IT MAY have happened on Sunday, but the news that Andy Murray has become the first Briton to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon for 77 years is still fresh in many minds. But when might we expect the next celebration? One way of predicting it is to look at the typical “wait time” between victories from players from the same country. Roger Federer won in both 2006 and 2007, for example. The wait time for Switzerland in 2007 was, therefore, just one year. Then Federer won again in 2009, giving a wait time for the Swiss of two years in that case.
And there is good news for Britain. Across the history of Wimbledon, the average wait time between a country’s victories in the men’s singles is just over a year. Admittedly, this result is strongly influenced by the fact the UK won every tournament from its start in 1877 to 1907, when an Australian took the title.
But even in the more modern era, the average wait time remains at just over a year. Since Wimbledon resumed in 1946 after the Second World War, on no fewer than 36 occasions, next year’s winner came from the same country as this year’s. Often, of course, this was the same person, such as Federer or Bjorn Borg. But US dominance around 1950 and Australian command of the 1960s involved several different players: think Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe.
The bad news is that, just like price changes in financial markets, we can identify what is known in the jargon as a “long tail”. On 11 occasions since the War, the gap has been just two years, but then it thins out rapidly. Australia had to wait 15 years between 1987 and 2002, and Spain no less than 42 between Manuel Santana in 1966 and Rafael Nadal in 2008. Even the US has been waiting since Pete Sampras won in 2000.
We see a similar phenomenon in the wait times between economic recessions. In Western economies since the late nineteenth century, just as a tennis champion winning for the second year in a row means the wait time for a win is only a year, there have been enough recessions lasting longer than a year to mean the most frequent wait time is also a single year. Around half of all recessions have a gap of five years or less between them. But then, just like in tennis, the frequency falls away. The longest wait time was in Finland where, excluding the War years, there was no drop in output between 1932 and 1991.
The factors behind recessions and winning Wimbledon are obviously completely different. But the deep mechanisms that drive the clustering we see – the tendency for both winners from a particular country and recessions to be grouped together over time – are very similar. If firms have persistent doubts about the long-term future, recessions will be frequent. Sentiment and the actual outcome feed back onto each other. If a country has strong domestic competition, it will produce frequent winners, and winning feeds back into competition. Regrettably, Murray seems to be a one-off in a UK context. If he doesn’t win again himself, we may just have another 77 years to wait.
Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners, a director of the think-tank Synthesis and author of Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World.