The Tennis Mountain

By Nick Carter and Aoun Jafarey

A while ago, Aoun shared some interesting statistics from the ATP Tour with the Popcorn team. It’s a big data set, covering every male player who has played at the highest level in the open era. All 6,478 of them.

The median number of matches won by everyone who has played a men’s singles match on the tour in the open era: 1. 

Median number of matches lost by everyone who has played a men’s singles match on the tour in the open era: 3. 

This data is just focused on the elite, the ATP Tour. Not the second tier of ATP Challengers and certainly not the third of ITF Futures, which is where everyone has to come through. Everyone who has worked hard to work their way up these then faces the challenge of winning on the elite pro tour. However, 40.5% of players who have ever played an ATP Tour match never won one. That’s how tough winning a match is in this sport. In fact, only 44.6% of male players in the open era have won more than one match. 

So, if we go by median average, a professional tennis player will usually win one at least one high level match in their career. But they will lose more than they win. This is incredible to think about given that we usually only watch the pinnacle of the game, where most players we watch at that level will usually win most of the matches they play. Think about it, most matches we choose usually involve someone who has been in the top-ten or even top-twenty. The median average number of ATP tour wins for a player ranked top twenty is 319 (rounded up). It’s 382 (rounded up) for players who reached the top ten in their careers. Even if you look at those ranked top-fifty, the median average is 173. We as fans are used to seeing players win multiple matches, and it makes it hard for a viewer to understand how much of a challenge this is.

Speaking of the rankings, of those 6,478 men who have played on the ATP Tour:

42% made the top 500 

17% made the top 100 

10% made the top 50 

4.4% made the top 20 

2.7% made the top 10 

Tennis is a sport based on elitism. Those at the top get most of the money, all the glory and the lions’ share of the match wins. Everyone has to scrap and climb their way to the top of the tennis mountain. Each step up the rankings is progressively tougher, as winning match on the next step up is a huge challenge. Even if you get to the top there’s no guarantee you’ll stay there long. As an extreme example, Daniil Medvedev only lasted three weeks as number one. In the process, you’ll push your body and finances to their limits, and if one of them gives then it’s all over. You’ll also sacrifice so many other things, including time with family and friends, so the mental toll must be immense too. The odds are always against you to be even remotely successful as a tennis player.

Have a look at this tweet from Aoun:

The stats here show that less than half of all professional players who somehow got to play on the ATP Tour in the open era have even reached the top 500! This is incredible to think about, but it does make sense. Tennis is one of many sports played across the world. Millions play it, usually casually or as part of a club. Only about 3000 men and women choose to try to play professionally at any one time. Yet, very few of them end up will even be ranked in the top 500. Now, Aoun’s data does not include those who broke milestones by only playing ITF Futures or ATP Challengers, but that just further highlights how difficult it is to even get to play on the main ATP Tour or even Davis Cup. 

All of these people are talented, all have worked incredibly hard. Not all will find success at the medium level, let alone the highest possible. Only about 10% will even make top 50 in their career! Some will have more natural talent, some will have honed specific skills far better and these will help. Most who do make it have the mentality to do so, the attitude and consistency. 

Think about the tennis mountain again, each stage becomes progressively steeper. On Mount Snowdon in the UK, the gradient increases the higher you get. As these players try to climb it, the standard of the opponent gets better. They have the talent and the capability of beating any of them, but to do it on a regular basis requires tremendous effort. It has to almost become routine, which is so hard for younger players at the beginning of their careers. We get excited by Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, but look at Hugo Gaston, Holger Rune and Juan Manuel Cerundolo. After impressing on the lower ranks, or making explosive debuts, the battle to win elite level matches has often been too difficult as they establish themselves. By the way, all of this is the case on the WTA tour as well. This is perhaps even more extreme given how players on the women’s side can break through or make an impression at a younger age. Think Emma Raducanu or more recently the 15-year-old Brenda Fruhvitova, who hasn’t won a title since her impressive start to the year in ITF Futures and making her WTA Tour debut. 

Let’s not just focus on young players. Older players have to fight far harder to maintain their place in the elite, as their bodies begin to fail more and new challengers emerge who are changing the game. Then, there are the ones in the prime of their career. Even if they never win a major, those who consistently win matches and stay in that top 10% are doing something amazing. And credit to those who keep plugging away who have yet to reach that ultimate elite, hoping for a Karatsev-like breakthrough. Even winning matches on the lower tours regularly are only done by a third of professional players. 

Humans have a tendency to focus on the ultimate elite in sport. The top 1, 3, 4, 10 in the world or of all time. In the era of the ATP’s ‘Big Four’ this has been amplified for us tennis fans, despite the fact they are outliers. General population statistics don’t apply to them the same way. Not even statistics for average athletes would apply to them. We don’t appreciate the effort and talent it takes to be top 50, 100, 200 or even 500. We don’t understand how hard it is to win one professional tennis match. We need to stop treating the elite or the greats like they are the norm, seeing anything less as sub-par. To anyone who is reading this trying to make it in the professional game, whatever ranking you are, we salute you.

Source: Jeff Sackman through Tennis Abstract

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