Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Tag: grand slams

Titles make great players, not the other way round

Blip?

I was at the ATP Finals at the O2 on Sunday, for the excellent Goffin – Dimitrov final. As good as the match was, there was a feeling that the understudies were taking centre stage. No Rafa, no Roger. No Murray or Djokovic.

The lack of “Big 4” players at the end of year finale was acute, made real by their selling power. Djokovic was omnipresent at North Greenwich tube, fronting a Lacoste ad. Inside the 02, the merchandise stall was selling flags – but only the Swiss and Spanish. No Belgium or Bulgaria, the nationalities of the finalists.


Men’s tennis has become complacent. In the year-end tour finals, six of the last 10 years have been exclusively between the Big 4. Their dominance in the Grand Slams is well documented, but as a reminder, since 2006, it’s been only Wawrinka (x3), Cilic and Del Potro that have broken through the hegemony.

Perhaps complacency is harsh – the men’s game has been lucky, blessed even. So when injury and upset take out the big guns, it’s hardly the fault of the men left that they lack gravitas. As several people pointed out, it was the first ATP tour final between two non-grand slam winners.


Ironically, that had become more likely by the dominance of a few players in the slams. What did we expect? Federer and Nadal to go on for ever?

We have entered an unprecedented stage in tennis. With Federer and Nadal on 19 and 16 majors respectively, and Djokovic on 12, they have transcended the prestige of the events themselves. A final without any of the big 4 (or 5 if you want to count Wawrinka) is somehow diminished. It’s easy to be dismissive. The 2014 US Open final between Cilic and Nishikori? A blip. The ATP Finals with Goffin and Dimitrov? Interesting, but so what?

If Dimitrov lands a major or two in the next few years, it will be tempting to post-rationalise the final just gone as a watershed moment; equally, if he doesn’t, it’s just another of the occasional outliers.

As fans and writers, we need to remind ourselves that it is the title that confers greatness on the players, not the other way around. We do get one-off winners of major titles, and it is legitimate to say that they are not a truly great player until they deliver on the big stage again. But we should be careful not to diminish the achievements of yet-to-be-great players along the way. As much fun as 2017’s greatest hits has been with Federer and Nadal ruling the roost, I would love to see the majors go to a few new winners.

Can Federer find that elusive last big win?

Question: Should Roger Federer go quietly into the night?

It’s the first slam of 2014 – the Australian Open – and Roger Federer isn’t in the running.

That’s according to the bookies, who have made him fifth favourite and a pretty outside punt at around 20 to 1.

He’s seeded 6th, which doesn’t sound bad to mortals, but after a decade as either 1 or 2 seed at most events, it feels low.

After a 2013 when he didn’t reach a single grand slam final – and only one semi, the question of his retirement has become more of a debate about dignity than possibility. A new coach – Stefan Edberg, of all people – and a new racquet don’t seem to be putting the pep in his step yet.

One way to judge this not simply to look at Federer’s results, or demeanour, but to find a reasonable comparison. And that player is Pete Sampras – someone Federer has frequently been compared to throughout his career. The comparison is now becoming even more piquant.

Sampras had a similar period of domination in tennis, followed by a tough autumn of his career. But he did something few players get to do: he finished the game as a slam winner, taking the US Open of 2002 vs Andre Agassi, and never played on the main tour again.

The possibility of such a last hurrah is clearly what is driving Federer on. His recent losses in big events to rank outsiders and journeymen such as Tommy Robredo are awful in their way, of course. But only a couple of months on from losing to George Bastl (!) at Wimbledon 2002 in R2, Sampras was able to quit at the very top.

There are differences, of course – but these if anything should give Federer fans hope. Sampras’s ranking plummeted further than Federer’s has – he was 17th in the world in his final match, whereas Federer is still top 10.

On the other hand, Sampras had been to the US Open final in 2000 and 2001 – Federer hasn’t been in a winning position like that for some time. However, in both those matches he lost to Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt in such a manner (both straight sets losses) that it only served to highlight his decline. Basically, he was crushed. Nobody saw the 2002 US Open coming – even his rivals dismissed his chances publicly, which you’re pretty unlikely to hear about Federer this year.

So these charts should give Federer and his fans hope. They show Sampras and Federer’s slam careers – the high degree of similarity – and the last hurrah. Sampras starts with an early success that took a few years to translate into winning the big titles on a regular basis, whereas Federer won his first major later, but then won more slams more often.

The red boxy bit is their period of domination – and the red dots their slam win outliers.

The question is whether Federer can emulate Sampras with a last big win (as Edberg believes he can) – or if that last win has come and gone, in Wimbledon 2012. Statistically, it looks more and more unlikely with every passing slam. But this is more about dreams than reality.

After the US Open win against Agassi, Sampras’s only mistake was to suggest in 2003 that he might make one more run. It was pride talking, and luckily he didn’t try. But if Federer can land one more major in 2014, his course of action should be very clear: retire right then, right there.

Why Nadal-Djokovic may be the best tennis rivalry ever

French Open final, 2012

Tennis thrives on great rivalries – they are almost more famous than the players themselves. Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi, Federer-Nadal.

But the current rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal may be the best ever. Here’s the killer fact why:

They are the only pair (in the men’s game) to have contested each of the four major finals. No-one else has done that – not any of the rivalries I mentioned at the start, nor even any of the pre-open era rivalries such as Laver-Emerson.

Why is that important? Well, it shows that they are both hugely talented on all surfaces, and have stamina to get to many major finals. And although this Friday’s meeting at the French Open is a semi rather than a final, due to Nadal’s ranking slipping after a long injury, who would bet against them overtaking the record of eight slam finals held by Federer-Nadal?

Which makes you realise how many finals Nadal has played against Federer and Djokovic – only three of his 16 major finals have been against other players (Soderling, Berdych and Puerta, winning them all).

The BBC (wrongly) stated that: “The Monte Carlo final [earlier this year] was the pair’s 34th meeting, making their rivalry the most prolific in the modern game, with Nadal leading 19-15 overall and 12-3 on clay.”

Update: the BBC updated the story, thanks to Piers Newbery.

Not quite. Lendl and McEnroe played 36 times. But that’s just another milestone soon to be passed by Nadal-Djokovic. Only injury can prevent them breaking several more records.

How Murray could emulate Lendl – but not in a good way

There’s a debate on the BBC website about who would win in a hypothetical tennis match between Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray. My answer:

Neither of them. They would both probably lose.

Here goes the current thinking on Murray and Lendl: Murray hired Lendl because he’s different, and was a winner who struggled early on. Lendl has made Murray a winner – check out the Olympics, US Open. QED.

Except, not quite. Murray has lost 5 slam finals now, 2 of those under Lendl. Is this failure? Only at the highest level. But this is the level we are all talking about.

But here’s the thing: Ivan Lendl is the best runner up of all time.

There is one record of Lendl’s that Murray doesn’t want – the most times as runner up in a major. Lendl holds that crown at the moment, having been 11 times a major runner up. Yes, there were those 8 wins, but no one else has ever lost so many finals.

Now you might argue that Murray has been very unfortunate to come up against only Djokovic and Federer in slam finals – no easy ride there. But that becomes self-fulfilling as an argument. If Murray had won more than he’d lost, we’d be talking about him, not Djokovic, as a tennis great, and wondering what Novak could do to win more slams.

Here’s the list of players by most slam final losses, current players in bold, pre-Open era players in grey. A few more losses, and Murray could be in joint second place.

Runner up Winner Win %
Ivan Lendl 11 8 42
Ken Rosewall 8 8 50
Jimmy Connors 7 8 53
Roger Federer 7 17 71
Andre Agassi 7 8 53
Jean Borotra 6 5 45
Fred Stolle 6 2 25
John Bromwich 6 2 25
William M. Johnston 6 2 25
Rod Laver 6 11 65
Arthur Gore 5 4 44
Bjorn Borg 5 11 69
Andy Murray 5 1 17
Tony Roche 5 1 17
Rafael Nadal 5 11 69
Gottfried Von Cramm 5 2 29
Jack Crawford 5 6 55
Jaroslav Drobny 5 3 38
Stefan Edberg 5 6 55
Herbert Lawford 5 1 17

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