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By Raymond Lee | Thursday, July 22, 2021

 
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At the age of 34, Novak Djokovic is delivering an astounding 2021 season, prompting historian Raymond Lee to chronicle the top seasons in history from men over 30.

Photo credit: Western & Southern Open Facebook

On July 11, 2021, Novak Djokovic made history again by winning his third consecutive Wimbledon title joining great names like Fred Perry, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

It was Djokovic's record-extending eighth Grand Slam title since celebrating his 30th birthday and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Winning Wimbledon, Djokovic collected his 20th Grand Slam tying his fellow Big 3 rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the men’s record. If Djokovic wins the US Open in September, he will make history as just the second man in the Open Era after Rod Laver to win the calendar Grand Slam.

Novak: I Know History is on the Line

Djokovic is the fifth man in history to win the first three Grand Slam championships of the season—after Jack Crawford (1933), Don Budge (1938), Lew Hoad (1956) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) and now bids to join Steffi Graf as the second player in history to win the Golden Grand Slam—all four major championships and the Olympic gold medal.

It would be fitting if Djokovic won the Grand Slam that at the same time he would go ahead of Federer and Nadal as the all-time Grand Slam king. Nadal and Federer have a lot to say about that of course.

I was discussing Djokovic’s Wimbledon win with a relative and she replied, “Doesn’t Djokovic win every major?!”

Indeed, when Djokovic goes on streaks like this it does seem like he wins every major.

What is particularly impressive about Djokovic’s 2021 season is that he is doing it in a year he has turned 34!

This is an age when in the past tennis players were thought to be going to the retirement home. This prompted me to think how many players have delivered standout seasons after the age of 30. For the purposes of this article, I will use the year they turn 30 even if they won a major earlier in the year before they hit the dreaded 30th birthday.

In recent tennis history there are players who declined markedly after age 30 or even before. It was a big deal in 2002 when Pete Sampras defeated archrival Andre Agassi to win his 14th major at the ripe old age of 32 and then retired as one of the few players to close the curtain after winning a Grand Slam title.

John McEnroe, after one of the great tennis seasons in history in 1984 at age 25 never won another classic major! If you said McEnroe would never win another classic major at that time people would have thought you were insane.

Bjorn Borg essentially quit tennis, apart for a brief and ill-fated comeback, after age 25.

The 34-year-old Djokovic is on pace to produce the greatest season ever by a man—regardless of age—if he makes history as the first man to complete the Golden Grand Slam this season. But I’d prefer to let this season play out so this list does not include the world No. 1’s current 2021 season.

In celebration of the ageless champion, here are my picks for the greatest tennis season in history produced by men over age 30.

1. Roger Federer 2017

Federer won two majors in the Australian and Wimbledon in the year he would turn 36! The Swiss Maestro won 3 of the 4 Masters tournaments that he played and finished in the final in the one he did not win. He won 54 matches and only lost 5 for a super winning percentage of 91.53. Federer entered 12 tournaments and won 7. Federer was in the final of another. For the year he finished second in the world behind only Rafael Nadal.




2. Roger Federer 2012

A phenomenal Federer won Wimbledon and three Master level tournaments this year. He won 6 tournaments out of 17 entered and was in 10 finals. Overall, Federer was a superb 71-12 for 85.54%.

3. Rafael Nadal 2017

Rafael Nadal won two majors, Roland Garros, of course, and the US Open in the year he would turn 31. It was another great comeback for Nadal after poor year in 2016 in which he had injury problems. Nadal won 6 tournaments out of 18 entered and was in 10 finals. His record for the year was 68-12 for 85%.



4. Rafael Nadal 2018

Nadal only won one major this year which not surprisingly was his usual French Open, a tournament that seems to be bequeathed to him at birth. He only entered 9 tournaments this year but won 5 tournaments out of the five finals he was in. He actually had the best winning percentage of his career for a year in winning 45 and losing only 4 for 91.84%. However he did not finish number one for the year, his eternal rival Novak Djokovic finished at number one for the year in Novak’s comeback year.

5. Rafael Nadal 2019

Do we detect a pattern here? Yes Nadal had another of his typically great seasons in winning two majors in the French again and the US Open. He beat out Djokovic who won the Australian again and Wimbledon. Nadal won 4 tournaments out of 13 entered and was in 5 finals. His won-lost for the year was 58-7 for 89.23%.

6. Novak Djokovic 2018

Djokovic made his comeback from injuries and rallied to snatch the number one ranking for the year from Nadal by winning the last two majors of the year plus two Master’s 1000 tournaments. Djokovic won 4 of 16 tournaments and was in 7 finals. His record for the year was 53-13 for 80.3%.

7. Novak Djokovic 2019

Another great Djokovic year! He won two majors in the Australian and Wimbledon. He also won 2 Masters tournaments. He won 5 of 15 tournaments and was in the finals of 6. His record for the year was 57-11 for 83.82%.



8. Novak Djokovic 2020

This is the year the pandemic cancelled many tournaments. Considering the reduced tournament schedule Djokovic had a great year in winning 4 out of 8 tournaments including the Australian Open. He was also in the final of the French but Nadal left him with no chance to win. Novak also won two Masters 1000 tournaments to booster his Master tournament wins to a record 36 which has since been tied by Nadal. Djokovic of course will have 2021 on this list also but I’d prefer to wait to see how it all pans out.

It’s interesting how so many on this list is involving the Big Three. You would figure that would have to be considering they all presently hold the majors record.

9. Andre Agassi 2001

Agassi had a great year in 2001 winning the Australian and 2 Masters 1000 tournaments. Agassi finished number three for the year behind only Hewitt and Kuerten. I choose this year over his 2003 year because his ATP point totals were higher.

10. Jimmy Connors 1982

The great Connors had his last great year in 1982. Connors won two majors in winning Wimbledon over John McEnroe and the US Open over Ivan Lendl. Connors won 7 tournaments this year while finishing in the finals in 4 other tournaments. The ITF named Connors its World Champion for 1982 and the ATP named Connors its Player of the Year. Ironically John McEnroe was ahead in the year end point standings but Connors was recognized generally as the top player of 1982. Connors was 78-10 for the year for an 88.64%.



11. Arthur Ashe 1975

Arthur Ashe, at age 32 won what was really considered to be two majors in those days in the WCT Championship over Bjorn Borg and Wimbledon over Jimmy Connors. Ashe played a huge schedule that year in winning 102 and losing 23 for 81.6%. Ashe to me at least was one of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen. He is one of the few players that had incredible power off every shot. His serve, especially in 1968 was explosive. Jack Kramer compared it to Ellsworth Vines!

Ashe's backhand was powerful and versatile and his forehand also had great power. His backhand volley was one of the best. His forehand volley was fine although he could net the low forehand volley. Frankly that’s a weakness I think many players have. Ashe tended to play a very high risk game which usually paid off since he was so talented but you can’t play against the odds all the time. And as many of us know, Ashe didn’t devote his time to tennis as much as some because of his humanitarian pursuits.

12. Ken Rosewall 1971

The ageless wonder in a year he would turn 37 won the Australian Open that year without losing a set defeating Emerson, Okker and Ashe on is way to the title. He also won what was really a major in those days in the 1971 WCT Championship over the great Rod Laver in four sets. Rosewall won 8 tournaments out of 27 played (according to some sources) with a 77-22 record for 77.78%. He was arguably number one, but most had Newcombe or Stan Smith number one for the year. Not the greatest year for winning percentage nor for percentage of winning tournaments but he did win two huge tournaments.



13. Ken Rosewall 1970

Did Rosewall ever age? I have a hunch he may be still preparing to play in the US Open this year to stop Djokovic’s Grand Slam as he did to Lew Hoad in 1956. Anyway Rosewall won the US Open this year at age 36 over Tony Roche in the final. He was arguably number one for the year although many called John Newcombe number one. If we go by the current ATP point type system probably Laver would be number one but by the opinion polls of those days either Newcombe or Rosewall was number one. Rosewall was 73-21 for the year.

14. Rod Laver 1970

Laver was to turn 32 this year, but most (despite the opinion polls aka ranking systems of the day that were opinions by experts) considered Laver to be the strongest player at that time. Although he was declining, Laver still won 15 tournaments this year out of 29 played with a 90-15 record for 85.71%. Using today’s ATP system for points I believe Laver would easily be No. 1.

15. Rod Laver 1969

Laver was to turn 31 in '6
9 when he produced arguably the greatest season in the history of tennis. Laver won the first and as of now only Open Men’s Grand Slam! Laver won 18 tournaments out of 32 played for a 106-16 record for 86.89%. He also won a number of other top tournaments like the South African Open, the US Pro Indoor, the US Pro and the Wembley Pro.



16. Rod Laver 1968

Laver appears again on the list in the first year of Open tennis. It was fitting that Laver would be number one for the year. Laver won the first Wimbledon Open in 1968 over Tony Roche in straight sets. Laver won 12 of 27 tournaments with a 75-19 record.

17. Pancho Gonzalez 1960

You can have some solid seasons for the legend Pancho Gonzalez even after he turned 40. For example in 1969 he was 42-24 but he won three tournaments including the Howard Hughes Open in Las Vegas over Peter Curtis, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe! The latter four are all time greats and still at or near their peaks.

Gonzalez also won the prestigious Pacific Southwest. I chose 1960 for Pancho Gonzalez was because he was so dominant in winning the World Championship Tour over Ken Rosewall (who was at his peak), Segura was still excellent and would be winning tournaments in the future and Olmedo was still a strong player. He was 49-8 in that tournament leaving Rosewall in the dirt who finished second with a record of 32-25 followed by Segura at 22-28 and Olmedo at 11-44. Gonzalez lost a match to Rosewall in what they used to call One Night Stands and then won a small tournament in Tuscaloosa over Earl Baumgardner, Bobby Riggs and Sammy Giammalva Sr that year for a total record of 52-9.

The World Championship Tour clinched the No. 1 ranking for Gonzalez for the year so Gonzalez did not have much activity after the win in Tuscaloosa in tennis. Some argued Rosewall was number one due to his tournament activity. I feel that makes no sense since the number one ranking in those days was akin to Professional Boxing in which the winner is the champion. In this case Gonzalez pulverized the number two player Rosewall by 19 wins to 5 on that head to head tour. It was not even close. Rosewall was clearly inferior to Gonzalez on this tour.



It was an incredibly powerful sustained effort of great tennis by a player who is arguably the GOAT. There are a number of other years you could argue for Gonzalez such as the next year in 1961 but I felt this was a more dominant year overall since he had a great winning percentage playing some extremely strong players in mainly best of three where you are more likely to be upset.

18. Bill Tilden 1930

The list of great Bill Tilden years when he was 30 or older seems infinite but I decided to pick 1930. In 1930 Tilden went to Europe and won the championships of five nations. He won the Italian, Dutch, Australian, German championships and the biggest one of them all in Wimbledon. He also won the big Newport Casino tournament in those days. He won 18 tournaments in total with a 120-6 record for 95.24%.

Tilden had better percentages in other years in which he only lost once but I chose this year due to his winning so many prestigious titles. Just to show how dominate Tilden was, from 1923 to 1925 Tilden won 214 matches and lost 3. Each of those years he lost only one match! How much better can you get than that? From 1920-1925 he won every major he played in which was a total of 9 if you include the World Hard Court in 1921 which was the clay court major in those days because the French only Open to French citizens. Tilden may be the top player of all time when it comes to great years when a player has past 30 years old.

What is striking about this list is the number of years in the Open Era dominated by the Big Three. Well, that makes sense since all three can be argued to be the Greatest of All Time. You would not be in the running unless you had some great years when you have past your best years although it’s debatable with Djokovic and perhaps Nadal that they have past their best years. They can still have some great years upcoming. Djokovic this year 2021 may have the greatest year of all time when it is over.

Virtually every one of the players on this list has been called the GOAT at one time or another and just about all of them have a reasonable case.

What is reasonable to conclude, at least in the Open Era is that the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are incredibly unique in how they have maintained their greatness after they have passed the age of thirty. Federer for example was number one in the rankings as recently as June 2018 at the age of almost 37! Even when Federer is not totally invincible, as he seemed to be for years, he is at worst great over a long span of time.

Since Federer turned 30, he has finished No. 3 in the world in 2011, No. 2 in 2012, No. 6 in 2014, No. 2 in 2015, No. 16 in 2016 in an injury year, No. 2 in 2017, No. 3 in 2018 and 2019, No. 5 in 2020 with the ranking frozen due to Covid and this year he is currently No. 9 in late July of 2021.

Nadal was year-end world No. 1 just recently in 2019 and just a few years before that in 2017. Since 2016, the year he would turn 30 he has finished No. 9 in 2016, 1 in 2017, No. 2 in 2018, No. 1 in 2019 and No. 2 in 2020 in the World rankings. Despite Djokovic’s greatness the last few years Nadal has battled him tooth and nail and has surpassed him a few times for year-end No. 1. Considering how he has dealt with many injuries over the years makes his career all the more amazing.

Djokovic as of now in July of 2021 is arguably having perhaps the best season of the Open Era! 



The world No. 1 has won the first three majors of the year, even accomplishing the impossible in beating Nadal at the French Open. Surprisingly he has not won any Masters 1000 tournaments so far this year and was only in the final of the Italian Open on clay where he was beaten by (who else?) Rafael Nadal in three sets.

Since Djokovic has turned 30 in 2017, he has finished No. 12 in an injury filled year, No. 1 in 2018 in a great comeback year, No. 2 in 2019, No. 1 in 2020 and currently it seems like he is a shoe in for being number No. 1 in 2021. I am not sure he can match his record point total of 16,585 in 2015 since he didn’t play in a few Master events and as I write earlier the ones he played in he didn’t win. No matter what, if Djokovic wins the Grand Slam or perhaps Golden Slam you can argue it’s the best season of the Open Era. We shall see.

Bill Tilden, prior to the Open Era was unbelievably great when he was passed the age of 30. The man was great until his forties. There are great stories about how Tilden, even around age 50 was always trying to improve himself. One was when he was able to mimic Fred Perry’s forehand so he could use that style when he had to. Fred Perry’s forehand historically has often been called one of the greatest forehands of all time.

One player I would like to mention is the legendary Pancho Segura. Segura was incredible when he was 30 plus years old. For example in 1952, when he would turn 31 he won the US Pro Clay Courts over Bobby Riggs, won the US Pro over Pancho Gonzalez, the Canada Pro over Don Budge and the Paris Indoor over Jack Kramer. In 1957, at the age of 36 he would win a Pro Tour over Ken Rosewall, Jack Kramer (who was now semi-retired) and Dinny Pails.

Segura was known for his great two handed forehand which some Hall of Famers say is the greatest shot in the history of tennis. He had incredible power, control, versatility and disguise with his forehand. I spoke to a well-known great player a few years ago and he told me that Segura’s forehand was without a doubt the greatest forehand he had seen. This man had seen great forehands for many decades and of recent times in Federer and Nadal but he was certain Segura’s forehand was the greatest of them all! Segura was a great player but he had greats like Kramer and Gonzalez overshadowing him. Later he was known as a great coach with Jimmy Connors his most famous player.

As of now I would still say that if we use the current ATP standard of looking at the top 19 or 20 results that Rod Laver, in the first full year of the Open Era 1969 has the best record for players over age 30. As we all know he won the Grand Slam, but he also won top hard-court tournaments like the South African Open and Wembley, top indoor tournaments like the Madison Square Garden Pro.

The Australian lefty won 18 tournaments in total that year. I would think that if we use the current ATP standards to the tournaments he would have an astonishing total of ATP points for the end of year. Laver was probably the best in the world on all surfaces which is something you can rarely say for even GOAT candidates.

The thing about the Big 3 is that even beyond the age of 30 they have had consistent greatness. Their level of play seems to be always of a high quality. This is what puts them beyond ordinary mortal tennis players, even at the World Class level. The Big 3 account for 8 of the 17 seasons and you could argue they may deserve more. They also have the ability to adapt and improve themselves. It goes without saying that they are great on all surfaces considering that they are GOAT candidates.


All three have more some adjustments to their games to raise their level probably because they all pushed each other or else they would be left behind. They are still going and hopefully we can continue to see them play at a high level for years.

Raymond Lee is a tennis historian and avid player based in New York. He has followed and written about the pro game for decades and was contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and Tennis Week.com. 


 

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