Monthly Archives: January 2012

Top Four Domination

Every time the big four fills up all four spots in the semifinals, we hear the same trivia–how rarely the top four seeds all reach the semifinals; how often this particular group of four has done it, and so on.  There’s no doubt that the current big four has dominated men’s tennis in a way that has rarely been seen before.

Words like “domination” aren’t very easy to quantify, which is why commentators fall back on those few bits of trivia.  We can take a closer look to determine whether the current big four stands out as much as we think it does.

Won-loss record

Last year, the big four played 251 tour-level matches (not counting Davis Cup) against everybody else.  They won 228 of them, for a winning percentage of 90.8%.  My database goes back to 1991, and there hasn’t been a year in that time frame where the top four players did any better.

(For today’s purposes, each year’s top four are defined as the four men at the top of the year-end rankings.  All numbers exclude Davis Cup and go back to 1991.)

In fact, four of the five best W-L records have come since 2004.  2008 and 2009, when the current top four was already reigning, are ranked 3rd and 4th.  (The second best season for the top four, by this measure, was 2005, when Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt complemented Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.)

Slam performance

What really matters are the majors, right?  Last year, the big four played 82 matches against everybody else at the slams, and won 80 of them, for a jaw-dropping 97.6% winning percentage.  You might guess that it, as well, is the best in the last 20 years.

In fact, the second and third best top-four slam performances came in 2007 and 2008–each one including Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.  (In 2007, Nikolay Davydenko was the year-end number four.)  Both of those years, the top four lost only four grand slam matches to others.

Masters performance

The majors give us a small (though important) sample; the masters series offers more tournaments with similar high-quality fields.  Largely due to Andy Murray‘s dreadful March, this is where the 2011 foursome falters a bit. Their record against everybody else of 90-13 is “only” third-best of the last twenty years.

But wait–the top masters series record was in 2009, of course with the same top four.  And the second-best masters series record was in 2005, when Federer and Nadal ruled the world.

Beating the rest of the top 10

It’s no shock when the top four cruise through the early rounds of tournaments.  What makes the current top four special is the way they regularly shut everyone else out of the last rounds, defeating excellent players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin Del Potro.

Last year, the top four went 34-12 (73.9%) against the rest of the year-end top 10.  That’s fourth-best of the last twenty years.  The standout season, once again, was 2005, when Federer, Nadal, Roddick, and Hewitt went 30-4 (!) against the next six guys in the rankings.  In both 2004 and 2006, the top four won exactly three-quarters of their matches against five through ten, just beating out last year’s top four.

To put these numbers in perspective, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the top four beat up on the next six.  In 1991, the top four of Edberg, Courier, Becker, and Stich actually posted a losing record against guys ranked five through ten.  In both 1996 and 2000, the record was an even .500.

The bigger picture

Of course, there’s more to domination than performance in a single year.  Much of the current big four’s reputation stems from their longevity atop the rankings, and looking at single years ignores that.

But as we’ve seen, there’s no need to look at more than one season.  The big four was, in 2011, one of the most dominating quartets of the last 20 years by several measures, and according to two such measures, they were the most successful top four in recent memory.

Why? (In brief)

Here are three theories that might explain why the big four has so distanced itself from the pack:

  1. These four guys are historically good.
  2. The rest of the field these days is not that good.  Or, at least, they are overawed by the big four.
  3. Court speeds have become more uniform, meaning that top players win all year round, instead of a few specialists racking up big points for only a couple months.

The first two are possible.  Certainly, Federer and Nadal are historically good, and Djokovic’s 2011 season was astounding.  I doubt the rest of the pack is to blame–they seem plenty good to me, even if few of them are that good very much of the time.

I’m tempted by the third theory.  As recently as 2003, there was almost always one clay-court specialist in the year-end top four–Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gustavo Kuerten, Sergei Bruguera.  At the same time, guys like Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter, and Goran Ivanisevic rarely made a dent on clay.

Thus, no matter how many slams Sampras won, or how many clay titles Kuerten took, the top four just weren’t dominant year round.  The idea that the same four players would reach the quarters, or even semis of every slam was borderline ridiculous.  Now, it’s almost expected.

Of course, we can argue about the causes of this as well.  Are the top four successful on all surfaces because the surfaces are more uniform?  Because they are historically good?  Because the game (or its equipment) has changed in such a way to make surface differences less meaningful? That’s a subject for another day.

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Australian Open Men’s Quarterfinal Projections

The field is down to eight. It still includes the top five seeds and seven of the top ten players in the game, so there’s still plenty of uncertainty. Novak Djokovic showed some chinks in the armor during yesterday’s match against Lleyton Hewitt; Rafael Nadal is never a lock on a hard court; Roger Federer has what may be the toughest quarterfinal draw of the top four; and despite a drubbing last time he played Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori is playing as well as ever.

Oddly enough for such a steady player, this is only David Ferrer‘s second grand slam quarterfinal since 2008 and just his sixth quarterfinal in 36 career slams. In his last slam quarter–Melbourne last year–he beat world number one Nadal. The odds will be even steeper against him this week.

Player                        SF      F      W  
(1)Novak Djokovic          75.4%  49.2%  31.0%  
(5)David Ferrer            24.6%   9.6%   3.4%  
(4)Andy Murray             66.5%  30.9%  16.2%  
(24)Kei Nishikori          33.5%  10.4%   3.8%  

(11)Juan Martin Del Potro  36.0%  14.0%   4.9%  
(3)Roger Federer           64.0%  34.0%  16.4%  
(7)Tomas Berdych           36.6%  15.9%   6.0%  
(2)Rafael Nadal            63.4%  36.1%  18.3%

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The Non-Threatening Dr. Ivo

The perception in tennis is that some players are always dark horses, guys who on any given day might play well above their ranking. Often, these players have “top ten talent” coupled with mental lapses–think Gael Monfils, Marcos Baghdatis, Thomaz Bellucci, Philipp Kohlschreiber. Their rankings sag because of brainless losses (Monfils to Lukasz Kubot at Wimbledon, Baghdatis to somebody every third week), but they occasionally flash their brilliance with a surprising result.

Put it together, and you have a dark horse. There’s a special sort of dark horse upon whom everyone seems to agree: the freakishly tall ace machine. Rob Koenig sounds sensible tweeting about Roger Federer‘s third round match against Ivo Karlovic: “Karlovic v Fed?? Even though Fed has a good record against him, he’s not a guy you wanna see on your side of the draw.” That’s the official line before just about every match Ivo or John Isner plays. The unstoppable serves make them capable of anything.

Or do they? A barrage of bombs starting almost ten feet in the air and bouncing over your head doesn’t sound like a fun day on the court, but does it translate into more losses for top players?

The short answer is no. If anything, Karlovic has shown himself far less likely than the average player to perform above or below his ranking. Last August, I created a metric called ‘Upset Score’ designed to measure how often a player wins against a superior opponent or loses to an inferior one. (Player ability is measured by my ranking system, which predicts match outcomes better than ATP rankings and considers surface.) The metric counts extreme upsets more heavily, so Ivo beating David Ferrer is scored as much more meaningful than defeating, say, Stanislas Wawrinka. Of the 87 players who had 40 or more ATP-level matches in the 20-month span I analyzed, Karlovic had the tenth lowest Upset Score.

This flies directly in the face of conventional wisdom. Looking at the current rankings, we find Ivo just below the likes of Santiago Giraldo and Olivier Rochus–neither one of whom would be viewed as a “tricky” third round opponent. Yet both have Upset Scores in the top half of active players. While there’s no doubt Karlovic was once a very dangerous opponent (as his peak ranking of 14 suggests), he has only one top ten scalp in his last twelve tries, dating back to 2009 Wimbledon. We have to go back to the first half of 2007 to find a stretch in which he was a consistent threat to top players.

Isner isn’t as predictable, but delivers fewer upsets than 60% of the guys on tour. Same story as with Ivo: more often than not, he wins and loses according to past performance. Big John has won two of his last fourteen matches against the top ten, and one of those was an ‘upset’ of Nikolay Davydenko, who by this metric is the least predictable man on the tour.

Massive servers may make for more interesting matches–against any opponent, it’s safe to say that Isner and Karlovic are more likely to deliver a tiebreak or four. But if you’re a top player deciding who you’d like to see coming up in your bracket, you probably don’t care whether you win 6-1 or 7-6(8). Whatever the score, Karlovic is best seen as a steady player on the fringes of the top 50, not some loose cannon who will knock out a top seed one day and lose to a qualifier the next.

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Australian Open Men’s R32 Projections

The top seven seeds are still alive, so in the big picture, not much has changed since I posted pre-tournament odds.   The big names have all seen their chances of winning creep up a little bit,  largely because they’ve gotten past the dangers of the first two rounds.  Some upsets elsewhere in the draw have helped, as well.

The biggest winner on that score is Juan Martin del Potro, whose chances have jumped from 2.6% to 4.2%, as he’s been granted what should be two easy matches before a quarterfinal showdown with Roger Federer.

Player                       R16     QF     SF        W
(1)Novak Djokovic          91.9%  76.3%  59.2%    26.7%
Nicolas Mahut               8.1%   2.6%   0.7%     0.0%
(23)Milos Raonic           79.8%  19.3%   9.0%     1.1%
(WC)Lleyton Hewitt         20.2%   1.8%   0.3%     0.0%
(9)Janko Tipsarevic        54.6%  28.4%   8.9%     1.3%
(17)Richard Gasquet        45.4%  21.7%   5.9%     0.7%
(27)Juan Ignacio Chela     13.9%   2.3%   0.2%     0.0%
(5)David Ferrer            86.1%  47.7%  15.8%     2.7%  

Player                       R16     QF     SF        W
(4)Andy Murray             81.4%  55.6%  34.5%    10.4%
Michael Llodra             18.6%   6.6%   2.0%     0.1%
Mikhail Kukushkin          23.8%   4.8%   1.2%     0.0%
(14)Gael Monfils           76.2%  33.0%  16.3%     2.9%
Julien Benneteau           31.6%   8.8%   2.3%     0.1%
(24)Kei Nishikori          68.4%  29.6%  12.4%     1.8%
Frederico Gil               8.8%   1.5%   0.1%     0.0%
(6)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga      91.2%  60.1%  31.3%     7.3%  

Player                       R16     QF     SF        W
Alejandro Falla            35.9%   9.6%   1.9%     0.1%
Philipp Kohlschreiber      64.1%  24.7%   7.3%     0.5%
Yen-Hsun Lu                21.6%   9.1%   1.8%     0.1%
(11)Juan Martin Del Potro  78.4%  56.5%  26.4%     4.6%
(13)Alexandr Dolgopolov    49.2%  16.3%   8.3%     0.9%
Bernard Tomic              50.8%  17.2%   8.7%     1.0%
Ivo Karlovic               18.4%   7.0%   2.8%     0.2%
(3)Roger Federer           81.6%  59.5%  42.8%    13.2%  

Player                       R16     QF     SF        W
(7)Tomas Berdych           71.3%  44.9%  20.9%     4.4%
(30)Kevin Anderson         28.7%  12.0%   3.3%     0.2%
(21)Stanislas Wawrinka     64.6%  31.0%  12.3%     1.8%
(10)Nicolas Almagro        35.4%  12.2%   3.3%     0.2%
(16)John Isner             55.1%  17.1%   7.7%     0.9%
(18)Feliciano Lopez        44.9%  12.4%   5.0%     0.5%
(q)Lukas Lacko             13.2%   4.4%   1.2%     0.0%
(2)Rafael Nadal            86.8%  66.1%  46.4%    16.1%

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Australian Open Men’s Draw Predictions

A lot has changed in the last few months of men’s tennis, yet as far as one computer is concerned, all the important things have remained the same.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal limped to the finish line of the 2011 season, while Andy Murray didn’t even get through the round robin in London.  All the while, Roger Federer re-asserted his dominance, winning the last three events of the year.  For all that, my rankings can’t ignore Djokovic’s dominance over the last year, nor Nadal’s before that.

My simulation of the Australian Open draw gives a heavy edge to Novak Djokovic, with a 25.8% chance of winning it all.  Nadal is next at 15.1%, followed by Federer at 12.7% and Murray at 9.3%.  Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, at 5.3%, is the only other man with better than a one in twenty chance of winning the slam.

Djokovic also has the most lopsided first-round match.  Paolo Lorenzi just barely snuck into the main draw, and he’ll likely be on a flight home in a couple of days.  Almost as likely to make first-round exits are Aussie wildcards Benjamin Mitchell and James Duckworth, who play John Isner and Jurgen Zopp, respectively.  Yes, Duckworth’s resume is so sparse that my system gives him less than a one-in-ten chance of beating the Estonian qualifier.  I wouldn’t recommend running to your bookie with that one–it says more about Duckworth’s lack of high-level match play than it does about Zopp’s potential for dominance.

As always, the first round promises to full of tight contests, even while the seeds coast through.

  • My system gives Cedrik-Marcel Stebe a 70% chance of beating Lleyton Hewitt; that’s a reflection of how the Aussie’s health has hindered him for so long.
  • Speaking of Aussies, Bernard Tomic is set to upset 27th seed Fernando Verdasco.  My numbers put the youngster at 52.5%.
  • Ivo Karlovic is always a threat, and my system gives him a 49% chance of beating Jurgen Melzer.
  • Juan Ignacio Chela keeps earning seeds, but I keep betting against him.  This time, my system gives Michael Russell a 55% chance of scoring a first-round upset over the clay-court specialist.
  • The opening match between Michael Llodra and Ernests Gulbis is more likely to be lost than won.  I predict Llodra will lose it.
  • Thomaz Bellucci and Dudi Sela are as close as they come.  My system gives the Israeli a tiny edge of 50.4% to 49.6%.
  • Even closer are Alejandro Falla and Fabio Fognini, at 49.9%/50.1%.  Falla is dangerous, and Fognini is a threat to himself.
  • Philipp Kohlschreiber is always a dark horse, and my system suggests he’s nearly even (46.9%) with first-round opponent Juan Monaco.
  • British qualifier James Ward lucked into a friendly draw against Blaz Kavcic.   I give the Brit a 48.4% chance.

The results of my full draw simulation are below.

(If you’re interested in my ranking system, click here.  Once I have rankings, I use the draw to “play” the tournament 1,000,000 times.)

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(1)Novak Djokovic          96.0%  85.6%  77.8%    25.8%  
Paolo Lorenzi               4.1%   1.1%   0.4%     0.0%  
Santiago Giraldo           80.3%  12.2%   7.4%     0.1%  
(q)Matteo Viola            19.7%   1.0%   0.3%     0.0%  
(WC)Tatsuma Ito            63.7%  25.8%   3.1%     0.0%  
Potito Starace             36.3%  10.4%   0.8%     0.0%  
Nicolas Mahut              39.3%  22.8%   3.0%     0.0%  
(29)Radek Stepanek         60.7%  41.1%   7.4%     0.1%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(23)Milos Raonic           90.5%  60.8%  35.8%     0.9%  
Filippo Volandri            9.5%   1.7%   0.3%     0.0%  
Lukas Rosol                39.3%  12.5%   4.4%     0.0%  
Philipp Petzschner         60.7%  25.0%  11.3%     0.1%  
Cedrik-Marcel Stebe        70.3%  30.7%  13.9%     0.1%  
(WC)Lleyton Hewitt         29.7%   7.4%   2.0%     0.0%  
Robin Haase                35.6%  18.9%   8.0%     0.0%  
(15)Andy Roddick           64.4%  43.0%  24.3%     0.6%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(9)Janko Tipsarevic        68.8%  50.7%  30.5%     1.1%  
Dmitry Tursunov            31.2%  17.6%   7.3%     0.0%  
(q)Jurgen Zopp             94.0%  31.4%  11.6%     0.0%  
(WC)James Duckworth         6.0%   0.2%   0.0%     0.0%  
Mikhail Youzhny            64.6%  31.6%  16.4%     0.3%  
(q)Andrey Golubev          35.4%  12.2%   4.5%     0.0%  
Andreas Seppi              39.6%  19.6%   9.2%     0.1%  
(17)Richard Gasquet        60.4%  36.6%  20.5%     0.5%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(27)Juan Ignacio Chela     44.9%  20.6%   4.4%     0.0%  
Michael Russell            55.1%  27.7%   6.7%     0.0%  
Igor Kunitsyn              61.0%  34.0%   9.3%     0.0%  
Pablo Andujar              39.0%  17.6%   3.3%     0.0%  
Matthias Bachinger         53.5%  16.6%  10.6%     0.0%  
Ryan Sweeting              46.5%  13.2%   8.0%     0.0%  
Rui Machado                10.2%   2.6%   1.0%     0.0%  
(5)David Ferrer            89.8%  67.7%  56.8%     2.6%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(4)Andy Murray             82.4%  71.1%  57.3%     9.2%  
Ryan Harrison              17.6%  10.1%   4.9%     0.0%  
Xavier Malisse             58.9%  12.4%   5.5%     0.0%  
Edouard Roger-Vasselin     41.1%   6.5%   2.3%     0.0%  
Michael Llodra             42.0%  24.4%   7.4%     0.1%  
Ernests Gulbis             58.0%  38.2%  13.8%     0.3%  
Daniel Gimeno-Traver       41.4%  13.6%   2.8%     0.0%  
(32)Alex Bogomolov Jr      58.6%  23.7%   6.1%     0.0%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(19)Viktor Troicki         73.7%  43.4%  19.4%     0.3%  
Juan Carlos Ferrero        26.3%   8.9%   2.2%     0.0%  
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez     55.6%  27.8%  10.8%     0.1%  
Mikhail Kukushkin          44.4%  19.9%   6.8%     0.0%  
Thomaz Bellucci            49.6%  15.3%   6.9%     0.0%  
Dudi Sela                  50.4%  15.3%   6.8%     0.0%  
(WC)Marinko Matosevic      16.9%   6.5%   2.2%     0.0%  
(14)Gael Monfils           83.1%  62.9%  45.0%     2.6%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(12)Gilles Simon           83.5%  57.3%  31.7%     1.0%  
(q)Danai Udomchoke         16.5%   5.0%   1.1%     0.0%  
Julien Benneteau           66.3%  28.0%  12.0%     0.1%  
Karol Beck                 33.7%   9.7%   2.8%     0.0%  
Joao Souza                 31.2%   5.6%   1.2%     0.0%  
Matthew Ebden              68.8%  21.3%   7.8%     0.0%  
Stephane Robert            15.9%   6.8%   1.7%     0.0%  
(24)Kei Nishikori          84.1%  66.3%  41.7%     1.9%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(26)Marcel Granollers      75.3%  51.0%  23.6%     0.8%  
(WC)Jesse Levine           24.7%  10.3%   2.6%     0.0%  
Frederico Gil              23.7%   4.9%   0.8%     0.0%  
Ivan Dodig                 76.3%  33.8%  12.2%     0.1%  
(q)Roberto Bautista-Agut   57.2%  11.1%   3.4%     0.0%  
Ricardo Mello              42.8%   6.7%   1.8%     0.0%  
Denis Istomin              19.6%  12.3%   4.9%     0.0%  
(6)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga      80.4%  70.0%  50.6%     5.3%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(8)Mardy Fish              77.6%  60.5%  42.1%     2.3%  
Gilles Muller              22.4%  11.1%   4.5%     0.0%  
Alejandro Falla            49.9%  14.1%   5.6%     0.0%  
Fabio Fognini              50.1%  14.3%   5.9%     0.0%  
Albert Montanes            62.9%  19.0%   5.5%     0.0%  
Pere Riba                  37.1%   7.5%   1.5%     0.0%  
Philipp Kohlschreiber      46.9%  33.9%  15.5%     0.2%  
(25)Juan Monaco            53.1%  39.6%  19.4%     0.3%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(20)Florian Mayer          71.3%  51.0%  27.1%     0.9%  
Yen-Hsun Lu                28.7%  14.7%   4.9%     0.0%  
(q)Florent Serra           31.9%   7.6%   1.7%     0.0%  
Steve Darcis               68.1%  26.6%   9.8%     0.1%  
(q)James Ward              48.4%  11.6%   4.0%     0.0%  
Blaz Kavcic                51.6%  13.1%   4.8%     0.0%  
Adrian Mannarino           27.2%  16.7%   7.6%     0.1%  
(11)Juan Martin Del Potro  72.8%  58.7%  40.1%     2.6%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(13)Alexandr Dolgopolov    75.2%  55.5%  29.3%     0.7%  
(WC)Greg Jones             24.8%  12.3%   3.5%     0.0%  
Tobias Kamke               68.7%  25.4%   8.5%     0.0%  
Victor Hanescu             31.3%   6.8%   1.3%     0.0%  
(WC)Kenny De Schepper      18.2%   2.9%   0.7%     0.0%  
Sam Querrey                81.8%  37.5%  21.0%     0.4%  
Bernard Tomic              52.5%  31.9%  19.3%     0.5%  
(22)Fernando Verdasco      47.5%  27.7%  16.3%     0.4%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(31)Jurgen Melzer          51.0%  38.6%  10.8%     0.1%  
Ivo Karlovic               49.0%  36.5%  10.1%     0.1%  
Carlos Berlocq             36.9%   6.9%   0.7%     0.0%  
(q)Jesse Huta Galung       63.1%  18.0%   2.8%     0.0%  
Eric Prodon                19.8%   1.1%   0.2%     0.0%  
Andreas Beck               80.2%  14.0%   6.4%     0.0%  
(q)Alexander Kudryavtsev    9.6%   4.6%   1.7%     0.0%  
(3)Roger Federer           90.4%  80.3%  67.4%    12.7%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(7)Tomas Berdych           87.9%  72.2%  54.5%     4.3%  
Albert Ramos               12.1%   4.8%   1.4%     0.0%  
Olivier Rochus             65.4%  17.1%   7.7%     0.0%  
(q)Bjorn Phau              34.6%   5.8%   1.8%     0.0%  
Sergiy Stakhovsky          65.3%  34.3%  12.4%     0.1%  
(q)Illya Marchenko         34.7%  13.0%   3.2%     0.0%  
(q)Frederik Nielsen        27.4%   9.7%   2.1%     0.0%  
(30)Kevin Anderson         72.6%  43.1%  17.0%     0.2%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(21)Stanislas Wawrinka     76.0%  45.9%  31.1%     1.2%  
Benoit Paire               24.0%   8.0%   3.2%     0.0%  
Marcos Baghdatis           71.9%  37.4%  23.8%     0.7%  
Benjamin Becker            28.1%   8.6%   3.4%     0.0%  
Jeremy Chardy              54.8%  29.2%  11.9%     0.1%  
Grigor Dimitrov            45.2%  21.7%   7.8%     0.0%  
Lukasz Kubot               40.4%  17.4%   5.6%     0.0%  
(10)Nicolas Almagro        59.6%  31.6%  13.1%     0.1%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(16)John Isner             94.2%  53.0%  32.2%     0.8%  
(WC)Benjamin Mitchell       5.8%   0.5%   0.0%     0.0%  
Jarkko Nieminen            33.2%  11.9%   5.2%     0.0%  
David Nalbandian           66.8%  34.6%  20.7%     0.5%  
Flavio Cipolla             36.4%  14.4%   4.4%     0.0%  
Nikolay Davydenko          63.6%  33.6%  14.9%     0.1%  
Leonardo Mayer             24.8%   8.0%   1.9%     0.0%  
(18)Feliciano Lopez        75.2%  44.1%  20.7%     0.3%  

Player                       R64    R32    R16        W  
(28)Ivan Ljubicic          62.6%  37.8%  10.7%     0.2%  
(q)Lukas Lacko             37.4%  18.1%   3.7%     0.0%  
(q)Peter Gojowczyk         19.2%   3.7%   0.4%     0.0%  
Donald Young               80.8%  40.4%  10.3%     0.1%  
Tommy Haas                 34.1%   1.8%   0.3%     0.0%  
(q)Denis Kudla             65.9%   6.1%   1.6%     0.0%  
(q)Alex Kuznetsov          10.1%   6.8%   2.4%     0.0%  
(2)Rafael Nadal            89.9%  85.3%  70.7%    15.1%

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Graduating From Challengers

The best players don’t take long before they show you how good they are.  Tennis fans are rightfully excited about guys like Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic, youngsters who have already established themselves at ATP level–if they are this good at 18, or 21, imagine how good they will be.

I’m always looking for ways to quantify that promise.  In the past, I’ve focused on the rankings, noticing that nearly everyone who reached #1 had broken into the top 100 before their 19th birthday.  Another angle is to see how long a player lasts at the challenger level.

The best players seem to skip the challenger level altogether.  It’s a bit like baseball players and Triple-A: some prospects are ready for the big time, so they never play in the highest level of the minor leagues.  Roger Federer only played eight events in his challenger career, Nadal played 12, and Djokovic played 11–out of which he won three titles.  Andy Roddick also won three challenger titles in only six events at that level.

A player can only move so quickly if they gain entry to tour-level events and they take advantage of the opportunities.  Roddick won 20 matches as a wild card in 2001.  Djokovic reached the third round of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on his first try.  A few accomplishments like that, plus the points from a couple of challenger titles, and you’re ranked in the top 100, good enough to earn direct entry into most ATP events.  That’s essentially what happened to Milos Raonic after he reached the fourth round in Melbourne last year.

This suggests a new type of filter to separate the prospects from the wannabes.  If someone takes two years to consistently go deep at challenger events and fails to make an impact at the ATP level, they probably aren’t headed for the top 10.  But if someone gets into the top 50 or 60 with only a couple dozen challengers in their past, they just might be something special.

I investigated the challenger careers of everyone currently in the ATP top 100.  Eight of the ten guys who played the fewest challengers are (in order): Roddick, Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Djokovic, Nadal, Gael Monfils, Andy Murray, and Juan Monaco.

The other two? Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic, who played 16 and 18 challengers, respectively.  Other prospects in the same range are Kei Nishikori (22), Cedrik-Marcel Stebe (25), and Ryan Harrison (28).  While Stebe and Harrison may play a few more, they still haven’t reached the totals of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (29), Richard Gasquet (32), or David Ferrer (34).  Nikolay Davydenko spent even longer (41 events) on the challenger tour before beginning his ascent to world #3.

More than half of the top 100 played at least 50 challengers, and that’s generally the half you don’t want to be in.  The most promising career trajectory for challenger vets is that of Janko Tipsarevic, who played 89 challengers (winning 10) before putting it all behind him.  Most of the men near him on the list (Tobias Kamke, 88; Andreas Beck, 90; Dudi Sela, 90) can only dream of doing so well.

With a few exceptions like Tipsarevic (and Monaco, who largely skipped the challenger tour but hasn’t become a consistent threat on tour), this is a filter with some potential.  It overlaps quite a bit with age–if you see a 20-year-old in the top 100, he probably hasn’t played nearly as many challengers as a 27-year-old who finally broke in.  Where “number of challengers” might trump age is when comparing players who–for reasons that may not be purely attributable to talent–started playing professionally at much different times.  John Isner, for example, has only played 20 challengers, but didn’t break into the top 100 until he was nearly 23.  His advanced age would have told us he had little potential while hiding the fact he spent years playing college tennis.  The length of his challenger tour career indicates that once he went pro, it wasn’t long before he was ready to play with the big boys.

Whichever metric (age or challenger experience) you prefer, it’s tough to get excited about someone like Alex Bogomolov Jr., who was 28 when he first cracked the top 100, after a career including 151 challengers.  Among the current top 100, only Michael Russell and Ricardo Mello have played more.  Another man with little promise is (I’m sad to say) Flavio Cipolla, 28 years old and #75 in the world.  The Italian has played 136 challengers and won only 51% of his matches in those events.

Another lesson from these numbers is that you can watch a whole lot of challenger-level matches without seeing any real prospects.  (That isn’t to say that Kenny de Schepper versus Michael Yani isn’t entertaining.  It is.)  If future top-tenners play only a handful of challenger events, your average player in a challenger is a guy whose best hope is a peek into the top 50.  Or–if you’re lucky–Janko Tipsarevic.

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Filed under Challengers, Research

Milos Raonic on Defense

One of the things I enjoy about watching up-and-comers on the ATP tour is how fast they can climb the rankings.  With few points to defend, a semifinal showing at an ATP 250 can be worth several ranking places, and a young player can string together several weeks like that.

This time last year, Milos Raonic did that (and much more) in January and February.  He started the season with a ranking of 156.  By the time he got to Indian Wells, he was up to 37.  He amassed nearly 800 points in a six-week span starting in Melbourne qualifying and ending in Memphis.  That’s more than half of his current point total, even after taking the title yesterday in Chennai and returning to his career-high ranking of 25.

In other words, Milos has his work cut out for him if he’d like to stay in the top 30.  At last year’s Australian Open, he beat Michael Llodra and Dr. Mikhail Youzhny en route to the round of 16.  Making it that far will be easier this year, since he’ll be seeded, but he’s still likely to face a top-16 player in the third round.  In San Jose, he won his first title, claiming 250 points thanks mainly to his beating Fernando Verdasco on an indoor hard court.  The next week, he racked up another 300 points for reaching the final in Memphis, this time beating both Verdasco and Mardy Fish.

The main advantage Raonic has this year is his ranking.  He wasn’t seeded at a tour-level event until late March, at the Miami Masters.  He had to defeat seeded players in the second and third rounds in Melbourne, then in the first rounds of Johannesburg, San Jose, and Memphis.  In 2012, it should be much easier going in the early rounds.

At the very least, then, Raonic won’t fall too far.  If all he does is play up to his seeding, he’ll reach the third round in Melbourne, then the quarters or semis in San Jose and Memphis.  That won’t be enough to defend all of his points, but it will keep him on the fringes of the top 32 long enough to build his rankings at the tournaments he missed last year.  Let Milos loose on the North American hard court circuit, and it isn’t difficult to imagine him cracking the top ten.

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Filed under Milos Raonic, Rankings

Federer in Straight Sets

During the telecast of today’s match between Roger Federer and Andreas Seppi, commentator Jason Goodall mentioned an interesting stat.  Federer has won more of his matches in straight sets since losing the number one ranking than he did while ranked number one.

Just about every stat from Roger’s reign at number one is impressive.  Not counting Davis Cup or matches that ended in retirement, Federer played 432 matches while atop the rankings, and won 383 (88.7%) of them.  He won 284 of those matches in straight sets.  That’s 65.7% of all matches, and 74.2% of his wins.

Since losing the top spot, Roger has played 189 matches, and won 162 (85.7%) of them.  (Still pretty good, eh?)  In that time span, he has won 125 matches in straight sets–66.1% of all matches, and 77.2% of his wins.

Both numbers are better, though not much.  The story here isn’t that he is suddenly more dominant in his wins–the increases aren’t enough for that.  Instead, the surprise is that he doesn’t seem any less dominant.  A bit of that is because some 3-set victories have turned into losses, but his modest drop in winning percentage reminds us that he still isn’t losing very many matches.  Today’s hiccup against Andreas Seppi notwithstanding, second-tier players still aren’t making many inroads against Federer.

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Filed under Roger Federer, Toy stats

Prospect Rankings: January 2012

With the 2012 season underway, it’s time for a look at the highest-ranked youngsters. In the “Under 23″ category, you’ll see mostly familiar names. I like this list because it’s a useful reminder of who is still on the way up–Donald Young was disappointing for so long that we forget he could still mount an impressive career. To a lesser extent, the same can be said about Benoit Paire.

After Bernard Tomic’s and Benjamin Mitchell’s birthdays in the last few months, the “Under 19″ cupboard is bare. It will be interesting to see who emerges from that group.

UNDER 23
25   Kei Nishikori         JPN  12/29/89  
31   Milos Raonic          CAN  12/27/90  
39   Donald Young          USA   7/23/89  
42   Bernard Tomic         AUS  10/21/92  
76   Grigor Dimitrov       BUL   5/16/91  
79   Ryan Harrison         USA    5/7/92  
81   Cedrik-Marcel Stebe   GER   10/9/90  
95   Benoit Paire          FRA    5/8/89  
117  Martin Klizan         SVK   7/11/89  
119  Vasek Pospisil        CAN   6/23/90  
125  Richard Berankis      LTU   6/21/90  
133  Thomas Schoorel       NED    4/8/89  
135  Alessandro Giannessi  ITA   5/30/90  
136  Pablo Carreno         ESP   7/12/91  
144  Evgeny Donskoy        RUS    5/9/90  
157  Facundo Bagnis        ARG   2/27/90  
163  Maxime Teixeira       FRA   1/18/89  
165  Aljaz Bedene          SLO   7/18/89  
166  Federico del Bonis    ARG   10/5/90  
172  Gastao Elias          POR  11/24/90  
UNDER 21
42   Bernard Tomic      AUS  10/21/92  
76   Grigor Dimitrov    BUL   5/16/91  
79   Ryan Harrison      USA    5/7/92  
136  Pablo Carreno      ESP   7/12/91  
173  Tsung-Hua Yang     TPE   3/20/91  
184  Javier Marti       ESP   1/11/92  
198  Laurynas Grigelis  LTU   8/14/91  
222  Andrey Kuznetsov   RUS   2/22/91  
227  Benjamin Mitchell  AUS  11/30/92  
275  James Duckworth    AUS   1/21/92  
276  Denis Kudla        USA   8/17/92  
277  Facundo Arguello   ARG    8/4/92  
287  Guilherme Clezar   BRA  12/31/92  
290  Mirza Basic        BIH   7/12/91  
293  Julien Obry        FRA    9/4/91  
321  Nicolas Pastor     ARG   3/12/91  
328  Agustin Velotti    ARG   5/24/92  
331  Kevin Krawietz     GER   1/24/92  
339  Damir Dzumhur      BIH   5/20/92  
345  Yuki Bhambri       IND    7/4/92
UNDER 19
453  Roberto Carballes-Baena      ESP    3/23/93  
463  Tiago Fernandes              BRA    1/29/93  
466  Taro Daniel                  JPN    1/27/93  
486  Andres Artunedo-Martinavarr  ESP    9/14/93  
530  Jason Kubler                 AUS    5/19/93  
569  Bruno Sant'Anna              BRA    7/12/93  
578  Edoardo Eremin               ITA    10/5/93  
603  Jiri Vesely                  CZE    7/10/93  
612  Joao Pedro Sorgi             BRA   10/18/93  
638  Dominic Thiem                AUT     9/3/93  
643  Oliver Golding               GBR    9/29/93  
662  Liam Broady                  GBR     1/4/94  
680  Juan Ignacio Londero         ARG    8/15/93  
715  Hong Chung                   KOR    5/16/93  
726  George Morgan                GBR     2/7/93  
728  Sebastien Boltz              FRA     4/5/93  
739  Denis Yevseyev               KAZ    5/22/93  
785  Bjorn Fratangelo             USA    7/19/93  
788  Matias Sborowitz             CHI     7/9/93

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