Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can Jack sock it to the pros?

US Open boys singles champion Jack Sock, courtesy of Zootennis
The USA didn't have a whole lot to celebrate at this year's US Open. Andy Roddick, James Blake and John Isner were all sent packing in the first week. Mardy Fish went down without a fight to Novak Djokovic and when Sam Querrey earned himself the opportunity for a major career breakthrough against Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, he froze.

In the context of those disappointments, Jack Sock's triumph over compatriot Denis Kudla in the boys singles was a much needed boost for American tennis. In taking the title, the young Nebraskan became the first American male to win a junior slam since Donald Young won Wimbledon in 2007, and the first since Andy Roddick  in 2000 to take his home slam.

But what does the title mean for Sock's prospects in the professional game? Roddick repeated his junior success as a pro and established himself as one of the top players in the game. Young, in contrast, has struggled and is currently ranked just outside the top 100.

Which career path is more typical; Young's or Roddick's? An analysis of all junior slam winners between 1995 and 2004 doesn't lead to any definite conclusions but makes for some interesting reading nonetheless

Here's the breakdown.

The 40 junior slam events in the period in question produced 33 winners with Gael Monfils (3), Daniel Elsner (3), Andy Roddick (2), Richard Gasquet (2) and Nicolas Kiefer (2) the only multiple winners.

And the cold harsh stat that most stands out is that of the 33 players, just two have made the ultimate breakthrough and taken a slam title at professional level.

Roddick repeated his 2000 junior US Open win three years later while Roger Federer (Wimbledon boys winner in 1998) has of course amassed a record 16 majors.
2010 champion & 1998 runner-up (l. Nalbandian)
The Federer-Nadal duopoly of the last five years has obviously limited the slams available for mere mortals and the list of junior winners contains several names that fell at the final hurdle.

Guillermo Coria, Fernando Gonzalez, David Nalbandian, Marcos Baghdatis, Joe Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray are the junior champions from the period who have lost slam finals since turning pro with only the Scot looking a decent bet to make the major step in future.
US Open final 2003: Tsonga d. Baghdatis
Several other junior champs from the period have since gone deep in slams without making it into the decider.

Semi-finalists include Gasquet, Monfils, Kiefer, Vladimir Voltchkov and Jurgen Melzer while Jarkko Nieminen, Gilles Muller, Stansilas Wawrinka and Mariano Zabaleta have all reached slam quarter-finals.

Some of the marquee names above will make pleasant reading for Jack Sock and for the American tennis fans hoping the player can make a big impact at senior level in future.

However, for every junior champ in the period that has gone on to reach the final of a slam there is one whose pro career went nowhere fast.

Daniel Elsner is one such curiosity. The German player captured three junior slams in a row from the 1996 US Open onwards and only a defeat to South African lefty Wesley Whitehouse at Wimbledon in 1997 stopped him from holding all four majors at once.
All smiles: Daniel Elsner, three-time junior slam winner
As a pro, a run to the quarter-final in Stuttgart (that included a win over world number 2 Magnus Norman) helped Elsner into the top 100 at the age of 21 but he never built on that result and spent the remainder of his career on the European clay court challenger circuit.

Julien Jeanpierre is another junior whose lack of success appears to be particularly mystifying given the company he kept in an incredibly strong year in junior tennis. 

The Frenchman finished 1998 as the second ranked junior in the world behind Federer and ahead of Nalbandian, Gonzalez and Coria, but three challenger titles is all Jeanpierre has to show from his pro career.
Julien Jeanpierre: 1998 Australian Open boys singles champion
Clement Morel, Carlos Cuadrado, Roman Valent and Florin Mergea are other junior champions from the 10 year period who reside in the "who!?" category.

One notable positive for Sock and his fans is that of the junior slams, success at the US Open seems to be the best indicator of a productive pro career.

The career high average rank of junior US Open winners in the period is 22, which compares favourably to the Australian Open (88), Roland Garros (41) and Wimbledon (101).

Also, six of the ten US Open boys winners reached the top 10 of the world rankings, eight have reached the last eight of a slam and eight have won ATP titles.

None of this is to make an argument one way or another, merely to offer an objective analysis of the significance of junior slams, and it could be argued the data is already outdated in terms of modern relevance.

One thing that should stand to Sock is his physical presence. At 17 he's listed at 6'1 which seems to be around the minimum a height a player at the top of the modern game needs to be. The more diminutive junior winners of recent years such as Ricardas Berankis (5'9) and Yuki Bhambri (5'7) have the odds stacked heavily against them already.
Praying for a growth spurt: Yuki Bhambri and his Australian Open trophy
The data shows that success in the juniors can be translated into the pros but also serves as a reminder that it is by no means inevitable and that any wild expectations for the player should remain muted for now.

Note: Bhambri did indeed have a growth spurt and is now around 6'0. Thanks to Colette for pointing that out. I guess his prayers were answered.

More Stats:

Boys singles champions 1995-2004:

Rankings (career high):
1: Andy Roddick, Roger Federer
2-5: Andy Murray (2), Guillermo Coria(3), David Nalbandian(3) , Nicolas Kiefer (4), Fernando Gonzalez (5)
6-10: Joe Wilfried Tsonga (6), Richard Gasquet (7), Marcos Baghdatis (8) Gael Monfils (9), Stanislas Wawrinka (9)
10 - 20: Paul-Henri Mathieu (12), Jurgen Melzer (13), Jarkko Nieminen (13)
20 - 50: Mariano Zabaleta (21), Vladimir Voltchkov (25), Janko Tipsarevic (33), Alberto Martin (34), Arnaud Di Pasquale (39), Nicolas Mahut (40)
50 - 100: Gilles Muller (59), Kristian Pless (62), Olivier Mutis (75), Daniel Elsner (92)
100 - 200: Todd Reid (105), Julien Jeanpierre (133), Bjorn Renquist (146)
200+: Wesley Whitehouse (214), Carlos Cuadrado (222), Florin Mergea (243), Roman Valent (300), Clement Morel (387)

Title winners: ATP - Masters - Slam

Federer, Roddick, Murray, Coria, Nalbandian, Kiefer, Gonzalez, Tsonga, Gasquet, Baghdatis. Monfils, Wawrinka, Mathieu, Melzer, Nieminen, Zabaleta, Martin, Di Pasquale


  1. I'm fairly certain that Bhambri is around six feet tall.

  2. Really?

    Glad to hear it, if so.

    ITF lists him as 5'7. Maybe their site is due an update.

  3. Good article and well researched. Yes, junior success isn't a guarantee at all. Look at Nadal, he didn't bother with juniors and nor did David Ferrer.

    Elsner loved the partying life. The key is to develop players so their game can transition to the pros.

  4. Thank you for this article. Very informative