Because of its placement on the calendar, the Australian Open is unique. It almost immediately follows the offseason (such as it is), so the common perception is that some players show up less ready than for the other three slams.
For this reason, the tournaments in the two weeks before the Australian Open are both important and difficult to predict. At Chennai next week, who will be in shape? Who is mentally ready for the new season? And once we get the results from Chennai, Doha, Auckland, Sydney, and Brisbane, what does that tell us about the Aussie Open itself?
It’s this last question that I’ll try to answer today. If there’s ever a time that rankings don’t seem to count for quite as much, it’s January–after all, that’s when Yevgeny Kafelnikov won his hard-court slam. It would stand to reason if the warmups were particularly predictive. Perhaps tourneys like Doha serve as sneak previews of each player’s readiness for the big event in Melbourne.
Alas, it doesn’t look that way. Winning a tournament in the two weeks before Melbourne doesn’t predict better performance at the Australian Open. In fact, it more reliably forecasts a disappointing showing at the first grand slam of the year.
Since 1992 (and not counting 2007, when some of the warmups tinkered with a round-robin format), there have been 93 tournaments in the two weeks before Melbourne. 42 of those were the week before the slam, and 51 were two weeks before the slam. For each one, I noted the winner of the event, their seeding in Melbourne, and their performance in Melbourne. With the last two data points, we can determine whether each player performed equal to, above, or below expectations.
(Aussie Open seeding isn’t a perfect way to determine expectations, since results from two weeks before are reflected in the rankings. But it was much easier than any alternative, and since this approach doesn’t recognize a difference between, say, the 5th seed and the 8th seed, I doubt it makes much difference.)
Let’s start with winners the week before Melbourne. I didn’t expect much here, since the best players tend to take a week off before slams. It seems, though, that a win the week before at least helps you through the first round or two.
Of the 42 champions of week-before tourneys, 12 met expectations (that is, played as their Aussie Open seeding would have predicted), 17 exceeded expectations, and 13 didn’t meet expectations (including one who withdrew from the slam). Of the last group, only four players lost their opening round in Melbourne, and none of those players were seeded. Several week-before winners lost in the second round; the most painful of those was 6th-seed Michael Chang’s exit in 1993.
On the flip side, Pete Sampras played Sydney and won in 1994, then went straight to Melbourne, where he made it two trophies in a row. He is the only player in the last 20 years to have won the Australian in addition to an event the previous week.
For champions two weeks before Melbourne, the results aren’t as pleasant. Of those 51 tournament winners, 15 met expectations at the slam, 12 exceeded them, and 24 failed to play up to their seed (again, including one who withdrew from the Open).
A whopping 14 of those 51 champions didn’t win a single match in Melbourne, including 4-seed Boris Becker in 1993, 5-seed Carlos Moya in 2005, and 9-seed Andy Murray in 2008. Only two of the 51 players won the tournament: Petr Korda in 1998 and Roger Federer in 2006, both of whom won Doha in their respective years.
In other words, winning a warmup doesn’t say much about your form for the Open itself–in fact, next week’s winners won’t deserve much additional hype, no matter how good they look in their season debuts.
The question I haven’t answered is: What if you skip warmups altogether? With the exception of exhibitions, that’s what Novak Djokovic is doing this year, along with several others. Most notable from the list: Marin Cilic, who won in Chennai two years ago. After that performance, he failed to get past the round of 16 in Melbourne. Maybe this year, fresher legs will translate into a deeper run.