After Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open 2020, charts like the one by below by the German Data Journalist Felix Richter were likely almost covered by any major sports magazine in the world (at least the ones who touch tennis at all). Since 2005 three players, Swiss Roger Federer, Spain’s Rafael Nadal and – of course – Serbian Novak Djokovic have won 52 out of 61 Grand Slam tournaments – why they are simply reference as the Big Three.
To me as a mathematician, who likes to play with numbers and statistics, I felt to feel: is this really unique? Thus, I did some quick analysis of other decades in tennis – the result is simply: yes, it is! At least, due to the many US Open withdrawals this year, there is a high chance that we can add another orange entry to the statistics above soon. Or will it be an easy one for the “Djoker”?
Tennis Grand Slam Winners – What I Did
I did not look too much into this 15 year streak (in fact, you could say that the streak above started with the 2005 French Open to eliminate Marat Safin) and shorter ones, but I just grouped and counted the Grand Slam Winners by decades. In order to have a clear definition: the 2000’s, for example, represent the years 2000 to 2009. Within one decade, I counted the number of winners as well as looked for dominance. Regarding the dominance of the Big Three, my reference period are truly the 2010’s, in which there have only been six male Single Grand Slam Winners at all, Novak Djokovic (15), Rafael Nadal (13), Roger Federer (5), Stan Wawrinka (3), Andy Murray (3) and Marin Cilic (1).
There were some years, in which the tournaments did not take place (e.g. due to war). In 1977, the Australian Open have been played twice, in January and December. The December 1977 Women’s Double had a split winner, as they could not play the final due to bad weather. I will have a short look into doubles and mixed tennis. For that statistic, I counted the individual athletes, not the doubles teams.
Big Three Tennis Dominance in Male Tennis – Unique?
If you exclude the very early stages of tennis when British William Renshaw dominated Wimbledon as well as Richard Sears had a streak of seven victories at the US Open, a number of only six players winning a Grand Slam in one decade is truly unique. The 2000’s, for example, had fifteen winners, which is a quite average figure over all decades. Roger Federer indeed won 15 Grand Slam titles in this era, but there were a lot of other players who did so as well, especially int the earlier years. Before the 2010’s, the lowest number of Men Single Grand Slam winners was twelve in the 1980’s, with dominating Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl (7 each) and John McEnroe with six titles.
Djokovic’s 15 titles in one decade tied with the same figure for Federer the decade before. Before that, only Roy Emerson hit the double digits with twelve victories in the 1960’s.
Tennis Dominance – What about the Ladies?
In Ladies’ tennis, there has been a quite similar period in the past as well: during the 1980’s, only seven players were able to win a Grand Slam tournament – and they had a Big Three as well: Martina Navratilova won 15 titles during that time (amazing that this figure pops up again and again), Chris Evert-Lloyd had nine and Steffi Graf 8 titles. Hana Mandlikova (4), Aranxta Sanchez Vicario, Evonne Cawley and Tracy Austin complete that list. There was even a very similar streak at the ladies to the current one at the men’s side – not quite as long, but only six tournament winners in a twelve year period with dominating Navratilova (15) and Graf (14):
|Year||AUS Open||French Open||Wimbledon||US Open|
|1982||C. Evert-Lloyd||M. Navratilova||M. Navratilova||C. Evert-Lloyd|
|1983||M. Navratilova||C. Evert-Lloyd||M. Navratilova||M. Navratilova|
|1984||C. Evert-Lloyd||M. Navratilova||M. Navratilova||M. Navratilova|
|1985||M. Navratilova||C. Evert-Lloyd||M. Navratilova||H. Mandlikova|
|1986||No tournament||C. Evert-Lloyd||M. Navratilova||M. Navratilova|
|1987||H. Mandlikova||S. Graf||M. Navratilova||M. Navratilova|
|1988||S. Graf||S. Graf||S. Graf||S. Graf|
|1989||S. Graf||A. Sanchez-Vic.||S. Graf||S. Graf|
|1990||S. Graf||M. Seles||M. Navratilova||G. Sabatini|
|1991||M. Seles||M. Seles||S. Graf||M. Seles|
|1992||M. Seles||M. Seles||S. Graf||M. Seles|
|1993||M. Seles||S. Graf||S. Graf||S. Graf|
There were other dominant players in a decade, like Magaret Smith (13 titles in the 1960’s) or Steffi Graf in the 1990’s (14 titles). Despite the dominance of Serena Williams (12 titles) in the 2010s, the list of Women Singles Grand Slam Winners is huge (19 winners, the highest number since the 1900’s) – and with 2020 Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin, there is another Grand Slam winner debut on the list of the ladies.
Tennis Dominance – Doubles and Mixed
I did analyse the three doubles disciplines as well – but you can make a short message out of that: there is hardly any effect like that on the doubles side. Even though Mike (11 titles) and Bob Bryan (9 titles) dominated the 2010’s, for example, there are 37 additional men on the list, who lifted a Grand Slam Men Doubles trophy during that period. If you say the 1970’s are the beginning of the “Modern Era” of tennis, this figure does not move too much. This also illustrates the struggle of the doubles players: even if you are world class, you generally earn less when you win a tournament – but even on top, the chance of grabbing the “big pot” is significantly lower than for the singles colleagues.
Some Women Doubles Dominance in the 1990’s
There were 37 different winners on the Women Doubles Tennis side in the past decade. However, in the 1990’s, there was some more dominance in the victory roll – only 18 players made it to that list, due to dominating Natallja Swerawa (17 titles), Gigi Fernandez (16) and Jana Novotna (11). In general, the women doubles tennis scene seems to have been more concentrated in the past, the number of winners is typically lower than at the men’s side. On the Mixed Doubles side, the list of players is huge, with 48 entries in the 2010’s and 49 in the 2000’s. Even dominating players like Bob Bryan in the 2000’s or Leander Paes in the 2010’s just make it to six victories in a decade.
Does Dominance Harm Tennis / Sports?
Naturally, tennis has been booming in the late 1980’s in Germany due to the Boris Becker and Steffi Graf era. Nowadays, the sports takes a significantly more subordinate role in media. I would, however, not see that caused by the Men Big Three dominance. There is a natural media concentration on Federer, Djokovic and Nadal on the men side – my personal point of view that an additional reason is some of the other players lack profile. Tennis sells the “Battle of the Giants” on the Men side (which is still too over-represented compared to the Ladies and Doubles) – and this works out as long as the giants are competing against each other. It will be interesting how it will impact tennis when the Big Three retire. Will it be some sort of depression for the sports – or will it free capacities as it has to focus on new players?
A more critical factor to me is money. If you look into a prize money table (here: US Open 2020), tennis is majorly paying out cash to the winners:
|Stage (Men/Women Singles)||USD|
|Round of 16||250,000|
|Round of 32||163,000|
|Round of 64||100,000|
|Round of 128||61,000|
The total payout of this year’s tournament is roughly 19.5m USD for Men Singles – this also means that approximately 23% of the tournament prize money is paid to two out of 128 contestants – the winner and the runner-up. The 2019 payout was even higher, with the winner cashing in 3.85m USD. If you have dominance in sports which pays his athletes like that, this may harm the potential of the following players to be competitive. As at the time of writing the posting (August 2020), I compared the Big Three’s career price money with athletes of similar age in the table below:
|Athlete||Age||Career Price Money (USD)|
Undoubtedly, it is unfair to compare the (big) careers of Djokovic and Wawrinka. But the gap of the Big Three to the remaining tennis world is just huge. Statista also features a chart of ATP players by career price money (as of March 2020). Andy Murray is indeed the player with the fourth highest career price money in total. You see the massive gap there. Of course, you can still fund a professional career with the budget of Stan Wawrinka, but you cannot argue against a lower economic potential. By the way, even dominating doubles players like Mike Bryan (42 years/16.7m USD) would by the way not make it into that statistics.
The Women Tennis Association WTA publishes a list of career prize money leaders. Based on the table I retrieved as of 17th August 2020, you see that Serena Williams is dominating in that, but the distribution of the money is much more diversified (table below shows the Top 8 all time). This should – at least in theory – lead to a much more similar-strength competition (which is the case nowadays, as you say):
|Athlete||Age||Career Price Money (USD)|
Another side note is that only Halep and S. Williams are players, who are currently in the Top 10 of the WTA Singles rankings.
Sports Dominance – Other Sports
The male tennis streak is definitely impressive in individual sports, but it is not unique at all. One example (which is maybe even more dominant) you might be aware of is Women Luge. Here is the list of all athletes who won the Women Single Luge World Championship between 1962 and 2019 – with a very small constraint: the did not compete under any German flag (i.e. West Germany, GDR or reunited Germany athletes): Barbara Piecha (Poland, 1970), Vera Zozulya (Soviet Union, 1978), Gerda Weissensteiner (Italy, 1993), Erin Hamlin (USA, 2009). Full stop.
Vice versa, this means that in this series of forty World Championships (the event does not take place in Winter Olympic Games‘ years), German athletes won 36 titles (and by the way 30 Silver and 21 Bronze Medals). Luge may be a very different sports, as the facilities you need to train it competitively (bob tracks) are just limited to very few locations in the world.
If you look at more popular sports, the dominance of certain soccer clubs in their national leagues could be seen equivalent, like Bayern Munich just failing to win the German Bundesliga in five occasions since the 1998/99 season.
Postings about Tennis
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Statista graphics taken from https://www.statista.com/chart/20689/mens-singles-grand-slam-winners/