Does a Precocious Triumph at Junior Grand Slam Signal ATP Success?

Roger Federer vs Nick Kyrgios

Personally, one of my favorite topics in tennis is the development of top junior prospects. It’s fascinating to monitor whether they blossom into bona fide stars or, in turn, never pan out among pros.

The sentence “junior dominance may not necessarily translate into a successful professional career” has been repeated beyond saturation. Certain players experience a seamless transition, while others slow down their improvement due to a myriad of reasons, such as a technical, tactical, physical or mental flaw that undercuts their upside; or their inability to cope with the burden of expectation.

Will a junior fill the void of the Big 3?

At the top of the game, a bunch of young guns seem well-positioned to take the baton from Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal and become the new faces of the sport. But what if the Next Big Champ has not made his ATP debut yet?

There’s also the possibility that no player will come close to matching the Big 3’s sheer greatness or their status as global icons. No sane fan should question the fact we’ve been spoiled. Make no mistake, I’m optimistic regarding the future of the game. I think men’s tennis is in good hands, but we must brace ourselves for a quieter period in terms of star power.

Not all junior stars were shining when coronavirus showed up

Anyway, back to my beloved youngsters who, in case you missed it, were having uneven results when COVID-19 abruptly interrupted the 2020 season.  Among the five most recent junior Grand Slam winners, three were cruising (Lorenzo Musetti, Jonas Forejtek, Harold Mayot) and two, the youngest of the bunch, were struggling (Holger Rune, Shintaro Mochizuki).

In 2019, the Danish and the Japanese became the fifth and sixth players respectively to lift a boys’ major trophy during their age-16 campaign since 2000. In the past 81 events of that category, only Richard Gasquet (2002 Roland Garros & US Open), Donald Young (2005 Wimbledon), Bernard Tomic (2008 Australian Open) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (2016 US Open) had been as young.

Tantalized by this video of Forejtek annihilating balls with a weapon of mass destruction his forehand, I decided to look back in time and research the pro careers of the junior Grand Slam champions since Y2K.

Age 16 vs Age 17 vs Age 18 champions

A total of 62 players won one Major, while nine players enjoyed the taste of success more than once. Andy Roddick, the aforementioned Gasquet, Grigor Dimitrov, Filip Peliwo and Chun Hsin Tseng captured two titles in the same season, whereas Young, Tomic, and Luke Saville emerged victorious in different calendar years. Lastly, Gael Monfils was the lone three-time champion.

I broke them down in three groups: those who won in their last year of eligibility, those who triumphed a year ahead of schedule, and those selected few who dominated in their age-16 season.

Five arbitrary metrics were used to compare the three clusters: percentages of Top 200, Top 50 and Top 10 members, plus Average Ranking and Median Ranking.

Caveat: extreme rawness twists results

I also ran the numbers excluding the past 13 champions, i.e. starting from 2017 Australian Open. While 20-year-olds like Alexei Popyrin and Alejandro Davidovich have broken into the Top 100, none of those kids has fulfilled his potential and it skews the data. Sure, 2016 representatives such as Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime haven’t peaked either, but I felt inclined to include them. Why? Because Stefanos Tsitsipas, who played all four boys majors in 2016, has already spent a year inside the Top 10 and is the reigning ATP Finals champion. I know. I know each player follows a different timeline, but if the Greek had enough time to develop into a world-class star, so have the Canadians who, despite being younger, swept Tsitsipas at the junior slams in 2016 (3-0).

Just so we are clear. Ultimately, I picked the incomplete version over the full one, although I still included the latter digit in between parentheses.

Top 200

Do not get me wrong. Someone ranked in the 300-500 range is a fantastic tennis player. Once this COVID-19 mess is over, I encourage all tennis fans to check out a Futures or Challenger nearby. You’ll be impressed with their shotmaking ability. But. Massive BUT. Expectations are set way higher for junior Slam champions. Over the past 20 years, there have been major flops, especially among 18-year-olds, who have reached the benchmark at a 81.6% (73.9%) rate. For their part, 17-year-olds have been a tad more reliable, at 85.0% (77.3%), while 16-year-olds have been perfect from 2000 thru 2016 (66.7% overall).

Top 50

Not trying to put pressure on Rune and Mochizuki or anything, but all their predecessors made it to the Top 50. Will they follow suit or fall just shy? A player ranked in that vicinity rarely ever plays qualifying draws, unless at the most stacked Masters 1000. Again, all four pre-2017 16-year-old phenoms cleared that threshold. 17-year-olds boast a robust(ish) 60% (54.5%). In turn, less than half of 18-year-olds have become Top 50 talents; 47.4% (39.1%) to be exact.

Top 10

Understandably, the success rate takes a substantial hit across the board, as the vast majority of tennis players never sniff the Top 10. Among the most precocious champions, only Gasquet has reached this exclusive yardstick, although I would pencil in Auger-Aliassime as a safe bet to join the club. It’s just a matter of time. Still, barely a 25.0% (16.7%) and no superstars (yet) for 16-year-olds. For the first time, 17-year-olds match their younger peers, clocking in at 25.0% (22.7%) as well. Once again, 18-year-olds perform worse, flashing a 15.8% (13.0%).

Average ranking

Long story short: this stat sucks is super flawed. A massive bust (e.g. someone ranked No. 600) makes the average balloon disproportionately, clearly outweighing a former World No. 1. Therefore, process the following numbers with a pinch of salt, honey, pepper or whatever you prefer. Despite the mentioned imperfection, 18-year-olds remain in the doghouse, with an average ranking of 115.2 (139.1), trailing 17-year-olds who, set back mostly by Daniel Berta (637) and Tiago Fernandes (371), display a poor 104.2 (120.0) score as a team. Lastly, 16-year-olds take the crown for the umpteenth time with an adjusted average ranking of 19.8 (229.3 if including the babies born in 2003).

Median ranking

In my opinion, a much more accurate indicator. This figure reflects well the sizeable gap in relative strength between the 18-year-olds and the 17-year-olds. The former group winds up at 60.5 (98), while the latter reports an impressive 21 (37). To nobody’s surprise, 16-year-olds sweep the competition, sporting a median rank of 17 (27.5).

Conclusions

16-year-old champions have a high floor. A player must be special in order to hoist the trophy two years ahead of the curve. Especially Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the draws are never watered down. What happened last year in Paris was highly unusual. The entry list was loaded with older prospects who are obtaining notable results versus pros, such as Musetti, Brandon Nakashima or Giulio Zeppieri. Yet, all four semifinalists (Rune, Mochizuki, Toby Kodat and Martin Damm Jr.) were born in 2003. It’s also curious that fellow 16-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who lost in his debut, has currently twice as many ATP points (127) than Rune, Mochizuki, Kodat and Damm combined (60). Rune and Mochizuki have looked overmatched on the few Challenger Tour events they played in 2020. However, the journey to the pinnacle of the sport is not a sprint, but an Ironman.

When it comes to ceiling, though, 16-year-olds can’t hold their own against their counterparts. As of now, the trio Gasquet, Auger-Aliassime, Tomic (!!!) is nowhere near the level of Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, Sascha Zverev (age-17 season) and Roddick, Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (age-18 season).

Another interesting tidbit. Since 2004 Wimbledon (Monfils), only one age-18 winner has made the Top 10: Jack Sock, whose 2017 Paris Masters title still lacks any reasonable explanation. Oh, and only an additional Top 20: Nick Kyrgios (more on him later). For comparison, four age-17 standouts have reached the Top 3 since (Murray, Cilic, Dimitrov, Zverev), plus four other young guns in the 20-24 age range are now or were recently knocking on the Top 10 doors (Garín, Coric, Rublev, Shapovalov).

Australians are cursed. Seriously. Let’s take a closer look at the list of Aussie winners.

  • Todd Reid was a flat out beast, but injuries derailed his career and he tragically passed away in 2018.
  • Brydan Klein never made the Top 100 and even switched allegiance to Great Britain.
  • Bernard Tomic, despite his peculiar game, had the tools to achieve important things. World-class court awareness, but despicable commitment. Among other famous shenanigans, he allegedly made up he had the COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Luke Saville never broke the Top 150 barrier.
  • Nick Kyrgios is one of the most polarizing figures in all sports. He arguably sells more tickets than any other non-Big 3 player and kids at tennis academies all over the world adore his trickery, but his on-court antics cross the line way too often.
  • Omar Jasika was issued a two-year ban for consuming cocaine. He had just played his first tournament back when the ITF circuit was stopped.
  • Oliver Anderson was suspended 19 months for fixing a set. He wasn’t even 20 at the time. No further comments, your honor.
  • Alexei Popyrin is still on the upswing and may end up being the exception to the rule, but his inability to win matches away from Majors in one of the biggest conundrums in tennis.

That is all from my desk. Here’s hoping coronavirus goes away soon and we can enjoy the progressions of these youngsters again!

Main Photo from Getty.

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