Will the Women’s Runner-Up Be The Greatest Never? A Look at the Data

There has been talk in tennis circles that the Halep-Wozniacki final starting a couple hours from now features the two best women never to have won a Slam.

Among others, The Tennis Podcast suggested that’s the case, while mentioning Elena Dementieva, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina as other contenders. Upon hearing that, we thought: Oh yeah, Dementieva. She was damn good. Was she better than Halep and Wozniacki?

We’ve also heard support for Helena Sukova, recently announced as an entrant to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which feels like it’s turning into the Hall of Perfectly Nice People Who Happen to Be Good at Tennis.

Before we assess the candidates, let’s be clear that while Slams are the most important markers for tennis greatness, they’re not the only criteria. We would take the careers of Halep, Wozniacki and Dementieva over those of Slam winners Iva Majoli or Anastasia Myskina.

So let’s set some arbitrary criteria. Logic would tell you that the best players never to have won a Slam are those who have frequently come close to winning one. Since the Slams obviously aren’t the only determinant of a player’s success, let’s also look at year-end rankings. We think year-end rankings are a cleaner evaluator than highest ranking. Seems like if someone hits a career high of No. 3 but finishes that same year ranked No. 6, the latter is a fairer assessment of their accomplishments around that time.

As long as we’re being arbitrary, we would draw a pretty thick line between quarters and semis. Making a Slam quarter is impressive. But making a Slam semi is a big ‘effin deal. We view it as similar to the difference between a top 5 ranking and a top 10 ranking. Top 10 is nice, but top 5 and top 3 are elite.

Here are the numbers (at least by our count; if you see any errors, please advise):  Halep has been in five Slam quarterfinals, two semifinals and two finals (We’re not including this Australian Open in these tallies). Halep also has been ranked in the year-end top 5 four different years, one at No. 1. Those are the only years she has finished top 10.

Wozniacki has made three Slam quarters, four semis and two finals before this tournament. Like Halep, she has four Top 5 finishes, including twice as year-end No. 1. But she has also finished three other years in the top 10, for a total of seven as a top tenner. While it’s a fairly close call, Wozniacki has had a slightly better career going into the final. Six times in the semis or beyond beats Halep’s four, and Wozniacki has been a relevant top player for longer.

Dementieva, fans of the Aughts may recall, was in three Slam quarters, seven semis and two finals. That’s nine times in the semis or deeper of Slams, more than any of the others. Surprisingly, she never finished a year in the WTA top 5, but finished four years in the top 10.

Jankovic has been in two Slam quarters, five semis and one final. She has two year-end rankings in the top 5 — including one as No. 1 — and a total of five in the top 10.

Safina’s career is perhaps the oddest of all. She was in three Slam finals, a mark Halep and Wozniacki tie today. She was in another two semis and two quarters. But she was in the top 10 only two years, both of them in the top three. She wasn’t a top player long enough to win this Greatest Never title.

As for Sukova, she has the most impressive Slam record of them all, with 11 quarterfinals, three semis and four finals. She was top 10 six different years, but never finished in the top 5.

The verdict: It’s damn close, but up until this tournament, we think Wozniacki has been the best of those mentioned here, followed by Dementieva, with Halep and Sukova close behind. Slam-wise, it’s tempting to give Sukova the crown because of her four finals. But she was never a top 3 player.

Dementieva’s nine Slam semis without winning a title is an excruciating stat. But since Halep and Wozniacki will both be in their third Slam final, compared with two for Dementieva, we’ll give the loser of today’s final a tiny edge over Dementieva and Sukova for the Greatest Never. But don’t worry, Elena/Helena. Today’s runner-up has a good shot at winning a Slam someday. There’s hope for you yet.  

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