Four By Four

Wednesday, May 01, 2013 /by
Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA
Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA

Tennis passed an interesting milestone when Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open last February. The win represented the 35th Grand Slam singles title gathered by the group commonly known as the “Big Four”—Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray—which is one more than the number of titles gathered by another four-man collective that remains as storied today as it did over a quarter of a century ago.

I’m talking about the four champions and rivals who turned Open tennis into wide-open tennis: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and the human bridge between these two Big Fours, Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl.

I suppose it would make sense to wait until the current Big Four is safely finished to draw sweeping conclusions, but my curiosity got the better of me. I’ve taken a pretty long look at how the two groups compare to this point, and found some of the statistical details compelling. We already know that the second wave will finish with more Grand Slam titles than the originals, but just how thoroughly did any of the individuals dominate—then or now?

One of the widest statistical gaps in all the data I sifted was in the individual Grand Slam title-winning percentages. Borg simply stands head and shoulders above all—the Big Eight, if you will—having won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam tournaments he entered for a winning percentage of 41. His closest rival in that department is Nadal, whose 11 wins in 33 events is good for a winning percentage of 33. (Incidentally, I counted only Grand Slam events in which the players were entered and posted an official result. And as usual, feel free to double check my math; I do my best, but I’m a writer, not a mathematician).

The only other player whose winning percentage at the majors is nearly as high is Federer, with 30.9%. That’s very close to Nadal’s success rate, and it underscores the extent to which Rafa and Roger have dominated their group with impeccable numbers. Surely these numbers will change, but Djokovic’s winning percentage is 18.1 (six of 33), while Murray’s is a dismal 3.4 (one of 29). In the original foursome, the three below Borg were bunched together fairly tightly—Connors and Lendl tied (quite remarkably) at eight wins in 57 tries (15.7%), with McEnroe at 15.5% (seven wins in 45 events).

A few notes on these numbers: Borg’s winning percentage is greatly enhanced by the fact that he walked away from the game while at his peak; surely it would be lower if he had a more typical career, a la Federer or Connors.

But this is the most astonishing and significant difference: Today’s Big Four have combined to miss just eight opportunities to win majors once they began to post results at that level. And Nadal is responsible for six of those DNPs (did not play). The original Big Four missed fully 66 Grand Slam opportunities, including a whopping 43 Australian Opens. That’s because for most of that era, the Australian Open was a major in name only; the event was held at the end of the year, on dodgy grass, at an outdated facility.

Now, if you apply the collective winning percentage of the group to the number of missed majors, you can make the case to add another dozen titles to the take of the original Big Four—not to mention significantly increase the title count of three of its members (Lendl only missed the Australian Open four times). But of course, that’s pure speculation.

In any event, even with the drag of Murray, the present-day Big Four has a significantly better group title-winning percentage than its predecessor: 23.3% to 18%. That suggests that today’s Big Four dominates to an even greater extent than those storied icons of the 70s and 80s. We’ll just have to see how these numbers are affected as the careers of the present generation peak and/or wind down.

Of course, even for the likes of Federer or Connors, it isn’t all about winning. Consistency also counts, even if it’s less sexy. So also I took a look at the Grand Slam match-winning percentages. Seven of the men under discussion here are on the top 10 list (Murray is the lone absentee). You’ll find the other three at the bottom of this post if you can’t guess who they are.

Again, the best winning percentage belongs to Borg, who was 141-16 (89.9%) at the majors, followed surprisingly closely by Nadal (157-22) at 87.7%. Nadal’s numbers benefit tremendously from his 52-1 French Open record, but that also serves to make No. 3 Federer’s stats that much more impressive. Federer is just a hair behind Nadal at 86.9% (252-38) on a much more evenly distributed record.

The lowest of the seven in this ranking is McEnroe, at No. 8 overall. He was 168-38 (81.5%) despite having posted the highest single-season winning percentage in tennis history. Remember, McEnroe didn’t win a single major in the final eight years of his career.

Of course, making Grand Slam finals, no matter what happens in them, is also a telling stat. Federer leads in that department with 24, followed by Lendl, who played for 19 major titles. Borg and Nadal are tied for fourth with 16 finals apiece, while Connors is tied with one outsider—Andre Agassi—at 15 finals, four more than McEnroe.

One of my favorite stats is winning percentage in Grand Slam finals, and that’s one category in which we have a telling upset: Federer’s 70.8 winning percentage (17-24) outshines even Borg’s 68.7% on 11 of 16.

One area were today’s Big Four is unlikely to ever catch the original group is in total singles titles won (across all events). The most prolific champion of all is Connors, with 109 singles titles; his nearest challenger is Lendl, with 94. The original Big Four won a total of 344 titles.

Today’s Big Four are unlikely to match that output. The leader is Federer, with 76 titles, trailed by Nadal with 54. But Djokovic and Murray fall off sharply; their 63 combined titles is still one shy of the least prolific man in the original quartet, Borg, who owns 64. But keep in mind that in the early years of the Open era, a less-organized game sometimes featured competitive tours and circuits that created more chances to play than today’s players are offered.

As I wrote above, the numbers for the current Big Four will change, perhaps dramatically. But they will change for the worse (winning percentage) as well as the better (number of titles). One of the big takeaways from this little exercise is that Murray better get busy, quickly. At least he’s in good hands with the man who once occupied a similar rung in his own generation’s Big Four.

P.S. The other men with top 10 Grand Slam match-winning percentages are Pete Sampras (No. 4), Agassi (No. 9), and Boris Becker (No. 10).

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