Ahead of the Wimbledon Championships, and after inputting the results of more than 20,000 Grand Slam matches involving over 1,000 players into his highly sophisticated computer model, one of the UK’s leading sports statisticians believes he has the answer: it’s Jimmy Connors.
Dr Ian McHale, Director of the Centre for Sports Business at Salford Business School, and Chair of the Royal Statistical Society’s sports section, has developed a mathematical method for comparing the performance of tennis’s most illustrious players, taking into account their varying prowess from the beginning to the end of their career and the standard of opposition faced.
The study has identified the year of maximum ‘strength’ or quality for each tennis player, which can be objectively compared with players of any era since 1968, when professionals were first allowed to enter the four Grand Slams (Wimbledon, the French Open, US Open and Australian Open), until the present day.
By analysing the overlapping Grand Slam competitive records of 1,163 players in 725,754 games and 20,640 matches, Dr McHale’s method suggests that eight-time Slam winner Jimmy Connors at his peak in 1976 was the greatest person ever to have played tennis. Second in the list was Bjorn Borg at the height of his powers in 1977, with 2005-vintage Roger Federer in third place.
Explained Dr McHale: “Purely looking at the number of Grand Slams won, with 17 titles Roger Federer is widely seen as the greatest. Our study uses a statistical model to provide an objective answer to whether or not that’s the case.
“The key to it all is not to assign a single number to an entire career, but to look at how good a player was at his peak. Many players have slumps, and some would say Federer has been in just such a slump since winning the Australian Open in 2010, with his Wimbledon victory against Murray last year his only Slam triumph since then.
“Using our new statistical method, we can give very good, objective answers to questions such as who would be most likely to win in a head-to-head between Federer at his imperious best and Borg in the mid-70s, or Rafael Nadal in 2008 versus 1990’s Andre Agassi.”
Dr McHale continued: “By looking at results from tennis Grand Slams for hundreds of players, you can start to build up a picture using the overlapping careers of the players and attempt to decide who was the best.
“So, while Connors didn’t compete in a Grand Slam in the same year as Federer, you can compare the two by looking at how Connors performed in the years when he was playing against Ivan Lendl, who played against Becker, who played against Sampras who played against Agassi, who was still reaching Grand Slam finals when Federer won the first of his 17 titles. In this way we can link the records of these greats together and directly compare Connors to Federer.”
By making overlapping career comparisons for 1,163 players, Dr McHale was able to objectively measure the ‘strength’ of each player over time. This analysis included the closeness of individual matches in addition to the match result, with an easy, straight sets win over a tough opponent scoring more highly than a tight five-setter against a lower-seeded player.
The results could then be used to estimate how easy or difficult it was for a particular player to win a Grand Slam in a specific year by measuring how tough the opposition was to beat in relative terms in each tournament.
In addition, Dr McHale used the model to judge players over a sustained ten-year period of success, and over a total career. Connors again tops the pile for both of these measures, with Bjorn Borg second in each case. Roger Federer is ranked third in the five-year table, with Andre Agassi in third place when judged over a whole career.
“As Jimmy Connors is top of the table using all three methods, I think the results suggest that he is the greatest tennis player of all time,” concluded Dr McHale, “although Bjorn Borg runs him extremely close.”
The statistical model also reveals ‘golden eras’ of tennis during the mid-1970s, late-1980s to early 1990s and late 2000s by giving the average objective player quality over the period 1968 to 2012.
Pete Sampras’s surprising omission from the top 25 players when measured by peak strength, and relatively low rakings of 15th and 14th best respectively when measured over 10-year and lifetime strength, can perhaps be explained by the research revealing a marked dip in average player strength during the mid-1990s. Sampras’s 14 Grand Slams are still hugely impressive, but he achieved them when the depth of competition for titles had never been weaker.
Table showing top 25 all-time greatest tennis players