An experiment arises from a ‘what if’ question. Sometimes, experiments raise a further ‘what if’ question, as the world of men’s tennis did last weekend. In a made-for-TV event, which slotted in somewhere between exhibition and competition, 12 of the best men’s players came together for the third edition of the Laver Cup—a team-tennis competition between Europe and Rest of the World.
It flew in the face of everything that men’s tennis has embodied, especially in recent decades. Tennis is, principally, an individual sport. The sense of team, of coming together under the banner of nations, is weak. Still, the mild success of Laver Cup last week raised the delicious, though largely hypothetical, question: what if the Laver Cup was to tennis was Ryder Cup is to golf?
The Ryder Cup, a biennial competition between male golfers from Europe and US since 1927, is one of the world’s premier sporting events. It takes what is principally also an individual sport, but weaves a team narrative that is compelling for its construct, commitment and history. One of those narratives revolves around the idea of a team: in the last 11 editions, Europe has had a lower average ranking than the US 9 times, and yet it has managed to win 8 times.
At the Laver Cup, Europe kept its winning record. It was expected to, given that the average ranking on that weekend of its six players was 6 and that of Team World was 57. But what would it look like in the past four or five decades? With the Laver Cup in mind, we broke down a dataset of men’s ranking since 1973.
To trace those rankings is a window to see the shifts in the balance of power in men’s tennis: the World in the 1970s to the mid-1980s, Europe till the early-1990s, back to the world for another decade, and then Europe all the way since.
The Laver Cup format requires each team to field six players; three picks are based on rankings and the other three are the captain’s prerogative. If everyone showed a willingness to play a team event—and this is a big ‘if’ in men’s tennis—these players, or at least the core, would likely come from the top-20 ranked players.
In 2018, there were 19 Europeans who were ranked inside the top 20 in men’s singles at some point during the year. By comparison, there were only 8 players from other countries. But there was a time when that wasn’t the case.
Between 1973 and 1990, on an annual basis, Europe always had fewer players in the top 20 than the rest of the world. In the 1970s, first it was the Australians (John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver) and then the Americans (Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulatis).
Each shift has had torchbearers, behind whom came a tail. Europe’s resurgence came in the mid-eighties when Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg broke out. Soon after came the ascendancy of Americans Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, and the ensuing decade was one of small margins. And then, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray happened to Europe.
The number of players in the top 20 is one thing. Their ranking also makes a difference: are they mostly bringing the tail end, or do they have a core who are making it count at the very top? For most years before 2011, even during Europe’s resurgence in the eighties, the set of world players who were ranked in the top 20 have mostly had a median ranking that was better than that of the European set. That changed firmly only with the Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
Even with the count and ranking disadvantage, what top European players have consistently done is play better against their American counterparts when it mattered more. Barring the 1990s, the set of European players in the top 20 had a slightly better winning record than the world set in matches on the tour when they squared up in quarter-finals, semi-finals or finals.
Even in the 1990s, when the rest of the world (principally, Americans like Sampras, Agassi, Michael Chang and Todd Martin) was winning more against the Europeans on tour, they were struggling to replicate the same in the Davis Cup, the main team tournament in men’s tennis. In all three decades for which granular head-to-head data is available, Europe has held sway over the rest of the world.
Since 1973,a European country has won 30 of the 46 Davis Cup editions. Later this year, the Davis Cup will move to a new format that is more condensed to increase the interest of top players. By the evidence of past data, whether it is a revamped Davis Cup or a new Laver Cup, Europe would still have a hold.
howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data