Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - The Elite - Part 2
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The Elite - Part 2 10/29/2007 - 9:00 PM


In the first post on recent Elite players (post 2000) and former greats, I took a look at players at their peak - represented by an estimate of the maximum number of ATP Ranking points achieved by these players, normalized for the post-2000 system.

Now, every mountaineer will tell you that being at the peak is a very small part of the journey: how you get up, what you do while you're there, and how you come down are part of the complete trip.

I call this a player's career arc.  And in this post, I'm going to look at the career arcs of players whose careers have been completed, plus one.  The past greats of the Open Era, and one present great.

Let's start with two players who defined the 1990s: Sampras and Agassi.  Serve and return.  Hot and cool.  As chance would have it, their career arcs are also fascinatingly different.

Below, I've included a number of charts.  To keep the post a reasonable length, they're in as thumbnails - click on the picture of the chart to get a full screen view in a new window.

Agassi_sampras Sampras' career arc can be sketched in two lines - up at a 70 degree angle, then a slow glide to a landing at that memorable 2002 US Open final against his great rival.  Agassi breaches the top 10 at a younger age, but it appears until comparatively late in his career (age 24) that he will be a one-Slam wonder, never fully realizing his promise.  Then a burst (take off) to the 6700 point level, multiple slams - but being Agassi, instead of sustained brilliance followed by slow decline, we have a roller coster.  Multiple peaks and valleys, and genuine relevance at the top levels of the game well beyond the point of Sampras' retirement.

Sampras and Agassi peaked in the mid 1990s.  15 years earlier, the iconic rivalry was that of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe - one against which all mens tennis rivalries are judged.

Borg_mcenroe_2There's a heartbreaking symmetry in the careers of the two men.  Borg was the earlier to rise to the top, both chronologically and in terms of age.  Both would establish themselves as players with many titles under their belts - and both would flare out.  Borg's career as an elite player ended in an instant as he walked off the court in the US Open, the loser in a final to McEnroe.  The American took a sabbatical rather than a retirement, but the chart shows him as a shadow of his former self - his late peak at age 31 is about the 2500 level, respectable in and of itself but not much higher than the level recorded by Tommy Robredo going into Shanghai in 2006.

Fast forward to the end of the decade, and you have one of the great grass court rivalries: Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg.

(Remember, click on a chart to see it in a popup window)

Becker_edberg Once again, there's an interesting symmetry between the two men.  Both would win 6 GS titles; neither would win the French Open; neither would rise far above the 5000 point level.  But Becker's chart more resemble's Agassi's, while Edberg played at a plateau for four years, then retreated gracefully (Edberg was nothing if not graceful).  Becker's final GS title in Melbourne came 11 years after his stunning debut at Wimbledon, close to the maximum span between titles of any of the players we're looking at.

In the Open Era, the maximum separation between GS titles I could find is 12 years - Sampras (USO 1990, USO 2002).  Both Agassi (Wimbledon 1992, AO 2003) and Becker won titles 11 years apart.  Next at 9 years is Connors (Wimbledon 1974, USO 1983).  Just a datapoint for a Swiss fellow who's contemplating the Olympics at Wimbledon in 2012.  (BTW, 12 years is an eyeblink to Ken "Muscles" Rosewall, who won GS titles in 1952 and 1971, 19 years apart.  Rosewall also competed in two finals in 1974 (Wimbledon and the US Open, 22 years after his first title).

Connors' longevity at the top is remarkable, as was his consistency.  And when you say consistency, thoughts also turn to Ivan Lendl, with his eight successive US Open finals.

Connors_lendlConnors estimated ATP Ranking points for the ages 23 to 27, the normal prime of a top player's career, reflect his participation in only two GS events in each of those years.  Connors played in two Australian Opens (1973/4 and 1974/5 (W and F): he did not compete at Roland Garros between 1974 and 1978.  In the seven years that followed, 1979-1985, his record in the French Open was S S Q Q Q S S.  So it's reasonable to infer that Connors might, had he participated in the two slams, have had several seasons above the 5000 level, as Lendl did.

Lendl didn't dip below the 4000 level, and was above the 6000 point level (normalized for today's points scoring) multiple times between the ages of 22 and 30.  The charts could be used to make an argument that Lendl sustained the highest level for the longest period in the Open Era.

The last two Open Era former greats - or maybe great and a half - I'll introduce both - made their mark first at the French Open: Mats Wilander and Jim Courier.

Wilander_courierWilander's 1982 Roland Garros title was his first ATP title - achieved before he turned 18.  His last would be in 1988, when he finished the year world no 1: but he would never reach a GS or Masters final after that year, and would end 1989 and 1990 ranked 12th, then 41st.  Courier had a longer apprenticeship, but between 1991 and 1993 he played in 7 GS finals (winning 4), two YECs (runner up both times) and won 5 Masters Series titles.  Then, like Wilander after 1988, Courier stopped making the finals of the biggest tournaments.

So - ten former greats.  I'm writing this on the day that today's undisputed current great, Roger Federer, won his 7th title of the year - although there was some muttering from the Tribe that this was not, perhaps, vintage of the highest quality.

So, who does Federer resemble - at least in terms of his career arc?  Turns out (as one might expect), the Swiss is very much his own man.

Federer_samprasFederer_lendl_2Federer_borg_2Federer's 12 GS titles put him (at least) into the conversation with Borg and Sampras as a candidate for tennis' Valhalla.  His chase for the French Open in some respects has come to resemble Borg's quest for the US Open, and Lendl's doomed hunt for a Wimbledon crown.

Taking a look at each of the charts, we see several different patterns: Sampras' rise and glide, Agassi's roller coaster, Courier's sharp plateau, McEnroe's mid career burnout.  But there are similarities - particularly the sharp take-off each player achieved as they rocketed to the 5000 point level (it's there in Agassi's chart, unusually late - beginning with the US summer hard court season of 1994 when Agassi took Toronto and the US Open at 24).  This take-off is the signature of The Elite - one we can see as it happens.

The concluding look at career arcs will cover some of the greats and maybe greats of the post-2000 decade.  I'll look at rising (or risen) stars like Nadal and Djokovic, and players who made waves at the start of the decade - Safin, Hewitt, Roddick and Ferrero.  Stay tuned.

-- Andrew

(Thanks again to Rosangel for the picture and friendly counsel)

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Posted by suresh 10/29/2007 at 09:08 PM

first..mow off to read the post

Posted by Suresh 10/29/2007 at 09:14 PM

Andrew..a quick note, the Fed-Sampras does not have a link yet?

Thanks again to you and Ros for the great work!

Posted by Andrew 10/29/2007 at 09:37 PM

Suresh - thanks. A quick crash course in html editing, but the Federer - Sampras link is now fixed.

*crosses fingers*

Posted by Jenn 10/29/2007 at 09:49 PM

Andrew - great stuff, as always. I am going to print this out so I can actually digest it.

Posted by Suresh 10/29/2007 at 10:09 PM

Thanks Andrew.

Posted by jimbo 10/29/2007 at 10:09 PM

Nice comparisons. One other correction- I think you meant that Connors won the USO in 1983 (?), not 2003

Posted by Andrew 10/29/2007 at 10:15 PM

jimbo: eagle eye. Now fixed in the main body of the text. Er, you're not THAT jimbo, are you?

Posted by ajv 10/29/2007 at 10:16 PM

Andrew, I don't know about that Borg/McEnroe symmetry. I see that Borg comes out below Mc based on your estimate of how many ATP points he would have won under today's system. Don't quite understand that. Maybe I'm missing some funky math magic. I followed both their active careers and even leaving aside the Slam difference (11 to 7), Borg was, during his playing period, the more dominant of the two. That is a big "leaving aside" by the way. No matter how we look at it, comparing careers based on "points" per tournament wins seems to me to be a flawed way to judge players. As has been noted ad nauseum, during the Open era, the way players themselves judge their achievements and places in the game is ultimately by the number of Slams won.

In any case, looking at the stats in Bud Collins' book, Borg's winning percentage was a staggering .835 (his record was 380-75 and 15 of the losses came after his retirement from full-time play). So Borg's record really was 380-60 which is astonishing. McEnroe also had a great record: his percentage was .823 (849-142), and it's impressive given that he played many more matches than Borg, but nevertheless, Borg's percentage is higher and his Slam total is greater. How do you arrive at a greater point percentage for McEnroe?

On the overall symmetry of the careers, I alos disagree. To me, Borg is comparable to someone like Koufax in baseball or Jim Brown or Barry Sanders in football: players with great, if short lived careers, who for various reasons retire while still at peak performance.

I know that the standard explanation is that Borg retired because of McEnroe's ascendancy (a point that the evil McEnroe never fails to insinuate), but the real reason was Borg's desire to limit his play and the tour's saying no, that he would have to play a minimum number or lose his top seeding at the Slams.

It is by no means a certainty that McEnroe would have dominated Borg. Even though McEnroe would have the advantage at the US Open, Borg would still have cleaned up at the French and Wimby would have been a toss-up.

Posted by jimbo 10/29/2007 at 10:17 PM

Nope, not THAT jimbo :)

Posted by jb 10/29/2007 at 10:18 PM

this is way cool andrew! definately pat yourself on the back over the Djoker's chart back in july. good call on that one.

Interesting to see that sharp 'jump'present in everyone's chart. I think i'll be following Jenn's lead on this one. Mats didn't get to a MS final after he was 24? that surprises me. Mhm - is there any pattern to the players that have that jump very young to when they 'dropped off'?

Perhaps its time to unpack my printer... sigh. just got the dang vcr working.

Posted by Sam 10/29/2007 at 10:21 PM

Andrew: Nice work - comments to follow after I mull over the article. Weren't Rosewall's first and last GS titles in 1953 and 1972, respectively?

Posted by 10/29/2007 at 10:33 PM

Listed below are the stats for the four best years in majors and four best years in all tournaments ( the best 4 years are not necessarily the same)

All tournaments for best 4 years.

Federer - 92.95% - 290 wins / 22 losses
Lendl - 92.90% - 314 wins / 24 losses
Borg - 91.59% - 283 wins / 26 losses
Mcenroe - 89.47% - 289 wins / 36 losses
Sampras- 84.64% - 303 wins / 55 losses


In majors , win percentage of matches for best 4 years.

Federer - 95.19%
Borg - 93.90%
Sampras 91.21%
Mcenroe - 90.54%
Lendl - 90.43%

In majors - win percentage for tournaments - best 4 years.

Federer - 68.75% - 11 majors out of 16
Borg - 58.33% - 7 majors out of 12
Sampras 50.00% - 8 majors out of 16
Lendl - 40.00% - 6 majors out of 15
Mcenroe - 33.33% - 4 majors out of 12

Hope the numbers are fairly accurate :)

Posted by Andrew 10/29/2007 at 10:36 PM

ajv: not sure you and I are reading the same chart. Borg is blue, McEnroe red. Borg was a prodigy, reaching the elite level at age 18, two years (in terms of age) before McEnroe. For their "mid career" years (22-24), Borg is slightly higher in assessed points - he was regularly winning two majors and had greater success at the US Open than McEnroe did at his weakest event, Roland Garros. McEnroe, of course, had his career year in 1984, but unlike Agassi, he'd never rise after his fall to the heights he'd scaled before.

I don't purport in these charts to say who might have beaten whom - that's outwith the scope of this exercise.

Posted by Suresh 10/29/2007 at 10:36 PM

I believe McEnroe's peak might be higher than Borg's based on the stellar year that McEnroe had - if the one year period is widened, then yes Borg has the edge over McEnroe.

Posted by codepoke 10/29/2007 at 10:37 PM

Magnificent work and analysis.

I remember watching Pete slide away back in the mid-nineties and wondering what was happening. And now I wonder why I'm not seeing that same thing with Fed. His continued dominance is inhuman. Seeing your charts document that anomaly leaves me with a huge grin.

I cannot wait to see Djoko and Nadal. Your Wimbledon chart was intimidating, and it's only gotten scarier since then.

It's a great time to love tennis. Thanks for showing that so clearly.

Posted by Sam 10/29/2007 at 10:37 PM

ajv: I like your comparison of Borg to Koufax, Brown, and Sanders. All were performing at elite levels when they retired. I believe that Koufax and Brown were even league MVPs in their final seasons.

Posted by Suresh 10/29/2007 at 10:43 PM

Correction -

Mcenroe - 5 majors out of 12 - 41.67%

Posted by Bismarck 10/29/2007 at 10:44 PM

very nicely done, Andrew.

but that link back to the day before the wimby final... and full of questions like "who will win tomorrow? who will be number one at year-end?" which now have been answered with a screaming "FED!!! FED!!! ONCE AGAIN: FED!!!!" is just a tad depressing.
reading it again one realises that all the fearful presentiments one had at that day have become true. which is not the best of feelings given the fact that as of now one is full of new fearful presentiments.

Posted by Tim 10/29/2007 at 10:45 PM

how on earth can we not say Federer has passed Borg in ALL ways in tennis history? the holes in Borg's tennis resume are Grand Canyonesque, if we're honest about it...the 5th Wimby put Roger past Borg in history, without a doubt, and Im sure Borg would agree..

Laver and Sampras and Federer are in the conversation for GOAT, no one else...

Posted by Andrew 10/29/2007 at 10:49 PM

anonymous at 10:33 - thanks. I've been experimenting with a Best 3, 4, or 5 year calculation of the "assessed ATP points", which I might put up later.

Those winning percentages are staggering. Once you get down to a top 5 player like Andy Roddick, the win percentage since 2004 is about 78% - by no means chopped liver, but still a loss on average every 4 or 5 matches. At 92%, you're losing once in 12 matches, or winning maybe 3 out of 5 tournaments. Remarkable.

Posted by Suresh 10/29/2007 at 10:51 PM

oops , sorry that was me at 10:33 p.m.

Posted by Andrew 10/29/2007 at 10:54 PM

Tim: respectfully disagree (re your 10:45pm). 6 Roland Garros titles to none is, hmmm, Pacific Oceanesque? :-)

I speak, BTW, as a fully paid up Federer KAD. For me, the foremost Open Era greats are Borg, Sampras and Federer, in chronological order - then Laver, Gonzales, Budge and Tilden in reverse chronological order.

Posted by Pierre 10/29/2007 at 10:54 PM

Good points, ajv, and good graphs Andrew.

On the Borg and McEnroe graph, it looks like Borg was ranked higher than McEnroe right up until the point he retired, after which McEnroe climbed precipitously in points.

Their ATP head-to-head is listed as 7-7, with McEnroe winning their last three matches.

So based on their head-to-head results, you might get the idea that Borg's retirement had something to do with McEnroe's ascendancy. But looking at these graphs it seems that McEnroe's ranking only started to rise after Borg had Richied, casting McEnroe more in the role of a fox-in-a-henhouse once the big dog was gone.

Posted by Suresh 10/29/2007 at 11:01 PM

'it seems that McEnroe's ranking only started to rise after Borg had Richied, casting McEnroe more in the role of a fox-in-a-henhouse once the big dog was gone. '

Borg's retirement can also be looked at from a different perspective - in that McEnroe's ascendancy drove Borg into retirement.

Posted by abbey 10/29/2007 at 11:13 PM

hey, bismarck. i think the graphs should give you some hope and not fearful presentiments. looking at fed's graph, the peak WAS at 8000+, after which, an ever so slight decline. who knows, maybe that'll be a coninuing trend? ;)

*hides now from all fed KADS*

Posted by Tim 10/29/2007 at 11:21 PM

Andrew, respectfully.... Guga has THREE French Opens, right> enough said... 4 US Opens and 3 Australian Opens to... NONE... are Grand Canyon with the Atlantic Ocean -esque, IMO...

Posted by Heidi 10/29/2007 at 11:28 PM

Thanks, Andrew! No time to look at it carefully right now, but much appreciated as always.

Posted by Tim 10/29/2007 at 11:29 PM

Andrew, I think its semantics here..if youd have said, Bord is IN the conversation with Federer, Id have been more OK with that statement.. but Fed is way way more than being in a conversation with Borg in terms of history...nonetheless, Borg is a legend, we all know that...

Posted by Tim 10/29/2007 at 11:31 PM

lol one more thing, if you use the French as a guide, then sampras must be vastly inferior to Borg as well, correct? now THAT's a Grand Canyon if I've ever seen one, Borg vs. Sampras, on clay... can you say smackdown?

Posted by Federer fan 10/29/2007 at 11:34 PM

Why do some Federer fans feel like appreciating other great players belittles his accomplishments? There are things that Federer hasn't accomplished that other "greats" have accomplished- whether it's the Olympics, the French Open, or the Davis Cup. However, Federer not winning those 3 events does not cheapen his numerous other achievements.

Posted by Tim 10/29/2007 at 11:41 PM

true Fed fan, my point was that Federer is far far more than 'in the conversation' with Borg as an alltime great... thats all

Posted by Anonymous Canadian 10/29/2007 at 11:59 PM

Nice work, Andrew.

If you were to ask me, I think that Federer's arc most resembles Lendl's, minus the latter's slight dip in his mid-twenties and with a higher peak. As Andrew remarked, Lendl was dominant for a very long time (in tennis terms, obviously) and only started declining significantly when he turned 30, much later than other greats. If I am right (and we will only know in a few years), then one can expect Federer to play at or near his current level for the next two or three years.

Btw: I do not consider myself a Federer fan (I am neutral, if such a thing exists), so this is not wishful thinking...

Posted by Bismarck 10/30/2007 at 12:24 AM

aww, thanks. ;)
we´ll see. but i think it is not unlikely that fed will be above 8000 points again after miami 08 or at the latest after estoril/rome 08.

looking at the charts and see how much fed deals his own deck and it´s ace after ace for four years ... well, i feel not much hope in me. especially when seeing how long some of the other greats kept it up. and le fed is still only 26 and fresh and healthy like a 20 year old.

Posted by daryl 10/30/2007 at 12:26 AM

Suppose Sampras or Federer won six french and 5 wimbledons. I think most of the so called experts would have torn up the record books and called the debate over. Borg tried to win down under one time. As for the it's true that he never won it. But in his case of failing to win that I always felt it was a little different than the others not being able to win the french. Borg problem wasn't because of the surface, but I think more of circumstance. If it was always hard court during his best years then one could argue he wasn't good enough. But it was also clay,and in two or three of those years Borg was clearly the best player on all surfaces. I don't think you could ever say that about the other guys. So I think that makes it a little different then Mcenroe Federer, or Sampras not able to win on clay at the French.

Posted by Andrew 10/30/2007 at 12:35 AM

One thing about the Borg-McEnroe chart is that I'm displaying players' chronological ages. I have charts for the actual years as well, but in the case of Borg and McEnroe (for example) Borg Born in 1956 is about 3 years older than McEnroe. So Borg's decision to walk away from tournament play didn't result in McEnroe's spike, which occured in 1984.

As Anonymous Canadian suggests, part of the fun of creating these charts is to project forward (I hope this will be a big part of the next post, on current players). Dunlop Maxply and I had a spirited discussion about a year ago about Federer's prognosis, in which he cited McEnroe's startling failure to gain any more GS titles after his marvelous 1984 season.

I thought there were several factors, some specific to McEnroe, some related to changing technology in the game, which were unlikely to play out in the second half of this decade. But you never know, of course. Who'd have predicted Hingis would win no GS titles in the 2000s?

Amen to the view, BTW, that appreciating one player's skill should not go hand in hand with belittling another's.

Posted by Ali C 10/30/2007 at 12:58 AM

Andrew, very interesting post. Ahhh, red and pretty. ;)

Speaking of Hingis, any chance you'll do a similar analysis of some of the women?? I'd be very interested to see how they stack up against each other...

Posted by Ray Stonada 10/30/2007 at 01:17 AM

Andrew, this is mind-blowingly good stuff. I will be saving this entire post and all the charts for future reference. Fascinating. And from the charts, at least, it looks like Federer's mountain is higher than the rest, Everest to Sampras' K-2. I have my issues with the difficulties of comparing across eras, but this is as well as it can be done. Thanks!!

Posted by Bismarck 10/30/2007 at 01:20 AM

*Who'd have predicted Hingis would win no GS titles in the 2000s?*

i wouldn´t have predicted it.
and that´s exactly the problem. witnessing the agonizing way her career played out changed my "i´m quite optimistic" approach when following my favs to "i expect the worst and just keep a little bit of hope that it ultimately won´t be THAT bad". ;)
i haven´t been the same tennis fan since that AO final 2002.

but fed is so different form her. he has more dedication, even the dedication to break all the records. hingis just loved the game itself and being on top. she hasn´t got his athletisism, his HEALTH, his technical perfection (FH!, serve!)...

people always point out hingis or mcenroe or others as examples but i see nothing of it for fed.
where is his weakness? his private life is as stable and unspectacular as can be, his health is without comparison in history, he has no glaring technical weakness, his mindest is strong even in big matches, ...
why should there be a sudden decline like with mcenroe (who had private problems i think) or (not so sudden) hingis (who had tremendous injuries and in addition to cope with the non-stopping rise of the power game)?
what could ever possibly induce this decline in fed? as long as he is haunting the 14 slams of pete and the FO in general and olympic gold and maybe even the DC he won´t be that bored i think to completely lose it.
i just see nothing which could bring him down. nothing.

Posted by Andrew 10/30/2007 at 01:50 AM

Bismarck: add to the list of positive (or negative, depending on your PoV) the sheer enjoyment Federer seems to get from playing tennis matches. I'm not sure that McEnroe and Borg genuinely enjoyed their time at the summit - or if they did, it was for the fringe benefits, rather than the sheer pleasure of playing.

I get the sense Federer genuinely enjoys the company of his peers, in whom he counts Nadal, Roddick, Nalbandian, Hewitt and others. He most resembles Laver in this manner, I think. A loss is a disappointment, not a wound.

Posted by Marian 10/30/2007 at 01:53 AM

Andrew, thank you for those spectacular graphics. A lot of work done for our pleasure. I'll keep this post for future reference.

I loved them all at their prime and I love them now specially Federer while he is writing history as we speak.

God, please, keep Roger healthy!. The rest, he will take care of.

Posted by Suresh 10/30/2007 at 06:26 AM

'I get the sense Federer genuinely enjoys the company of his peers, in whom he counts Nadal, Roddick, Nalbandian, Hewitt and others'

Andrew, I agree.

The number one players in the Open era before Federer did not appear to enjoy the sport or have such a relaxed demeanor even before matches. Yes, it is all relative and it is not to say that Federer is not tense before matches, but he seems to exude a relaxed look about him that was not present in the number one players before him.

While Laver was playing it may have been different, but they were different times too.

A few top players are very serious and focused like Sampras for example and his personality for the most part was kept under wraps. Borg had an icy demeanor. Players like McEnroe and Connors for example needed a lttle bit of anger or had to 'conjure up an enemy' so to speak to play well.

If one enjoys , then the task seems less of a chore . Presence of talent always helps.


As far as the numbers are concerned, Federer has either broken or has got very close to various records held by different players -and this reflects his dominance which has not been seen before.

For example - the number of successive finals won by him is 24, next best is 11 by Borg and McEnroe. The number of successive finals reached by him is 17, Lendl has the record with 18. He only just missed breaking McEnroe's record for the best win/loss ratio in one calendar year.

Throw in the the following stats -
longest streak on grass,
longest on hard court,
fifth longest (??) streak for all matches,
winning at least 11 titles for 3 successve years,
winning 3 slams in a calendar year for three years,
winning 5 successive Wim,
winning 4 successive U.S. Opens,
reaching 10 successive major finals - and was one match away from two successive grand slams etc. etc.

By itself, each record may take a backseat when viewed against the number of majors won or the number of years a player was ranked as the number one, but Federer has broken or come very close to breaking records set by different players as listed above.

For one player to set these records or come very close to them is simply amazing.

Posted by Yummy Prince Fed/Karen 10/30/2007 at 07:50 AM

Morning All, not sure who posted that a chart/statistic analysis/graph something needs to be done for the women. This site is called but I have to argue that it should be called because most of the time it is only men's tennis that is being discussed and the women are just inserted when myself and others throw in some tidbit about the women. Andrew, Rosangel, Pete, and all the others who take the time to do these graphs etc, please someone do something for the women. It is not like we would not want to see how Sharapova and Justine matches up against the likes of Sabitini and Graf - it would be good to see and it would give an indication of where the women's game is going and/or how far it has reached in terms of stats.

Posted by nora 10/30/2007 at 08:11 AM


This is a fair point, but the obvious answer is -- why don't you have a stab at it.

People pursue their interests: it's only natural. It's not reasonable to expect someone else to pursue your interest for you.

Posted by Pierre 10/30/2007 at 08:27 AM

Andrew: I didn't realize that McEnroe and Borg weren't plotted over the same time period, so what I said makes no sense. Sorry!

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 10/30/2007 at 09:06 AM

Thank you Andrew - While the charts say there is a physical element to a players arch related to age and injury, it also seems to suggest that a player cannot escape their personality and natural approach towards life. Sticking with the elite who seem to be born to play the game at the highest level combined with the will to do the hard work, it is their ability to focus over long periods of time that show up in the charts.

A sort of tortoise and hare story where some of these talented elite can maintain focus and a steady hand while others are much more mecurial and distracted. I have long thought, from my own experience and looking at these guys that players can't really be successful playing contrary to their nature.

The last element shown but perhaps not described by the numbers is the differences in the prevailing cultural environment. The "last days of Disco" environment in which Mac, Borg and Vitas toiled was not exactly one that encouraged focus on the long term record book versus the gratification of the win followed by the party.

Sampras and Andre are interesting in that I think their career arcs are much more driven by the personality given they played at the same time. The focus, serious individual versus the adhd kid enjoying the candy shop.

The modern guys seem to be very workmanlike and focused on the career aspect of the game and Fed, as suggested above, the most focused on keeping the plateau going as long as he can. It is interesting that the only other guy to do that, IL, was coming from a very severe background that suggest he had the "depression" mentality that drove the great success of 50's US.

Posted by Yummy Prince Fed/Karen 10/30/2007 at 09:14 AM

Nora, I would love to. The problem is that I would not know where to start and I think I would be ducking missiles if my analysis came out looking in favour of someone else. Perhaps if someone could give me an idea as to how to start, i.e. websites to visit for statistical data, then I could perhaps have a go at the women's stats. If anyone is interested in giving me hints as to how to start the women's stats/graphs etc, you can email me at Perhaps other tennis heads here who feel the need to do one for the women, perhaps we could have a collaborative effort, i.e. someone does the period 70-75, 76-80, 81-85 etc. until the present time.

Posted by jbradhunter 10/30/2007 at 10:09 AM

There was mention earlier in the thread about how much better players would be 25 years from now- and while I'm no psychic, I still think players like Federer, Sampras, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Becker, Lendl, Edberg, etc.. are so talented that their games would still hold up against the players of the future--
since tennis is really not only about strength and speed.

We do seem to get stronger and faster as we progress and learn more about good nutrition and body conditioning, and the racquet and string technology gets better- but, tennis will always-I think- be played on the same size court. And the sport will always recquire a balance of the many aspects of technique and physical conditioning
Strength and speed and great conditioning, though they are important, do not necessarily make a great tennis player-- the mental aspect of the game and its competition still seems to be the main factor in deciding the outcomes of tennis matches, and I think it will always be this way, and always has been this way... Many great players have had some technical deficiencies, but their mental fortitude set them apart.

Posted by HansMoleman742 10/30/2007 at 10:58 AM

Taller has never seemed to matter in tennis; stronger has never seemed to matter either. Mark Philippoussis, Ivo Karlovic and John Isner can each hold off on buying that house with the spacious mantlepiece to hold all of their Grand Slam/Master trophies. A player can only play at the time she/he's playing, against the opponent he's facing, and with the skills he/she and his/her opponent possess. Comparison's of who could have beaten whom are fruitless. The only things that haven't changed throughout the last forty years in tennis, is the stature and importance of the Grand Slam events. Because of illness, injury, fitness, etc., the task of winning a slam, seven matches in a row, is daunting. The odds of repeating is astronomical and streaks are nearly impossible. Was it any less hard to win a slam when Jimmy Connors lost 16 semi-final matches? Ivan Lendl's 11 finals losses? Borg's 4 U.S. Open finals losses?

Posted by Sher 10/30/2007 at 11:14 AM

I was wondering, does anyone know why interview transcripts are unavailable for Madrid? (And, it seems, for Paris as well) And if I'm wrong and they're available somewhere (certainly not on where can I find them? Thanks.

Posted by Sam 10/30/2007 at 11:23 AM

Great article Andrew. This article raises that question again: "What if Borg had waited a year before retiring?" He could have definitely won the French Open again.

Posted by Sherlock 10/30/2007 at 11:42 AM

Good point, Sam. And what if he played more than one Australian, which was on grass at the time, right? Holy guacamole. How many of those would he have won?

Posted by temes 10/30/2007 at 12:01 PM

Good idea, Karen. I'm interested in women stats. =)

Posted by sportsfreak 10/30/2007 at 12:08 PM

Great Stuff, Andrew! Just curious, how long did it take?

"God, please, keep Roger healthy!. The rest, he will take care of."


Posted by Maplesugar 10/30/2007 at 12:50 PM

Great work, Andrew. One can only marvel at your ability --and Ros's also.

I'm going to download also and enjoy again at my leisure.

Posted by Sam 10/30/2007 at 01:20 PM

jbradhunter: Yeah, I think that the greats of each era would have succeeded in any era.

Tokyo Tom: Well said.

Posted by Liz (for Federer 4-ever) 10/30/2007 at 01:21 PM

I still say we're comparing apples and oranges here.

I have been following the game of tennis for over 20 years. During that time it has been a special time of rivalries and dominance that I have come to appreciate.

I enjoyed McEnroe's wizardry, Becker's exuberance, Edberg's elegance, Borg's single-mindness, Lendl's consistency, Pete's professionalism, Agassi's guts, etc, etc. This list is only my short list of players whose careers I have followed over the years.

People like Laver, Roche, Ashe, etc were before my time. I have also followed the women's game with great interest, though albeit not as closely as I have followed the men's game.

Even though I am an American I can appreciate the international flavor of tennis and appreciate players from other countries, not necessarily the Americans. I embrace the diversity.

I recognize that each era is different.

I could go on and on but one thing each era has in common is it was special in its own way. Often you don't realize you're living through a special era until its over. Pete's record of 14 GS titles is looking pretty special right now because his record is always in the conversations about Federer. If winning GS titles was easy, we would have multiple slam members with each tournament and they would be more spread out.

What I'm enjoying about the Federer years is here we have a sportsman who seems to share some of the qualities of past champions. But just like each of our past champions had a quality that distinguished them from their contemporaries and their predecessors, Federer is no different. I will leave everyone to determine what makes that special player whose career they followed to stand out but this is what I like about Roger.

What Federer has is a genuine love of the game. He truly is the ballboy who grew up to be a champion. He has been quoted as saying tennis will live on after him and this is true. When my all time favorite player, Stefan Edberg retired, I didn't think I would ever find another player I would be passionate about. I didn't realize that another one was just around the corner.

Tennis lives on.

Given the international nature of tennis, never have we had a number one player who was as accessible, who was multi-lingual or who appears to geniunely love the game.

We can crunch numbers and compare wins and losses but at the end of the day it comes down to who brings the most to the game and how meaningful it is to us as fans.

Posted by omar 10/30/2007 at 02:25 PM

One thing we have to keep in mind about McEnroe's incredible year in 84 is that a lot of his success has to be attributed to the fact that 84 was a down year in Men's Tennis.

Borg had just retired the year before, Connors had finally gotten "old", and Lendl was still a year away, Mats Wilander was still a teenager, Edberg was still a teenager, etc.

It would be like if Nadal had taken 07 off. Fed would have won the Grand Slam this year, but not because he was better than ever, only because the competition was weaker.

Martina Hingis had one season where she lost one match the WHOLE year, but in retrospect no one considers her single season to be the best a woman ever had. She had a great year when women's tennis was going thru a transition, with Graf retiring, the Williams sisters still developing, Seles getting old, etc.

I often say that stats are like a prostitute; you can do anything you want to do with them. A Fed fan can pick out the best 4 years and say he's the greatest, a Sampras fan can focus on year end No. 1 rankings, Connors the longevity factor, etc.

Borg, Sampras, Federer and Laver have clearly established themselves as the 4 GOATS of tennis. They are the knights sitting at the roundtable. For me, I actually have Sampras as the odd man odd, and put Borg, Fed and Laver as my HOLY TRINITY of Men's Tennis.

This is because Sampras is the only one of the 4 who had a major weakness on a particular surface, clay. All the others, even if they had a surface they weren't great on, were still tough to beat. Fed can't win the French, but he's still tough on clay. Borg was tough on hard courts. Sampras was not tough at all on clay. 7 1st or 2nd round exits in 13 tries at Roland Garros. No Final appearances, and only one semi (where he was promptly destroyed in straight sets).

But this list is a lot of fun to look at. Thanks

Posted by Sam 10/30/2007 at 02:41 PM

omar: I thought Borg retired in 1982?

Posted by Suresh 10/30/2007 at 02:51 PM

'For me, I actually have Sampras as the odd man odd, and put Borg, Fed and Laver as my HOLY TRINITY of Men's Tennis. '

As far as the Open era is concerned, I agree.

Posted by dcp 10/30/2007 at 03:49 PM

Federer may well have a more relaxed attitude with his Number One standing for a couple of reasons not inherently due to his genetic makeup. First with the exception of Nadal on clay he doesn't have a whole lot to be nervous about. Secondly and perhaps most telling, the impact of his coaches death in a car wreck. He perhaps realized that the outcome of a tennis match pales in comparison to questions of life and death.

Posted by Omar 10/30/2007 at 04:15 PM

Sam, he quit after the 81 Open unofficially. But he didn't formally retire until after the 83 Monte Carlo Open.

Posted by CM 10/30/2007 at 05:17 PM

dcp, I agree that the death of Peter Carter had a huge impact on Roger. Peter was not Roger's coach at the time, but he was responsible for the kind of player Roger is today. Peter died on holiday in South Africa. It was a trip that Roger suggested he take. I think Roger had huge guilt over that. Roger has said that after Peter's death, all of a sudden, tennis was not so important any more. Hard to justify getting mad at losing a tennis match after that...

I can really relate to that because a few years ago, the teenage daughter of one of my closest friends died in a car accident. To this day, whenever I start to feel sorry for myself about anything, I remember her. I realize I ought to be damn grateful. I used to also not think about birthdays. Now if someone asks me my age, I proudly say it. Why be upset about getting older? Wouldn't I rather be my age than the alternative? When I think of all the things I have experienced since my teen years, I realize how lucky I am. I hope I never forget my friend's daughter. I think I honor her memory by being grateful for what I do have.

Posted by Sam 10/30/2007 at 05:31 PM

omar: Thanks - wasn't sure when the official retirment was.

CM: Sorry to hear about your friend's daughter - that's horrible.
Was Peter Carter's death the year before Federer won his first GS title?

Posted by CM 10/30/2007 at 05:45 PM

Yes, Peter Carter died in the summer of 2002 and Roger won Wimbledon in 2003.

Posted by CM 10/30/2007 at 05:47 PM

Another thing that I think is neat is that Peter Carter's parents come to watch Roger every year at the AO.

Posted by James 10/30/2007 at 08:30 PM

This was a very insightful analysis. Since the discussion moved a bit into the GOAT realm, I think it's useful to mention something that's often forgotten: Laver turned professional and was prohibited from competing in the Slams for 6 years. How many GS titles would he have without that "lost" time? Keep in mind that he essentially bracketed that period by winning the Grand Slam, so one can argue that he would have won at least two if not three Slams every one of those "lost" years. Also worth noting is that Rosewall was prohibited for a longer period. So when one considers the present record for men's Slams, it's worthwhile to consider what might (and probably would) have been.

Posted by Andrew 10/30/2007 at 11:48 PM

James: the split between professional and amateur distorts records for years before the Open Era. Pancho Gonzales won two GS titles: how many more had he been eligible? Likewise Laver and Rosewall. That's one reason (among others) why GS titles accumulated is one mark of past greats, but by no means definitive.

Posted by Ginger 10/31/2007 at 08:30 AM

I have been very busy with work and not had a chance to keep up with all the wonderful posts.Thank so much for giving us all so much to savour and enjoy.

Posted by James 10/31/2007 at 11:55 AM

Andrew: I completely agree with your assessment. However, GS titles are often used as one of the criteria for GOAT and so it's worth keeping in mind the flaws in this criterion. Federer is chasing Sampras' record, who was chasing Emerson's record. Emerson won most of his titles as an amateur when Laver and Rosewall were excluded, and he wouldn't be considered by many to be in the GOAT discussion. So the record is/was what it is/was, but it's still worth considering that under different circumstances, they might all still be chasing a record on the order of 20 - 22 GS titles. Then how might the GOAT discussion go? My goal is to inject this aspect into the discussion, since it's natural for everyone to focus on those players they have seen themselves.
I enjoy your reasoned discussions.

Posted by Metro 10/31/2007 at 03:23 PM


Thanks for your insightful analysis of great players from different eras. The career arc analysis is rather fascinating. I think your work is one of the highlights on TW. I can't believe you manage to produce this impressive work on the eve of a massive move. Way to go.

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