with a break point ratio of 1.26, is likelier to succumb to pressure than his rivals.

But Ultimate Tennis Statistics’s Open Era GOAT List throws up different conclusions. The list was compiled by considering variables like Grand Slams, ATP tournaments won, head-to-head records, Elo ratings, end-of-season ranking, and points won. In this regard, Djokovic’s name is bookended by that of Federer and Nadal. And contrary to conventional wisdom, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl are ahead of more fancied players like Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg.

Strawberries & Cream, Bubbly: Wimbledon Is More Than Tennis

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Play Slideshow

The King Of Tennis Events

2 Jul, 2019
Tennis fans, rejoice! Wimbledon is here and is set to take over the lives of all tennis aficionados. The event is not just about stellar games on-court but this major sporting phenomenon gives a peek into classic British food traditions and chic dressing etiquette. Considered to be among the most traditional of sporting events, it has its own customs and peculiarities. While you watch Andy Murray, Angelique Kerber, Rafael Nadal fight it out on court, here's what you can snack-on to feel like you're right there, amidst the stars. (Image: Facebook/Wimbledon)

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