Monthly Archives: April 2011

Thursday Topspin: Tweeners

Oh-for-three: A couple of days ago, Dustin Brown blew open the bottom half of the Munich draw by upsetting Stanislas Wawrinka.  Yesterday, three men’s matches were completed, and each one knocked out one of the remaining seven seeds.

Potito Starace was most impressive of the three underdogs, winning 58% of total points and landing 86% of his first serves.  That was more than good enough to get past Sergiy Stakhovsky.  Starace is putting together a very solid clay season, at least at the 250s, as he reached the final in Casablanca a few weeks ago.

Starace will next face Phillip Petzschner, who needed three sets to get past Mikhail Youzhny.  That’s becoming a less-impressive feat–I’ve always been a big Youzhny fan, but he’s only had one solid tournament all year, and that was back in Marseilles, when he beat Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in back-to-back rounds.  The Russian mounted a fantastic comeback season last year, but if (when) he fails to defend his semifinalist points from the U.S. Open, it could well start a downhill slide that will knock him out of the top 20 for good.

Speaking of Tsonga: Perhaps beating Tsonga doesn’t count for as much as it used to, either.  Though the Frenchman is healthy, he is struggling to get back into match form.  The latest setback was yesterday’s loss in Estoril to Pablo Cuevas, in which he lost a second-set tiebreak at love.  Never a good sign for someone like him to lose at least three of three service points in a tiebreak.

There’s still plenty of firepower left in the Estoril draw.  As predicted, both Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling advanced to the quarters, though Soderling needed three sets to defeat Jeremy Chardy.  Delpo crushed Soderling only a month ago in Miami, and on clay, tomorrow’s result will depend even more on the Swede’s health.  It’s only a quarterfinal, but the match could well determine the tournament champion.

Cakewalk: I’ve got a bold prediction for the Serbia Open: Novak Djokovic will beat Blaz Kavcic tomorrow (one oddsmaker has Kavcic as high as 44-1), then he’ll beat somebody else, and then he’ll beat somebody else.  Making things a little more interesting–at least for the home crowd–is that those two “somebody else’s” could both be Serbian.  Novak’s semifinal opponent could be Janko Tipsarevic, while the man seeded to face him in the final is designated whipping boy Viktor Troicki.

In the meantime, we can follow the rest of the contenders as they advance to slaughter.  Feliciano Lopez quickly ended Fernando Gonzalez’s comeback, beating him yesterday in straight sets, and he’ll next face Albert Montanes.  Sportsbooks have set that match dead even, while my system gives Feliciano a 58% chance of moving on.

Sarasota: Even the challenger fields are a bit uninteresting this week, partly because some of the guys who usually contend for those titles got into ATP-level draws, instead.  The possible challenger highlight of the week is coming on in a few hours, as James Blake will have a chance for revenge against the distracted Donald Young.  Oddsmakers give Blake about a a 57% chance, while my system favors Young, with his more recent success.

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Wednesday Topspin: Gonzo’s Back

On the road: I’m travelling for most of this week, so blogging will be light.  Moving on…

Belgrade: It’s a good thing the top four seeds got byes into the second round, since all the seeds who were in action yesterday fell in their first match.  Ernests Gulbis is perhaps most disappointing–he is encouraging us to forget his strong clay season last year, now with a straight-set loss to Ilya Marchenko.  Also out is 5th-seed John Isner, less of a surprise on clay.  I guess we should give Isner credit for showing up; he and Robert Kendrick are the only Americans to play on clay since Houston.

Congrats to Fernando Gonzalez, winner of his first match in nearly a year.  He made it look easy, getting past Martin Klizan–himself a big hitter–in straight sets.  I doubt he’ll be much of a factor in the bigger clay events, but it’s great to have him back.  He’ll play Feliciano Lopez later today, and the sportsbooks give him only a 33% chance of reaching the quarters.

Estoril: Much credit is due to Pedro Sousa, a 22 year old from Portugal.  Currently ranked #488, he worked hard to qualify–in fact, he hadn’t so much as qualified for a challenger-level event since November.  His run came to end yesterday, but he went out in style, taking a set from Juan Martin del Potro.

In today’s second round, Delpo plays Alejandro Falla for a probable quarterfinal with Robin Soderling.  If Soderling is back in form and health, that could be the match of the week.

Munich: For whatever reason, Stanislas Wawrinka sat out the first few clay events, failing to defend his Casablanca title from last year.  That strategy didn’t look very good yesterday, when he fell to Dustin Brown in three sets.  It’s a huge win for Brown, who had never before won a ATP-level match on clay.

The bottom half of the draw is now ripe for the taking.  3rd-seed Marin Cilic is favored by ranking; he’ll probably draw Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters, and if all goes according to plan, Phillip Kohlschreiber in the semis.

Challengers: James Blake is playing again this week in Sarasota, and he beat Marinko Matosevic in his opening match.  That gives him a second-round matchup with Donald Young, the man who defeated him two weeks ago in Tallahassee.

As you may have heard, Young has plenty of his mind these days, with a highly-publicized spat with the USTA over (in part) the French Open wild card.  (If you haven’t heard, Greg Couch has written a good summary.)  It’s unfortunate that this is happening when Young is playing his best tennis in recent memory, fresh off the Tallahassee title and the upset of Andy Murray.  It’s always amazed me just how many wild cards Young was awarded over the years; it’s too bad he didn’t get them when he could use them.

Speaking of young Americans, Ryan Harrison also played Sarasota, but made an early exit to Amer Delic.  The less young Wayne Odesnik qualified again, but also fell in the first round.

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Monday Topspin: Down From a Mountain

Nadal, again: It doesn’t get much more anticlimactic than Rafael Nadal winning Barcelona.  In his five matches, he lost 21 games; he lost more than two games in only three of his ten sets.

I’m not sure whether David Ferrer will ever manage to beat Nadal on clay–based on the last two weeks, it’s not going to happen anytime soon–but Ferrer does make things interesting.  The outcome is never really in doubt, but Ferrer is one of the few guys (Andy Murray is another, I’m sure Novak Djokovic will add himself to the list soon) who can challenge Nadal in rallies on clay.  Ferrer even managed to string together a few strong points and break serve in the second set yesterday.

I’m standing behind my earlier prediction that Nadal will lose a match on clay, but I’m having a hard time visualizing it.

Rankings: By reaching the semifinals in Barcelona, Nicholas Almagro reached the top 10 for the first time, displacing Mardy Fish.  Ivan Dodig, the other semifinal loser this week, also reached a career high, rising 12 places to #44.

The winner at the Napoli challenger was Thomas Schoorel, who gained 9 places to hit #117, a second career high in as many weeks.  In Santos, Joao Souza won the title, jumping 27 spots to #148.

This week’s loser is Fernando Verdasco, who didn’t even try to defend his title in Barcelona.  He falls three places to #15.  Last year’s finalist, Robin Soderling, stays at #5 but loses 245 points, roughly half of his lead over #6 Ferrer.

Belgrade: This week there are three ATP 250s, and we’re just finishing up qualifying in all of them.  The Belgrade field is headlined by Serbian heroes Djokovic and Viktor Troicki, but the most noteworthy man in the draw is Fernando Gonzalez.  Freddy hasn’t played since the U.S. Open, and he hasn’t won a match since the first round of last year’s French.  He’ll face qualifier Martin Klizan in the first round.

Estoril: The tournament in Portugal probably features the strongest draw of this week’s three events.  Soderling and Verdasco anchor the top and bottom of the draw, respectively, while Milos Raonic and Juan Martin del Potro are among the remaining seeds.  Verdasco faces a potentially dangerous second-round draw in Federico Gil, who reached the quarters in Monte Carlo.

Also of note: HT.com favorite Flavio Cipolla (he’s even smaller than Simone Vagnozzi!) qualified for the main draw with a decisive 6-0 6-3 victory over Pablo Carreno-Busta.  World #488 Pedro Sousa, from Portugal, also qualified, beating top seed Albert Ramos in three sets.  Be careful: Also in the main draw is Portuguese wildcard Joao Sousa, who should not be confused with the Brazilian Joao Souza, winner in Santos last week.

Munich: This event is the only one this week without a top-10 player.  Still, the quality of play may be a bit higher than in Belgrade, with Mikhail Youhzny, Marin Cilic, and Stanislas Wawrinka in the field.

Among the qualifiers are Robert Farah, who defeated Dmitri Tursunov in the second round of qualifying, and 20-year-old Russian Andrey Kuznetsov, who beat both Bjorn Phau and Martin Fischer to reach the main draw.  Also worth mentioning is fast-rising Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who beat both Federico del Bonis and Paul Capdeville before losing a three-setter in the qualifying round to Julian Reister.

It may be a rest week for some of the top players, but there’s more than enough to keep us busy until the next Masters Series event.  See you tomorrow!

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Thursday Topspin: Capitalizing

Open quarters: Of the eight men left standing in Barcelona, five are seeded in the top eight.  The other three are unseeded, but only one needed to pull a major upset to get to the quarters.

That man is Ivan Dodig, who took out Robin Soderling in the 2nd round, allowing the Swede only six games.  It’s been a breakthrough season for the Croatian, who will crack the top 50 thanks to his performance this week.  He backed up the 2nd-round win with a tough three-setter against Milos Raonic today.  Perhaps most impressive, he reeled off seven points in a row to win a first-set tiebreak.

Dodig has an opportunity to go even further, as the man seeded to face him in the quarters was Tomas Berdych, who withdrew.  Instead, his next opponent is Feliciano Lopez, who defeated Kei Nishikori today, after upsetting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez yesterday.  Thus, at least one semifinalist will be unseeded.

That man will almost certainly face Rafael Nadal in the semis.  Nadal, as goes without saying, breezed through his match today against Santiago Giraldo–if anything, it’s surprising that he failed to win 60% of total points.  Nadal’s quarterfinal opponent is Gael Monfils, who won in straight sets over Richard Gasquet–a positive result for Monfils, who just scraped by Robin Haase in the second round.

Predictions: There aren’t betting lines yet for all of the quarterfinals, but I have run my algorithm to get percentages for tomorrow’s four matches:

  • Nadal vs. Monfils: Oddsmakers have the Frenchman at 30-1, which seems excessive to me.  Yes, of course, Rafa is the heavy favorite, and yes, of course, Gael could self-destruct and play no better than Giraldo did today.  But on the other hand, Monfils is one of the few men with a game that could–if the stars aligned exactly right–beat Nadal on clay.  My system gives Gael a 20% chance, which as I’ve commented before, is just a reflection of how my system doesn’t know what to do with someone so surface-dominant as Nadal.
  • Dodig vs. Lopez: After beating Soderling, Dodig will no doubt gain several places in my ranking system, but that won’t happen until next Monday.  As it is now, my algorithm isn’t too impressed, especially with Dodig’s potential on clay.  It gives Feliciano a 64% chance of reaching the semis.
  • Jurgen Melzer vs. David Ferrer: Even after Melzer’s impressive victory over Roger Federer last week, Ferrer is still the favorite here.  I have him at 60.5%, while early sportsbook odds set him at 77%.
  • Nicholas Almagro vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero: It’s nice to see Ferrero right back in the mix, even if it took some good fortune to get him there.  In fact, he just barely got by Simone Vagnozzi today, a result that must have Almagro licking his lips in anticipation.  Early sportsbook odds have Almagro at 78%, while my system puts him at 70%.

Streaking southpaw: Thomas Schoorel isn’t letting up–after winning a title last week, he hasn’t lost a set this week, including his opening-round upset of Jeremy Chardy.  Tomorrow he’ll face 5th-seed Ivo Minarin the semis.

Another man to watch on the challenger tour is Aljaz Bedene, the Slovenian who won his first title at this level three weeks ago in Barletta.  Last week he reached the semifinals in Blumenau, and he’s in another quarter in Santos, where he’ll next face 5th-seed Diego Junquiera.

See you tomorrow!

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Wednesday Topspin: Lucky Winners

Bye bye bye: It only happens a few times a year, and it entertains me every time.  Both Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych had byes in the first round of Barcelona, and both withdrew.  They were replaced by lucky losers, who then got byes straight to the second round.  Good deal, right?  Lose in the qualifying round, then find yourself in the round of 32.

Unfortunately, neither Rui Machado nor Mischa Zverev could convert on their opportunity.  Machado, who replaced Berdych, lost to Kei Nishikori, while Zverev, who took Murray’s place, fell in a close contest to Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Ferrero may benefit the most from Murray’s departure–Nicholas Almagro is the main obstacle now between JC and a semifinal berth.

In fact, the bottom quarter is the most interesting in the draw.  Earlier today, 16th-seed Juan Monaco won only five games in a loss to 5’8″ Italian qualifier Simone Vagnozzi, about as lowly an underdog as you’ll find in an ATP 500.  Vagnozzi only advanced to the second round thanks to Fabio Fognini’s retirement in the first, and today’s victory marks the highlight of his journeyman career.  Vagnozzi is Ferrero’s next opponent.

Almagro may have his work cut out for him, as well.  Nikolay Davydenko reminded us that he’s still alive by knocking out Alexandr Dolgopolov yesterday, and he faces the relatively easy challenge of qualifier Eduoard Roger-Vasselin in the second round.

Catching up: I wasn’t able to follow Barcelona qualifying over the weekend, and looking back at how it played out, there are a couple of things worth mentioning.  Doubles specialist Marc Lopez, who rarely plays singles these days, took a wild card, then got to a third-set tiebreak against Jarkko Nieminen in the qualifying round.  Not bad–he might have fared better against Carlos Berlocq than Nieminen did yesterday.

Up-and-coming clay courter Evgeny Donskoy was the lowest-ranked player in qualifying, yet he beat 9th seed Jesse Huta Galung in the first round, then lost Vagnozzi in the qualifying round.  Oddly, those two faced each other only a couple of months ago in a Futures-level final, and that day, the Russian came out on top.

Looking forward:  Still on the card for today is Milos Raonic’s second-rounder, against Simon Greul, as well as the Davydenko match.  Robin Soderling will begin his Barcelona campaign as well, against Ivan Dodig, who took a set from the Swede back in Miami.  Soderling’s standing as the last man to beat Rafael Nadal on clay makes him one to watch.  He’s seeded to face Nadal in the semis this week.

By the time you read this, Nadal will probably be into the round of 16.  He’s up 5-0 on Daniel Gimeno-Traver, in a match where at least one oddsmaker set DGT at 81-1.  Rafa’s next victim will be Santiago Giraldo, who you wouldn’t think has any more of a chance.

See you tomorrow!

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Tuesday Topspin: A New Big Man

Not so wild: Last week marked a big accomplishment for Dutchman Thomas Schoorel–he won his first challenger-level title, and ascended to a career-high ranking of #126.  It’s now more than a big week, it’s a big nine days.

Schoorel entered this week’s tournament in Napoli with points to defend–last year at this time, he won a futures event in Italy.  The task was challenging–after a week of beating guys with rankings in the 100s, he drew top-seeded wild card Jeremy Chardy.  Today, he proved himself up to the task, dismissing Chardy in straight sets.  It will only get easier from here–in the second round, he draws world #256 Pavol Cervenak.

The Dutchman is a lefty standing 6’8″, a combination that surely makes it tough for first-time opponents.  His 22nd birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and with his new ranking, he’s among the top 15 players at his age or younger.

Also in Napoli: Thomas Muster is turning into an object lesson for former pros considering a comeback.  It’s a rare man who returns to the tour with any level of success, but Muster is setting new lows.  This week, he fell to Uladzimir Ignatik 6-3 7-5, moving his record on the year to 0-4.  I’m sure the former #1 is drawing the crowds … but that’s why there’s a champions tour.

Nadal’s next victims: In Barcelona, we’re still plowing through an uneventful first round.  Of the seven final scores so far today, the headline-grabber is Juan Carlos Ferrero’s successful return to the tour, as he dropped only six games in beating Xavier Malisse.  He’ll face Andy Murray in the second round, if the Brit plays–his elbow is still an issue, and he may withdraw.  If he does, it will create one of my favorite quirks of the tournament entry system–a lucky loser will get a bye into the second round.

The best matches of the day are still to come.  The second round gets underway as Gael Monfils plays Robin Haase, in a match that has upset potential, if only due to Monfils’s rustiness and the usual crapshoot of whether good Gael or bad Gael takes the court.  Finishing up the first round, Milos Raonic plays Radek Stepanek and Alexandr Dolgopolov takes on Nikolay Davydenko.

Yesterday I ran a full projection of the draw–if you haven’t seen it, click here.

That’s all I’ve got for today–see you tomorrow!

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Barcelona Projections

It’s not quite Monte Carlo, but it may be the strongest field of any ATP 500 this year. Below find the full draw, along with each player’s chances of reaching each round.

One thing you may notice is the relatively low chance of Nadal winning the tournament. Intuitively, it’s tough to imagine him losing. For this sort of projection, 39% is actually fairly high for any one player, but Nadal on clay, of course, is in a class by himself. If the sportsbooks odds last week are anything to go by, my system just isn’t built to handle such extreme players.

With all that said, there are definitely some interesting matchups in the early rounds, and some tight matches in the first round that might not otherwise make the headlines. My system stubbornly loves Davydenko, to the extent of making him the favorite over Dolgopolov tomorrow, something that very few humans outside the Davydenko family would agree with.

Enjoy!

Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(1)Rafael Nadal         100% 94.2% 85.2% 71.5% 52.1% 39.0% 
D Gimeno Traver          50%  3.0%  1.2%  0.3%  0.1%  0.0% 
Potito Starace           50%  2.7%  1.1%  0.3%  0.1%  0.0% 
R Ramirez Hidalgo        40%  8.2%  0.4%  0.1%  0.0%  0.0% 
(WC)Albert Ramos         60% 17.2%  1.2%  0.3%  0.0%  0.0% 
Santiago Giraldo         37% 25.3%  2.8%  0.9%  0.2%  0.0% 
(13)Thomaz Bellucci      63% 49.4%  8.1%  3.6%  1.2%  0.4% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(9)Richard Gasquet       70% 56.4% 29.0%  7.0%  2.7%  1.1% 
Juan Ignacio Chela       30% 18.2%  5.5%  0.7%  0.1%  0.0% 
Tobias Kamke             50% 12.5%  2.8%  0.3%  0.0%  0.0% 
Blaz Kavcic              50% 12.9%  2.9%  0.3%  0.0%  0.0% 
(q)Flavio Cipolla        29%  3.7%  1.0%  0.1%  0.0%  0.0% 
Robin Haase              71% 18.6%  7.9%  1.1%  0.2%  0.1% 
(7)Gael Monfils         100% 77.6% 50.9% 13.6%  5.6%  2.5% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(3)Robin Soderling      100% 91.5% 75.6% 55.9% 25.8% 16.2% 
(q)Vincent Millot        42%  3.0%  0.9%  0.1%  0.0%  0.0% 
Ivan Dodig               58%  5.5%  2.0%  0.5%  0.1%  0.0% 
Robert Kendrick          45%  9.2%  0.9%  0.2%  0.0%  0.0% 
(q)Simon Greul           55% 12.9%  1.4%  0.3%  0.0%  0.0% 
Radek Stepanek           38% 28.5%  5.9%  2.2%  0.4%  0.1% 
(15)Milos Raonic         62% 49.4% 13.5%  6.3%  1.4%  0.5% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(12)G Garcia Lopez       60% 36.1% 12.7%  3.3%  0.7%  0.2% 
Denis Istomin            40% 18.9%  5.0%  1.0%  0.1%  0.0% 
Feliciano Lopez          63% 31.2%  9.7%  2.2%  0.4%  0.1% 
Mikhail Kukushkin        37% 13.8%  3.1%  0.5%  0.1%  0.0% 
Kei Nishikori            71% 22.7% 13.2%  3.6%  0.7%  0.2% 
Pere Riba                29%  4.4%  1.6%  0.2%  0.0%  0.0% 
(5)Tomas Berdych        100% 73.0% 54.8% 23.6%  7.8%  3.7% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(6)Jurgen Melzer        100% 78.5% 54.7% 26.7% 11.0%  3.1% 
Marcel Granollers        53% 12.0%  5.1%  1.1%  0.2%  0.0% 
Daniel Brands            47%  9.5%  3.8%  0.8%  0.1%  0.0% 
(q)Benoit Paire          74% 27.9%  7.8%  1.7%  0.3%  0.0% 
(WC)P Carreno Busta      26%  4.8%  0.6%  0.1%  0.0%  0.0% 
Teymuraz Gabashvili      28% 14.4%  3.7%  0.8%  0.1%  0.0% 
(11)Albert Montanes      72% 52.8% 24.3%  8.8%  2.9%  0.5% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(14)Kevin Anderson       45% 18.1%  3.6%  1.1%  0.2%  0.0% 
Pablo Cuevas             55% 26.1%  5.7%  2.0%  0.4%  0.1% 
Andrey Golubev           69% 42.9% 13.0%  5.9%  1.7%  0.4% 
Victor Hanescu           31% 12.9%  2.2%  0.6%  0.1%  0.0% 
(q)Jarkko Nieminen       55%  8.4%  3.5%  1.2%  0.2%  0.0% 
Carlos Berlocq           45%  5.4%  2.1%  0.6%  0.1%  0.0% 
(4)David Ferrer         100% 86.2% 69.8% 48.7% 26.9% 10.6% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(8)Nicolas Almagro      100% 86.4% 56.5% 27.4% 14.6%  4.8% 
(WC)G Granollers Pujol   21%  1.0%  0.1%  0.0%  0.0%  0.0% 
Pablo Andujar            79% 12.6%  3.8%  0.7%  0.2%  0.0% 
(WC)Andrey Kuznetsov     51%  9.8%  1.8%  0.3%  0.1%  0.0% 
(q)E Roger-Vasselin      49% 10.2%  1.8%  0.3%  0.0%  0.0% 
Nikolay Davydenko        60% 50.1% 24.8% 10.7%  5.4%  1.7% 
(10)Alexandr Dolgopolov  40% 29.8% 11.2%  3.9%  1.5%  0.3% 
                                                           
Player                   R32   R16    QF    SF     F     W 
(16)(WC)Juan Monaco      67% 45.3% 13.4%  4.9%  1.9%  0.4% 
Grigor Dimitrov          33% 16.8%  2.9%  0.7%  0.2%  0.0% 
Fabio Fognini            67% 29.1%  5.8%  1.7%  0.5%  0.1% 
(q)Simone Vagnozzi       33%  8.8%  0.9%  0.1%  0.0%  0.0% 
Xavier Malisse           40%  5.0%  2.2%  0.5%  0.1%  0.0% 
Juan Carlos Ferrero      60% 10.7%  5.8%  2.1%  0.7%  0.1% 
(2)Andy Murray          100% 84.2% 69.0% 46.7% 30.7% 13.6%

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Monday Topspin: Seven in a Row

King of Clay: It’s no shocker, but it’s still mighty impressive.  Rafael Nadal won his 7th consecutive Monte Carlo championship, defeating David Ferrer in a tight match.  It’s a sign of just how dominant Rafa is on clay that his last two matches actually represent a step forward for the field–Andy Murray took a set on Saturday, and there was very little separating Nadal and Ferrer yesterday.

In fact, if I were a fellow player watching those matches, I might think–for the first time in at least a year–that Nadal can be beaten.  Murray showed that you can beat him (at least for a string of several games) at his own game, with a heavy dose of patient defense and the occasional attack.  Yesterday, Rafa was off his game, and it was enough to give Ferrer several chances.  In fact, here’s a bold prediction for you: I’m going on record saying that Nadal will lose a match on clay this year.

Betting on it: I don’t think the oddsmakers agree with me.  The betting lines on Nadal’s matches last week were absolutely off the charts.  Before Rafa’s second-rounder with Jarkko Nieminen, at one point you could have gotten 120-1 odds on the Finn.  Sportsbooks were giving both Richard Gasquet and Ivan Ljubicic about a 3.5% chance of winning, and even Andy Murray merited only a 9% chance.  Hey, maybe those odds are correct, but … a top 5 player going off at 11-1?  Amazing.

Rankings: The biggest points gainer of the week is Ferrer, who improved on his previous result in Monte Carlo, but he stays at #6, merely closing the gap separating him from Robin Soderling.  Other players whose rankings benefited from the tournament include Milos Raonic, up 6 places to #28, Ivan Ljubicic, up 7 to #33, and surprise quarterfinalist Frederico Gil, up 18 to a new career high of #64.

Two challenger winners climbed to new career highs: Matthias Bachinger, champion in Athens, breaks into the top 100 for the first time at #99, while Thomas Schoorel, the Rome titlist, jumps 36 places to 126.  Also notable is Tallahassee winner Donald Young, up 24 to #98.

The loser of the week is, without question, Fernando Verdasco.  Finalist last year in Monte Carlo, he lost his first match and his place in the top 10, falling four places to #12.

Barcelona: The first round in Spain is in progress, and after the star-studded cast in Monte Carlo, it’s a bit of a letdown.  While there’s plenty of firepower at the top of the draw–Nadal, Murray, Ferrer, and Soderling are all present–the top eight seeds have byes in the first round, leaving something that looks more like Monte Carlo qualifying.  The highlight of today’s action is probably the last match of the day, between Juan Monaco and Grigor Dimitrov.

We’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the biggest story of the opening round: the return of Juan Carlos Ferrero.  He hasn’t played since last year’s U.S. Open, and has seen his ranking fall to #77 in that time.  He’ll begin with a match against Xavier Malisse for a chance to play Murray.

Beyond that, it’s a clay-courter’s paradise.  14 of the 56 men in the main draw are Spainards, and the percentage of locals may climb even higher after the first round.  Also of interest in the country count: There’s only one American in the draw, and it’s Robert Kendrick.  That must be a first for him at the ATP level.

Housekeeping: As regular readers surely noticed, I wasn’t able to keep up my daily schedule last week.  Unfortunately, that’s probably a sign of things to come.  I’ll keep posting as much as my schedule allows.

Also, later today, as soon as I can get my databases updated, I’ll post my projections for Barcelona.  It will be a little silly with so much of the first round on record, but I like to get this stuff on record.

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Wednesday Topspin: The Underdog Three-Seed

Back on the board: It’s a strange situation when you don’t really expect a top-five player to win his opening match.  Yet Andy Murray had plenty of doubters before he finally won his first match since the Australian Open.  As it turned out, he made easy work of Radek Stepanek, advancing to the round of 16 in straight sets.

Murray’s seeded, straight-set win was indicative of the entire round.  Only two seeds lost in the 16 second-round matches, and only a couple other matches could be considered upsets.  What’s more, only three matches in the round went to a third set.

The one major upset went to a man having nearly as rough a season as Murray: Fernando Verdasco.  He lost in straight sets to Tommy Robredo, landing only 53% of his first serves.  I suppose that isn’t quite as painful as losing to Pablo Andujar on a hard court, but it does nasty work to his ranking.  Verdasco reached the final last year, so he’ll fall at least four spots to #12.

A lesser surprise, but still notable, was Milos Raonic’s win over Ernests Gulbis.  Both players suffered some mental hiccups–Raonic couldn’t close out the match with 40-0 on his own racquet–but as usual, Gulbis’s mind lost the match for him.  A bad call in the middle of the first set kept him chattering at the umpire for the next several changeovers, and that was more than enough to give Raonic the first set.  The Latvian didn’t return to form until midway through the second, and Raonic was too strong to let it slip away.

The round of 16: You have to feel bad for Richard Gasquet–he showed fantastic form in beating Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and he’s rewarded by a match with Rafael Nadal.  At Monte Carlo, that’s just an elaborate form of ritual sacrifice.  At least the sportsbooks think more highly of him than they did of Jarkko Nieminen–Gasquet gets a 3.5% chance of beating Rafa, while at one point, oddsmakers were giving Nieminen less than 1%.

Thanks to the surface, the best bet for an upset tomorrow is the match between Tommy Robredo and Viktor Troicki.  Troicki is the seed, but of course Robredo is at home on clay.  My system gives the Spainard a 54% chance of winning, while oddsmakers set it at closer to 62%.  It’s a better deal for Troicki than a matchup against Verdasco, but it will still be impressive for him to get through.

The winner of Robredo-Troicki faces the winner of Raonic-David Ferrer.  Ferrer was the man who finally stopped Raonic in Australia, and on clay, he should have an easier time of it.  His 6-2 6-0 drubbing of Feliciano Lopez today certainly suggests that he’s in form.  Then again, the Canadian has exceeded expectations in both round so far, and he has the benefit of zero expectations.

There’s plenty more to look forward to.  Both my system and the sportsbooks forecast a tight contest between Nicholas Almagro and Jurgen Melzer; Almagro fought through a three-setter with two tiebreaks to beat Maximo Gonzalez today.  In the other half of the draw, Murray will face a tough match against Gilles Simon, who has cruised through his first two rounds.  And Roger Federer will try to fend off Marin Cilic.

Challengers: Just a couple of quick updates today. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe continues to impress, taking out Evgeny Donskoy for a quarterfinal berth in Rome.  He’ll face yet another youngster, the tall lefty Thomas Schoorel, who has beaten two qualifiers to get this far.

In Tallahassee, James Blake needed three sets to get past Frank Dancevic.  He’ll play Amer Delic later today for a spot in the quarters.  The first man into the quarters was Donald Young, who can look forward to a probably matchup with top seed Rainer Schuettler.

See you tomorrow!

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The Odds of Breaking Back

Perhaps the most unquestioned piece of conventional wisdom in tennis is this: after breaking serve, a player is particularly vulnerable to being broken himself.  It certainly seems to be true–to take just one example, in the Isner/Karlovic match last week, there were only two breaks of serve, and they were consecutive.

As with most bits of conventional wisdom, it’s not clear exactly what people mean by it.  When Djokovic crushes someone 6-0 6-1, do we really think his serve is more vulnerable after each of his five or six breaks than it is after the one game his opponent holds?  When a player does break back, is he then more vulnerable in his next service game?

Today, I’ll try to address the more basic versions of the cliche.  The results are a bit surprising.

The dataset

I’m working with all of the 2011 Australian Open matches from courts where Hawkeye was in place.  That’s about 80 of the men’s singles matches, and roughly the same number of women’s matches.  I’ve run the numbers on both genders but will keep them separate, for reasons that will become clear.

These matches give us over 2,700 men’s games across about 300 sets, and nearly 2,000 women’s games over a bit more than 200 sets.

Breaking back: Men

At this year’s Aussie Open, 24% of all men’s games were service breaks.  If we take the conventional wisdom literally, we would hypothesize that in the game following a service break, another break would occur more than 24% of the time.

But it doesn’t.  In the game following a service break, the server is broken only 19.5% of the time.  (I’m excluding service breaks that end a set or take a set to a tiebreak.)  In other words, in the aggregate, a player is more likely to hold serve after breaking serve than he is after his opponent holds.

Of course, as I suggested by mentioning Djokovic a moment ago, there’s a huge selection bias here.  A player who breaks serve is (all else equal) likely to be a better player than one who doesn’t.  The best players in the most lopsided matches are breaking serve frequently, and because they are the better player, it makes sense that they are more likely (again, all else equal) to hold their own serve.

Without looking at individual matchups, it’s not immediately clear how to address this problem.  For one thing, I’m not convinced it’s a problem.  When Federer broke Kohlschreiber today, a commentator may have said, “Roger is particularly vulnerable here, let’s see if he can consolidate the break.”  One could easily respond: “Roger just showed us he’s in tremendous form; the very fact he just broke serve is an indication that he’s less vulnerable than usual on serve right now.”  And so it proved: Roger broke four times; Kohlschreiber never broke back.

What might be more instructive is to look at situations where the player who broke serve is considered to be roughly equal or inferior to his opponent.  Had Kohlschreiber broken serve early in the match, even given the assumption that he must be playing well in order to do so, the conventional wisdom would suggest that Federer is more likely to break back.  Perhaps that’s true.  It’s not something I can answer today–quantifying the matchups is beyond the scope of this afternoon project.  It’s also problematic in that it would also shrink the size of our already-small dataset.

In any event, it is clear that we can’t take this bit of conventional wisdom at face value.  It may be true in certain scenarios–some players may crumple under the pressure of consolidating a break, and others may rise to the occasion after losing serve.  But it is wrong to say that, in general, players are more vulnerable on serve after a break.

Breaking back: Women

As you might expect, breaks of serve are more prevalent in the women’s game, as are breaks-following-breaks.

At the 2011 AO, women broke serve 36.5% of the time.  In games following breaks of serve, they broke 36.0%.  In contrast to the men’s results, this suggests that in the women’s game, a service break doesn’t tell us as much about the strength of the player who has accomplished the break–or, if it does, that a server is more vulnerable after breaking serve.  Anecdotally, it certainly seems that differences in mental strength play a larger role in WTA matches, so I would expect that the break-back rate would be higher.

As I’ve said, this is far from the final word.  As usual, the conventional wisdom masks many subtleties that only further analysis can unearth.

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