The Australian Open started on Monday, and with it come renewed bouts of discussion about the best players of both the current day and all time.
At the moment, these questions can have the same answers.
In the women’s game, Serena Williams has currently won twenty-two Grand Slam titles, from the 1999 US Open to Wimbledon last year – a tally tied with Steffi Graf for the record. She has won every Grand Slam at least three times, has an Olympic gold medal, and, after winning Wimbledon in 2015, was the first person in twelve years to be the reigning champion in all four Grand Slams – taking the record from herself. She is, in this author’s (highly unauthorative) opinion, the greatest women’s player of all time.
On the men’s side of things, from Wimbledon 2004 to the same tournament eight years later, every Grand Slam, bar two, was won by three players – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Federer has seventeen titles, a men’s record, Nadal has fourteen (equal-second) and Djokovic has twelve (equal-fourth). They have, since Federer’s first win in 2002, dominated tennis between them. Although now being challenged by Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka – great players in their own right – these three would all be in a top ten list of the best men’s players.
The question I have is this – with these being the best players of the Open Era, which has been the best country?
We could just add up the Grand Slam titles of each country (the US would be far and away on top), but that isn’t fair for one good reason.
Suppose that we have a country with 1,000 people in them. 999 of them cannot play tennis for yonks, but the 1,000th is the greatest player in history, and has won the last twenty-five Grand Slams. You could say that this tiny country is the best in the world at tennis, but they’d have no hope at getting together a good Davis Cup team.
Instead, we’re looking at a methodology where having multiple-Slam winners is good, but having multiple Slam winners is better. It requires some mildly complicated maths, but it takes place in a footnote, so you can avoid it if you want.
Basically, every player who wins their first Grand Slam earns one Slam Point, and then they get more and more points, depending on how many they won. The chart below shows us how it increases.
Based on this, we can now start adding up the points for each country.
20 countries have won Grand Slam titles in the Open Era. The first one was Australia, who have had seven champions (Rod Laver and John Newcombe five times, Ken Rosewall four times, Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt twice, and Mark Edmonson and Pat Cash once), and the most recent new winner is the United Kingdom, with triple champion Sir Andy Murray.
Here’s the table.
|Juan Martín del Potro||1.00|
|Czech Republic||3 players||5.55|
|South Africa||1 player||1.50|
|Juan Carlos Ferrero||1.00|
|United Kingdom||1 player||1.83|
|United States||12 players||21.69|
The Czech Republic was as Czechoslovakia, except for Petr Korda, and the first four of Becker’s titles were for West Germany.
Based on this, we have our champions:
- United States, 21.69 (Ashe, Smith, Connors, Tanner, Gerulaitis, McEnroe, Teacher, Chang, Sampras, Courier, Agassi, Roddick)
- Australia, 11.64 (Rosewall, Laver, Newcombe, Edmondson, Cash, Rafter, Hewitt)
- Spain, 9.75 (Gimeno, Orantes, Bugera, Moyá, Costa, Ferrero, Nadal)
- Sweden, 9.06 (Borg, Wilander, Edberg, Johansson)
- Czech Republic, 5.55 (Kodeš, Lendl, Korda)
Unsurprisingly, the United States finishes up on top, for good reason – several of the best players of all time are American, including McEnroe, Connors, Sampras, Agassi, and Roddick. While not as dominant as they were, they still have three seeded players at the Australian Open (John Isner, Jack Sock, and Sam Querrey). Australia is second, but mostly relies on glories of days gone past – Rosewall, Laver and Newcombe being the top contributors (however, Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic both got seedings at this year’s Open). Spain is in third, with Nadal the latest contributor, and by far the most well-known one; Sweden is fourth, despite not having a single Swede at this year’s Open; and the Czech Republic rounds out the top five, mostly from Czechoslovakian victories.
Now, as we usually do with these things, we will make it per capita (or in this case, millions of people per point).
- Sweden, 1.04
- Switzerland, 1.46 (Federer, Wawrinka)
- Czech Republic, 1.90
- Australia, 1.94
- Croatia, 2.20 (Ivanišević, Čilić)
Once again, the rich Scandinavian nation ends up on top of a measure of per-capita sporting prowess. Sweden, as well as Australia and the Czech Republic, show up not only as high ranked on an absolute basis, but also on a per capita basis. Those three have a decent claim to being some of the best tennis countries. Switzerland makes this list (Federer will do that for you), and Croatia is on it as well.
However, is this reflected in the women’s game?
In the Open Era, there have been eighteen countries to salute in the women’s singles at Grand Slams. The United States were the first, with Nancey Richey, and Victoria Azarenka’s Belarus is the most recent, first winning in 2012.
|Kerry Melville Reid||1.00|
|Czech Republic||3 players||4.58|
|Arantxa Sánchez Vicario||2.08|
|United Kingdom||3 players||3.83|
|United States||11 players||23.27|
|Billie Jean King||2.72|
Four notes here: firstly, some Czech titles are as Czechoslovakia; secondly, some German titles are West German; thirdly, Serbia gains Yugoslavia’s wins (a stance reflected by FIFA); and finally, Monica Seles won her ninth title as an American, rather than a Yugoslavian, so she gets 0.11 points for the Americans, in addition to the 2.72 she earned from Serbia/Yugoslavia. (The 0.11 is the difference between what you get for 8 and 9 titles.)
The women’s top 5:
- United States, 23.27 (Richey, King, Evert, Navratoliva, Jordan, Austin, Seles, Davenport, S. Williams, V. Williams, Capriati)
- Australia, 8.61 (Court, Goolagong, Reid, O’Neil, Stosur)
- Germany, 5.19 (Graf, Kerber)
- Russia, 4.78 (Myskina, Sharapova, Kuznetsova)
- Serbia, 4.72 (Joušovec, Seles, Ivanovic)
The top five is very similar to what we saw in the men’s tournament – The United States on top, Australia second, a Western European country in third, and an Eastern European country in fifth. Like we said with the men’s, some of the best players of all time are American, and Australia is relying on past glories. Germany gets both all-time leader Steffi Graf and Angelique Kerber, who’s currently reaching her peak; Russia is a surprise, with points from Kuznetsova and currently-suspended Sharapova; and Serbia makes it to the top, likely due to Yugoslavian titles.
Again, we’ll look at it per capita.
- Serbia, 1.55
- Czech Republic, 2.300 (Mandlíková, Novotná, Kvitová)
- Belgium, 2.303 (Henin, Cljisters)
- Australia, 2.63
- Switzerland, 3.38 (Hingis)
Well done to Serbia, even if it may not be entirely deserved. The Czech Republic and Belgium are neck and neck, with Belgium winning on having better players and the Czech Republic having more. Australia again finishes fourth, and Switzerland earns a spot thanks to Martina Hingis, who suffers the misfortune of being from Federer country.
The overall rankings
- United States, 44.96
- Australia, 20.25
- Spain, 13.83
- Czech Republic, 10.13
- Sweden, 9.06
- Germany, 8.64
- Serbia, 7.82
- Russia, 7.78
- Switzerland, 7.55
- United Kingdom, 5.66
- Argentina, 5.08
- France, 5.00
- Belgium, 4.67
- Croatia/Italy, 3.00
- Romania, 2.00
- Brazil, 1.83
- Belarus/China/South Africa, 1.50
- Austria/Ecuador/Netherlands, 1.00
Per capita rankings
- Serbia, 0.94
- Switzerland, 1.02
- Czech Republic, 1.040
- Sweden, 1.042
- Australia, 1.12
- Croatia, 1.47
- Belgium, 2.30
- Spain, 3.36
- Belarus, 6.37
- United States, 6.96
- Argentina, 8.02
- Austria, 8.41
- Germany, 9.51
- Romania, 10.73
- United Kingdom, 11.03
- France, 12.63
- Ecuador, 14.67
- Netherlands, 16.67
- Russia, 18.36
- Italy, 20.26
- South Africa, 33.64
- Brazil, 107.46
- China, 888.05
Congratulations to Serbia.
I’ll give you an update once we have our Grand Slam champions.
For those of you who are about to complain about me forgetting Margaret Court, I see what you’re getting at, and am ready to rebut it. Most all tennis records refer to the Open Era, which started from the 1968 French Open (as opposed to the amateur era). Margaret Court did win twenty four Grand Slam titles, which is still an amazing feat, but thirteen of those were in the amateur era, leaving eleven in the Open era. This is still ranked fifth, as evidence for how good she was.
That’s a very clever bit of wordplay there.
The formula that I’m using here is the harmonic series:
Basically, it means that if you add up the fractions progressively for an infinite amount of time, it will eventually reach infinity. The proof isn’t particularly complicated, but this is a blog about sports statistics, not mathematical formulae. (There’s also plenty of cool stuff where if you remove all numbers that have 8 in them, it doesn’t go to infinity, and lots of other things, but it’s not important to this. Look them up if you want.)
 Populations from my Collins World Atlas, © Harper Collins Publishers 2014.
 Of course, this could be out of date within the next fortnight.
 Kim Cljisters was the first female to win a Grand Slam from a wildcard position at the 2009 US Open. And she did it as a mother. (That’s why she was a wildcard in the first place.)