It can be really difficult to predict how many Slams an ATP tennis player will win when he still has some 15 years in front of him. But what does the data tell us?
Are you familiar with the 6+ Club? Since the beginning of the Open Era (1968), there have been 12 men that have won 6+ grand slams over the course of their career. On average, each decade has produced 3 members of this club with the lone exception being, of course, the 2010s in which the Big 3 refused to stop winning and ruined a generation's hopes of membership into the 6+ club (or winning slams at all for that matter). With the 2020s upon us and the Big 3 finally beginning to slow down, it would appear it may be time for new memberships to finally be granted into this exclusive club, but who will its new members be?
Carlos Alcaraz is an obvious first choice. As I explained in my last article, only one man (out of seven) that has won a Grand Slam as a teenager failed to go on to join the 6+ Club, thus Carlos seems positioned well for membership. The other potential newest members of the 6+ Club do not seem as obvious up to this point. Perhaps we haven’t met them yet, or perhaps they just haven’t had their big breakthroughs.
As of today (16 May, 2023), Holger Rune, 20, and Jannik Sinner, 21, certainly seem the most likely candidates to join Carlos in a trek to the 6+ Club. Holger became just the 7th man to win a Masters level event as a teenager which statistically positions him quite well for the future — 5 of the other 6 teenage masters champions won Grand Slams, the lone exception being Andrei Medvedev.
Jannik Sinner has also positioned himself quite well as Carlos's immediate rival. The two have a 3-3 head-to-head record and have shown the ability to bring out the best in each other. This article is going to focus on Jannik (sorry, Holger), as he is the older of the two and thus has the shorter window if he plans to join the halls of the all-time greats.
Sinner is, admittedly, a favorite of mine to watch. I’ve been drawn to his smooth, attacking style of tennis since the first time I watched him play. Jannik burst on the scene in late 2020 when he won his maiden ATP title in Sofia as a 19-year-old. He then followed this title up by claiming 4 more titles in 2021, including his maiden 500 level title, which gave him 5 ATP level titles at just 20 years of age.
The following year seemed like the year Jannik was destined to breakthrough (I’m defining breakthrough as a Masters and/or Grand Slam champion), but it didn’t happen. Instead he won just a single ATP 250 title. Let's be clear, 2022 was certainly not a bust of a year for Jannik. He went 45-16 with the 5th best winning percentage on tour (73.77%) and made the quarter-finals of 3 out of 4 slams, all at the tender age of 20 (turned 21 in August) years old.
But, again, the breakthrough win never came, which got me thinking, when does the breakthrough typically come for grand slam champions? In other words, what is the average age of a first-time grand slam champion and how does Jannik compare to that?
To clarify, the data I am going to go through below is the average age of first-time grand slam champions. We'll start as generally as possible with the overall average age of a first-time grand slam winner in the Open Era (1968 to present):
- Average: 23.1 years old
Now as we all know there is a big difference between winning one grand slam, and winning multiple grand slams over the course of your career. It likely won't surprise many to learn that multi-time grand slam champions have a younger average age at the time of their first slam win than one-time winners do:
- Multi-time Slam Champion Average Age: 21.63
- One-Time Slam Champion Average Age: 24.7
As mentioned above the Open era dates back to 1968, so I also decided to pull somewhat more recent numbers to see if anything has changed. Here’s what I found from 1990 to present (ie: the Pete Sampras era through the Big 3 era):
- Average Overall Age of a First Time Slam Champion: 23.29
- Multi-time Slam Champion Average Age: 21.57
- One Time Slam Champion Average Age: 25.06
The last data point I ran is the average age of the exclusive 6+ Club. Again, as you might expect, they all got started quite young as the average age was 19.75 years old at the time of their first slam win. In case you were curious, Ivan Lendl is the oldest first-time winner to go on to join the 6+ club seeing as he didn’t win his first grand slam until 24 years old. Only one other person has gone on to join the 6+ Club after failing to win their first slam at 21 years old or younger, Andre Agassi, who won his first at 22 years and 2 months old. (Side note: Roger Federer was 1 month away from turning 22 when he won his first slam in 2003).
So, what does this all tell us? What it tells me is that Jannik should more or less be coming of age, right now. At 21 years old he is currently the average age of a first-time grand slam champion that goes on to win 2+ slams over their career and the data tells us that as you get older, it only gets harder to win your first grand slam, and subsequent slams after that. Jannik will have two more opportunities to win grand slams as a 21-year-old before turning 22 right ahead of this year’s US Open. If he has plans of joining Carlos’ hunt to join the 6+ Club, the data would tell us one of these next 3 slams would be great for him to win.
Now it’s important to note that data is just that, data. The numbers above do not equal hard and fast rules and there are always outliers that defy the data. As mentioned above, Ivan Lendl was 2+ years older than anyone else in the 6+ Club when he won his first slam. Stan Wawrinka won 3 grand slams over the course of his career, yet his first one didn’t come until he was 28. (Side note: only 3 men in the open era have won 3+ slams after winning their first at 25+ years of age - Arthur Ashe, Andy Murray and Stan).
One of the great things about sports is that athletes are always redefining what is possible. I would love to see Jannik Sinner elevate his game, join the 6+ Club alongside Carlos Alcaraz and continue to develop a rivalry that ultimately goes down as one of the all-time greats. But what if he doesn’t? Someone else surely will. Maybe it will be Holger Rune, or maybe it will be some 15-year-old not yet on our radar. Heck, maybe someone currently on our radars will rewrite all of the rules and go on to win 10+ grand slams after winning their first at 25 years or older.
In the end, I can’t help but view this as an incredibly exciting time for the sport of tennis. While I will always love the Big 3 and what they did, and continue to do for the sport, it’s finally time for a new generation of tennis players to come of age and join the halls of the all-time greats.
Current ages of the maiden-slam contenders
With all of the information above, I thought it’d be interesting to look at the ages of the current crop of slamless ATP players who are most often involved in discussions to win upcoming grand slams and compare their current ages to the data above: (as of May 2023)
· Jannik Sinner - 21 years old (August)
· Stefanos Tisitsipas - 24 years old (August)
· Casper Ruud - 24 years old (December)
· Andrey Rublev - 25 years old (October)
· Holger Rune - 20 years old (April)
· Felix Auger-Aliassime - 22 years old (August)
· Alexander Zverev - 26 years old (April)
· Nick Kyrgios - 28 years old (April)
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