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Men's Tennis 2020: With 3 Players Dominating the Rankings, Their Success Looks One-Sided. Is it?

Updated: Feb 24

Besides the Top 3, Today, Who Reached No.1?

In men’s pro tennis, there's only one professional tennis player in the top 1000 players -- besides the top 3 -- who's experienced what it's like to be ranked world no. 1 or world no. 2 (hint: its Andy Murray). The player to have that lived experience is none other than Scottish/UK tennis great, Andy Murray (age 32.7). Murray is currently ranked world no. 128 by the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals). After a recent series of hip-related injuries have seen him periodically sidelined for months, Murray is slowly earning his way back up the world rankings.


Dominating the Sport

In professional men’s tennis “dominating the sport” is an expression that means a great deal to a lot of people. This is especially true when it comes to tennis fans, but even more so for the tournament director and manager who have the job of filling a stadium's seats, and securing advertisers to buy ad spots during hours of tennis match broadcasting.


Tournament organizers, promotors, advertisers, agents, and even the players’ fitness gurus -- parts of the engine that move men’s professional tennis forward, week after week, year after year -- are well aware of this sport’s dominating figures.


The top 3 giants now dominating the sport are: Rafael “Rafa” Nadal, Novak “Nole” Djokovic, and Roger Federer


These three players have dominated the sport so thoroughly, and for so long, that we need to remind ourselves of the other great players among the field of tennis pros, like Andy Murray, who have reached major career highs -- when making it to the number 2 spot, not just no. 1, was considered akin to climing Everest (without oxygen or Sherpas). On this day of 2s, we would do well to remember their indefatigable spirit, with as much respect as the big three. Plus they deserve our gratitude and admiration for keeping on with their game.


Today is February 02/22/2020, and the digit “2” is getting a strong showing numerically.

So, let’s pay attention first to the importance of one of the former world no.2 players, who was so dominant from 2010 through 2016 that he was the guy to beat. He was 1/4 quarter of what was then called "the big four" -- and he's still active and playing today.


Rankings Tell Stories with Numbers

What if there was an era in professional tennis that had an online live ranking system that was observable to all, and let’s for arguments sake call it the Live ATP Ranking (see https://live-tennis.eu/en/atp-live-ranking), updated every few hours by the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and everyone could keep track of how each player performed consistently?

Comparing each other to each other. Notwithstanding rainouts, that tend to delay everything, we can see hourly updates of how players are performing, and how dominant the stars athletes of the sport appear.


With the live ranking system, and tennis numerology, in this article we look deep into the numbers and serve up some observations about the current field of athletic awesomeness among these high achievers who are poised to dominate 2020 on this day of “2s”.


No. 2

Andy Murray is important to bring to mind on this day of 2s because no one in the current field save for Andy (and the top 3) knows what it is like to win Wimbledon twice, or to be ranked world no. 2. So, this is Andy Murray’s celebratory day – and all those who can mark a big day for No.2’s.


Andy is the only tennis professional to have ever won 2 Olympic Gold Medals (2012 v. Federer on Grass; 2016 v. del Potro on Hard surface). He also reached world number 2 in the Juniors.


We shift now from an admiring recognition of Murray’s achievements to highlighting the accomplishments in rankings reached by other players—at least up to this moment. We'll look closely from the numbers 2s on down.


We'll talk about Federer's Win-Loss record; and how often he's the runner up.


Most importantly, we'll take a look into what defines success among the sport's most dominant figures.


No. 3

Among the currently active men’s singles professional tennis players who have reached world number 3 during their career, there are six guys (listed here, with the date of their reaching world no.3, their current ranking, and present age):

  • · Stan Wawrinka (Switzerland, reached no.3 on Jan. 2014, currently world #16, aged 34.9),

  • · Milos Raonic (Canada, reached world no.3 Nov. 2016, currently world no.33, aged 29)

  • · Alexander Zverev (Germany, reached no.3 Nov. 2017, currently world #7, aged 22.8),

  • · Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria, reached no.3 on Nov. 2017, currently #22, aged 28.7),

  • · Marin Čilić (Croatia, reached on Jan. 2018, currently world #36, aged 31.4),

  • · Juan Martín del Potro (Argentina, reached on Aug 2018, currently #128, age 31.4).

Only these 6. Plus one: Andy. Plus the top 3. Ten in total.


Some of these world no.3’s have experienced what it’s like to be ranked at the top of the game in their own division. Sasha Zverev held the title of world junior no.1, as did Dimitrov. And they were both number 2’s on their own competitive journeys—as juniors.


No. 4

The tennis players who have experienced what it is like to be ranked no.4 in the world include all of those above plus three others:

  • Kei Nishikori (Japan, reached no.4 on March 2015, currently ranked no.30, aged 30.1).

  • current world no.4, Dominic Thiem (Austria, reached on Feb 3, 2020)

  • That’s it. Only these three—true story.


No. 5

The men’s players in the professional tennis world who have experienced what it is like to be ranked world #5 include all of those above plus:

  • current world no. 5, Daniil Medvedev (Russia, reached Feb 2020, aged 24), just bumped by Thiem to 5th,

  • · Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece, currently world no.6, aged 21.5),

  • · Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France, currently world #48, aged 34.5),

  • · Kevin Anderson (Australia, current world #122, aged 33.7) and Wimbledon Finalist 2018,

  • · Tommy Robredo (Spain, presently world #202, aged 37.5).


Top 10

Other currently active professional players who have earned their spot in the ATP world top 10 include:

  • · Fernando Verdasco (Spain, world no.7, currently #49, aged 36.2), who reached his career high world no.7 in April 2009, and still actively produces stellar performances on court,

  • · Gilles Simon (France, reached world no.6, currently #52, aged 35.1),

  • · Richard Gasquet (France, reached world no.7, currently #55, aged 33.6 years),

  • · John Isner (United States, reached world no.8, now #18, aged 34.8),

  • · Karen Khachanov (Russia, reached world no.8, now #17, aged 23.7).

  • · Janko Tipsarević (Serbia, reached world no.8, now #234, aged 35.6), a fellow countryman of Novak Djokovic, and inspiration to younger Serbian players.


The Changing Field & The Next Gens

Players now moving up in the rankings include Gael Monfils (France, former world #6, presently #9 back up from #13, aged 33.4) who just won the Rotterdam tournament, and could rise further this season.


Nick Kyrgios (Australia, former world no.13, currently #14, aged 24.8), a firebrand who sometimes gets in his own way, has never broken into the top 10. But it is likely to happen soon if he continues on his current trajectory. Kyrgios is a noted “Next Gen” favorite of John McEnroe (former USA tennis world no.1), and is young enough at 24 to have a bright future in the game.


In terms of unique shot making, Nick is up against his fellow “Next Gen” Denis Shapovalov (Canada, reached world no.13, currently #15) who, at only 20 years old, is steadily making his mark on the rankings wall with a dangerous jumping backhand as his monster signature shot. It’s a weapon that typically finishes off a point. In the hands of Shapovolov or Kyrgios the point it scores is a last word while the ball flies by the opponent, slicing through air like a top MLB pitcher's dangerous fastball.


Jack Sock (United States, aged 27) ranked 765 today was once as high as world no.8. Recovering from injuries, Sock made a spectacular showing at the Laver Cup last year and there’s a good chance that he’ll climb in the rankings again in 2020.


Dominating the Grand Slams

Besides the two Williams sisters, who have won 30 Grand Slams between them – Serena (23) and Venus (7) – only 3 tennis players (on the men’s side) have been the focus of the majority of tennis-centered media attention for the past decade.


Since, again, this is a day for 2s, let’s start by mentioning current world no.2, Rafael Nadal (Spain, aged 33.7), who has held the world number one ranking for 200 weeks so far in his career. Novak Djoković (Serbia, aged 32.7), the current world no.1, has spent 271 weeks at the top. And last but not least, Roger Federer (Switzerland, current world no.3, aged 38.5), considered to be the G.O.A.T. (‘greatest of all time’), has been world no.1 for 310 weeks.


Between these three, they have dominated the sport in the rankings because of their collective earning of Grand Slam titles, which confers 2000 rankings points to the winner. Each “Slam” determines the biggest leap in points (and usually rankings) of any tournament in the rigorous tennis calendar.


These three men have won 56 Grand Slam titles between them since 2004 (out of a total of 64 possible titles). That is 87.5% of all titles collectively going to one of these tough as nails gentlemen during the course of the past 16.5 “tennis” years. Why 16 and a half years? For two reasons, and two slams. It’s more detail, but here goes. Last month in Melbourne, Djokovic won the first Grand Slam of 2020, the Australian Open, and now we await the outcome of the next three; and Federer won his first Slam (Wimbledon) in 2003. Adding together these two “quarters” (from 2003 and 2020), on either side of 2004-2019, there is a half-year.


Okay, back to the phenomenal numbers that we can calculate more easily.


These 3 guys have dominated the 4 annual Grand Slams to such an extent that in the 8 years from 2006-2008, 2010-2011 through 2017-2019 not one player won a slam title besides them.


These three – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic – were “interrupted” in their run at producing Grand Slam titles by no more than six other players since 2005:

  • · Juan Martin del Potro (US Open 2009),

  • · Andy Murray (Wimbledon 2013 and 2016, US Open 2012).

  • · Marin Čilić (US Open 2014).

  • · Stan Wawrinka (French Open 2015, US Open, 2016, Australian Open 2017), and

  • · One name that I didn’t know is Gaston Gaudio, an Argentinian (aged 41 today) who won the French Open in 2004 by defeating a fellow Argentinian.

  • · More well-known is Marat Safin (Australian Open 2005), who was greatly admired by Roger Federer, and was the man to beat as Roger won his first Grand Slam title in London (Wimbledon 2003).


Tightly Strung Reality Check

No matter how excellent a player is, there are high hurdles to jump over in the Open Era of tennis rankings. For example, Stan Wawrinka has won three grand slam titles. But his overall win-loss record against the top three players is 12-60: Djokovic (6-19), Federer (3-23), and Nadal (3-19). Despite his skillful playing abilities, he has won 20% of these match-ups.


Experiencing the World No.1 Ranking, or World Record Holder

Olympian Michael Phelps is known for establishing world records, including winning 23 Olympic Gold medals. His achievements in the sport of swimming seems like a different topic, but I bring it up here as a sidebar note for a reason.


Analysts have tried to understand “how” Phelps achieved such heights of greatness where others hadn’t risen nearly so far.


As an ethnomusicologist, and music and health researcher, I would start at Phelps’ musical inspirations, and ask him, “What were you listening to? What music was on your phone?” He could be seen listening to it up until the moment he got on the starting blocks. Before every single race, he took his earbuds out, and took a long breath before the starter’s gun impelled his first dart-like plunge into the pool’s glassy water.


I would check out who he was listening to and how he listened to it. What aspect of the music got him pumped? Was it the rhythm, vibe, melody, or timbre that got him ready to win? What did he hear while he was underwater, or when coming up for breaths? Was he “on music”? Was he “dancing across the water” to take down his opponents as Neil Young said?


Phelps made a comeback by adjusting his strategy, returning to his rigorous training schedule after leaving the Olympian regimen for a remarkable amount of time. How he got it back was about rhythmic consistency and turning up the volume when cuing his talented skill sets.


Records are Made to be Broken: But by Yourself?

Back to tennis. Federer changed the game of tennis by breaking numerous records after he first reached number one on February 2, 2004. No one else had his string of wins, including over 300 weeks at world no.1., a record he set years ago that had not been broken. But then, to most everyone’s surprise, Federer recently reached the world no.1 position again twice -- each time for only one week -- in two different years: 2015, and 2017. The second time, it was when knee surgery followed by six months of rest and recovery kept him off the tournament circuit during the second half of 2016.


His inspiring comeback, first winning the Australian Open in January 2017 and then winning the “Sunshine Double” (Indian Wells, and Miami Open) tournaments in the USA, brought his ATP points up, and his ranking with them, consequently bumping his rival and buddy, Rafa, to no.2.


Tennis pundits had fretted for months about whether The Swiss Maestro, as they called him, would retire after that injury, but then he returned to take the top seed ranking in the sport.


Massive Wins means Proportional Losses

Sometimes the first numbers leave out a more interesting secondary story underlying Federer's seeming sweep.


When Federer achieved accolades for having won 100 career tournaments in October 2017, statistically he had been in 150 ATP tournament finals. Overall, he had lost once out of every three times he was across the net from an opponent in a final, poised to win a tournament. He won only two thirds of the time. Fifty times he came in 2nd. This includes all ATP tournaments, whether the total points were 250, 500, 1000 or 2000 (the Grand Slams), as well as the possible take home financial earnings for the winner.


Many pundits focus on the Grand Slams Federer has won: 20

But Federer is 20-11 (win-loss) in Grand Slam finals. To quantify the statistic differently, Roger reached Grand Slam tournament finals 31 times, but was able to take the title in only 1/3 (36.6%) of those matchups. Where does Federer's W-L record end him up? Probably somewhere between 37% (GSs only) and 66% (all tournaments including GSs combined).


Overall, then, Roger Federer is above 50-50 win-loss in tournament finals.


Someone hailed as the “best” still loses quite a bit. Okay. But is that our takeaway message?


Partially, yes. Keeps us all humble. To me, this learning moment around Roger’s statistical W-L ratio in tournament finals is about paying attention to his stick-to-it-ive-ness. His journey is important; not his destinaion. Someone who loses at the last moment still has whatever mental muscle is needed in his mind to keep giving a champion’s effort, to try to put himself in a position to win—to win off of a serve, a point, a game, set, or match. Moreover, Federer has never retired from any tournament—ever.


Attitide is Everything

So, the "takeaway" is probably more like this dictum: How you play, your attitude, makes the difference in whether you win, and that attitude and approach reflects in your stats ultimately. It even determines whether you are happy and enjoy your life as a player.


In January 2020, the ATP found that Federer has been in the top 10 for 900 weeks in total. That shows commiment comes from the joy Federer always notes he has for the sport. And that enthusiasm keeps leading him to a new level of dominance of the sport that continues to inspire other players to rise higher.


The new guys, the "Next Gens," know that as long as the top three are around, the summit they can reach might be up in the clouds. But they keep at it.


The Rolling Stones didn't stop playing just because The Beatles, "this band from Liverpool of all places," not London, showed up with a record contract and getting their songs on the pop charts, and played on the radio. The Beatles gave a song they'd written to Mick and the guys, and that helped them to get on the billboard charts, which changed the rivalry into a different feeling. (See Mick Jagger talk about this when he inducts the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).


Likewise, Roger has been a mentor to the younger players for many years already, and the process of passing along advice to the Next Gen was never more visibly apparent than in Roger's team tennis tournament he created, the Laver Cup.


No one Can Take That (Ranking) Away from You

Andy Murray spent 41 weeks at world no.1 (Nov 7, 2016 – Aug 20, 2017). No one can take that away from him. Murray is alone in having this singular distinction in men’s tennis (besides the current world top three) in the past 15 years. In this respect, he’s second to none. So, happy Feb. 22nd. Or, as numerologists say: Felis 2/20/2020.


Murray, the Scotsman, turned UK everyman (under nationalist scrutiny following a botched response to an on-court interview question) after winning Wimbledon, is not number one or two when it comes to handling his narrative in the media.


Feature Future Article--What it Feels Like to be At the Top? or Achieving a Personal Best?

“Feeling at the top of your game,” or “achieving your personal best,” sometimes go together in sports, and life, but not always.


When tennis players in the top 5, top 10 or top 20 have had the experience of reaching a new career high, climbing within reach of the top 3, the proverbial tennis summit, how many said they also “felt at the very top of their game?”


Qualitatively, what is the difference in the felt experiences of (1) believing the numbers that say you’re great, (2) feeling great physically, and (3) feeling mentally that you’re able to beat the best? Stay tuned as we look into this further in a follow up article on Sports Psychology.


Please click "like" and leave a comment below. Would love to hear your thoughts about this article, and about tennis or any sport where the game is dominated by a select few at the top and how that can affect the overall psychology of the field of the other athletes.

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