“Depth” vs. Stability: A New Way of Looking At the ATP Golden Age

By Andrew Burton

WTA Not Literally Stealing Food from Fed Kids

As 2014 winds down, one recurring argument got some new life last week.

Matthew Syed of the London Times responded to a study showing women in sports earned significantly less than men. Syed thought matters were very unfair – to men. The ladies were depriving top ATP stars like Roger Federer of a fair wage (Syed didn’t use the argument that Federer was bread winner for a family of six – an opportunity missed, perhaps).

Syed’s musings have been thoroughly debunked on Twitter …


… and by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian. But many tennis watchers persist in seeing the men’s game as different to the women’s game.

In 2014, the women’s game has one clear superstar – Serena Williams. The ATP has a Big Four – Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The ATP’s current golden age surely underlines the superiority of the male version of the game.

Not so fast.

About three years ago, I took a look at players who made the semifinals at the four Major tournaments – The Big Four and the Super One. I thought I’d bring that analysis up to date, and also take it back to the start of the 2000s.

I found that the last 15 years comprised two distinct periods: 2000-2006, and 2007-2014. In the last eight years, the top ATP players have contested more semifinals than their WTA counterparts. But in the earlier period, the pattern almost completely flips.

And for the full decade and a half as whole, the numbers say there’s virtually no difference between the two tours.

Commentators enjoy talking about depth in a tour. If an unseeded player upsets a top seed, the upset can be read as a sign of excellence among unheralded players. Alternatively, you can make the argument that the star is a pretender. One view speaks to the tour’s strength, the other to its weakness. Of course, if you’re predisposed to favor one tour over the other, you can put your thumb on the scales.

In place of depth, I’d like to introduce a different metric: stability. For Majors, stability is simply the number of different players who compete in the semifinals of the four tournaments in a calendar year. Maximum stability means the same four players make it through to the last stages: Minimum stability has a cast of 16 players.




In the 2000-2006 period, six women get into double figures for semifinal appearances in majors. Only one man, Federer, is as consistent.

If we look at the number of different players appearing per calendar year, here’s what we see:


The ATP until the middle of the decade was a smorgasbord. In the early part of the period, the WTA was anchored by the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport; later on, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova came to the fore.

But things were about to change.



6Two things stand out: the prominence of the ATP Big Four, who over an eight-year period hogged nearly two-thirds of the men’s SF spots. And on the WTA side, a cohort of relatively young players retired early. In addition to the players highlighted in blue above, Amelie Mauresmo left the WTA tour at 30, and Justine Henin stunned the tennis world by retiring in early 2008; she rejoined the tour and contested the Australian Open final in 2010, but never made another Major semifinal before a second, final retirement in January 2011.

Here are the stability numbers for the period:


In 2011, the ATP Big Four took up 14 of 16 semifinal slots. Only Tsonga, who stunned Federer from two sets down at Wimbledon, and Ferrer, who upset an injured Nadal in Melbourne, stopped a clean sweep.

When we look at the 15-year period as a whole, on average, 10.5 men contested 16 places each year, vs 10.7 women. Feel the instability in the women’s game!

Even the 15-year period I’ve reviewed is only a brief snapshot of the Open Era. But I hope I’ve convinced you to beware of pundits who use the dominance of a few ATP players in the last five or six years to argue in favor of one version of the singles game.

Likely, in a few years we’ll be asking when the men are going to get their act together again. Or, to put it another way: The ATP Dark Age Is Coming.

One Response

  1. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic November 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |

    Extremely interesting read, as always! In a strange way I’m looking forward to seeing how things will pan out before The Dark Age arrives, and then – who knows whats gonna happen?

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