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A Better Way Of Ranking The Most Dominant Tennis Players

Illustration for article titled A Better Way Of Ranking The Most Dominant Tennis Players

"Who has the most rings" has always been a brainless exercise in absolutism, but at least within team sports, we're forced to consider some context when applying it to individual players. Why, then, do we still universally use this methodology when ranking tennis players?

Early Friday, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in straight sets in an Australian Open semifinal match. Predictably, the Who's greater? debate popped up throughout the relatively (for these two) lackluster match, and, predictably, it revolved like some moron pundit satellite around Grand Slam titles.

Here's how that traditional all-time rankings list looks for the Open Era (starting 1968):

  1. Federer: 17
  2. Sampras: 14
  3. Nadal: 13
  4. Borg: 11
  5. Agassi: 8
  6. Lendl: 8
  7. Connors: 8
  8. Wilander: 7
  9. McEnroe: 7
  10. Djokovic: 6
  11. Becker: 6
  12. Edberg: 6

Obviously, sports are always about winning and losing, and within individual sports, victories are much less external than they are in, say, a Super Bowl victory. But it's still idiotic to only credit a player for winning it all, with any other result not counting whatsoever in the final tally. Reflexively coming back to titles and only titles ignores incredible feats like Federer's insane 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, rendering them some arcane stat to bring up during a match and forget, unremembered in the way that team sports remember their impressive runners up fondly, like the Bills' four straight Super Bowl appearances or the Atlanta Braves' 14 consecutive division titles.


So rather than only counting championships won, here's a look at each player's performance in majors based on the ATP points accumulated in each tournament. I decided to only count the four Grand Slams so as to not penalize players who skipped minor tournaments in the likes of Gstaad, Umag, and Kitzbühel—and yes, those are all real cities where ATP events take place, back-to-back-to-back in fact.

While the ATP rankings methodology has changed a bit through the decades, I just applied 2014's scoring system for everyone to have a uniform measuring stick through the decades. Here's a look at what that looks like:

  • Win: 2000
  • Finals: 1200
  • Semifinal: 720
  • Quarterfinal: 360
  • Fourth Round: 180
  • Third Round: 90
  • Second Round: 45
  • First Round: 10

Here are the top Grand Slam point accumulators of the Open Era (no 2014 Australian Open finishes have been included in these charts, to not penalize finalists):

Illustration for article titled A Better Way Of Ranking The Most Dominant Tennis Players

As you can see, Federer's lead from the rest of the pack only grows under this methodology. A lifetime of soliloquies have been written about Federer, but it's possible we still don't fully appreciate how great he is. Meanwhile, Nadal is currently ranked No. 6 on this list, he's right behind Nos. 2-5 and should be comfortably No. 2 by the end of this year. (A win at the Aussie this weekend followed by another win at the French in June would do the trick.)

The biggest victim of this list is probably Björn Borg, as outside of his 11 titles, he only made five other finals and one semifinal in his brief career. (It also doesn't help Borg that he only played one Australian Open in his career, as that event was largely considered a second-tier tournament during the 1970s and was often skipped by many top players.)


Another interesting takeaway from this chart is the success Jimmy Connors had at the U.S. Open. Nadal is ubiquitously referred to as the "king of clay" and Federer is notorious for his dominance on grass, but nobody has tallied more points at a major championship than Connors has with his career haul of 18,665 at Flushing Meadows.

This cumulative metric seems to give an unsatisfying boost to players like Connors who stayed healthy, played into their mid-to-late 30s, or have already completed their careers, though. So what if we look at the rates of points accumulated per Grand Slam played?

Illustration for article titled A Better Way Of Ranking The Most Dominant Tennis Players

OK, let's talk about this one.

Obviously, Borg's short time as a pro gives him an advantage here, as he only played during his prime. But that's what we talk about when we talk about Borg—he's Sandy Koufax in Wimbledon whites. The Swede falls just short of averaging a mind-boggling finals appearance (1200 points) per tournament for his career. What's also interesting is that Nadal has leaped Federer in this metric by over 100 points per tournament—a lead that will only grow after the Aussie's conclusion this Sunday, suggesting that if Rafa continues at his current pace, he will one day pass him on the aggregate list.


By this metric, a clear top four of Borg, Rod Laver (the only man to win a calendar year Grand Slam in the Open Era), Nadal, and Federer emerges. Laver gets a slight boost in this metric, since the majority of his career occurred prior to the Open Era, but considering the dominance of his career prior to 1968, he'd still likely rank very high on this list.

If Borg at the top here feels right, and it does, it's probably because what we're really talking about is a player's most memorable career stretches of dominance, and the only way you see that in a career-long stretch is if a player retires on top like Borg or Koufax or Brown. Otherwise, you're factoring in years and seasons and matches that no one really cares about, or much wants to remember.


That in mind, we've come up with a "greatest streaks" metric, which consists of a minimum of seven events without missing consecutive finals:

Illustration for article titled A Better Way Of Ranking The Most Dominant Tennis Players

During Federer's 23 consecutive semifinals from Wimbledon 2004 to the Australian Open 2010, he averaged 1624.3 points per tournament. He peaked during that stretch from Wimbledon 2005 to the U.S. Open 2007, when he won eight of 10 slams (1840 per tournament), only losing to Nadal in the French Open final in 2006 and 2007. Within the streak we have him down for here, Wimbledon '05 to the US Open '10, he not only didn't miss consecutive finals, but he spent 19 majors missing only one.

By comparison, Nadal hasn't had anywhere near as dominant a stretch as Federer has had. His best stretch was from the 2007 French Open to the 2012 French Open, but he qualifies here from the French in '10 to his current streak, after reaching the Aussie final today (total above includes through US '13). Djokovic also has an active streak, having appeared in the US Open '13 final.


The last four years of Borg's career (1978-1981) were certainly his high point, when he averaged 1534 points per tournament before suddenly retiring after his loss to John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open final. Unlike Federer and Nadal, though, Borg was never able to win three consecutive majors.

Andy Murray's recent stretch—while not pictured here, and not quite as impressive as Djokovic's or Nadal's—is remarkable in itself for somehow overlapping with two of the other most dominant stretches in the modern era. This of course adds to the impressiveness of those two feats as well—or possibly shows how weak the field is outside of the top ranked players.


Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum; Image via Getty

Jim Pagels writes about sports innovations at his blog, You can follow him on Twitter at @jimpagels

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