For decades, men’s tennis has been synonymous with its dominant big three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. It has been a unique era in tennis, as it would in any other sport, with arguably three of its most successful players of all time playing together in one generation. Between them, the big three (shown in green below) have won 65 of the 82 Grand Slam tournaments since 2003.
However, with Roger’s retirement in 2022, Rafa’s current absence due to an injury, and Novak’s recent loss to Carlos Alcaraz in an epic Wimbledon final, the passing of the torch seems to be well underway.
As tennis begins to imagine a world without its big three, fans and experts have been wondering if any player could have a career as decorated as Roger, Rafa, or Novak again, winning more than 20 Grand Slams. A year or two ago, it would have been silly to even think such a thing, let alone ask it out loud.
With the incredible rise of 20-year-old world number one Carlos Alcaraz, the tennis world has had to stop and reconsider. It is less controversial to entertain that thought today. As a tennis fan, you will likely have seen plenty of commentary and media coverage comparing Carlos with the big three. However, few, if any, of these discussions have compared Carlos’ performances to this point, with the big three at a similar early stage in their career. Comparing Carlos’ level in his 10th Grand Slam main draw appearance with Novak’s in his 71st, although exciting to do, is not a complete picture.
Data Source and Analysis Scope
As a tennis fan and a data professional, I have been eager to see more of an apples-to-apples comparison, comparing player performances at similar points in their careers. Fortunately, it was possible to do such an analysis thanks to all the great work Jeff Sackmann has done in making tour-level ATP match data available via his tennis_atp GitHub repository. This repository and, more broadly, his GitHub are great resources for anyone interested in tennis analytics. With access to this data and some analysis in Pandas and Matplotlib, we can develop a more nuanced perspective on how Carlos’ early career compares with the big three’s.
We will focus specifically on Grand Slams and Masters 1000 tournaments, the two most sought-after tournament categories, and broaden the comparison to include the top ten players instead of limiting it to just Carlos. This will help provide added context and perspective to the performances.
To kick things off, here is a current state comparison of the number of Grand Slams and Masters 1000 tournaments won by the big three and today’s top ten ranked players (as of July 17th, 2023).
The only thing we can decisively say from this is that the current gap between the big three and the top ten is quite large. It would be helpful to understand the path Roger, Rafa, and Novak took to get to where they are.
To do this, let us compare player journeys over the two main tournament categories shown above. We will begin with the Masters 1000 tournaments before progressing to the all-important Grand Slams.
The chart below maps the journey of the big three and seven other players from the top ten today who have won at least one Masters 1000 tournament. The x-axis represents the count of Masters 1000 tournaments played (main draw onwards), and the y-axis represents the number of Masters 1000 tournaments won. The higher the player trendline at a certain point, the better the performance to that point.
The longevity and sustained success of the big three immediately jump out, with each member of the trio playing more than 120 Masters 1000 tournaments and winning well over 20 titles a piece. For this discussion, however, let us zoom into the bottom left quadrant highlighted above, focusing on comparing two standout players with the big three.
Daniil Medvedev’s six Masters 1000 titles are the most of the current top ten players (not including Novak). He was slower out of the blocks than Rafa and Novak, winning his first Masters 1000 title on his 21st appearance. With six titles in 42 tournaments, he is currently slightly ahead of where Novak was at this stage and tied with Roger.
The standout, however, is Carlos Alcaraz. With his first Masters 1000 title coming in just his 7th appearance, Carlos was quicker out of the gate than each of the big three. After playing 16 Masters 1000 tournaments, he is tied at the top with Rafa at four titles and well ahead of Novak (2) and Roger (0) at a similar stage.
Let us see if these trends also hold on the biggest stage — Grand Slams. Carlos and Daniil are the only players in the top ten outside of Novak who have won a Grand Slam. Let us compare their Grand Slam journeys with the big three below.
Daniil, with just one Grand Slam title in 25 appearances, is now slightly behind Novak (2) and well behind Roger (5) and Rafa (8). Meanwhile, Carlos is off to a flyer, winning two Grand Slam titles well before Novak and Roger won their first.
Given that there are only four Grand Slam tournaments each year, the data set at a tournament level for Grand Slams is quite limited for players early in their careers. Instead, for additional insight into Grand Slam performances, let us increase the granularity of our data from a tournament level to a match level.
In the chart below, the x-axis represents the number of Grand Slam matches played (main draw onwards), and the y-axis represents the number of Grand Slam matches won.
This view gives us a sense of how deep into the knockout tournaments each player has been going. After 44 Grand Slam matches, Carlos shares the top spot with Rafa at 36 wins and will be alone at the top if he wins his first-round match at the US Open later this year.
From the data above, it is clear that Carlos Alcaraz is an absolute phenom. His case is even more compelling if we consider age as a factor. Let us take a look at the number of Masters 1000s and Grand Slam tournaments each of these players had won before turning 25.
As the youngest ever men’s world number one at 19, and with two Grand Slams and four Masters 1000s at just 20, Carlos has a long runway ahead.
But, as with most all-time greats, what is truly special about the big three is how long they have been as great as they have. If Carlos can remain healthy and continue to be as dominant as he is today while the x-axes in these charts extend out tournament after tournament, year after year, the big three might have to make some room.