Tennis Analysis

The Real Weak Era

Did Roger Federer's success have much to do with a lack of serious competition?

In this day and age, when every person behind a keyboard can share his thoughts online, and the media is ever hungry for sensational titles, plenty of arguments and speculations are thrown to the air.

One such argument is the “Weak Era” argument. We all know it.

In a nutshell, it claims that Roger Federer's success has much to do with a lack of serious competition.

Therefore, Djokovic's and Nadal's success is much more meaningful and proof of them being greater than the Swiss.

In this article, I will claim that a “Weak Era” argument, while a weak argument, to begin with, can also backfire quite heavily.

If you don't have the patience for another article about this endless debate, here is a TLDR summary:

The biggest challenge for every generation of tennis players, no matter how great they are, is the generation following them.

While Federer had to struggle with a very talented younger generation, Djokovic and Nadal enjoyed the weakest era in modern tennis history following their footsteps.

Or to put it even shorter: Roddick, Hewitt, Nalbandian>Raonic, Nishikori,Dimitrov.

Also, a necessary clarification – Nadal, and Djokovic are fantastic tennis players.

This article is not suggesting anything to the contrary. It just comes to show how a very dominant argument of many tennis fans out there is just ridiculous.

Let's begin.

Tennis Generations – Drawing The Lines

Lost Gen

It is hard to define a generation of tennis players. One must draw lines somewhere.

The rational of my definition is that every decade has two generations of tennis players. Many tennis analysts see it this way, e.g. the 90s generations are now called the “Lost Gen”, and “Next Gen”.

In the edges of every generation, you get players five years younger than the oldest of their generations, thus having an advantage on the H2H from some point.

Also, you could make the case that Kyrgios and Edmund, for example, are neither part of “Next Gen” nor the “Lost Gen”, both born in 1995 and by my definition are “Next Gen”.

However, drawing the lines always has arbitrariness to it. We do it to make the numbers we give time work, and reality is fluid. Looking at it as two generations per decade is just easier to handle, without a “middle generation” every second decade.

(Jonathan had a different idea about tennis generation definition in his post “Where Are They Now? Roger Federer's's Generation“)

The generations as defined are – 1980-1984; 1985-1989; 1990-1994, and so on.

Comparing The Generations

Raonic Doubles

Although numerous statistics can be in use here, I will look at some basic statistics focusing  on achievements:

Grand Slam achievements – number of titles, finals, SF, per generation. Finals and Semi-Finals are not included when a player finished better. E.g., Thiem has reached a GS semi-final six times and advanced to the finals four times. The count is Title – 1, Finals – 3, Semi-Final – 2.

  • ATP tournaments achievements – number of titles, finals, per generation.
  • Ranking achievements –Top 20, 10, 5 year ends – cumulative per generation.
  • I use the year-end rankings because they capture success in a calendar year; thus, they are easier to follow.

I will not examine the 1985-1989 generation.

Their status as the best tennis generation is hard to deny. The only possible effect it can have on the argument is to showcase how the following generation is weaker, even if I exclude Djokovic and Nadal from the equation.

I have excluded Federer's achievements, as the argument I refer to is about the competition he had to face. You can say it skews the numbers, especially in the GS winning column, as Roger won many of his titles against his generation.

This is the reason I count Finals and Semi-Finals as well. There can be only one winner, but a grand slam SF is a significant achievement for 99% of tennis players.

Lastly, I have included Kei Nishikori, born 29.12.1989, in the “Lost Gen” generation. Tennis fans mostly recognize him with that generation.

Grand Slam Achievements

  “Weak Era” “Lost Gen” Comments
Grand Slam Titles 6 1 Hewitt 2, Safin 2, Ferrero 1, Roddick 1.

Thiem 1

Grand Slam Finals 16 5 Roddick 4, Ferrero 2, Hewitt 2, Safin 2, Soderling 2, Coria 1, Ferrer 1, Gonzalez 1, Nalbandian 1.

Thiem 3, Raonic 1, Nishikori 1

GS Semi-Finals 37 14 17 different players.

Dimitrov 3, Thiem 2, Raonic 2, Nishikori 2, Carreno Busta 2, Janowicz 1, Pouille 1, Cecchinato 1

ATP Tournaments Achievements

  “Weak Era” “Lost Gen” Comments
Titles 346 90  
Finals 386 109  
Players to win a title 54 24  
Players to reach a final 66 37 Includes title winners
Players to win between 5 to 9 titles 11 3  
Players to win 10 or more titles 12 2 For “Lost Gen” – Thiem (16), Nishikori (12)

Ranking Achievements

  “Weak Era” “Lost Gen” Comments
Top 5 Year-End 23 6 Number of cumulated top 5 Year-End Rankings per Generation
Top 10 Year-End 31 8 Places 6-10
Top 20 Year-End 47 21 Places 11-20
Most Players in Top 5 in a single year (YE) 3 2 “Weak Era” – 2002-2005

“Lost Gen” – 2016-2017

Most Players in Top 10 in a single year (YE) 6 5 “Weak Era” – 2006-2007

“Lost Gen” – 2017

Places 1-10

Most Players in Top 20 in a single year (YE) 11 6 “Weak Era” – 2005

“Lost Gen” – 2016-2018

Places 1-20

“Weak Era” had at least 6 players in the top 20 between 2002-2011

Table Analysis

Analysis

Yes, the early 90s players still haven't said the last word.

Dominic Thiem won his first major title, and the first major title for the early 90s generation as well. He might win more big titles (I don't see other players from his generation doing so).

However, with the late 90s generation (or “Next Gen”) mature and enter their prime, I don't think the “Lost Gen” will increase the numbers significantly. It will still be very far from the early 80s generation. Most of the tournament winners in pre-COVID-19 2020 were “Next Gen” players.

What we can learn from this table is that the early 90s generation is weak in every dimension. While it doesn't have many Hall of Fame calibre players, it also seriously lacks depth. No grand slam heroes are one thing, but there are also few ATP 250 conquerors.

The ranking data shows a clear picture, as well. Some may argue that the early 2000s were a weaker period. However, the early 80s generations wholly owned it.

The early 90s generation was owned by pretty much every active generation around them. The late 80s generation is the immediate suspect, but some of the early 80s players continued to thrive on the tour.

Players like Gilles Muller and Paolo Lorenzi won their first titles deep into their 30s. And the “Next Gen” players began to emerge as well.

2017-2018 felt like a transition period similar to 2001-2002, but it was the “Next Gen” who took over. In 2018 and

2019 there were as many or more players born in the late 90s in the top 20 than player born in the early 90s, and it seems like the trend.

As for why and how little talent was “produced” over several years I can't tell. I'm not a tennis expert, and I'm sure the experts themselves are quite baffled.

The only argument I can give to the “Lost Gen” defence is that they are the first generation to suffer from the improvement in sports technology, especially from medicine.

Ten years ago it still seemed natural that 30 is the beginning of the end for a tennis player. Today players are still more prone to injury as they age, but they continue to play competitive tennis deep into their 30s.

The significant growth in prize money was also a considerable incentive for longer careers, and it opened expensive medical opportunities, especially to the top players.

In addition to the numbers, here are three examples of how the early 90s generation didn't shine when it was, at least statistically, their time.

2015 – Djokovic is dominant, and no younger competitors are there to stop him

2015 Uso Djok

The players born at the beginning of the 90s should have peaked around 2015. We did see some deep grand slam runs by some of them around that time, but for me, 2015 is the year that symbolizes the dominance of the previous generations.

This year was Djokovic's best year. Some will say it was 2011, but in terms of achievements, there is no question. 3 GS titles, 4 GS finals, ATP finals champion, 6 Masters titles, and a record of 82-6.

Only four players finished a match with a W against him – Federer (Dubai F, Cincinnati F, ATP Finals RR), Karlovic (Doha QF), Wawrinka (Roland Garros F), Murray (Montreal F).

All four players are older than him (Murray born a week before). Not a single semi-final or final he played that year were against a player born in the 1990s. Incredible!

2017 US Open – Young stars falter one after the other

Zverev Uso 17

The North American hardcourt summer of 2017 seemed like the beginning of the end for the big 3, or big 4, dominance in tennis, and maybe even the end for the old guard.

With Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, and many others, ending their seasons prematurely because of injuries, and Fedal playing sub-par tennis, a new champion seemed only natural.

Murray, the 2nd seed, withdrew after the draw, making the draw even less balanced, with most of the big names already in the top half of the draw, mainly Federer (3) and Nadal (1).

Well, we all know what happened. In a weird tournament in which 14 of the 32 seeds were out before the 3rd round, Nadal won without having to conquer a top 25 ranked player.

That US Open was the springboard for… Kevin Anderson rise for the top 10 after he took advantage of one of the weaker halves in recent grand slam history on his route to the championship match (Aragone, Gulbis, Coric, Lorenzi, Querry [22 Ranking, 17 seed], Carreno Busta [19,12]).

Zverev and Dimitrov, the Master's champions were both out in the 2nd round.

In the vacuum of no young talent, a sub-par performance by one of the big three was certainly enough for a grand slam title.

2018 Australian Open – Young dark horses are out of gas

Chung Ao 18

After a long time of recovery, many tennis stars were back in business. It made for an interesting draw with some big names having bigger numbers than usual near them, e.g. Djokovic (14), Raonic (22).

And with world number one Nadal withdrawing from hard court tournaments and Federer's disappointing finish of 2017, it seemed like it could be anyone's chance.

However, many of the recovered stars didn't recover. After early rounds upsets, two young players emerged as Semi-Finalists after beating some of the best competition out there. Kyle Edmund (Anderson, Dimitrov) and Hyeon Chung (Zverev, Djokovic) impressed in their first five matches. However, both fell short on their Semi-Finals effort.

Edmund (62 76[4] 62) and Chung (61 52 [RET]) didn't have enough left on the tank. Both were not 100% fit come the Semi-Finals, and both couldn't quite make it competitive.

Roger won this title with his B game, after a hard-fought five sets battle against Cilic in the championship match.

There was no drama on his way there. He didn't drop a set. It wasn't his best tennis, and it was perhaps his least impressive grand slam win, tennis wise.

The “Lost Gen” were lost this time. Dimitrov was touted as one of the favourites with his strong finish of 2017, and his impressive AO run in the same year. He did make it to the Quarter Finals and wasn't the only one from his generation of players. Tennys Sandgren was the other.

Summary

Agassi Safin

The numbers tell us that the “Weak Era” generation was a deep, high quality, generation. The top talents of that generation were unlucky to reach their prime with one of the greatest tennis players of all time, if not the greatest of them.

If Federer wasn't enough, a new talented generation took over when they were just past their prime. Many of them succumbed to injuries and lost their place at the top (e.g. Hewitt) or retired early (Roddick, Safin, Nalbandian, Coria), clearing the stage for the next generations of tennis.

Despite all that, their achievements were quite substantial.

The late 80s generation talent is undisputable as they took the summit of tennis quite early and for a long time.
However, they did enjoy some of the best circumstances, especially a historically weak generation following them.

One can argue that it is a “Chicken or Egg” situation. Maybe one generations' talent diminished the other. While it is undoubtedly part of the story, the lack of depth and unique talent is very noticeable in the early 90s generation.

The fact that other tennis generations enjoyed the vacuum created by the dip in talent suggests that it was more the early 90s generation being weak than the late 80s generation being strong.

If a “New Djokovic” was born in 1992, Roger Federer might not have won his latest three grand slams, or at least not all of them.

However, between Federer's 17th Grand Slam title (Wimbledon 2012) to the present, Djokovic (12 Slams) and Nadal (8) were the greatest beneficiaries of a weak generation of tennis players.

The next time a person starts the “Weak Era” argument, smile and say/write “Well, Roddick was better than Raonic”.

Shmeltz

Other than watching Roger play tennis, I love music and play a few instruments on various ensembles. I work at a budgets department, as my PEP (Philosophy, Economics and Political Science) taught me that in the end, it all comes down to the numbers.

15 Comments

  1. Eras can’t be compared, too many things into account while the conditions changes a lot.
    That being said, if I have to pick one it would be definitely this one. Federer not only had his generation to compete with, he had to fight the young guys which were the best new promises I’ve ever saw (Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro, Berdych, Tsonga, Gasquet, Ancic, Baghdatis, Wawrinka, Monfils, etc).

    ¿What did Djokovic had to face? The generation of the likes of Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishikori were never even a threat, neither the ones which came after them. His current rivals weren’t at their best at the same time, with Federer falling in 2013 and 2016, Nadal off form in 2014-16, Murray injured in 2013-14 (and when being healthy, most times he choked it), Wawrinka only appearing since 2014 and for some Grand Slams.

    The quality of the matches in Federer’s era was by far better than now. I’ll give my left nut to see again a Federer-Nalbandian or Federer-Safin. Even the firsts rounds of any GS were worth to watch, featuring all kind of players and styles.

  2. I really have to agree with Alexander .Feds very longevity has meant that he has had to face a huge and varied amount of talent.Kudos to him.His ability to learn ,to change his game and adapt is incredible.
    Also thank you Jonathan for such a detailed and interesting discussion.

    1. Actually it speaks highly of Roger. People forget how tennis was before 2010, before all the improvements in technologies, and treatments, everything. Players had physio only when they were injured.
      That’s why they all used to retire when they reached 30, they were already done. The guys reached their primes very early as well.
      Almost everyone from Roger’s generation retired by 2009-12. Even Coria retired at 27 in 2008. He should have followed the same path, given that his tennis came from the 90s style, along with his fitness.

      The fact that he was the main rival of Djokovic for so long (also when he was in his prime), even ocasionally beating him, only speaks greatness.

  3. Interesting – possibly generating a lot of dispute. It’ll still annoy me to the end of my tennis-interest, the outcome of the wimby final 2019 🙁

  4. I always use Roger to draw the line. So, if we divide players by a 5 year time frame, I’ll put Roger in the centre (1981) and 2 years for each side (giving a generation between 1979 and 1983.
    For me it would be 1979-83, 1984-88, 1989-93, 1994-1998, 1998-2002.

  5. Honestly who the fuck cares about the likes of Nalbandian, Thiem, Roddick, Raonic, Dimitrov etc, yes, the previous generation may have been a bit more competitive than this lost one, but Nadal and Djokovic had to face each other for All their carriers,and also Roger, Sir Andy, Stan the Man, Juan Martín Dél Potro. The 2010 decade was the most competent decade of tennis history with the dominance of the big 3.Federer’s só called “weak era” regards to the lack of Novak and Rafa and its not about comparing “the second league” Come on man, you wrote a whole article without talking about the Real relevant things. And I say it again, you might be right, Nalbandian, Davidenko and Hewitt were probably better than Thiem, Raonic, Dimitrov, but Djokovic and Nadal (maybe even Murray) would have owned the same way as Federer did.

    1. Tell me for once when all of them played each other at their best at the same time.
      Wawrinka only started to win in 2014, the same time when Nadal got injured and out of form (Murray as well). So, you got 1 and lost 2.
      Del Potro was never there. Only for 2009 and 2012-13.
      Federer was shit in 2013.
      Nadal was shit in 2014-16.

      Murray never was even a threat to the Big 3, he won his Grand Slams against tired Djokovic and RAONIC. Same with Olympics, tired Del Potro and Federer. ATP Finals against out of form Djokovic.

      The point is, it’s not about only their current rivals but the whole package. Federer had Nadal and a lot of players who can trouble him, they were like a bunch of Wawrinkas, Fogninis and Ferrers. All of them very talented, yet inconsistent.
      Djokovic may have had old Federer, prime Nadal and Murray, but no one else. Cakewalks until the semis.
      And when someone appeared like Del Potro or Wawrinka, always one the big guys were out of form so they were “replaced”, not added to the list.

  6. Haas wasn’t bad on his day either who can forget RG09 ?

    Thanks for all the facts & discussion we have been truly spoiled by Fed …& think I will draw the next delineation as “PreCovid before rankings changed “
    and Fed still wins at 20!!!!

  7. Thank you Shmeltz for the post. Of course Fed is the most beautiful mover ever and on and on. But I do feel glimmers of hope with the new guys coming up. And I do think they have learned from Fed. Coming to the net is happening more? Raonic and Nishikori did spend a lot of their career injured.

    Crazy scores in Rome, eh?

  8. Great article! Open to such discussion once looking at the data. Amongst talent and skill, one thing that is evident is the mental strength required for today’s game. The new gen has been brought up with what i refer to “instant” and “on demand” life. Everything on your finger tips without much effort. Putting that aside, it translates into mental agility when it comes to needing to dig deep and prevail. Look at Zverev in the USO last week.
    Then look at the GOATs, they are so ahead of the game mentally, that its hard to shake them, make them feel nervous and under pressure. They play well within themselves only to get another trophy!
    My question would be, was it easier to reach a GS final back in the 90s?

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