Do Numbers Back Up A Changing of the Guard at the 2019 Australian Open?

In his win over Roger Federer, 20 year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas not only earned the biggest upset of the 2019 Australian Open so far, he caused many to wonder whether tennis was seeing the start of a new era. Tsitsipas’s journey at the 2019 AO is the biggest of multiple success stories for a young crop of talents on the men’s tour, stories that have already made this year one of the most unique in AO history.

One week into the 2019 Australian Open and Day 7 proved to be the most surprising of the event. The surprises kicked off with young gun Frances Tiafoe’s four-set upset of Grigor Dimitrov. That was followed by Danielle Rose Collins dispatching 2nd seed Angelique Kerber. By the end of the night, three more top seeds were out: No. 6 Marin Cilic, No. 5 Sloane Stephens, and No. 3 Roger Federer.

Federer’s fourth round loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas— who had never won a match at the Australian Open before 2019—was the biggest shock of the day and the biggest result for any of the Next Gen in the draw. It was hard in watching Tsitsipas go toe-to-toe with the six-time Australian Open Champion not to see the parallels with Roger Federer’s R16 win over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. The parallels most of been at the forefront of John McEnroe’s mind when, in his post-match interview, he referred to Tsitsipas’s upset as a ‘changing of the guard’.

No single match can usher in a new era. But when we consider that Tsitsipas win happened in the same week when 5 players under 23 made it to the fourth round, we have to admit that McEnroe may be on to something. That 5 in 16 stat is even more compelling when we put it in the context of history.

Trends in the ages of the fourth round players at the Australian Open show a virtual drought in the performance of Under 23s between 2010 to 2018. In fact, 2009—the year when Rafael Nadal had his first and only title win at the AO, one year after Novak Djokovic’s first AO title— was the last time that players under 23 years old did as well or better than in 2019.

When we look at some of the milestones at the event, like the first titles of Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, we see that periods of dominance seem to come in 5 or 10-year cycles. That would make 2019 ripe for a shift.

What is especially interesting about this year is that it is the first in AO Open Era history that has been as top heavy in its age distribution as it has been bottom heavy. Along side the 5 Under 23s to reach the R16 are 6 30-somethings.

That age split sets up for a 2019 men’s season that could be an ongoing tug-of-war between the established masters of the sport and a rising vanguard coming into its own.

AO 2019 Men's 'R16 Age
Roger Federer 37.5
Tomas Berdych 33.4
Rafael Nadal 32.7
Novak Djokovic 31.7
Roberto Bautista Agut 30.8
Marin Cilic 30.3
Kei Nishikori 29.1
Milos Raonic 28.1
Grigor Dimitrov 27.7
Pablo Carreno Busta 27.5
Lucas Pouille 24.9
Daniil Medvedev 23.0
Borna Coric 22.2
Alexander Zverev 21.8
Francis Tiafoe 21.0
Stefanos Tsitsipas 20.5