This is one of most important questions plaguing the tennis followers at the moment. While fans of Nadal and Djokovic keep doing their math, Federer fans continue to pray. While Djokovic is 5 grand slams away, Nadal needs just 3 more. On the other hand, Federer himself is pushing everything he has got to see if he can take it further away to 18 or more. When the world is busy focusing on these 3 aging champions, can an outsider come and cross them all. While it is not possible to predict the future, we can settle for the best alternative which is to look into the past to provide some answers.
I looked at the age of Champions of every grand slam starting 1968 French Open which is the start of Open era till the 2016 Wimbledon where Federer almost came closer to making it 18. I plotted the below graph to understand the age at which the champions won their grand slams, 193 in total.
It can be noticed that bulk of the wins happened between the ages 21 to 27, almost 70% of the total grand slams. On the right extreme, the total wins for ages 30 and above are less than 10%. We can fairly establish the fact that tennis is a young man’s game with not much to offer for people over 30. Point to note at this very moment is while Federer is currently 35, Djokovic and Nadal are respectively 29 and 30 years old. The last time someone won a Grand slam in their 35, it was in 1970s and Federer has to better that if he has any plan for the Grand slam number 18. Djokovic and Nadal face high odds of history against them apart from their injuries if they need to have a shot at being the greatest tennis player ever.
If odds are high against the closest rivals like Nadal and Djokovic what is probability for an outsider to beat the number 17? We should turn our attention to another metric, the average Win Age, which is the weighted average of Age and number of wins at that Age.
In simple terms, Avg Win Age tells us that Roger Federer has accumulated half of his 17 wins, before the age of 25.59, For Nadal it was by 23.71. The intuition from the above table being, if anyone needs to challenge the 17 slams, they need to win at least half of them before the age of 25 – 26. This, is half the work on Mission-17 which Nadal and Djokovic have done and hence are close enough to think of challenging Federer. This is pretty much why no one else in the current top 10 may not even come closer to threaten the record. If it is an outsider, It has to be a teenager who is bettering his serve at this very moment, whose name we are yet to hear.
Federer won 17 because he absolutely dominated for few years across the grand slams. Nadal won 14 because he started early at 19 and maintained his Roland Garros record almost intact. Djokovic winning 12 is a humongous record in itself because never in the history of tennis a player had the likes of Federer and Nadal against them. Data and history tell us that it is difficult for Nadal or Djokovic or Federer himself to beat the record. However, me being a Nadal fan, still do believe that he is a phoenix and he will rise, me being tennis fan, still believe that Djokovic is playing tennis in a different league and he is capable of two or at least one more calendar grand slam.
Data and insights, however good they are, not as much as Nadal’s grit or Djokovic’s will. They are champions for a reason. They will continue to challenge until very last day before they retire. Federer is of course the greatest of the tennis players. He will continue his pursuit for the number 18 and further. For people like us, who are in it for the joy of watching tennis, what more can we ask for?
P.S: I have high admiration to women’s tennis too and I think we don’t even need an analysis to conclude that Williams’ record shall last forever.
P.P.S: fivethirtyeight.com (fantastic website, please visit) have done a similar analysis couple of years ago on age and wins here . However, the inspiration for my post generated from a discussion over coffee with a Federer fan. I think he’d be happy with my conclusion of the analysis.
P.P. P. S: All data sourced from wikipedia and processed on MS Excel which I paid for. (There you are, GoI, no torrents)