Every year, the best tennis players from around the globe come together and compete in 4 major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. These Grand Slam tournaments are the most prestigious events in professional tennis, so it’s not surprising that they’re often won by one of the highest ranked players in the sport. What is puzzling, though, is the fact that even the greatest players’ performances can vary depending on which tournament they’re competing in. For example, Rafael Nadal has won the French Open 12 times in his career, but he rarely advances beyond the quarterfinals in the Australian Open. Similarly, Roger Federer has won 8 of his 20 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and only 1 at the French Open. This led me to question which Grand Slam tournament is the most challenging for the top men’s singles tennis players.
In the toughest tournament, we’ll likely see the best players struggling to defeat even low-ranking opponents, so one way we can try to find the most difficult Grand Slam tournament is by counting the number of upsets that have occurred at each of the four majors. We will define an upset as an instance in which a player ranked in the top 10, according to the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), loses a match to a player who isn’t ranked in the top 10 and, consequently, is eliminated from the tournament.
Table A shows us how many upsets occurred at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments between 2009-2018, and we see that the largest number of upsets took place at Wimbledon. These 40 upsets have been broken down even further in Table B, which reveals how many upsets occurred in a particular round of the tournament and in a certain number of sets.
Notice that 70% of the upsets were 4-5 sets in length, and 90% of them took place before or during the 4th round. This means that the top-10 players who were defeated by lower-ranking opponents typically lost in the first half of the tournament, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Still, their relatively early elimination suggests that playing at Wimbledon is challenging from the get-go, it doesn’t just become difficult once you advance to the later stages of the tournament. There are a couple of plausible explanations as to why this is the case:
- Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament that is played on grass courts, which are far quicker than clay and hard courts. Balls come off the surface of the court fast and low, and their bounce can be very unpredictable, especially if the grass has been worn down over time. These conditions are troublesome for baseline players.
- Whereas there’s at least a month separating the other Grand Slam tournaments from one another, there are only a few weeks between the end of the French Open and the start of Wimbledon. This quick turnaround leaves the athletes with little time to recover physically and transition from playing on clay to playing on grass, which can negatively impact their performances at Wimbledon.
In conclusion, one could argue that Wimbledon is the most challenging Grand Slam tournament because it’s where we see the greatest number of top-10 tennis players fall to low-ranking opponents. That being said, if you’re a rising tennis star with a fast-paced serve, a tendency to hit hard, flat shots and shots with lots of slice, and a desire to defeat a top-ranked competitor in a Grand Slam, then I’d suggest you take your talents to Wimbledon because that’s where you’ll have the greatest chance of success.
About the Author
Courtney Williams graduated summa cum laude from Berry College (GA) in 2017. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and she wants to use her knowledge of statistics, probability, and more advanced mathematics to help sports organizations make good business- and player-related decisions.