Top Ten Killers

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

In tennis, any number of great ideas have gone by the wayside. But one that has survived and is standing the test of time awfully well is the "Masters" concept. It has not only served the interests of that elite grade of nine sub-major tournaments, but it's helped drive the welcome process by which tour events came to be divided into three readily clear, easily distinguished grades, or divisions—the Masters 1000 events, the ATP 500s, and ATP 250s. 

It used to take an effort to figure out which tournaments counted, and for how much. But now anyone with even a modicum of interest can easily make sense of the crowded calendar, even with all those exotic names ('s-Hertogenbosch, anyone?) and cleverly embedded sponsor names, as in, the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, or the Western and Southern Open (Cincinnati). Unless you really know your way around tennis—or the financial services game—you look at the name of the event and ask yourself, do the Eastern and Northern have their own Open, too?

We're now deep in the heart of the season when you can expect as many as eight or nine of the elite top 10 players to write their names on the tournament sign-up sheet—hands firmly grasped and led through the signature by the ATP tour administrators, who have ably convinced the players that mandatory participation in the the Masters 1000 events is a good idea. So it's a good time to look at the 10 ATP pros who have been most successful against fellow Top 10 players. 

Before we look at active players, let's check where some retired players finished on the all-time career list, and then look at the top 10 among active players—four of whom are in the all-time top 10 already. Here's the list I worked from.

1. Bjorn Borg (.705 winning percentage, 62-28 all-time head-to-head vs. Top 10 opponents): Borg is the only player of any era to post a better than .700 career winning percentage against Top 10 opponents. Unless you're of the school that believes that any given player can only be measured against his own era, Borg looks doubly good—he dominated in his time (1972-81), and nobody has matched his record in subsequent years—although a few active players still have a shot at surpassing his mark (more about that later).

But there's a caveat here, which is that Borg quit the game abruptly. Therefore, he had the benefit of recording the wins he accumulated while he was at his peak, but did not play long enough to record the losses any great player suffers on the downhill side of his career. Strictly in terms of this statistic, Borg truly had the best of both worlds.

3. Boris Becker (.651, 121-65): This was a surprise to me. Although Becker was ranked No. 1, his reign lasted just 12 weeks. He never finished as the year-end No. 1, which is pretty high on the to-do list of greatness. And Becker won "just" six Grand Slam title—clearly below the standards set by the Ivan Lendls and Roger Federers of this world.

Yet overlapping Lendl and John McEnroe, as well as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Stefan Edberg (among others), Becker managed to post a better career record against Top 10 rivals than any of them. That gives you an idea of the degree to which Becker was a player most dangerous when he was responding to a challenge—and most vulnerable when he had no reason to play inspired tennis.

4. Ivan Lendl (.643, 119-66): This is a predictable No. 4; Lendl was nothing if not a model of consistency.

6. Pete Sampras (.636, 124-71): I would have guessed that he'd be higher up, but the numbers don't lie.

7. John McEnroe (.570, 85-64): Given his iconic status and his place on this list, the fact that he's not that far above .500 is a tribute to the overall quality of the Top 10, even if a pile of those losses were at the hands of two or three of his peers.

9. Andre Agassi (.548, 109-90): He rounds out this all-time top 10 quite nicely; it just wouldn't seem the same without him, right?

But the interesting thing to me is that this all-time top 10 features four players from the present era, only one of them anywhere near retirement age. I think you know which four I'm talking about (hint: it's not Janko Tipsarevic, David Ferrer, Stanislas Wawrinka and Jamie Murray). 

Despite his longevity, Federer (.670, 150-74) is No. 2 on the all-time list, while Rafael Nadal (.641, 91-51) is No. 5, with Andy Murray (.553, 51-42) coming in at No. 8, and Novak Djokovic (.545, 66-55) at No. 10.

Yet another measure of the degree to which this Big Four dominates the game is that you must go all the way down to No. 16 on the career best-against-the-best list to find to the next active player. And look at how far down the all-time list some of today's Top 10 are, compared to the Big Four.

Here are the bottom six in the top 10 of active players:

PicNo. 5 (No. 16 on all-time list) Lleyton Hewitt (.484, 60-64): He's down to No. 173 in the rankings, so he's an "active player" in name only. But hats off to him for hanging in there, and don't forget that he's paid a pretty hefty price in this statistical derby by remaining in the hunt long after his "use by" date seems to have expired. Hewitt is in the situation that Borg avoided with his early retirement, having taken many losses to Top 10 players since he was ranked No. 1 way back in November of 2001.

No. 6 (No. 29 all-time) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (.417, 25-35): This is a little surprising, but it certainly confirms the theory that he's a brilliant but not always reliable competitor. He and Murray are the only two in the top 7 active players who have yet to win a Grand Slam and/or reach No. 1 in the world rankings.

No. 7 (No. 32 all-time) Juan Carlos Ferrero (.410, 41-59): Another salty veteran, still playing and relatively highly ranked (No. 46) despite having a long history of injury at age 32.

No. 8 (No. 40 all-time) David Nalbandian (.389, 35-55): He accumulated a great reputation as a sometimes spectacular shotmaker, but he's never been consistent or fit enough to punch through the the very top class.

No. 9 (No. 49 all-time) Tommy Haas (.373, 41-69): "Tommy Gun" is still kicking, back on the tour this year and struggling to improve that ranking of No. 134 at age 34. But note that he's played more total matches against Top 10 opponent than anyone but the top five on this list.

No. 10 (No. 51 all time) Nikolay Davydenko (.367, 36-62): He's yet another warhorse. Now 30 years old and ranked No. 34, but you can be sure that he'll meet a few more Top 10 players before he pulls the plug on his career.

All in all, this is a remarkably diverse group; who would have picked the bottom six players if given a pop quiz? The list also demonstrates that one of the outstanding attributes of a "Top 10 killer" is longevity—but again, if anything, age ought to work against a player because he's apt to absorb more losses as his career wanes. Half of this top 10 is over the age of 30, and the list is especially skewed to veterans in the bottom five—only one of whom (Tsonga) is under 30.

The rest of those guys are, in every sense, oldies but goodies.

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