One man has recently combined his love of sports and statistics to set about answering some age-old sports questions in a scientific way. Dr Ian McHale, of Salford University has set up a number crunching computer model to objectively decide on the best male tennis players. The results are very interesting!!
How do you go about determining who is the best across the modern era, when there are so many factors in play?? Adding up the number of Grand Slams doesn’t take in to consideration such things as the strength of the competition in that era, the number of slams entered (more are possible in recent times due to better travel – Jimmy Connors didn’t/couldn’t enter the French and Australian Opens for a long spell of his career)
Here are some notes on the modelling system used before we reveal the top 5:
- The model determines the year of maximum strength of the player and uses this as the main basis for results. However a ranking of strength over both the 10 years peak and also each players career is also reported by the computer model.
- The Grand Slam records of over 1000 players, across nearly 750000 games and over 20,000 matches was analysed
- Wins over higher seeded player give more points
- Beating a player 6-0 6-0 6-0 would give more points in the ranking than a tight 7-6 7-6 7-6 win, for example.
Using these parameters, we can best answer who would win if the greats (at their peak) were pitted against each other, so here are the 5 greatest tennis male players of all time:
5. Novak Djokovic
The current world number 1 has perhaps still not reached the height of his powers, and is thus the only man on this list who can still conceivably go higher. Aged 26, he has somehow managed to overcome two fellow greats in Federer and Nadal to reach the top of the world rankings, something which few would have forecasted just a few years ago.
Djokovic has won 6 slams (only the French has yet to be added to his tally) and over 50 million USD in prize money, figures that are both sure to rise considerably over the coming seasons.
According to Dr McHale’s model, he has so far peaked in 2011 with a “maximum annual strength figure” of 49.08
4. Andre Agassi
Agassi peaked in 1990 according to these stats, with a score of 49.27. So he was at his best when only 20 years of age! He managed to win 8 slams in total, and had success in each. Famed for his incredible return of serve, this one time poster boy of tennis had plenty of substance to back up the style.
He is married to Steffi Graf and they have kids (though he isn’t pushing them to play tennis). In his retirement he has been known for his philanthropic work and has penned a best-selling autobiography. In this, he addressed his failed drug test, his sometimes hatred of the sport and states he thought Pete Sampras, his great rival, was robotic.
3. Roger Federer
Federer has been named as the best of all time by many fellow tennis players and commentators. But he only makes it to number three on this list, which has him at his imperious best in 2005 with a score of 49.56 points. The Swiss is undoubtedly a great, regardless of his place here.
Records that he holds include:
- 17 Grand Slam wins – 3 more than 2nd placed Pete Sampras
- Has reached each Slam final at least 5 times
- 8 Wimbledon final appearances
- Has held number one ranking for a record 302 weeks including a consecutive spell of 237 weeks at the top from 2004-2008
- Over USD77 million earned!
Coming up to his 32nd birthday, Federer is ranked 3rd in the world and has no plans to retire, and few would bet against him adding another slam to his record haul.
2. Bjorn Borg
Borg won 11 Slams (with Wimbledon 5 times in a row from 1976 and 6 titles at Roland Garros). He competed only once in the Australian Open at aged 17, and never managed to win the US Open despite 4 final appearances. During a relatively brief career (he famously retired aged just 26) he compiled a record winning rate percentage of 82.72% across all surfaces combined – a record he still holds.
The Swede peaked in 1977 with a whopping 63.29 points according to this list’s scale. His rivalries with McEnroe and Connors are the stuff of tennis legend.
1. Jimmy Connors
A surprise to some, American great Jimmy Connors is the greatest ever tennis player according to Dr Ian McHale‘s stats. He peaked in 1976 with 64.5 points, but interestingly he is also number one across his career length and his 10 year peak period. He sweeps the statistical boards!
He won ‘only’ 8 slams (5 Us – and on 3 different surfaces, 2 Wimbledon and 1 Australian) – so how come he is number one here?
Remember that these figures are based on winning percentages and strength of opponents. Connors only entered the Australian Open twice (winning it once in 1974 and runner up the following year). He was not permitted to play in the French Open during his peak years, denying him a chance of the elusive Grand Slam of titles. His superb record in the Slams that he did enter, along with the strength of his opponents, has leftie Connors top of the list.
Connors won a record 109 ATP tournaments over a long career- 32 more than Federer has managed.
Although many will argue with this list, it is no doubt interesting to see what the stats have thrown up. Definitely more interesting, as far as I am concerned, than a stale list of Slam titles!
One surprise omission form the top 25(!) players determined by these stats is Pete Sampras. He didn’t make the grade due to the close nature of many of his matches and a relative weakness of opponents during his pomp.
Many would rank Federer as their number one – But who would you have in your top 5???
Source: ‘A dynamic paired comparisons model: who is the greatest tennis player?’ research b Rose D. Baker and Ian G. McHale. See the chart here.