Now is the time. It has to be, right? Time for a new era of tennis stars. Time for a changing of the guard. It’s now.
Tennis is a unique sport. Being solo, not team-oriented, the stars of the sport have to rely only on themselves (and their support staff, of course) for greatness. When that greatness is attained though, it usually lasts for only a short amount of time because there are, ostensibly, no teammates to lean on. Team sports have dynasties where teams achieve greatness and sustain that greatness for three or four or even five years in a row. Baseball had the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees on three separate occasions achieved the so-called dynasty; winning four straight World Series from 1936 to 1939 (and four in five by adding 1941), winning five straight from 1949 to 1953 (and six in seven by adding 1947), and by winning three straight from 1998 to 2000 (they missed 1997, keeping them from five in a row!), while the A’s won three in a row from 1972 to 1974. Basketball has had many; the 1952–1954 Minneapolis Lakers, the 1959–1966 Boston Celtics (who missed eleven in a row by not winning in 1958 and 1967!!), the 1991–1993 Chicago Bulls, the Bulls again from 1996–1998 (Jordan’s back baby), and the 2000–2002 LA Lakers. Finally, the NHL has had dynasties produced by the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1947–1949 (missing seven in a row by not winning in 1946 and 1950) and from 1962–1964; the Montreal Canadians, who won five in a row from 1956–1960 and four in a row from 1976–1979; and the New York Islanders who won four in a row from 1980–1983. Team sports can achieve this prolonged winning simply because they are a team; they can lean on each other so no one person has to be great for an extended timeframe, they can cycle ancillary parts in and out of the lineup, and they can change up support structures like coaches and managers while keeping the players intact. Tennis has none of this.
When tennis greats achieve the highest peaks of the mountain, the stay is usually short. There are no year-end championships, per se, in tennis. Rather, there are four Grand Slam tournaments per year, spread out across the calendar and hosted on differing surfaces to represent the entirety and variety of the sport. The collection of these titles has come to be the measure of greatness (for better or worse). There can (and will forever be) some dissembling about how players felt about these Slams in the 1970’s and 1980’s when travel was not as easy and the media spotlight on the Slams was not as glaring. For instance, John McEnroe only attended the Australian Open five times in his eighteen year career, never winning it; Jimmy Connors only played the Aussie Open twice (winning it in 1974 and making the final in 1975) and he skipped the French Open during, arguably, his peak years from 1974 to 1978 (Chris Evert, on the women’s tour, did similarly). Bjorn Borg, a winner of ELEVEN Grand Slams, only went to Australia once. Would today’s discussions about Roger Federer and Serena Williams be different if Evert and Connors and Borg had spent more time in France and Australia? Probably.
Nonetheless, Slam performances are what we have. And peak Slam performance is, as mentioned above, short. Most players have moments of dominance, just like the teams that produce dynasties in other sports. But, that dominance is usually not sustained over multiple years. Rather, it is usually a short burst over 18–24 months, or even less. Open Era professional tennis began in 1968 when professionals started competing in the four Grand Slams. And dominance was asserted right away. Rod Laver won all four Grand Slams in 1969 — The Australian Open (January), the French Open (May), Wimbledon (July), and the US Open (September). It’s also the only time this “calendar Slam” has been achieved. In fact, he also won the 1968 Wimbledon title, giving him five in six. But, he didn’t win another after that (he won a whole bunch before the “Open Era” started but, that is a discussion for a different day). This burst of titles would come to be emblematic of the sport. Players would continue to stack their Slam titles in short succession. Stan Smith won two Slams in his career, they came within nine months of each other (the 1971 US Open and Wimbledon in 1972). Ilie Nastase also won two Slams in his career, and likewise, they came within nine months of each other (the 1972 US Open and the 1973 French). Guillermo Vilas won four Slam, they came within a twenty-month span, from the 1977 French to the 1979 Aussie. Jim Courier also won four Slams and they also came within a twenty-month span, from the 1991 French to the 1993 Aussie. Lleyton Hewitt won two Slams and like Stan Smith, they were separated by nine months (2001 US Open and Wimbledon 2002). The examples of players with one, two or three Slams are endless.
Now, the greats though, those with seven, eight, nine Slams, have been able to stretch that 24 month period. But, it is still reflective of a short time in their respective careers. The aforementioned McEnroe, as described above, played eighteen years, he won all seven of his Slam in a six-year period from 1979 to 1984. Mats Wilander, likewise, played for seventeen years and won all seven of his Slams in a seven-year window from 1982 to 1988. Ivan Lendl played for seventeen years and won all eight of his titles in a seven-year period from 1984 to 1990. Edberg, Kuerten, Newcombe, all similar.
But, what about the tippy-top guys? The best of the best? The guys with ten, fifteen, even twenty Slams? Are they different? Well, their period of dominance is certainly longer. It is also usually punctuated with a “Nicklaus win” (Golf is almost identical to tennis in structure with four Majors per calendar year and has a somewhat similar win pattern; Arnold Palmer won all seven of his Majors in a six-year window, Tom Watson all eight of his Majors in a nine-year period). Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer ever, won seventeen of his eighteen Majors in a nineteen-year span from 1962 to 1980. Then he tacked on a surprise win at the Masters in 1986. Lee Trevino did likewise, winning five of his six Majors in a seven-year period from 1968 to 1974. He then tacked on number six in 1984 at the PGA Championship. Tiger Woods, famously, did this recently. Woods won fourteen of his Majors in a twelve-year stretch from 1997 to 2008. Then a decade later he tacked on number fifteen at the 2019 Masters. In tennis, the best example’s of the Nicklaus win are Boris Becker and Pete Sampras. Becker won five of Slams from 1985 to 1991, a tight six and a half year timeframe, conforming to the above argument of a tight peak. Then he won his sixth at the 1996 Aussie Open. Pete Sampras did it on both ends of his career. Sampras won twelve of his fourteen Slams from 1993 to 2000, again, a nice tight eight-year peak window. But, he snuck in an early win at the 1990 US Open as a 19-year-old and then he bookended his career with his “Nicklaus win” and fourteenth Slam at the 2002 US Open. Roger Federer is, like Tiger Woods, tennis’ most recent “Nicklaus winner”. And he has, like with much of the things he has done in his career, redefined the term. Federer won seventeen Slams between 2003 and 2012, a nice, neat, tidy ten-year span. Then he waited five years… and won three more in a twelve-month span from January 2017 to January 2018. But, he’s done now, right? It’s been nineteen months…
Others among the best of the best in tennis history like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi have tried to defy this convention of a peak. Connors played for an amazing twenty-five years winning eight Slams but, despite his lengthy career, his Slams did all come in a conventional ten-year window between 1974 and 1983. Borg, conversely, only played for nine years total. He tried to make his whole career a peak. He won a Slam in eight of those years and, as mentioned before, only played one Aussie Open. Finally, Agassi, ever the rebel, tried his best to pull a Roger Federer before Roger Federer. Agassi burst on the tennis scene and won three Slams in three and a half years between 1992 and 1995. Then he disappeared for almost five years before re-emerging and winning five more Slams in four years from 1999 to 2003. These are the exceptions, rather than the rule though. Players usually conform to the maxim that their peak, in a ten or even twenty-year career, is condensed into a window in their middle years.
This brings us to the present day. The 2019 US Open is upon us.
The two favorites are Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Together, they hold the last six Slams and ten of the last twelve (thanks Roger). The case being made here is that their windows are closing and the 2019 US Open will produce a new, first-time Slam champ. Why? Let’s tackle Rafa first. He is the MOST unconventional of Slam winners in the history of the sport (or any sport for that matter). As mentioned at the outset of the article, tennis has four marquee events in a calendar year, played on three distinctly different surfaces (we’re not digging into the differing speeds of hard courts here, so the Aussie Open and the US Open, both played on hard courts, are counting as one surface for the sake of this argument). Like Borg, who won all eleven of his titles on clay (French Open) and grass (Wimbledon), Rafa is best described as someone who specializes on a surface. He has won an astounding TWELVE French Opens. And this distorts his peak. Or his Slam window. Or his career apex. Whatever you want to call it. If you look at the years when Nadal was ultra-competitive on all surfaces (not to say he isn’t now, considering he made the semis of Wimbledon and the finals of the Aussie in 2019) and winning Slams on all surfaces his window is 2008 to 2017. A nice, neat ten-year window that conforms to all the players listed above in the annals of tennis history. Of course, French Open wins in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2018 and 2019 distort this ten-year window. Based on the discussion laid out above, you could argue that his window to win on surfaces other than clay has closed. His last three non-clay Slam losses, while deep in the events have not been pretty. Federer dropped him in four sets at Wimbledon 2019, Djokovic destroyed him in straight sets at the 2019 Aussie and he had to retire down two sets to love at the 2018 US Open. His ten years is up. Djokovic, on the other hand, conforms to the argument laid out above for great players, almost exactly like Pete Sampras. He played for three or four years, then won an early Slam (Aussie 2008), then hit his peak and has stuffed his next fifteen Slams into a nine-year window. Nine years. That’s about the average number we have come across for a peak window. Federer, 10; Connors, 10; Nadal 10; Borg, 9; Lendl, 7; Wilander, 7; McEnroe, 6. Djokovic’s nine years will be up, exactly, at the conclusion of next week’s US Open.
Let’s look at Djokovic another way. Remember Rod Laver (the guy at the beginning of the article who helped usher in the Open Era with five Slams in six showings, missing out on the 1968 US Open)? Well, again, his run of five in six, was emblematic of what other greats would achieve. Not only was his calendar slam impossible to repeat, but his run of five in six has also proven almost impossible to top. It’s just too hard to sustain greatness that long. Almost every Hall of Famer, in their peak window, has sustained a run where they won three of four slams in a row — Jimmy Connors won three of four in 1973–74, missing out on the 1974 French; Vilas won three of four missing out on Wimbledon 1977; Wilander missed Wimbledon 1989; Sampras did it on three separate occasions, being stopped by the French Open every time in 1993, 1994 and 1997. Finally, Agassi also came close to winning four in a row, winning three of four in 1999–2000, missing out only on Wimbledon ’99. The big three of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic have come close so many times, it’s not worth listing them all here. What they have done instead is come close to not only four in a row but, five in a row (even Sampras gets in on this)— the important misses would be Sampras winning four of five from Wimbledon 1993 to Wimbledon 1994, missing the ’94 French; Federer winning four of five from Aussie 2006 to Aussie 2007, missing the ’06 French; Nadal winning four of five from the 2010 French to the 2011 French, missing out on the 2011 Aussie; Djokovic winning four of five from the 2011 Aussie to the 2012 Aussie, missing the 2011 French. Federer and Djokovic have even gone one step FURTHER. Djokovic won five of six slams in a row, from the 2015 Aussie to the 2016 French Open, holding all four at one time, and only missing the sextant by the 2015 French. Federer won five of six in a row from Wimbledon 2006 to the 2007 US Open, only missing the 2007 French. You can actually expand Federer’s resume there and see that he won SIX of SEVEN from Wimbledon 2005 to the 2007 Aussie, missing only the 2006 French (man, Federer was incredible). As an aside, you’ll notice there, in almost every “run” of titles the one that interrupts the chain is inevitably the French Open. Clay is a weird animal and other than Nadal and Bjorn Borg (12 and 6 French titles respectively) and to a lesser extent Wilander, Lendl, Kuerten, and Courier (3,3,3 and 2) the French Open has historically been a clusterf**k of winners. All of this is to say, Djokovic is currently on ANOTHER run of four titles in five events (2018 Wimbledon to 2019 Wimbledon, missing only, you guessed it, the 2019 French). Can he sustain and produce only the FIFTH run of five titles in six events? Can he extend his window to a full nine years?
The bet here is no.
A new player will ascend. And while there are plenty of young talents on tour, ready to bust through, from Stefanos Tsitsipas to Daniil Medvedev to Nick Kyrgios to Karen Khachanov… the pick is Dominic Thiem at 25/1. Recent, first time Slam champions have been few and far between but, they do share some commonalities. They do show some winning pedigree before the big breakthrough. When Djokovic won the Aussie Open in 2008 it was preceded by a 2007 where he made the finals at both of the Sunshine Double events, the finals at the US Open and the semis at Wimbledon and Roland Garros. When Rafa broke through at the 2005 French Open he had won, in succession, Costa do Saulpe, Acapulco, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. He also went to the finals in Miami somewhere in there. Delpo won the 2009 US Open and that win was proceeded by an Aussie Open semi, a Miami semi, a Madrid semi, a Roland Garros semi, a Washington title and a Cincinnati final. Thiem has a similar resume in 2019 to these breakthroughs. He has made back to back French Open finals in 2018 and 2019. He won Indian Wells this year, essentially the fifth Slam, played on a slow hard court, like the US Open. And he added to those successes a win in Barcelona, a semi final in Madrid and a win in Kitzbuhel. He has also arrived in New York with a great track record at this venue. Five trips, three fourth-round visits and a quarter-final last year. Thiem is ready.
Thiem +2500 x1
Medvedev +1200 x0.25
Kyrgios +8000 x0.25
Tsitsipas +2500 x0.25
DeMinaur +15000 x0.25
Khachanov +5000 x0.25