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Who is the best male tennis player of all time?

No, it’s not Tim Henman. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

By James Dacey

With the Swiss superstar Roger Federer looking like he may well scoop his 17th grand slam title this week at the Australian Open, it is a debate that will fill the stands in Melbourne.

In fact it’s a conversation sports lovers have all time and it usually results in heated exchanges ended by a friendship-saving “let’s agree to disagree”. And it gets even more farcical when you start comparing players from different generations: on the one hand professionalism and standards of equipment tend to increase as the years go by; on the other hand, a sportsperson is necessarily of their time and can only ever be asked to beat the opponent put in front of them.

Well, a researcher in the US has attempted to take a more scientific approach to this question for the case of tennis. Fillippo Radicchi a chemical engineering researcher at Northwestern University, Illinois, has scrutinized the results of all tennis matches played by professional male tennis players during the period 1968–2010. He has then represented these matches as basic “contacts” between “actors” in a complex network where multiple matches between the same players add weight to those specific connections in the network.

tennis network.jpg

By plugging in all the results, Radicchi has managed to rank players based on an algorithm similar to that used by Google’s PageRank in web searches. The algorithm places players in order based on their “centrality” in the complex network. And so the result is…

The number one greatest player in the history of tennis, according to this ranking, is Jimmy Connors, the American player who won 8 grandslam titles during a career that spanned from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s. Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe come in at number two and three respectively, making it an all-American top three. Meanwhile, Federer, who holds double the number of grand slams as Connors, comes in at a modest seventh place. You can see the full list here:

tennis rankings.jpg

The reason Connors topped the list is probably explained by his extremely long and successful career. “Among all top players in the history of tennis, Jimmy Connors has been undoubtedly the one with the longest and most regular trend, being in the top 10 of the ATP year-end ranking for 16 consecutive years (1973–1988),” explains Radicchi in his research paper, which has been posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Radichi also applies the same ranking algorithm to each decade independently and in this case Federer does come out top for the period 2001–2010. Likewise Pete Sampras bossed the 1990s, Ivan Lendl was the man to beat in the 1980s and Connors had his heyday in the 1970s.

So that’s it, the debate is settled? Somehow I doubt it…

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One comment to Who is the best male tennis player of all time?

  1. mt

    An old lady just made me “bet my bippy on it”. I hope I win because I don’t know what my bippy is or how it’s been wagered.


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