Monthly Archives: July 2011

Stuttgart, De-Seeded

At the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart this week, only two rounds have been completed, and all eight seeds are gone.  It isn’t even a particularly weak top of the field–five of the eight seeds are ranked in the top 20, and all eight are 37th or better.

Six of the eight lost their first-rounders, including #1 Gael Monfils (to Hanescu) and #2 Jurgen Melzer (to Giraldo).  The remaining two seeds–#3 Mikhail Youzhny and #8 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez–lost today.  Youzhny may be the only man in the draw without something to be ashamed of–he won a match, then lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero on clay.

The remaining draw almost makes Newport look good.  Of the eight unseeded players, we have two wild cards (Cedrik-Marcel Stebe and Lukasz Kubot) and two qualifiers (Pavol Cervenak and Federico Del Bonis).  The two qualifiers will play each other tomorrow, so at least one man from the qualifying draw will reach the final four.

It’s a project for another day, but it would be interesting to see which tournaments are most upset-prone.  The post-Wimbledon clay circuit seems like a prime contender, if only because of its awkwardness on the schedule.  And as friend-of-HT Tom Welsh pointed out, there seems to be a post-Davis Cup swoon, evident at Stuttgart with the losses to Mayer and Monfils.

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Rik De Voest, Man on the Cusp

You don’t have to read much of this site to know that I am particularly interested in the second tier of pros.  Some of that is due to spending countless hours at the U.S. Open qualifying tournament; the rest may be attributable to a general tendency to root for the underdog.  So, I tend to be as familiar with guys in the 140s of the rankings as I am with the men in the 40s.

One of those men is South African Rik De Voest.  If you’ve followed the ATP for long, you’ve doubtless seen his name.  He’s a lock for a wild card at the Johannesburg event, he plays many events on the U.S. challenger circuits, and he occasionally qualifies for other top-level tourneys.  He’s a strong all-around player, though perhaps mentally weak–I’ve seen him play a handful of times, and while he’s rarely blown out, he’s prone to giving up the lead.

The impetus for this mini-post is my discovery that Rik De Voest has never cracked the singles top 100.  He broke into the top 200 almost nine years ago, has not fallen out of the top 300 in that time, and reached a peak of 110 in 2006.  He turned 31 last month, so while he currently sits at 130, moving into double-digits gets more difficult every day.

I suspect that De Voest’s record as a sub-top-100 player is very uncommon.  Each year, many players reach the top 100 with nothing more than a handful of solid showings at challenger events–two of the many current players to fit that mold are Steve Darcis (#95) and Matthias Bachinger (#93).  While the top 100 may be a mental hurdle, the difference between 110 (De Voest’s peak) and 99 is almost meaningless.  In the rankings right now, it’s 17 points–less than the difference between winning and losing in the quarterfinals of many challengers.

Right now, about 80 points stand between the South African and the top 100.  That’s a taller order, but still an achievable one for a player of De Voest’s caliber over the course of a few months.  Depending on which statistical oddity you prefer, you may or may not want to root for him.  If he reaches the top 100, he’ll be one of the oldest players ever to do so.  If he doesn’t, he may well end up with the record for most weeks inside the top 200 (or 150, or 250, or 300) without ascending to the slightly-more-rarefied first page of the ATP singles rankings.

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Doubly Lopsided Matches

On Sunday, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal by a somewhat unusual score: 6-4 6-1 1-6 6-3.  A four-setter in the final doesn’t raise any eyebrows, but a 1-6 set … that’s a bit of a head-scratcher, especially on a fast surface.  Wimbledon is better known for server domination, which means 6-4’s, 7-5’s, tiebreaks, and the occasional 70-68.

The Djokovic-Nadal score got me curious about two questions:

  1. How often does a player lose a set 1-6 (or even 0-6) yet still win the match?
  2. How often does a player both win and lose a lopsided (6-1 or 6-0 ) set?

(Note: Yes, sometimes a 6-1 set includes only two breaks, in which case it is similar to a 6-2 set.  Yet 6-1/1-6’s are far less frequent that 6-2/2-6’s.  It would be nice to distinguish “two-break” 6-1’s from “three-break” 6-1’s, but for now, all we can do is enjoy the trivia and accept the limitations.)

Bi-directional bagels

First things first.  As we might guess, scores such as these are extremely rare at Wimbledon.  This year, the final was one of only two such matches.  The other was Xavier Malisse’s second-round win over Florian Mayer, which went in the books as 1-6 6-3 6-2 6-2.  Last year, only one Wimbledon match qualified: a first-rounder between Victor Hanescu and Andrey Kuznetsov.  Oddly enough, Hanescu dropped the third set 1-6 after splitting two tiebreaks.  In neither of these matches did the winner take his own lopsided set, as Djokovic did.

In this department, Wimbledon remains unique among the majors–it isn’t just a matter of “clay” and “everything else.”  At this year’s Australian Open, there were eight matches with 1-6 or 0-6 scores; last year there were 11.  At the 2010 US Open, there were six.  These scores are more common at the slams, because the five-set format makes it more likely that the loser of an early set (by any score) can come back to win the match.

The numbers

Last year, there were roughly 2600 tour-level matches that were played to their conclusion.  (That is, neither player retired.)   Of those, about two-thirds were straight-set victories, leaving us with 871 matches that went three sets (or five, at the slams).

Of those 871, only 94 matches contained a 1-6 or 0-6 set, and only 30 included a “lopsided” set in favor of both players, as in the Nadal-Djokovic final.  Both have been somewhat less frequent so far this year; in 1546 matches, 48 saw the winner lose a lopsided set, and 11 saw both players lose a lopsided set.  Combining the two years of data, the likelihood that any given match will include a 6-1 (or 6-0) and a 1-6 (or 0-6) is almost exactly 1 in 100.  Again, the five-set format of the slams increases the probability a bit, while the fast courts at Wimbledon have the reverse effect.

The offenders

Which players find themselves in these roller-coaster matches?  To answer that question, we have to stick with the less-specific filter of matches that include a 1-6 or 0-6 set.  If we also require a 6-1/6-0 from the winner, there isn’t enough data to make things interesting.

One might guess that the strongest servers would be far down the list, while counterpunchers populate the top.  That isn’t the case.  The players who are known for mental lapses–regardless of their serving and returning skills–seem to dominate the upper tier.

Looking at all tour-level matches from 2007 through last week, we find that Andy Murray takes the cake.  He has played in 18 of these matches, dropping a lopsided set in 10 of his victories, while winning a lopsided set in 8 of his losses.  Murray is in a class by himself–number two on the list is Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, at 13.  In third place is Djokovic, with 12 (he is 8-4 in such matches), though the Wimbledon final was the only occurence so far in 2011.

Twelve men are clustered at 10 and 11 of these matches, and the list features a lot of Frenchmen, and several other players known for questionable mental strength:

  • 11: Julian Benneteau, David Ferrer, Fabio Fognini, Fernando Verdasco
  • 10: Thomaz Bellucci, Mardy Fish, Richard Gasquet, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Phillipp Petzschner, Tommy Robredo, Radek Stepanek, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Of these, Fognini (9-2) and Tsonga (8-2) have the dubious honor of winning the most matches–that is, they are on the list because they drop lopsided sets in matches that they win.  Mathieu (2-8) is at the other extreme, dominating sets in the middle of losses.

The Wimbledon final was a rarity for Nadal–it was only the fourth time he’d been involved in a match with this sort of score, and it was only the second time he won a lopsided set in the middle of a loss.  Roger Federer has only played in three such matches.

We probably can’t read too much into these numbers, but it is interesting to see so many of the same types of players show up at the top of a list.  At the very least, we’ve learned that the 1-6 set in Sunday’s final was quite rare, and the 6-1 1-6 sequence was even rarer.

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The Weak, Weak Newport Field

The ATP 250-level tournament in Newport this week is empty of the game’s best players.  The top seed is John Isner, ranked 46, and the 8th seed is Tobias Kamke, who is barely within the top 100.  This is no surprise.  Newport has one of the weakest ATP fields every year, situated as it is the week after Wimbledon, simultaneous with Davis Cup.

In a little study I did last year, I discovered that at least in 2009, Newport did have the weakest field of any ATP 250 event.  If you click the link, you’ll find a variety of metrics, but I think we can focus on just one: the median rank of main draw players.  By using median instead of average, the numbers aren’t skewed by a lowly-ranked wild card or qualifier.

In 2009, the players in the Newport draw had a median ranking of 125–that is, half the players in the main draw of an ATP event were ranked above 125.  Grand slams usually manage about 110 players below the 125 mark, but Newport only got 16–and most of those were closer to 125 than to 1.  Last year, the median fell to 129.5.  It may be a small consolation that Johannesburg’s field was equally weak.

A glance at this year’s draw can tell you that not much has changed.  Thanks to many late withdrawals, the cut fell to 218, which is considerably higher than the cut at some challengers.  For all that, the field quality has improved somewhat, to a median rank of 111.  That leaves Jo’burg in the dust; the South African event had a median rank of 118.5.

The non-challenger challengers

A few tour-level events–Newport, Jo’burg, and perhaps San Jose–obscure the line between the tour and challenger levels.  In the eyes of the ranking system, they are very different–Newport is worth 250 points to the winner, while no challenger is worth more than 125.  But for all intents and purposes, Newport and Jo’burg are challengers.

Last year, the May event in Bordeaux attracted a field with a median rank of 128–just above last year’s Newport and Jo’burg numbers.  This March, the odd 24-man field at Le Gosier had a median rank of 123.  Already in 2011, six challengers with 32-man fields had median ranks below 150, putting them in the same ballpark as the lowest rungs of the tour.

All of this is another strike against the ranking system, which treats Newport as if it were equivalent to, say, Sydney, where the last direct acceptance this year (#53 Benjamin Becker) was higher-ranked than Newport’s second seed (#60 Grigor Dimitrov).  Bad news for properly ordering second-tier pros, but good news for Isner, who can take advantage of this week’s cupcake draw to bounce back to as high as #36.

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