“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”
Wimbledon is the oldest of the major tournaments, but the statement attributed to Aristotle antedates even that event by more than twenty centuries. It’s been the basis for a series of documentaries by the British film maker Michael Apted, charting the lives of 21 children form age seven onwards, visiting them at seven year intervals.
I measure ATP generations in 5 year intervals – and Aristotle’s maxim seems to hold there. The players who compete for major titles tend to break through at young ages. Being a prodigy isn’t a guarantee that an ATP player will win big, and some players who make the big time later in their careers go on to be Top 10 players. So youthful achievement isn’t destiny, but it does come with approval from the tennis gods.
In this article, I’ll focus on four groups of players: those born between 1979 and 1983 (Generation Fed), players born between 1984 and 1988 (Generation Rafa), players born between 1989 and 1993 (Generation Grigor) and the youngsters for this study, those born between 1994 and 1998 (Generation Nick). And I’ll take comparable snapshots of these groups, looking at their early promise and burgeoning maturity.
We’ll start back in June 2004, 15 years ago, after the French Open but before Wimbledon. Players from the “New Balls Please” campaign were beginning to fulfil their potential. Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick had all won Majors, and Guillermo Coria had just suffered a heartbreaking loss to Gaston Gaudio in Paris.
The X axis in each of the charts shows the age a player was when he broke into the top 50, and the Y axis shows the maximum number of ATP points a player had gained to that date (for 2004 only, points have been doubled in line with the ranking points change in January 2009).
Here are 5 players above the 8000 point level for maximum points to date – and these are all the players from Generation Fed who would win a Major title. All of them entered the top 50 before they turned 20.
5 years later, in June 2009, here’s how this ATP Generation had evolved:
Federer had 2 GS titles to his name in June 2004: by June 2009 he had 14, and he would surpass Pete Sampras’ record next month at Wimbledon. Marat Safin had won the Australian Open in 2005. Andy Roddick played in several Major finals, each time losing to Federer. A cluster of later developers – notably Ferrer, Davydenko, Ljubicic, Gonzalez and Blake – reached the top 50 at around age 22. These would rise to the 6000-7000 point level, competitive with the very best but rarely beating them. None of the late developers would win a Major.
Generation Fed’s average age was 28 in 2009, and the next Generation was moving in. Here’s Generation Rafa in June 2009, 5 years on from the early snapshot for Generation Fed:
As with Generation Fed, several players had joined the ATP Top 50 before their 20th birthday. The three players who would join Federer in an “ATP Big 4” already stand out: Murray had yet to win a Major (he had lost to Federer in the US Open Final in 2008). Djokovic had won the Australian Open in January 2008, beating Tsonga, and Nadal already had 6 Majors to his name (4 at Roland Garros, one Wimbledon and the 2009 Australian Open). And Del Potro would join the Major winners club later that year
Let’s skip ahead to June 2014 – the same generation, now in their late 20s:
The shape of the scatter plot is very similar to the one for Generation Fed five years before. There’s a clear negative correlation between breakthrough age and peak ranking points. By this time Stan Wawrinka had won his first Major in Australia in January 2014; Marin Cilic would get his lone title (to date) that summer in New York.
How was the next generation, born between 1989 and 1993, faring in June 2014? Not well:
Only one player – Bernard Tomic – made it into the Top 50 by Age 20. Compare this to 11 Generation Rafa players, and 10 Generation Fed players who’d made an early breakthrough. Only 3 of this group made it to the Top 50 before their 21st birthday.
And the peak performance for this group of players was pretty woeful compared to the preceding generations. In June 2014 none of them had made a Major Final, and none had won a 1000 tournament. Only three players (Janowicz, Raonic and Nishikori had reached a M1000 final.
One argument for the comparatively modest performance of younger players in the last decade has been a kind of “Big 4 Blockade” – that Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray formed an impossible obstacle to overcome. And that might apply to Major titles, but it can’t account for failure to even make the top 50.
Step ahead 5 years, and we reach the present day. It’s June 2019, and here’s what Generation Grigor looks like now:
The downward sloping correlation holds: the higher achievers of this group were among the earlier to reach the Top 50, though two of this group’s pioneers Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison, have yet to threaten the Top 10, let alone compete for Majors. Generation Grigor has so far won zero GS titles and 3 M1000s; we would expect an average of 20 and 45 for each 5 year group.
What of the youngest group, Generation Nick, born 1994-1998?
Two players, Zverev and Tsitsipas, have peak ratings points above 4000; the highest for anyone from Generation Grigor in June 2014 was Raonic at 3245 points. 5 Generation Nick players (Zverev, Tsitsipas, Coric, Kyrgios and Rublev) made their breakthroughs before the age of 20.
This generation isn’t quite as threadbare as the one before, but the odds aren’t good that there are several Open Era Elite players in our midst. There may yet be a few players from the 1994-1998 set to break through, like the 20 year old Casper Ruud, currently ranked 60 in the ATP. The odds certainly aren’t good that multiple 8000 point plus players are getting ready to break out. The ATP torch skipped one generation almost entirely; perhaps it will skip two.