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.
Tennis Generations – Drawing The Lines
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
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.
|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|
|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)|
|“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
|Most Players in Top 20 in a single year (YE)||11||6||“Weak Era” – 2005
“Lost Gen” – 2016-2018
“Weak Era” had at least 6 players in the top 20 between 2002-2011
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
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
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
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 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.
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”.