Monday, January 18, 2016

The lost generation of men’s tennis: or where are the freaks?

My favourite men’s tennis bit of trivia is that Bernard Tomic is closer in age to Novak Djokovic than Djokovic is to Roger Federer.

Tomic is 23, was born in October 1992; Djokovic is 28, was born in May 1987 and is 5 years and 5 months older than Tomic; Federer is 34, was born in August 1981 is 5 years and 9 months older than Djokovic.

I like it because it reminds me why whenever Federer is asked about his favourite or toughest opponent he invariably talks about three generations of players – those who where there when he arrived, like Sampras and Agassi, those who arrived at the same time as he did – Hewitt, Safin and Roddick – and then he mentions Nadal and Djokovic (Nadal is 4 years and 6 months younger than Federer).

We think of Djokovic and Federer as peers in a way which we would never think of Djokovic and Tomic.

That Djokovic and Federer, although separated by nearly 6 years, have become perhaps the greatest rivalry in the history of professional men’s tennis says a great deal about both. That Federer has been able to keep playing as well as he has for so long is amazing, and that Djokovic began playing as well as he did so early is worth remembering when valuing his greatness.

Remember as Djokovic begins his quest for a 6th Australian Open that he won his first title 8 years ago in 2008. He was 21, and it was no real shock. Sure he upset Federer in the semis, but Federer was suffering glandular fever and Djokovic even then was far too good to pass up an opportunity to beat a wounded Federer.

But Djokovic was the 3rd seed at the time, had lost to Federer in the previous year’s US Open and made the semi finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007. He was already very good, even if he was almost more known for his ability to impersonate other players than his tennis ability:

And yet now no one expects 21 year olds to win.

And the usual talk is that, well the game has changed, and older players have an advantage because the physicality of the sport etc etc.

Bollocks I say.

In my view, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic are better than the usual level of players who dominate the circuit for periods (usually 3-5 years), and the players a few years younger than Djokovic are just not good enough.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are freaks, those who are a few years younger than Djokovic are not.

This year, for the second year in a row my summer holidays ended with a trip to Brisbane to watch the Brisbane International tennis tournament.

As with last year, we went to see Federer. Although to be fair, we also went because we knew there was a decent field assembled.

I am admittedly a Federer fanatic, but I don’t have a great deal of need to see him play an exhibition, qasi paid practice event like the Fast4 silliness, or the pretend importance of the Hopman Cup. Always know, if it’s not for ranking points it doesn’t count. (and alas it would seem for some players, even when it is for points, it doesn’t count)

The Brisbane International is truly an event worth going to if you are a tennis fan. You are close to the play, the centre court is excellent – most of the crowd is in the shade for most of the day – and the field is very good. The women’s field this year was to be excellent, but was hit by a number of withdrawals.

Last year we saw Federer annihilate James Duckworth 6-0 6-1. It was great to be able to say we saw him play (and my daughter got an autograph) but it also felt rather hollow – like an exhibition.
In the semi finals last year he took care of Grigor Dimitrov with relative ease and then beat Milos Raonic in the final in 3 tight sets.

Those two players are always interesting to watch because they, with Japan’s Kai Nishikori, have been a for a few years now been considered the next in line.

This year we saw Federer play Dimitrov in the quarter finals and it was as enjoyable a match to watch as any tennis fan could ask for. The shot making was exciting, the play interesting – lots of net play as well as baseline rallies, and the result (for at least me) perfect – Federer winning in 3.

My daughter also got another Federer autograph (he signed probably 30-40 of them after his match, great stuff).

It is interesting that the two were playing in the quarters this year.

The reason is that last year Dimitrov was ranked 11 in the world and the 4th seed, this year he was number 28 in the world and unseeded.

So while he improved on last year by taking a set off Federer, his lower ranking indicates that he has gone backwards.

And in tennis the ranking never lies.

Federer in the post-game interview talked about Dimitrov having a great career ahead of him etc etc, not mentioning that when he was Dimitrov’s age of 24 year and 8 months, Federer had already won 7 grand slam titles. 

Federer then faced Dominic Thiem in the semis. Thiem is among my favourite of the young breed. Federer dealt with him with little ado – 6-1 6-4 –and then in the post game interview he talked about how Thiem had a great career ahead etc etc and failed to note that when he was Thiem’s age of 22 years and 4 months he had already won 2 grand slam titles:

In the final Raonic met Federer playing like a man who had been suffering from the flu and who was playing for his 4th straight day in the Brisbane heat (which of course he had been).

It takes nothing away from Raonic who despatched Federer with ruthless efficiency. Winning sport is about being physically able to do it. And if you are unable – for whatever reason – well that’s just tough.

But it does make it tougher to judge whether Raonic has improved on last year (or Federer has declined) because clearly Federer was labouring with an unusual illness, so the comparison is skewed.

That Raonic last year was ranked number 8 in the world, and this year he was 14 suggests he hasn’t improved.

In the post game interview Federer noted that Raonic had a great future etc etc and failed to note that when he was Raonic’s age of 25 (his birthday is on 27 December) he had won 9 grand slam titles.
It is evidence of the bizarre world of men’s tennis that Raonic, who is just 3 1/2 years younger than Djokovic, is considered less of a peer of Djokovic than Djokovic is of Federer’s.

And it goes to the question of whether there is a lost generation of male tennis players – players who will never get to number 1 because they were unable to crack the Djokovic, Nadal, Federer code, and who get overtaken by the younger ones of which Tomic and Thiem represent the elder stage, and players 21 years and under such as Lucas Pouille, Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Alexander Zverev represent the younger stage.

When we look at the history of the ATP tour, only 25 players have reached number 1, and only 16 have been Number 1 at the end of the year (remember that when you hear anyone suggest Lleyton Hewitt, who was number 1 at the end of both 2001 and 2002, wasn’t that great).

Jimmy Connors was the first of those 25 players who really hadn’t had a career or any note prior to the ATP forming in 1972.

If we look at the successive dates of birth  of the number ones from him (he was also the first born after WWII) we see that there is a pretty regular progression.

There are occasions where the next player to reach number 1 is older than the previous player – but mostly the number 1 is succeeded by someone younger.

On average the latest number 1 is 1 year and 7 months younger than was the previous person to attain the pinnacle.

Thus on average the next player to achieve the number 1 ranking would be expected to have been born around September-December 1988, and thus be now aged 27.

But when we look of the ages of the players when they first became number one since Jimmy Connors we see that only one player – Thomas Muster – has been older than 27 when he first became number 1:

The average age of players when they become number 1 is 23 years and 1 month – just a bit younger than Bernard Tomic is now.

On a best case scenario the quickest Milos Raonic could get to number 1 would be for him to go on a tear, win the Australian Open, win at least one of the Masters events in the USA in March, go well on the clay courts and French Open and then win Wimbledon (and even that would rest on Djokovic doing poorly). That would have him as number 1 at the age of 25 1/2 years – only Muster and Patrick Rafter would have been older.

Now Rafter was a great player. His career is one envied by 99.9% of people ever to pick up a tennis racquet. But he was number 1 for a week. He hardly dominated his era; he was at the top in somewhat of a nether period of men’s tennis. That time when Sampras was no longer at his peak, Agassi had come back, but there was also a fair jumble of players at or near the top.
It was a period defined by a lack of domination.

Mostly the tour is dominated by 3 or 4 players of around the same/similar age.

Player Date of birth
Jimmy Connors Sep-1952
Bjorn Borg Jun-1956
John McEnroe Feb-1959
Ivan Lendl Mar-1960
Mats Wilander Aug-1964
Stefan Edberg Jan-1966
Boris Becker Nov-1967
Jim Courier Aug-1970
Pete Sampras Aug-1971
Andre Agassi Apr-1970
Thomas Muster Oct-1967
Marcelo Rios Dec-1975
Carlos Moya Aug-1976
Yevgeny Kafelnikov Feb-1974
Patrick Rafter Dec-1972
Marat Safin Jan-1980
Gustavo Kuerten Sep-1976
Lleyton Hewitt Feb-1981
Juan Carlos Ferrero Feb-1980
Andy Roddick Aug-1982
Roger Federer Aug-1981
Rafael Nadal Jun-1986
Novak Djokovic May-1987

There’s always a bit of bleeding over in eras – Borg and Connors into McEnroe and Lendl’s; Lendl into Wilander, Edberg and Becker’s, Edger and Becker into Courier, Sampras and Agassi’s etc etc
And generally you see gaps: 3 years to McEnroe, 4 years to Wilander, 3 years to Courier, 4-5 years from Agassi to Kafelnikov-Rios etc or just 3 years if you include Rafter among the Sampras-Agassi era, then 4 years to Safin and Carlos Ferrero – the first of the Federer contemporaries to make it.

So this is where my thoughts on the lost generation of tennis players occurs. Nadal and Djokovic (throw in Murray, who will likely never get to number 1) is an era. Federer definitely bleeds into it, but you would expect given tennis history for there now to be a bit of a jump to a new era – a jump of 3-4 years.

That jump would take you straight to Raonic and those such as Dimitrov and Nishikori, but the jump would occur to when they are already somewhat aged tennis players.

I actually think Raonic could win the Australian Open. He has an excellent draw, would have to beat Wawrinka in the quarters and Nadal in the semi and I think he has the game to do it.

But it is unlikely, even if he were to do that, and even if he were to go on and win another slam (surely Wimbledon or the US Open), for him to really stamp out a new era.

It seems much more likely we are to see a late 1990s period, where no one utterly dominates – even if perhaps Djokovic does enough to stay Number 1 at the end of the year for another couple years.

There is no reason to think that peaking in tennis now is something that only can happen at an older age. Sure you need to be stronger, but Nat Fyfe was 23 last year; is anyone thinking he needed to get a bit older before he could match it with the mature men? But yeah, he’s a freak.

Sure technology has allowed older players to stay good for longer; but Jordan Speith won the US Masters and US Open at the age of 21. And yes, he’s a freak – but that is the point. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic were all freaks, so were Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Connors, Borg…

You don’t say the same of Raonic, Dimitrov, Nishikori etc.

I wonder if Federer – now the very elder statesman of the game – realises this, and perhaps slightly wonders if it will affect his legacy as the greatest of all time.

He has 17 slams. It is unlikely he’ll add to it. His best chances were in the 2014 US Open, and last year’s Wimbledon and US Open. In both tournaments he played his best matches in the semi finals, and in both he hit Djokovic in the final, and Djokovic was just too good.

Federer didn’t play his best in either final, but that was mostly because Djokovic wouldn't let him play his best, and Federer couldn’t stop Djokovic from playing his.

Djokovic now has 10 slams and is a legitimate entry in the debate of best 5 players ever in the ATP era; by the end of his career he is a big chance to be debated as the greatest of all time.  

He might not get to Federer’s 17 titles, and he is an outside chance to break Federer’s 302 weeks at number 1 (he needs another 121 weeks) but neither record is impossible.

The barrier to Djokovic reaching Federer’s records is not Nadal or Murray or Wawrinka but the young brigade.

Two weeks ago, Federer when talking about Bernard Tomic’s ambition to get to the top 10, said “he's been good, but then top 10 is another story. The year is not just one month long or one week long. It's 52 weeks. It's every day”. In effect - stop talking, start doing.

And that’s just to be in the top 10 – the current Number 10 is on 2,635 ranking points – Djokovic is on 16,790, and winning a Grand Slam gets you 2,000 points.

Since Connors took over the number 1 ranking from John Newcombe, there has been a new person reach number 1 for the first time every 1 year and 8 months.

It has now been 4 1/2 year since Djokovic became the 25th player to reach number 1. If we push that out to June – which would be about the earliest someone new could take over, we’re at 5 years – the second longest wait.

So who will be the next one?

Raonic would be the best bet. He has a big game, but it would require a big step up. He has only made the Quarter Final or better at a grand slam 3 times; he has only reached the final of a Masters event twice.

And time is not on his side.

Tomic is 2 years younger than he, and he is making good strides. Last year in Brisbane I watched Tomic lose to Nishikori in straight sets – the first set he lost 6-0 and the word “try” was not a descriptor you would have worn out using; he barely looked like he wanted to be there.

This year we again saw the two play and the difference was stark. Gone was the lack-lustre movement, and his forehand had changed from being one reminiscent of a stroke hit by someone almost seemingly too bored to bother, to one where effort was visible, and power evident but which still had his exquisite timing.

He won in 3, and then lost to Raonic in a tight 2 tie break sets. It all looked good.

And then he went to Sydney and pulled out of his quarter final citing food poisoning.


It merely reinforced what Federer had said just a week earlier – you gotta turn up week in week out, day in day out.

The tour is a god awful grind. You don’t get to number 1 except by turning up and winning week in week out.

Tomic has the talent; but he is a danger of also being taken over by younger players if he is not careful – Kokkinakis showed in the French Open last year, that the younger Australians certainly don’t hold him in awe on the court.

Dimitrov is one who I would love to see make it. I love his game, but again he teases – he can play well, and then not. The top line consistency is not there.

And it has nothing to do with being stopped by Djokovic or Nadal or Federer.

Yes he lost to Federer in Brisbane but he then lost to Victor Troicki in the Sydney final the following week – after having beaten him in Brisbane.

Federer in Brisbane noted of Dimitrov’s win over Troicki (which meant the two would play each other) that they were the type of matches Dimitrov needed to win if he wanted to get back into the top 10.

Troicki is a 29yo journeyman – a good journeyman, but one who has never made a grand slam quarter final. Dimitrov should not be losing to him in finals – especially when winning the first set 6-2.

But for the next fortnight it is hard to go past Djokovic. His game is just perfect for the Australian Open courts.

Federer has a very tough draw. After Basilashivili in the first round, he then will likely have to beat Dolgopolov (another one of those “young” players who is now 26, but ranked 36, so definitely a tough unseeded opponent) , Dimitrov, then Thiem or Goffin (another young player, who is now 25yo), then Berdych or Cilic, then Djokovic, just to get to the final.

Tough ask for an old bloke.

I would love to see someone new step up – even if it is someone “old” like Stan Wawrinka did in 2014. Even better though, would be for someone young – someone of whom people might start saying, cripes, he’s a bit of a freak.