Rafael Nadal: The greatest teen in men’s tennis history?

Published by Stephanie Kovalchik

Rafael Nadal poses with the trophy after his victory at the 2005 French Open; Getty Images
Which male player hit the greatest heights in their teens? And how do the current generation compare? Game Insight Group investigates.

After Stefanos Tsitsipas became the youngest player to beat four top-10 players in a single event at the Rogers Cup earlier this month, it feels like an appropriate time to ask who has been the ‘Teenage GOAT’ in men’s tennis?

Using Elo ratings*, an alternative to more traditional rankings aimed at giving a greater insight into a player’s performance ability, Game Insight Group has tracked the peak performances by male players in their teenage years.

The top 10 based on that stat are listed in the table below:

Player Peak teen Elo Year
1. Rafael Nadal 2500 2006, Roland Garros
2. Boris Becker 2424 1986, Paris
3. Novak Djokovic 2387 2007, Roland Garros
4. Bjorn Borg 2369 1975, Barcelona
5. Mats Wilander 2363 1984, Milan
6. Lleyton Hewitt 2319 2000, Scottsdale
7. Alexander Zverev 2315 2017, Montpellier
8. Andy Murray 2305 2007, Miami
9. Andrei Medvedev 2300 1994, Rome
10. Andre Agassi 2294 1988, Los Angeles
19. Roger Federer 2209 2001, Wimbledon

Rafael Nadal takes the No. 1 ‘Teen GOAT’ position, with a peak all-surface Elo rating of 2500, which he earned with his defeat of Roger Federer in the 2006 French Open final.

Boris Becker takes the second spot, close behind Nadal, with a peak teen Elo of 2424. Becker had his peak teen performance at the 1986 Tennis Masters event, just months after his Wimbledon title win over Ivan Lendl.

A player formerly coached by Becker, Novak Djokovic, lands the third spot. Djokovic reached a teenage best rating of 2387 in 2007, a year in which he reached three Masters finals and had 4 wins against top-10 players.

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Interestingly, the only other of the ‘Big Four’ to make the all-time top 10 is not Roger Federer but Andy Murray. This makes Federer something of a late bloomer compared to the other three most decorated active male players in the sport, although he certainly made up for a late start.

Among young players in the current game, only Alexander Zverev has been able to crack the top 10 all-time best teenage performances, taking the seventh spot overall.

His 2315 top teenage rating came when he won the Montpellier title last year. Four other ‘Next Gen’ players are included in the table above to give Zverev’s achievement more context. These four have trailed Zverev’s teen peak by 70 to 270 points.

Teen GOAT Trajectories

ATP Teen GOATs

Looking at the actual paths of the top-10 ‘Teenage GOATs’ shows that they all have a skyrocketing trajectory in the early years of their professional career, with all of the players going from an initial rating of 1500 to over 2200 before age 21.

It is also fascinating to see the gap in a teenage phenom between 1974 and 1979 and again between 2004 to 2014. So the mid-2000s does seem to have been an unusually tough period for young male players.

But that has changed dramatically in the past two years…

We can pick out just a handful of players that have broken into the top 100 as teenagers and see that they are having similar accelerations in their ratings as the best teen players of the past.

  • Alexander Zverev, Peak Teen Elo – 2315
  • Alex de Minaur, Peak Teen Elo – 2242
  • Denis Shapovalov, Peak Teen Elo – 2197
  • Stefanos Tsitsipas, Peak Teen Elo – 2161
  • Frances Tiafoe, Peak Teen Elo – 2045

Three of the five shown here – Zverev, De Minaur and Shapovalov – have already achieved ratings close to or greater than 2200. Seeing how well they can extend these trends at the 2018 US Open will make for an especially thrilling two weeks in New York.

*How do Elo ratings work?

  • Elo ratings are already used in many other sports and when applied to tennis they outperform other published prediction methods, including those based on offical rankings.
  • Elo ratings factor in all main draw singles matches above the Challenger level.
  • Elo is smart about how many points are won or lost. If a player did more than expected in earning a win against a strong opponent, they earn more points than for an easy win. If a player underperformed by getting upset, they lose more points than for losing to an equal opponent.
  • Elo ratings can be surface-adjusted, taking into account all of a player’s matches, but weighing those on the specific surface more heavily.
  • Elo ratings of players absent from competition for more than three months are deducted 100 points. Walkovers and retirements are excluded.
  • Players earn/lose more points for results over the same opponents at Grand Slams compared to lower-level tournaments.

Read the full article at Stats On The T.

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