Where Tennis Champions Are Made: The Fourth Spot

Brett ThompsonContributor IDecember 3, 2010

The guys on the otherside of the glass ceiling
The guys on the otherside of the glass ceilingClive Brunskill/Getty Images

In sports, making the final four means you are now—officially—part of the discussion.

It is the breaking of the metaphorical glass ceiling.

The hardest nut to crack, and the first step to attaining the golden ring.

Whether it’s basketball, surfing, tennis or football, reaching the final four means to have succeeded.

The checks get bigger, groupies are hotter, your opinion matters, and you can act like all the attention is annoying without people laughing.

For the spectator nothing is worse than the top four getting knocked out of a tournament, and watching the semis with the top four is usually better than the final.

One of the greatest days of a Grand Slam tournament (Major), is Super Saturday, the day leading up the men’s final, when final four action starts early and goes all day, it is a salivary feast of incredible tennis, great expectations, heated discussions and sometimes even a glimpse of the future. 

Breaking into the top four is as important to the fans as it is to the athletes. 

Over several beers and a mind full of tennis insecurities, I got to thinking about number four, and its place in the discussion of tennis.

So in the interest of exploring this gateway to the conversation of a championship, I decided to do a survey of players that have reached the semi-greatness that is the number four spot. 

Granted this is an informal survey.

Tthere are so many overlapping players that come and go, that I tried to limit my time frame to the last 15 years or so.

Out of literally thousands of players, I found 41 that have cracked number four.

They are listed below by age, and by who went on reach number one.

I’m sorry if I’ve missed anyone, it’s a damn hard statistic to unearth.

Players and the age they reached number 4 then number 1

# 4     #1

18        2     Agassi, Becker                                                                                            

19        2     Nadal, Mevedev, Sampras                                                                       

20        4     Djokovic, Roddick, Hewitt, Safin, Ivanisevic, Courier, Korda, Chang                             

21        3     Murray, Ferrero, Federer, Moya, Del Potro                                               

22        1     Coria, Kafelnikov, Stich, Rios, Grosjean, Kiefer, Bruguera                                                          

23        1     Kuerten                                                                                                   

24        0     Magnus, Corretja, Haas, Nalbandian, Rusedski                                           

25        1     Enjvist, Rafter, Bjorkman, Davydenko, Ferrer                                            

26        0     Soderling  

27        0     Ljubicic. Krajicek                                                                                       

28        1     Muster                                                                                                         

29        0     Martin                             

Most players that reached the number four spot were 21 or younger by a significant margin.

Those that went on to reach number one are clustered in this same group.

Out of the 41 in my survey, 15 went on the become number one in the world. Only one player over the age of 21 attained the number one spot and held it for more than a few weeks, Gustavo Kuerten. 

Another interesting stat that immediately jumps out, is three out of the 15 that went on the gain the number one spot are what could be considered clay court specialists, (Muster, Kuerten, and Nadal).

Nadal is obviously moving beyond this subcategory. Muster (28) is the oldest, and Kuerton (23) third oldest, with another specialist serve/volley’er, Rafter (25), in between them.

Only three players have gained the number one position over the age of 21 and held it for more than a few weeks, Boris Becker (23), Andre Agassi (24) and Gustavo Kuerten (24).

Becker and Agassi are obviously exceptions in the last 15 years. Becker first gained the four spot in 1986, at 18, went on the become number one and stayed in the top 10 into 1996. 

Agassi, first gained the number four spot in 1988 at the age of 18, and played gatekeeper to the top four by staying in the 4th -5th spot for several years, before becoming the number one player in 1995 at the age of 24.

Agassi and Sampras battled throughout 1995, with Agassi just missing out on the year end number one rating by a week.

He then regained it for a week or two after the New Year in 1996. It must have been very discouraging as he quickly slid down the ratings, falling out of the top four and indeed the top one hundred, before he regained his form with a number four showing in 1998.

He continued to play gatekeeper to the upper echelon into 1999, then finally wrestled the title away from Sampras and his six year strangle hold on the title.

At 29 years of age, Agassi not only won the title, and beat his arch nemesis, but he also became the oldest champion in 40 years, finally earning his place in one of the most exclusive clubs in sports, ATP champion.

Gustavo Kuerten is the oldest person to reach number four, (23) that ended up with a year end championship (24) in 2000.

After that, Marat Safin (20), briefly became the number one in 2001, before, the Australian phenom Lyetton Hewitt, became the youngest ATP champion at 20 holding it for two years- 2001-02.  

Juan Carlos Ferrero (23), and Andy Roddick (21), followed sharing the number one spot in 2003 with Roddick finishing the year rated number one.

In early 2004, Roger Federer took over and held the number one spot for four years lost it to Nadal (22), gained it back for a year, and lost it again to Nadal. 

Of course both are still active and firmly locked in the struggle for supremacy.

Statistically speaking, if you haven’t reached the number four in the world by 21 years of age, your chances of ever reaching and holding the world number one spot are very slim. 

In the last 36 years, going back to Borg, only two men have been over 21 when they broke the number four barrier, and then rose to be champions; Lendl, 22, and Kuerten, 23.

Ages for past year end champions when they reached number four in the world:

One at 23: Kuerten

One at 22: Lendl

Three at 21: Conner, Courier, and Federer.

Four at 20: Wilander, Edberg, Hewitt, and Roddick. 

Four at 19: McEnroe, Becker, Sampras, and Nadal. 

Two at 18: Borg, Becker,  Agassi

Of past year end champions, the numbers tighten up a little when you look at the age that they reached the number one position.

Five at 24: Agassi, Wilander, Edberg, Becker, Kuerten.

One at 23:  Lendl.

Four at 22: Conner, Courier, Federer, Nadal.

Four at 21: Borg, McEnroe, Sampras, Roddick.

One at 20: Hewitt.

Most of the year end number ones got there within 2-3 years of reaching the number four spot.  But there is hope, statistically speaking, that a few years, more or less, shouldn’t hurt your motivation—too much—unless you’ve hit 24.

  If you have not attained the number one spot by the time you’re 24, it’s pretty down hill from there.

Last fifteen World Champs: 

                 #1 age              #4 age

Nadal          22                         19

Federer       22                          21  

Roddick      21                          20

Hewitt        20                          20

Kuerten      24                          23

*Agassi       29                         18

Sampras      21                        19

Courier       21                          20

Becker        23                         18

Edberg       23                          20

Wilander    24                           20

Lendl         22                           22

McEnroe    21                            9

Conner       21                           21

Borg           21                          18

* Agassi was actually year end # 1 at 29 but had already been number one at 24.  The only player on this list to have reached number one, lost it, then regained it for the year end championship, thus, for the sake of this article, he is listed here at the age of 24.

Looking at these figures a few things stand out; Murray and Djokovic need to make something happen this year if they’re to have any chance at going down in history as one of the greats.

Soderling is in rarified territory as only one other person, in this survey, has broken the number four barrier over the age of 26, Muster (28), and he went on to be number one in the world albeit for a short period of time.

Of the remaining active 100 top players, Cilic has the best chance, with Querrey having an outside chance. 

Then there’s Mr. Del Potro currently rated 257, he broke into the top four at 21 so is statistically in an excellent position to move on to number one in the world.

23 and 24 are the prime years for a champion to rise to the forefront. 

Del Potro has a year to recover then make his move in 2012, which seemingly should suit him—barring further injuries.

But is there another Agassi, Federer, or Nadal down in the murky depths of the ratings, getting ready to make a move?

Of course there is, isn’t that what makes watching so much fun?

In the end it is human nature and our prerogative to break molds and set new records—Statistics and logic be damned.


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