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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:

Borg: 1975-81
McEnroe: 1979-84
Wilander: 1982-88
Lendl: 1984-90
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).


28 Responses to “Age or Prime years? The relevant comparison for projecting career totals. From Nelson Goodman. Thanks.”

  1. wuiches said


    • Sol said

      So wait, let me get this straight.
      Nelson’s post is “zzzzz” for you, but the one you wrote a few weeks ago that TP called “a case for Nadal” and the article you just posted in wanna post, those are ok in your opinion?
      Why don’t you show the same respect to people who express their opinions as the one you expect when you post yours?
      And why don’t you want to reveal where you got the article from anyway? What policy is there to prohibit copying an article if you put the appropriate source? Or is the fact that it was written by a contributor on a tennis forum that you’re uncomfortable with?

  2. chipnputt said

    Very interesting analysis, Nelson. Thanks.

    But here is my problem: Why can’t Rafa’s prime last 8 years or 10? Just because Sampras’ or Wilander’s prime lasted 7 years? As interesting as that might be, it’s a totally spurious correlation. For example, in 2004 you could have argued that, in the open era, if someone wins at least 3 slams in a year, he is pretty done winning slams for the rest of his career (Laver 69 ; Wilander 88) and Federer would have proved you so wrong. I can give you many many similar examples where specifics have defied historical trends.

    For your argument to be valid you need to show WHY Rafa’s prime will only last 7 years. You try that by saying look at his game and the toll it takes. But you could have said exactly the same thing last year (and many were saying so) when he had been pasted 2, 2, and 2 by DelPo in the US Open and was followed by a WTF where in 3 matches he didn’t even win a set. And 2010 turned out to be his greatest year yet.

    I offer an alternative theory. I think Rafa has actually yet to peak or has only just peaked. Until 2007, he was essentially a clay courter. In 2007, he started changing as a player and slowly mastered grass. But it has taken him another 3 years to get comfortable on the hard courts. His game is improving all the time – first it was his backhand, more recently it’s his serve, his net play and more subtly, his court position. He has become a far more attacking player and today, I think, he is finally a complete player. AND he is healthier than he has been in a long long time.

    I think Rafa has at least 2 to 3 years at this level. I don’t know how many slams that will mean for I think Roger has one more spark left in him and I honestly believe that if he can slay his inner demons, Murray is a better hard court player than Rafa. But I wouldn’t call a one-year time limit on Rafa’s great years. Not yet anyway.

    • Nelson Goodman said

      Two responses Chipnputt:

      First, of course you’re right that we still need some good reason or story why 7-years may be significant (i.e., what causal story explains the correlation). My premise is that such a strong pattern (across so many players over a long period) obtains because there is likely an underlying causal story, presumably about the difficulty – both mentally and physically – of dominating your peers at world-class tennis for any longer span of time. I very much doubt it’s a totally meaningless coincidence (“spurious correlation”) unlike the examples you give, which are of one-off happenstances.

      Second, the idea that “Rafa has actually yet to peak or has only just peaked” is pretty odd, unless you mean “peak” in narrow terms of “best one or two years” because otherwise it suggests that 2007 and 2008 were “pre-peak” years – a very strange notion, no? And it’s the exactly the kind of idea that I think a look to historical patterns is useful in checking against – when someone is at the absolute height of their dominance it always seems difficult to imagine it won’t last longer than it in fact likely will. (E.g., would anyone have believed at the time that McEnroe, after a year (1984) in which he went 82-3 with 2 majors and losing the French after 2 sets and a break up, would never win another major?) The point is not that Rafa only has 1 good year left, but rather that I think it’s highly doubtful that his prime will last past about mid-2012. After that, he may pick up one (at most two) slams but that’s it – just based on a long-run tendency of top players to max out at that point. A tendency for which I think there is little reason to believe Rafa will be an exception (or, I put it before any reason based on his intangibles needs to be countered by the heavier-than-average physical toll and mental strain of his brand of top-flight tennis).

  3. M said

    You make some interesting points, Nelson — and you know I’m anti-GOAT-debate in any event 😉 — but I wonder

    Players with primes of 7 years or less:

    Borg: 1975-81
    McEnroe: 1979-84
    Wilander: 1982-88
    Lendl: 1984-90
    Edberg: 1986-92 (actually, December 1985 when the Australian was still held at the end of the year)

    if technology, coaching advances, and medical advances will make differences here.

    (Also, I stick to my personal little theory that Borg quit early.)

    • Bettyjane said

      Not only did Borg quit early he didn’t play Australia EVER (who did back then!) Great work compiling this. Much appreciated.

  4. Bud said

    Well done! Thanks for the interesting views.

  5. chieko said

    Thank you so much. 😀

  6. sperry said

    I think the problem with the analysis (which I found fascinating and thought provoking… thanks Nelson and Chip) is the sample size. In statistics, the “normal” distribution doesn’t really start happening until the sample size approaches 30. We just don’t have 30 men winning enough slams to call any “trend” really meaningful. (“Really” being the operative word. I think the numbers have some meaning.) After you throw out Borg (who quit while he still probably had a few years left in him) you list 6 that pretty much fit the 7 year range, (even that gets a LITTLE mousey, with your introduction of the “outliers”) and 2 that don’t (because Conners doesn’t, IMHO). That is 25% exceptions in a very weak sample size. I don’t think that will convince too many staunch statisticians. Interesting, for sure. Not convincing. Using some of your logic, we could say, “he only started really coming into his prime in 2008, when he won multiple slams for the first time. 2005,06, and 07 are “outliers,” as he only won the French.” If that’s the case, his prime started in 2008… and (if the 7 year thing and Rafa’s knees hold up) Roger can forget being the Grand Slam king. We just don’t know, do we? He is capable of winning 4 next year alone. (No. I don’t think he will.) But… one thing we can all agree on… he is an amazing tennis player.

  7. chipnputt said

    Nelson…your original piece and your response to me are both very persuasive. Sperry is right — it is difficult to make the case on pure statistical terms because the sample size is much too small but I can see how the 7 year bit can be a very seductive argument. There is probably a causal link somewhere that we are missing because of the sample size. You are right — it probably isn’t a meaningless coincidence and most guys just can;t keep up that level of play for more than 7 years.

    But never mind the stats bit. The reason I said that Rafa’s peak has yet to be reached or has just been reached is I see him improving all the time. You couldn’t have peaked if you’re still improving, no? He is a better player today than he has ever been, and the improvement over 08 (his other great year) is significant. So, it’s hard to know whether you’re seeing the finished product or there is some more spit and polish to come. Did Federer really improve after 05/06, where you could say he was in the middle of his prime years? I don’t think so, except maybe his serve. Yet, Rafa is improving in so many ways during what you’d call the end years of his prime. That is probably the main reason I question how we can see the end of his prime years. Is he has reached a plateau, then perhaps ok, seven years and all that. But this guy is still climbing.

    • nelson goodman said

      Fair points, both, Sperry and Chip. My short response is simply that my main point here was just to check against a kind of blinding effect that the sheer brilliant dominance of someone, like Rafa’s this year, can have on our perspective. There is an ahistorical short-sightedness that we all tend to have in such cases that the player is going to keep dominating (maybe even moreso as they get better!) for the foreseeable future (for instance, I’m sure people thought this in late 1974 about Connors). And I think there is good reason to realize that in this case it’s seem highly doubtful given how long Rafa has already been at/near the top.

      Of course, “doubtful” doesn’t mean impossible and there are always exceptions. But it would take a lot to convince me that the exceptions you two are suggesting – in Chip’s case that Rafa will continue at this pace until 2013 (for 9-year stretch of very top-level tennis) and in Sperry’s case to 2014 (10-year stretch) – are likely. Of course you guys can reply that I’m begging the issue, which is when the relevant period of “top-level tennis” began – and I guess for me being winning a slam regularly and being in the top 2 players (with a clear gap from the rest) clearly requires the physical and mental strain that are the relevant factors here. Or you guys can agree about the rough definition and insist Rafa will go longer than most as simply an exceptional case. Fair enough, I also think he (and Roger) are exceptional cases but my original point was that even factoring that in, we arrive at upper-bound estimates of 14 (for Rafa) and 18 (for Roger).

      Of course, none of us really knows and we’ll see soon enough as TGiT says. My (completely shot-in-the-dark) guesses:
      – whoever from the top 4 wins WTF London will also take the Aussie;
      – Rafa takes the French;
      – Wimby is Roger’s last-stand, o/w Rafa;
      – Delpo takes the US open.

      • banti said

        Nelson agree with most of what you said. Putting so much weight on the WTF results may not work out as recent results have shown. Rafa’s chances in winning the WTF is far less in my opinion than winning a hard court slam with a favorable draw. Murray we must remember has not won a set against Roger in a slam. In a hard court slam format I still think Roger has the game to beat any of the other big 4. We cant rely on Murray playing Rafa as this last slam showed but if he manages it, Roger has a fair chance. Zero faith in Djokovic at Oz, the heat should keep him in check.

        Really hoping the big Argentine gets it together! If he needs to pound 10K balls before Oz so be it. Someone needs to put Rafa at check and fast:)

      • nelson goodman said


        I think you’re right on about the rel’p of WTF and Aussie slam for Rafa: he’ll have a much tougher time beating enough of the top players on hard courts to win London than to string 7 wins in Oz with a favorable draw. My point is that if he does win WTF, then his chances for Oz are even better b/c the need for a very favorable draw decrease. And if either Murray or Nole win WTF, their chances of at least reach semi’s and thus Rafa having to face them, are much better and at that point I like their chances against Rafa. But will they also be able to beat Roger in Oz even with the WTF? In past years, one would lean toward “no.” But at this stage (i.e., post US Open semi for Nole and Toronto and Shanghai for Murray) cool-headed detachment would have to lean toward yes. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I have to – I still hope/believe that Fed can get the job done.

  8. Kevin Kane said

    A thoughtful post and replies!

    Two things:
    1. The sample size is too small. We can’t make predictions about tennis players in general based on the data from just seven or nine guys.

    2. Even if the sample size was large enough, samples only help us predict the average performance of a larger group. The sample is not very reliable at helping us predict a single player’s performance, like Rafa’s.

    For example, a Gallup pole of voters can reliably predict the voting preferences of a country. But it doesn’t tell you who your neighbour will vote for.

    The good news is we’ll just have to stay tuned to see if Rafa can catch Rog in the race to see who will win the most slams!

    • nelson goodman said

      Hi Kevin,

      Don’t know if you saw the exchange with Sperry and Chip but I think we covered these. Briefly:

      Re (1), yep, I’m not meaning to make any strong statistically-sound point. Rather, using what historical patterns we have to make a more informed judgment. As Sperry says, we can think historical information is somewhat meaningful even when the data/pool size isn’t large enough for strong statistical significance.

      Re (2) – yes we all agree that there individuals aren’t reducible to statistical trends and that there are exceptions. The issue is how much of an exception – and on what basis – seems plausible.

      In any case, totally agree with the spirit: the best way to tell the future is to wait and see!

  9. Jenny said

    Thanks for the article, research and analysis, Nelson. As I recall, Borg didn’t have any physical problems which resulted in his sudden early retirement at 26. I think the guy was burnt out [possibly due to the fact he joined the pro circuit at 14] he also had other off court issues.

    I think Rafa’s improvement and achievements are truly amazing. However, I still think physical issues may eventually take it’s toll which could prevent him equalling Roger’s slam record. Having said that, and with the innovative medical treatment, only time will tell, I’m keeping a very open mind. Also bear in mind, he may well choose to do other things too, ease down on the gruelling slog on and off court which has kept him at the top from a young age.

    • nelson goodman said

      Jenny, totally agree that it wasn’t necessarily “physical” that resulted in Borg’s retirement/fading. And also agree with others that he’s a tough case given the weird circumstances of his immediate drop-out – in large part b/c of the tour’s rules working against him. Still, I don’t think a narrow definition of “physical” factors is relevant in many of the other cases either (e.g., Mac, Wilander and Edberg, though in each case you may say the game simply passed them buy with increasing power levels). The main point is my sense that some combo of physical and mental strain – the kind of day-in, day-out intensity and single-minded focus that is needed for world-class tennis dominance – simply can only be sustained for so long. And *that* surely is a big factor in Borg’s quitting – it’s not just that Mac wounded him and his pride, but that he simply couldn’t/wouldn’t continue the kind eery, machine-like focus that is now called Borg-like (as in both Bjorn and the Star Trek entity) that he maintained for such a long period.

      • grendel said

        ” Mac, Wilander and Edberg, though in each case you may say the game simply passed them buy with increasing power levels)”. I always found this idea implausible w.r.t.McEnroe. At his peak, he could beat up on anyone, including those with superior power. He was, for a while, the master of deflection. His old partner, Peter Fleming, has recently suggested that after his wunder year of 1984, he did drop fractionally in pace about the court – losing half a step as they say. Not so as anyone normal could notice it, even Fleming had to think, but enough – apparently – at this exalted level to make the crucial difference.
        No doubt when Nadal loses half a step, he’ll join the ranks of the mortal. Hard to see this happening for 2 or 3 years.

    • sperry said

      RE: Borg’s retirement. I am wondering if I am losing my mind. I remember quite clearly (for what that’s worth) that Borg missed a few tourneys or something, and learned that if he wanted to play at Wimbledon, he was going to have to play the qualifiers. He refused to do so, therefore couldn’t play, and retired. But I have checked around and not found any reference to that anywhere. Does anyone remember anything like that?

      • Jenny said

        It rings a vague bell but I can’t be absolutely certain. Borg was my hero, a ‘pop’ tennis star, I was naive and very new to tennis and it’s politics.

      • Nelson Goodman said

        There’s an old Sports Illustrated article (available online) that I recall reading that detailed the whole sage – including the other players supporting Borg’s right to play in the majors without meeting the full tour commitment. But I can’t find it right now.

  10. grendel said

    If anyone could be an exception to a trend, it is Nadal. Over and again, he has surprised people, informed people. When I saw him beat Puerta for his first slam, I became convinced that by his career’s end he would overhaul both Sampras and Federer, even though Federer was still in the process of amassing slams. I posted to this effect, and was greeted with some derision – the point being, of course, that Nadal was a one trick pony with severe health issues. My hunch was not based on expertise, of course. There was just something about Nadal which seemed both extraordinary and unique.

    As the years rolled by, I saw without surprise as Nadal adapted and evolved his game to accomodate the different surfaces. The blip he suffered for a few months, allowing Federer to regain his #1, struck me as of no permanant significance whatsoever and I couldn’t believe the way people – people who knew a bit about tennis, but perhaps not much about people – were writing him off.

    The one really effective reservation to Nadal’s longevity was his style. A poster on another site, a huge Nadal fan whom I respected, opined that Nadal’s was a young man’s game.

    Since Nadal is not quite yet “middle-aged” in tennis terms, it remains to be seen if this is the case. I remain sceptical for exactly the same reasons I always have with respect to supposed limits on Nadal’s future success. It’s not just a kind of superstition, though. Because there is something very remarkable which has happened. The evolution of his game which first allowed him to dominate on grass, and then to win on fast hard, is at the same time actually preservative of his physical health. You didn’t used to associate Nadal with free points. There is an added factor here, too. Those 3 aces against Djokovic went some way, I suspect, to convincing him he couldn’t win. And this is Djokovic. An aura like this, actually increasing in scope, is going to be a mighty weapon in the very big matches.

    Finally, there is “the mental strain” which Nelson Goodman mentions. I very much doubt it. It will come into play, of course, in the smaller tourneys, as we have recently seen. But when it comes to the slams – and contrary to what some romantic Nadal fans claim, it is on the slams that the Nadal team have set their sights, just like Federer, that seems to me obvious – Nadal will be ready. He mentioned in one interesting interview that he finds it easier than most players to retain his focus because he was brought up as a child to learn how to do so. He’s not going to lose that, to a degree it’s now second nature (I would guess), and is properly switched on only when he needs it. He appears to be a composed and even diffident young man off the court, and this, too, suggests any sort of burnout is highly unlikely.

    • banti said

      ” it is on the slams that the Nadal team have set their sights, just like Federer, that seems to me obvious ”

      He has mentioned the WTF as something he has set his eyes upon as its something of importance he feels is missing on his resume. He seems to be preparing to peak for it , so looking forward to that.

      • grendel said

        Absolutely, for this year. I’m thinking long term. I’m never sure how much long term vision figures in Nadal’s mind, but it very definitely figures in Uncle Tonis’s – and that’s pretty decisive.

  11. sperry said

    I see another problem. We didn’t define “prime.” I think the idea was something like: “top years as determined by results.” And that is a perfectly valid criterion from one perspective. But in this instance there are at least two factors we are mixing that can’t, I think, be mixed: age and skill. (And if we really want to muddy the waters, we can throw in motivation.) Obviously, they are related, but players can hit their top skill level at vastly differing ages. (“Vastly differing” from a sports perspective.) Becker won his first slam at 18 and Lendl at 24. That’s a six year differential. Yes…Rafa has pounded his body pretty convincingly and it may be “older” than his years. THAT “prime” may be behind him. (But we don’t know.) But… if we use skill as a criterion, it is obvious he has gotten much better than when he was only winning the French. I would be willing to bet that when historians look back at the skill part of the equation, that most will say he entered his prime in 2010. Bit scarey, no?

  12. TGiT said

    I believe 2011 will answer all of the questions, hopes and fears for the two top players in Tennis.

    We spend hours or minutes on this board speculating and debating but soon the answers will come.

    Will Nadal continue his Glam Grand Slam ways or will he falter with all the points he must defend and now with the target firmly on his back? Is this the year he pulls a Fed and wins another three Grand Slams or even better holds all four titles at once. Is 2010 his peak year? He played a great US Open but did not demonstrate an absolute dominance on the surface like Fed and had a nice draw, too. Are those pesky knees and possibly feet ready to work more and more and more.

    Will Fed regain the number one spot? Only way to do that is to win more of those precious Slams. Will Fed settle into a top three player or become dissatisfied with NOT being number one? Can he get back HIS precious Wimbledon crown? Will he tie Chris and Martina with 18 slams? Really, I bet you never thought a male tennis player with great hair could possibly match the Grand Slam record of two legendary WTA players.

    2011 is the apex year and the two most important questions will be answered.

    Is Fed done? Is Nadal on a run?

    Stay Tuned!

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