Age or Prime years? The relevant comparison for projecting career totals. From Nelson Goodman. Thanks.
Posted by tennisplanet on October 26, 2010
Age or Prime years? The relevant comparison for projecting career totals.
It’s a commonly repeated fact that at the same age Rafa is now (24), Roger had 6 slams to Rafa’s current 9. The implication, of course, is that Rafa is on course to surpass whatever career total Roger achieves. But what this misses is that age is arguably much less relevant than another category: years into one’s prime. And on that measure, Rafa is in fact quite “behind” Roger’s pace and unlikely to equal his total, given the basic pattern in the Open-era of 7 years prime for a top player.
Below is a list of the great Open-era players and their prime years, as book-ended by the first and last slam wins.
Players with primes of 7 years or less:
Edberg: 1986-92 (actually, December 1985 when the Australian was still held at the end of the year)
With two other players, Becker and Sampras, the prime seems a bit longer if we measure it by first and last slams, but it becomes 7 or less if we take a more realistic assessment of the years where slam wins were most concentrated, and treat early or late single-slam years as outliers:
Becker: 5 out of 6 slams in the years 1985-91, with the sixth picked up in 1996.
Sampras: 12 out of 14 won between 1993-2000, with one in 1990 and another in 2002.
So, thus far, the pattern seems pretty strong: top players win most or all of their slams within a stretch of seven years start to finish, which we can call their prime.
There are only two real exceptions to this: Connors and Agassi.
Connors: 5 out of 8 won b/t 1974-1978, then another 3 b/t 1982-83.
Agassi: 3 out of 8 won b/t 1992-95, then another 4 b/t 1999 and 2003.
So even Connors won all his slams in 7 years – they were just separated by a 3-year hiatus marked by Borg/McEnroe dominance. This leaves Agassi as the one true exception: winning slams over two concentrated periods coming to 9 years in total. And he seems precisely the sort of exception that proves the rule: his distinctive life trajectory, personality and talent explain both the long interruption and late-blossoming second prime.
Where does that leave Roger and Rafa? First, the basic measures:
Federer: 14 out of 16 slams won b/t 2004-09, with 1 in 2003 and 1 in 2010.
Nadal: 9 slams won b/t 2005-10.
So, one question is whether Roger’s prime longer than the Open-era average of 7 years, or is his prime 2003-2009, with 2010 as a last-stand slam akin to Becker’s and Sampras’? No matter how you phrase, seems to me that if anyone is a candidate to have longer period of slam-winning years, its Federer given his the comparative toll his game takes physically. So although the pattern predicts Fed is done for slams, I’m comfortable predicting one or two more still, for a grand total of 18 (tying Nicklaus’s golf mark), based partly on the intangible of his sheer talent and the physical factor.
As for Rafa, based on the pattern, he has one only more prime slam-winning year left. Of course one might counter that by saying 2005 at least is an “outlier” year and that his prime really begin in 2006. Or, alternatively, that he will be either an exception or at least win one or two French’s in outlier years beyond his prime. It seems to me that if anyone is not a good candidate for the exception, it’s Rafa given the toll his game takes. But there’s no denying either his clay court prowess (although it should be noted that it’s much harder to win a late-slam on one’s favorite surface when that is clay like Rafa than grass like it was for Sampras) or the intangible of his sheer competitiveness. In any case, though, to forecast more than 14 slams in total for Rafa (i.e., 2-3 next year and then 1-2 in outliers) is really to fly in the face of a very strong historical pattern.
So even though I think Roger and Rafa’s greatness requires factoring in some “intangible” to exceed the usual pattern, it seems clear that the common idea that Rafa is “on track” to equal Fed’s numbers is way off (and this apart from the injury factor).