Rafael Nadal’s dreams of a third Wimbledon title were shattered on Monday when he lost in the fourth round to 26th-ranked Gilles Muller. Then, on Wednesday, two more former champions and tournament favourites – Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – went down to lower ranked players (Sam Querrey and Thomas Berdych, respectively).
Murray and Djokovic were both thwarted by injuries, and Nadal, famous for his seemingly endless reserve of stamina, succumbed in the 28th game of the fifth set. Taken together, the three upsets – each one against a former champion now in his 30’s – may signal the coming of an end of an era in men’s tennis.
To be sure, three upsets do not make a trend. And Roger Federer, the oldest of the Big 4, may yet manage to win his record eighth Wimbledon on Sunday.
But a trove of data, compiled by sports statistician Jeff Sackman, also suggests that the previous decade of men’s tennis – characterized by a handful of top players’ domination of the field – may be very different from the years to come.
Upsets in Grand Slams
In 2003, a 21-year-old Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon title. The intervening years have been marked by near total dominance in the men’s field, with four players – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray – winning 48 of the 56 Grand Slam tournaments.
If it has been one of the greatest eras of men’s tennis, it has also been one of its most predictable. Since Federer first became Wimbledon champion, upsets have become increasingly rare in the men’s field.
If we define an upset as a match in which the winner’s rank was at least 10 lower than the loser’s, we find that the frequency of Grand Slam upsets dropped from about 26% in 2003 to about 21% in 2016.
Every year since 1991, upsets on the men’s side were more common on the women’s side. But in 2008, men’s upsets finally became less common than women’s, and have remained so ever since.
Federer wins his first Wimbledon
Del Potro wins US Open
Wawrinka wins Aus, French and US Open
While it is possible that the trend will continue into the future, it is at least as likely that the coming years will see a regression to the mean. That is particularly true because the men who have dominated tennis for the last several years are getting too old to keep winning all the time.
Tennis is old
The Big 4 have been dominating men's tennis for more than 10 years now. The youngest of the four is Novak Djokovic, who turned 30 in May. The oldest, Roger Federer, will be 36 in August. They are not only the best players on the tour right now, but also among the oldest. And it’s not just the Big 4 – the top 50 players are on an average older than they've been in the past 30 years.
Women, too, are getting older. And as the top players have aged, younger players have had to wait longer to make it into the top ranks.
With improvements in everything from equipment to playing surfaces to fitness to medicine, it is little wonder that today’s greats have displayed greater longevity than their predecessors.
But even the fittest athletes cannot last forever. As the top players retire within the coming years, we may see a sudden influx of younger players at the higher rankings.
That would again start a battle for the top spots, as happened in the mid-2000s, when Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic came to dominate the game. The next Big 4 could be just around the corner.