It’s always a difficult proposition to try to distinguish between eras of individual sports. Some athletes’ stars peak, while some others’ wane. Some show longevity to transcend eras while some only last during their fountain of youth.
Rafael Nadal was a bustling teen when he was at loggerheads with Andre Agassi, a superstar well past his prime. Whose era would you call that? Or when Pete Sampras famously passed on the torch to Roger Federer, would it be fitting to call that the era of Samparas and Federer both?
If you understand the magnanimity of the question I’m posing, you will definitely sympathise with the fact that it is even trickier to break a sport like tennis into generations. With the game evolving, and players emerging at break-neck speeds, it becomes all the more difficult to define generations in the modern era. While it’s easy to say Alexander Zverev and Roger Federer probably don’t belong to the same generation, what about Federer and Nadal, Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov, and Dimitrov and Zverev?
To try and simplify the generation-ageing process, I came up with a simple methodology. I’ve split tennis players into half-decade long generations, based on their year of birth, starting from 1950 going all the way up to 1999, to have 10 distinct player generations. So, for starters, Federer (1981) belongs to the same generation as Lleyton Hewitt (1981) and Andy Roddick (1982). Stan Wawrinka (1985), Nadal (1986), Novak Djokovic (1987) and Andy Murray (1987) all belong to the next generation.
The million-dollar question though: Why undertake this exercise? Is it just number crunching in futility, or does it lead to something of merit? So, let’s try and answer that question. We often engage in debates about the Greatest Of All Time, but do we spend time quantifying the collective prowess of generations and bench-marking how good (or bad) an entire generation of players was? It’s easy in today’s day and age to say that age is just a number, especially given the age-defying tennis Federer and Nadal produced last year, but we cannot understate the importance of age and peak physical conditioning in a sport like tennis. When you don’t have other legs to make up for your own tiring ones, age is not just a number!
What this age-bracket driven slicing and dicing made me achieve was a measure of just how good each of men’s singles tennis’ last 10 generations have been, and a rather unfortunate ‘outlier’: The generation of men’s tennis that history will most likely forget!
Here is a table of Grand Slam champions grouped by their year of birth based generation, since 1950:
While some generations have obviously outperformed some others, no generation has been as disappointing as the rather forgettable generation I’m referring to: Players born between 1990 and 1994. While you may think I’m being rather harsh on a group of players aged only 23 to 27, here is some food for thought:
At the same stage five years back, the preceding generation (1985-1989), had already accounted for 18 Singles Grand Slam triumphs.
While the 1985-1989 generation would probably go down in history as one of the most talented and competitive of all time, boasting the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, the same things would probably not be said of players born in the next five years, unless things take a dramatic turn.
Tennis isn’t all about Grand Slams though, as much as we’d like to make it to be. So, let’s take a closer look at the performances of this generation in men’s tennis’ next big thing, the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments (earlier known as the ATP Masters Series).
Dimitrov and Jack Sock are the only champions at the premier ATP events, each having one a single title in 2017. To his credit, Dimitrov is now also a winner of the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals. That being said though, five years ago, at the end of 2012, just the triad of Nadal-Djokovic-Murray had emerged victorious in 42 such events. What is also worth noting is that Dimitrov’s current ranking of 3 in the world is the highest rank achieved by anyone from his generation.
With five players from this generation: Grigor Dimitrov (Rank 3, born in 1991), Dominic Thiem (Rank 5, born in 1993), David Goffin (Rank 7, born in 1990), Sock (Rank 8, born in 1992) and Pablo Carreno Busta (Rank 10, born in 1991), ranked in the top-10 players of the world as of 1 January, 2018, we could see a massive explosion and change in fortunes for this particular generation.
However, with Federer and Nadal fresh on the heels of their odds-defying campaigns, and with Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka vying to rewrite history for this year’s campaign, after a disappointing, injury-marred 2017, one would need profound trust and optimism to back the generation lost in oblivion. The past records at the four Grand Slams of the generation in question instills little confidence in their abilities to crack open the draws at this year’s majors. Here is a table that contains the best outings of each of these five players in Grand Slams:
Dimitrov’s ranking brings me to another interesting observation. The next table lists the career progress of the most successful player from each generation before their age-27 season (the season they turned 27), as 2017 was Dimitrov’s season before his age-27 season. What is remarkable is that every generation had at least one player with at least three Grand Slam titles under their belt, and had at least one player who had been ranked World Number 1 before age 27. Dimitrov’s generation, being the anomaly that it is, has failed to produce even a one-time Grand Slam champion, and has no player yet that has attained the top rank in the men’s singles circuit!
A lot of the players born in early 90’s have been considered the "next-big thing" in men’s tennis albeit for really long periods, but none have really risen to the occasion. In all fairness, they grew up not just watching, but also playing one of the most daunting generations in the history of the sport. But that probably does not justify how agonisingly they have under-achieved. No other five-year long generation has tallied less than seven Grand Slam titles since 1950. To match that lowest historical number, it still looks like an uphill task for the 1990-94 generation, considering the quality preceding and following them.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2018 15:29:00 IST