Tennis Grand Slam’s Toughest Wins – Evaluating the Hardest Path To Victory

By Craig Mascarenhas

In tennis (and often other sports) debates, a champion’s path to victory is often subjectively debated upon – whether they were lucky based on the quality of opposition, or vice versa. With arguably the Greatest of All Time Roger Federer, winning his 19th Grand Slam and record 8th Wimbledon, I decided to inspect the path to victories in the era of the Big Four. In order to objectively determine the difficulty of winning a Grand Slam, a very simple metric was used. Each champion was given the cumulative ATP points (as it stood at the time of the Grand Slam in question) of all seven people he defeated along the way to the title, and tallied up. There a few flaws with going about the evaluation this way, but I stuck with it for simplicity and to remove any trace of subjectivity. Other things I was thinking of was weighting tournament end-stages higher (due to pressure), or weighting the opponent’s previous results in that tournament higher (e.g. Nadal is stronger on the clay of Roland Garros than at the US Open). Similarly, accounting for the amount of points a No.1 ranked champion has removed from tour could also be done in a more complicated, albeit slightly subjective model (Djokovic 2011/2015 or Federer 2006 probably faced a tougher No.2 than the corresponding No.2’s ranking suggested, purely because of the points they themselves denied the No.2 the previous year). Finally, things like sudden increase in opponents’ form and a strong player coming back from injury (with low ranking points) are others that could not properly reflect in the difficulty of the draw, but overall, simply choosing rankings points seemed to depict opposition quality quite well.

Now, before the results, some notes about the method:

· Due to the complexity of the ranking point system change in 2009, the points before 2009 were doubled to be comparable, although in actuality there are nuances in the differences of each system.
· The Grand Slams included begin from Wimbledon 2003, as Federer’s first win signified the first GS won by the Big 4. It’s nice to have come full circle with Wimbledon 2017, although the last two slams (French 2017 and Wimbledon 2017) were omitted due to lack of data.

So, after analysis, this is what the results throw up:

Notably, out of Wawrinka’s three Grand Slam victories, two ranked as the toughest and third-toughest path on the list. As the only multiple-slam winner outside of the Big 4 in their era, this is significant and depicts how hard it is for someone outside of that group to win. Nadal’s 2010 French Open win was the easiest slam on record, and it was the only French he won between 2005-2011 without having to beat Federer. As the grass at Wimbledon is notorious for causing upsets, it is not often that seeds hold their ground all the way through, and although Federer’s 2007 Wimbledon victory is the hardest one won, it ranks relatively low on the list if other slams are included. Australian Opens tend to continuously have difficult paths to victory, as a results of seeds playing to their rank and reaching the final stages more often than now. Here’s the list of the top 10 hardest paths to victory since Wimbledon 2003:

As mentioned, the fast courts of Wimbledon and the US Open seem to throw in a lot of upsets and ensure the winner doesn’t always run into the expected seeds along the way. Contrast that to the French Open, and to a lesser extent the Australian Open, where the top seeds almost always reach the later stages. Four out of the six non-Big4 Grand Slam wins since Wimbledon 2004 (Cilic being the exception) make up the first 7 spots, just going to show how remarkably difficult it was for the fringe Top 10 players to break through in such a dominant era. Stan Wawrinka, who only has 1 Masters 1000 yet 3 Grand Slams, proves yet again how when he catches fire he can go through anybody. And Juan Martin del Potro, who flat-forehanded his way to the top and seemed destined for greatness, was unfortunately riddled by wrist injuries. An obvious reason why non-Big4 members dominate the top of this metric is that they are typically lower ranked than Federer, Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic, and thus need to have to pick off one or more of them on the way to winning the title, as both Wawrinka and del Potro memorably did.

Another interesting fact is that certain opposition seem to often lose to the eventual winners. For example, the unlucky Lleyton Hewitt, himself a two-time Grand Slam winner prior to 2003, lost 13 times to the eventual Grand Slam winner, including 6 times in Round 4. This is highly unusual due to the fact that most of these exits were not finals or semi-finals, and the likelihood he was drawn in the same quarter or eight as the eventual champion was much greater than expected. However, the usual suspects reached the end stages often enough to lose to the eventual champion – Federer (18), Djokovic (18) and Murray (13). Interestingly, Nadal has only lost 8 times to the eventual champion, due to early exits in tournament’s he plays poorly/injured in.

So, there you have it, the hardest Grand Slams won over the past decade and change. Wawrinka seems to lead the way when he’s on song, which somewhat explains his mercurial career.

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