We’ve spent some time now on Grand Slam Scores as a method for evaluating tennis players. We’ve used two different weighting methods, and broken the scores down Slam by Slam. But everything we’ve looked at so far has been a career total, and that is inevitably only part of the story.
So let’s move on to the other basic mode of evaluation: rate statistics. We’ll start with the top players in overall Grand Slam Score accumulated per Slam played:
1. Bjorn Borg 0.54 (14.55, 27 Slams)
Borg played in 27 Slams and reached the final in an incredible 16 of them, winning 11. The next highest-rated player by Slam Scores who’s played in less than 40 Slams is Andy Murray, who has played 36 to date (and is pretty clearly going to exceed 40 at some point), and who’s amassed just over half of the total Slam Score that Borg compiled, despite playing in 33% more events.
There are people who will argue for Borg as the greatest player ever. I do not agree with them – but this more or less shows you where that argument comes from.
2. Rafael Nadal 0.47 (18.79, 40)
3. Roger Federer 0.40 (25.34, 63)
4. Rod Laver 0.38 (15.30, 40)
5. Novak Djokovic 0.37 (15.05, 41)
Hey, it’s Nadal over Federer! Of course, Nadal won his first Slam far younger than Roger did, and hasn’t gone through an extended decline phase like Roger has, and this is a method that bypasses his weaknesses, as there’s no penalty for skipping a Slam entirely. (Incidentally, did you notice on the list that Djokovic has now played more total Slams than Nadal, despite Rafa making his first appearances two years earlier?)
The more startling thing to me, though, is Novak’s appearance in the top 5. I think there’s a tendency to think of Djokovic only as a part of the big 3 (or big 4, or however you want to consider the current era); he’s pretty clearly behind Roger and Rafa so far, and it’s easier to talk about them as a unit (they’ve combined to win 35 of the last 40 Slams played) than it is to establish Djokovic’s place in and of itself – especially since that place is still being established. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Djokovic is a tennis titan in his own right, and with both Federer and Nadal slowing down to some extent while he keeps going strong, his placement on lists like this is more likely to improve than it is to decline any time in the near future.
6. Ken Rosewall 0.37 (15.36, 42)
7. Pete Sampras 0.36 (18.66, 52)
8. Ivan Lendl 0.30 (17.24, 57)
9. Roy Emerson 0.30 (17.81, 60)
10. Jimmy Connors 0.30 (17.12, 58)
Lendl, Emerson, and Connors have freakishly similar entries – all with totals between 17 and 18, all coming in between 57 and 60 events. Of course, the ways they got to those entries were wildly different – but we’ll get to that later.
11. John McEnroe 0.28 (12.48, 45)
12. Andre Agassi 0.26 (16.15, 61)
13. Mats Wilander 0.25 (11.20, 44)
14. Boris Becker 0.25 (11.40, 46)
15. John Newcombe 0.24 (12.22, 51)
16. Andy Murray 0.23 (8.16, 36)
17. Stefan Edberg 0.23 (12.17, 54)
18. Arthur Ashe 0.19 (8.18, 44)
19. Jim Courier 0.18 (7.75, 42)
20. Guillermo Vilas 0.18 (8.76, 49)
21. Tony Roche 0.17 (6.84, 41)
That’s probably far enough to take the overall list – there’s a notable dropoff between Edberg and Ashe, and there’s another one after Roche. If you interpret the average with an overabundance of literality, you could read that everyone down through the 17 spot was a reasonably good bet to make a semi in any Slam they played. (But you shouldn’t do that, because a title is not the same as four semis, and all of them won multiple titles.)
One more note before moving on. The highest-ranked active player on the list outside of the Big Four is not necessarily someone you’d guess right away. It’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has a total score of 2.89 in 28 Slams (coming from one final, four semis, five quarters, and nine rounds of 16), giving him an average just above 0.10 points per Slam. Tsonga is also the highest-ranked player who has not won a Slam (he’s #37 on the overall list).
All right, on to the individual Slams. We’ll do them in reverse calendar order this time.
1. Pete Sampras 0.51 (7.07, 14 appearances)
2. Roger Federer 0.44 (6.66, 15)
3. Ivan Lendl 0.39 (6.23, 16)
4. Novak Djokovic 0.38 (3.81, 10)
5. Jimmy Connors 0.37 (8.20, 22)
6. Ken Rosewall 0.36 (4.30, 12)
7. John McEnroe 0.35 (5.63, 16)
8. Rafael Nadal 0.33 (3.25, 10)
9. John Newcombe 0.32 (3.51, 11)
10. Rod Laver 0.29 (3.48, 12)
One spot shy of qualifying for the list is Borg, who averaged 0.28 points per US Open despite never winning the title. (Everyone in the top 10 won at least twice except for Novak, who has a win and four finals.)
Jimmy Connors played the US Open twenty-two times. He lost in the first round twice, and the second round twice – and those were his first three appearances and his last one. Apart from those four early defeats, Connors made the quarterfinals in 17 of his other 18 appearances, a performance that would give him the #2 spot in points per appearance while still having more times at the event than anyone else in the top 10.
1. Bjorn Borg 0.64 (5.78, 9)
2. Pete Sampras 0.53 (7.48, 14)
3. Roger Federer 0.53 (8.41, 16)
4. Rod Laver 0.48 (5.24, 11)
5. Boris Becker 0.39 (5.89, 15)
6. Rafael Nadal 0.36 (3.63, 10)
7. John McEnroe 0.36 (5.03, 14)
8. Novak Djokovic 0.35 (3.48, 10)
9. Andy Murray 0.29 (2.59, 9)
10. John Newcombe 0.28 (3.91, 14)
Connors (5.82, 21) gets narrowly edged out of the #10 spot.
Borg’s score is incredible; that’s what happens when you make the quarters in eight of your nine appearances, and win five titles. And yet, it’s not as good as his score at the…
1. Rafael Nadal 0.91 (9.06, 10)
2. Bjorn Borg, 0.77 (6.19, 8)
3. Ken Rosewall, 0.52 (2.58, 5)
4. Tony Roche, 0.38 (2.27, 6)
5. Mats Wilander, 0.37 (4.46, 12)
6. Rod Laver, 0.35 (2.84, 8)
7. Gustavo Kuerten, 0.31 (3.41, 11)
8. Ivan Lendl, 0.30 (4.51, 15)
9. Jim Courier, 0.28 (3.10, 11)
10. Roy Emerson, 0.27 (3.51, 13)
This makes three out of three events to have an all-timer ranked at #11; this time it’s Federer himself (4.05, 16).
The first thing that comes to mind here is obviously Nadal and Borg, who are absurd. Borg’s French Open rate score is (spoiler) the second-highest anyone has at any Slam – and Nadal could lose in the first round at Roland Garros in each of the next two years and stay ahead of him.
The second is to wonder why on Earth Rosewall and Roche didn’t play the French more often. Yes, they were both excluded for much of their careers due to timing and the non-Open Era rules – but the same effect was present at Wimbledon, and both of them played Wimbledon more than twice as many times as they did the French (11 to 5 for Rosewall, 13-6 for Roche) despite having more success at Roland Garros when they did participate.
Speaking of people who probably should have played an important tournament more often, let’s check out the…
1. Jimmy Connors 0.75 (1.50, 2)
2. Guillermo Vilas 0.56 (2.81, 5)
3. Andre Agassi 0.53 (4.75, 9)
4. Novak Djokovic 0.50 (5.45, 11)
5. Roy Emerson 0.49 (7.31, 15)
6. Arthur Ashe 0.48 (2.88, 6)
7. Rod Laver 0.42 (3.75, 9)
8. Ken Rosewall 0.41 (5.69, 14)
9. Mats Wilander 0.39 (3.91, 10)
10. Roger Federer 0.39 (6.22, 16)
Fully half of the list is composed of people who played the tournament 10 times or less – including the top 3. Connors is the most notable feature; he played the Australian in 1974 (winning the title) and 1975 (making the final), then never returned. Had he shown up in Australia a few more times over the remaining 17 years of his career, his Slam total likely would have climbed into double digits.
Connors is not alone in his nonrecurring success, however. Vilas had more total success in 5 Australian Opens than he did in 11 Wimbledons or 15 US Opens, winning two of his four Slams there despite rarely playing the event at all. Agassi skipped the Slam Down Under for the first eight years he’d have been eligible to play; he then played nine of the next ten, and won four of them. Ashe reached four finals in six Australian appearances; he made three total finals in 37 tries at the other three Slams.
If any one of these players (or any number of others, most obviously Borg and McEnroe) had played the Australian more often, there’s a very good chance that his place in tennis history would look notably different than it does today. The really intriguing alternate history, however, would be if everyone had always played the Australian, and if professional players had always been allowed… so who wants to design the historical tennis simulation engine and let us find out what would have happened?
Pending that, let’s finish with a combined list of the best individual Slam rates, this time with a minimum requirement of 8 times playing the Slam in question (which, yes, is specifically chosen to get Borg’s French Open history included):
1. Rafael Nadal, French 0.91
2. Bjorn Borg, French 0.77
3. Bjorn Borg, Wimbledon 0.64
4. Pete Sampras, Wimbledon 0.53
5. Andre Agassi, Australian 0.53
6. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 0.53
7. Pete Sampras, US 0.51
8. Novak Djokovic, Australian 0.50
9. Roy Emerson, Australian 0.49
10. Rod Laver, Wimbledon 0.48
Having compiled yet another list featuring many of the greatest players ever (and some of them twice), it’s now time to move on. The next post to feature Slam Scores will be focused a bit more on the outer reaches of the sport, looking at the best players who haven’t won Slams, and the worst (or least accomplished) players who have.