Monthly Archives: July 2012

Who Benefits From Byes?

Roughly two-thirds of ATP tour-level tournaments have byes in the draw.  31 events–including the two this week, in Kitzbuhel and Los Angeles–have 28-man fields, with first-round byes for the top four seeds.

The obvious beneficiaries are the top four seeds.  They get free passes into the second round, eliminating the chance they’ll be handed a first-round exit.  It’s also a guarantee of greater prize money and more ranking points.  First-round byes are such a feature of the ATP tour, at least in part, because they help smaller tournaments convince big-name players to sign up.

Of course, you can’t simply hand an advantage to the top four seeds without affecting others.  In this most common format, a 28-man field with eight seeds and four byes, there are three important groups: The top four seeds, the bottom four seeds, and the rest of the field.

The top four seeds: The main effect of byes on the top four seeds is that, as noted, they don’t have play first-round matches.  The extent of that effect depends on how much of a threat the first-rounder would’ve been.

To quantify these effects, I ran simulations for the 2012 Estoril tournament.  First, I simulated the draw as the tournament was played, with 28 players and top seeds of Juan Martin Del Potro, Richard Gasquet, Stanislas Wawrinka, and Albert Ramos.  Second, I added the next four players on the alternate list to the draw in place of the byes.  To eliminate any bias stemming from the specific arrangement of the draw, I re-generated the brackets for each simulation.

In the 32-man field, Delpo won his first round match about 90% of the time, Gasquet and Wawrinka about 80%, and Ramos just under 60%.  Accordingly, Delpo didn’t benefit too much from the bye, but Ramos gained enormously.

However, when measured by expected ranking points, none of these four men gained as much as skipping the first round would suggest.  For instance, if Delpo would win only 90% of his first-round matches, removing that impediment would be expected to raise his other outcomes by (1/0.9 – 1), or 11%.  In fact, in the 28-man simulation, he gained only 9.5% over his 32-man expectation.

The slight difference is due to the other top seeds.  If Delpo is more likely to reach, say, the semifinals, then the same effect applies to Gasquet and Wawrinka, the two men who would be most likely to knock him out of the draw.  So while the bye itself increases Delpo’s expected ranking points by 11%, the increased probability of facing the other top seeds reduces it a bit.

Still, the net effect on the top four seeds is overwhelmingly positive.  For Gasquet and Wawrinka, the bye itself increases their expectations by 27% each, for a net effect of 24%, while for Ramos, the bye is a 74% increase, resulting in a net effect of 70%.

The next four seeds: The men seeded five through eight are the losers.  They must play a first-round match–which, in the Estoril example, they each have about a 60% chance of winning–but they are more likely to face one of the top four seeds later on.

The average effect of adding byes to the draw is a 5% decrease in expected ranking points for these lower four seeds.  They aren’t guaranteed to reach the quarterfinal, but in the 28-man version, if they do reach the quarters, they are at least 10% more likely to face a higher-ranked opponent.

The rest of the pack: Nearly everyone else benefits.  The effect of byes touches unseeded players in two ways, which work in opposite directions.  First, and most significantly, no one has to play a top-four seed in the first round.  In Estoril, the toughest first round opponent was 5th-seed Denis Istomin, not exactly a fearsome name in the locker room.  Because of the byes, nearly every player has a 40% chance of reaching the second round.

The countervailing force is a minor one–not enough to neutralize the advantage of missing top seeds in the first round.  When the field shrinks from 32 to 28, the average opponent is a bit better.  If four additional players were added to the Estoril field, they wouldn’t be automatically placed in the positions of the byes.  They would be randomly placed in the draw like everyone else.  Having those four lower-ranked players would give some players even easier first-round matches.

But on balance, for unseeded players, the goal is simply to win a match or two.  The best way to increase their chances of doing so is to keep the best players out of their path for as long as possible.  Byes take care of that.  The net benefit to unseeded players is an addition of 1% to 3% of their expected ranking points.  Generally speaking, the worse the player, the bigger the benefit.

The one exception to this rule is if an unseeded player is actually better than some of the seeds.  According to jrank, Igor Andreev was a better player than 8th-seed Flavio Cipolla going into Estoril.  Thus, the logic that applies to the bottom seeds applies to him.  He was likely to advance to the quarterfinals, so the effect of the byes was mainly to give him a tougher quarterfinal opponent.  In each tournament, this might affect one or two players–in Estoril, Andreev was the only one.

One more consideration: As we’ve seen, 23 of the 28 players benefited from the byes.  And the five players who were negatively affected didn’t lose too much.  How is that possible?

There’s one more group we haven’t talked about: The four players who aren’t included in a 32-man draw.  They don’t have much of a chance of reaching the final rounds, but they wouldn’t be much worse than the rest of the unseeded pack.

One of the players I used for this example, Igor Sijsling, just missed the cut, but in a 32-man draw, he would have been expected to take home 23 ranking points and about $9,000.  By adding four byes, the tournament is essentially taking what it would have given to Sijsling and three other players and divvying it up among the remaining 28.  The pie is the same size, but fewer players can claim a slice.

In the end, those four “missing” players are the only real losers, and they always have the option to head to a challenger for the chance of picking just as many points, even if they probably don’t come with as many dollars.

The winners, beyond the top seeds and the tournament organizers, are ultimately the fans.  When top players have more reason to play small tournaments, we get to watch more high-profile matchups, and ATP 250s look a bit less like Kitzbuhel and a bit more like Doha.

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2012 Olympics Women’s Projections

Forecasting the women’s singles event isn’t rocket science–it’s just a matter of how much you favor Serena Williams over everyone else.

My algorithm gives Serena a 22.7% chance of taking home the gold.  While the draw did her a favor, placing Kim Clijsters in the other half, it wasn’t perfect: Jelena Jankovic is a relatively difficult first round match.  With a randomized draw, Serena’s chances are nearly 25%.

Following the American is her very likely semifinal opponent, Victoria Azarenka, who I give a 18.4% chance of winning it all.  With an easier draw in the early rounds, Azarenka has a slightly better chance of making it to the semis (49.0% to 45.6%), but is less likely to come out of that showdown triumphant.

No one else has a double-digit chance of winning the tournament.  Williams and Azarenka are followed, in order, by Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, and Clijsters.

Below, find the forecast for the entire field.  To see my current hard-court rankings, click here, and for some background on the system, click here.  I’ve also posted projections for the men’s singles event.

Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Victoria Azarenka            92.3%  79.6%  65.3%    18.4%  
Irina-Camelia Begu            7.7%   2.6%   0.8%     0.0%  
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez  55.6%  10.6%   4.9%     0.1%  
Polona Hercog                44.4%   7.2%   3.0%     0.0%  
Anna Tatishvili              55.5%  12.3%   1.6%     0.0%  
Stephanie Vogt               44.5%   8.4%   0.9%     0.0%  
Jie Zheng                    49.9%  39.5%  11.6%     0.5%  
Nadia Petrova                50.1%  39.8%  11.8%     0.5%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Sara Errani                  62.9%  35.8%  13.2%     0.2%  
Venus Williams               37.1%  16.3%   4.4%     0.0%  
Marina Erakovic              45.6%  20.8%   6.1%     0.1%  
Aleksandra Wozniak           54.4%  27.1%   8.6%     0.1%  
Galina Voskoboeva            69.5%  23.6%  13.7%     0.4%  
Timea Babos                  30.5%   5.7%   2.2%     0.0%  
Petra Cetkovska              29.5%  17.0%  10.2%     0.3%  
Angelique Kerber             70.5%  53.6%  41.8%     4.9%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Serena Williams              83.9%  73.9%  60.2%    22.7%  
Jelena Jankovic              16.1%   9.6%   4.4%     0.2%  
Mona Barthel                 43.0%   6.3%   2.2%     0.0%  
Urszula Radwanska            57.0%  10.2%   4.2%     0.1%  
Francesca Schiavone          46.9%  18.8%   4.4%     0.2%  
Klara Zakopalova             53.1%  23.1%   6.0%     0.2%  
Sofia Arvidsson              28.1%  11.8%   2.3%     0.0%  
Vera Zvonareva               71.9%  46.3%  16.3%     1.6%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Na Li                        61.5%  41.9%  23.1%     2.3%  
Daniela Hantuchova           38.5%  22.0%   9.6%     0.5%  
Alize Cornet                 26.5%   5.5%   1.2%     0.0%  
Tamira Paszek                73.5%  30.6%  13.2%     0.6%  
Anabel Medina Garrigues      34.7%  10.3%   3.4%     0.0%  
Yanina Wickmayer             65.3%  27.8%  13.3%     0.7%  
Anne Keothavong              14.5%   3.9%   0.8%     0.0%  
Caroline Wozniacki           85.5%  58.0%  35.3%     4.1%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Samantha Stosur              81.9%  39.2%  23.9%     2.4%  
Carla Suarez Navarro         18.1%   3.3%   0.9%     0.0%  
Kim Clijsters                76.2%  48.7%  33.5%     5.6%  
Roberta Vinci                23.8%   8.8%   3.7%     0.1%  
Agnes Szavay                 21.8%   1.5%   0.1%     0.0%  
Elena Baltacha               78.2%  16.0%   2.7%     0.0%  
Christina McHale             43.9%  35.4%  13.9%     0.7%  
Ana Ivanovic                 56.1%  47.2%  21.3%     1.7%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Sabine Lisicki               95.1%  66.0%  31.5%     2.7%  
Ons Jabeur                    4.9%   0.5%   0.0%     0.0%  
Simona Halep                 61.6%  22.8%   7.6%     0.2%  
Yaroslava Shvedova           38.4%  10.7%   2.6%     0.0%  
Petra Martic                 37.2%   9.2%   3.2%     0.1%  
Lucie Safarova               62.8%  21.5%  10.1%     0.5%  
Shahar Peer                  18.4%   7.7%   2.6%     0.0%  
Maria Sharapova              81.6%  61.6%  42.3%     7.6%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Petra Kvitova                80.7%  61.8%  41.0%     6.5%  
Kateryna Bondarenko          19.3%   8.5%   2.8%     0.0%  
Su-Wei Hsieh                 42.9%  11.3%   3.8%     0.1%  
Shuai Peng                   57.1%  18.4%   7.5%     0.2%  
Sorana Cirstea               41.5%  16.9%   6.4%     0.2%  
Flavia Pennetta              58.5%  28.8%  13.2%     0.9%  
Tsvetana Pironkova           42.8%  21.5%   9.2%     0.5%  
Dominika Cibulkova           57.2%  32.8%  16.1%     1.3%  
                                                           
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Maria Kirilenko              85.9%  60.6%  23.8%     1.0%  
Mariana Duque-Marino         14.1%   3.8%   0.4%     0.0%  
Silvia Soler-Espinosa        45.6%  15.3%   3.2%     0.0%  
Heather Watson               54.4%  20.3%   4.8%     0.0%  
Varvara Lepchenko            73.2%  13.1%   5.0%     0.0%  
Veronica Cepede Royg         26.8%   2.0%   0.4%     0.0%  
Julia Goerges                30.0%  23.0%  14.1%     0.7%  
Agnieszka Radwanska          70.0%  61.9%  48.2%     8.4%

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2012 Olympics Men’s Projections

The draw is out.  Roger Federer is in one half, and everybody else is in the other.

Maybe that’s a harsh assessment of the 31 men who share the Olympic singles bracket with the world number one, but it’s a tough conclusion to avoid.  In the other half, Novak Djokovic is slated to meet Andy Murray in a semi, while Roger’s likely opponents are David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro,  against whom he is on a combined 10-match winning streak.  Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdychtwo men who I noted could derail Fed’s quest for the gold–are also in the bottom half, with Tsonga lined up against Djokovic and Berdych against Murray.

The only thing that could count against Federer are some past near-misses.  In the first round, he’ll face Alejandro Falla, and in the second, he could see Julien Benneteau.  Both men have taken him to five sets on the Wimbledon grass–in both cases, winning the first two sets.  In a best-of-three event, there isn’t quite so much wiggle room.  But even in the quarterfinals, Fed’s likely opponents are John Isner, David Nalbandian, and Janko Tipsarevic.  He couldn’t have drawn it up any better if they had let him.

This is a rare occasion where the draw does make a difference.  According to jrank, Djokovic still has a moderate edge over Federer on hard courts.  If the draw were randomized, Novak would have a 23.8% chance of winning the gold, while Roger would be a close second at 21.9%.  With the actual draw, the difference is more than halved.  Federer’s chances stay the same, with Novak’s dropping to 22.7%.

After the top two, Murray is the clear-cut choice for the bronze, with a 12.1% chance of winning the tournament outright.  Ferrer and Delpo follow, in position to take advantage of the weaker top half should Federer fall.

Below, find the forecast for the entire field.  To see my current hard-court rankings, click here, and for some background on the system, click here.  Women’s Olympic singles forecasts will be posted in a little while.

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(1)Roger Federer          88.0%  69.8%  59.5%    21.9%  
Alejandro Falla           12.0%   4.1%   1.8%     0.0%  
Julien Benneteau          43.9%  10.5%   5.9%     0.3%  
Mikhail Youzhny           56.1%  15.6%   9.9%     0.9%  
(WC)Adrian Ungur          20.2%   2.9%   0.2%     0.0%  
Gilles Muller             79.8%  32.2%   6.2%     0.1%  
Denis Istomin             44.3%  27.5%   6.4%     0.2%  
(14)Fernando Verdasco     55.7%  37.5%  10.2%     0.6%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(10)John Isner            72.9%  54.2%  31.4%     2.6%  
Olivier Rochus            27.1%  14.4%   5.1%     0.1%  
Yen-Hsun Lu               56.4%  19.1%   6.5%     0.1%  
(WC)Malek Jaziri          43.6%  12.4%   3.5%     0.0%  
Lukas Lacko               40.8%  13.7%   5.7%     0.1%  
Ivo Karlovic              59.2%  25.1%  12.6%     0.4%  
David Nalbandian          50.3%  30.8%  17.7%     1.2%  
(7)Janko Tipsarevic       49.7%  30.4%  17.5%     1.1%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(4)David Ferrer           82.6%  59.4%  41.0%     6.8%  
(WC)Vasek Pospisil        17.4%   6.5%   2.1%     0.0%  
Philipp Kohlschreiber     75.7%  29.7%  15.4%     0.9%  
(WC)Blaz Kavcic           24.3%   4.5%   1.1%     0.0%  
Radek Stepanek            50.3%  21.5%   7.8%     0.3%  
Nikolay Davydenko         49.7%  20.9%   7.5%     0.2%  
Bernard Tomic             43.8%  23.6%   9.4%     0.5%  
(15)Kei Nishikori         56.2%  34.0%  15.7%     1.2%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(12)Gilles Simon          62.9%  36.4%  16.3%     0.8%  
Mikhail Kukushkin         37.1%  16.7%   5.6%     0.1%  
Lukasz Kubot              48.1%  22.1%   8.1%     0.2%  
Grigor Dimitrov           51.9%  24.7%   9.5%     0.3%  
Andreas Seppi             56.2%  17.5%   8.2%     0.2%  
Donald Young              43.8%  11.6%   4.7%     0.1%  
Ivan Dodig                25.3%  13.5%   6.3%     0.1%  
(8)Juan Martin Del Potro  74.7%  57.3%  41.4%     5.9%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(6)Tomas Berdych          70.7%  49.7%  33.6%     3.0%  
Steve Darcis              29.4%  14.6%   6.9%     0.1%  
Santiago Giraldo          44.9%  15.0%   6.6%     0.1%  
Ryan Harrison             55.1%  20.7%  10.2%     0.2%  
Alex Bogomolov Jr.        70.9%  27.3%   9.9%     0.1%  
Carlos Berlocq            29.1%   5.9%   1.2%     0.0%  
Viktor Troicki            45.0%  29.1%  13.0%     0.4%  
(11)Nicolas Almagro       55.0%  37.7%  18.5%     0.8%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(16)Richard Gasquet       67.9%  39.9%  15.0%     0.9%  
Robin Haase               32.1%  12.9%   3.1%     0.0%  
Go Soeda                  33.8%  12.5%   2.9%     0.0%  
Marcos Baghdatis          66.2%  34.7%  12.1%     0.6%  
(WC)Somdev Devvarman      33.6%   4.8%   1.4%     0.0%  
Jarkko Nieminen           66.4%  16.1%   7.4%     0.2%  
Stanislas Wawrinka        26.2%  17.1%   9.6%     0.6%  
(3)Andy Murray            73.8%  62.1%  48.5%    12.1%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(5)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     78.7%  54.8%  38.2%     5.1%  
(WC)Thomaz Bellucci       21.3%   8.4%   3.2%     0.0%  
Tatsuma Ito               28.1%   6.5%   2.2%     0.0%  
Milos Raonic              71.9%  30.3%  16.8%     0.9%  
Dmitry Tursunov           36.6%  13.9%   4.3%     0.1%  
Feliciano Lopez           63.4%  32.6%  13.5%     0.6%  
David Goffin              40.0%  19.0%   6.6%     0.2%  
(9)Juan Monaco            60.0%  34.6%  15.2%     0.8%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(13)Marin Cilic           56.2%  43.0%  13.1%     1.2%  
Jurgen Melzer             43.8%  31.4%   8.2%     0.5%  
(WC)Lleyton Hewitt        31.7%   5.2%   0.4%     0.0%  
(WC)Sergiy Stakhovsky     68.3%  20.3%   3.1%     0.1%  
Andy Roddick              78.0%  22.3%  13.6%     1.5%  
Martin Klizan             22.0%   2.6%   0.8%     0.0%  
Fabio Fognini              9.0%   2.7%   0.9%     0.0%  
(2)Novak Djokovic         91.0%  72.4%  59.9%    22.7%

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The Historically Weak Fields in Kitzbuhel and Los Angeles

With the Olympics starting in just a few days, it’s no surprise that this week’s two ATP 250 events barely qualify as sideshows.  No man inside the top 20 is participating in either one, and journeymen such as Bjorn Phau and Blaz Kavcic are seeded.

In fact, Kitzbuhel and Los Angeles sport two of the weakest fields in recent history, handing out some of the cheapest ranking points ever offered by tour-level events.

To the naked eye, it’s plenty clear that these tournaments don’t measure up to the standard of, say, Halle or Doha.  But attaching numbers to those claims is more difficult.  You could compare average or median ranking, the cut, the ranking of the lowest seed, or even the ranking of the top seed.  However, none of these provide the whole picture.

To quantify field strength using just a number or two, in a way that allows us to compare 28-man 250s to 48, 56, or 64-player 500s, to 128-player slams, let’s turn to a method suggested by Carl Bialik.  We’re most concerned with how difficult these tournaments are to win.  So, since some player ranked roughly #10 in the world is in the field at almost every event, let’s compare the probability that the #10-ranked player would take the title.

At most grand slam and masters-level tournaments, the #10 player in the world has a 1-3% chance of winning.  It’s awfully unlikely, though definitely nonzero.  At a lower-level tournament like Atlanta last-week, the #10 player–in this case, John Isner–was the most likely winner, though he had some high-quality competition from Mardy Fish, Kei Nishikori, and eventual winner Andy Roddick.  In more extreme cases, like this week’s Los Angeles event, no one inside the top 40 is participating.  So if #10 entered, he would be the overwhelming favorite.

The field in Kitzbuhel this week is so weak that, had a hypothetical #10 player entered, he would have a 45% chance of winning the title.  That’s the highest we’ve seen on the ATP tour in at least the last four years.  The LA draw is stronger in this regard.  Thanks in part to the currently underrated Sam Querrey, the hypothetical #10 would have a mere 31% chance of winning.  As we’ll see in a moment, though, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

10 events have had sufficiently weak draws to give the #10-ranked player a 30% or better chance of winning, but Kitzbuhel is the worst of all.  Los Angeles, while relatively stronger, is the weakest hard court event.  In the last year, there have been 42 events flying the ATP 250 banner.  By this metric, the average 250 draw would give the #10 player a 23.6% of winning.  By comparison, the #10 player has, on average, a 10.4% chance of winning an ATP 500 event.  (Hamburg last week was an aberration, clocking in at 22%, higher than half of the 250s.)

Much like next week’s 500-level event in Washington, LA’s Farmers Classic is a direct casualty of the Olympics.  As part of the US Open Series, it typically attracts quite a few top hard-courters.  Last year’s field included both Fish and Juan Martin Del Potro, and the #10 player would have a had mere 16% chance of winning, on par with the relatively strong 250 fields in Buenos Aires and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

A slightly different metric exposes the true dearth of quality players in Los Angeles this week.  In addition to calculating the probability that the #10 player would win, we can check the probability that the #50 player would win an event.  For a draw of any quality, that number is close to zero.  For these weaker 250 fields, the additional perspective gives us more nuance.  If an event is packed with guys ranked around #100, as LA is, it is easy pickings for someone like Benoit Paire or Xavier Malisse.  If there are plenty of top-70 or top-80 players, the #50 entrant will have a much tougher time.

Measured by the probability of the #50 player winning an event, Los Angeles has the weakest field of any tournament back to 2009.  The hypothetical #50 would have an 11.7% chance of winning, better than the chances for the #10 player in Doha, Halle, or Queen’s Club!  It’s also the only time I found that #50 would have been better than a 10% chance.  Unsurprisingly, Kitzbuhel checks in near the top, in third place, with a 6.9% chance of the #50 player winning.

To some extent, the Olympics are to blame.  But more generally, it is a reminder than all ranking points aren’t created equal.  It’s another flaw in the ranking system: Simply because the ATP awards the same 250 to a wide range of events does not mean that they are equally challenging.

Put another way, the massive gaps between 250s (and, to a lesser extent, 500s) are an opportunity for enterprising players.  While some players were resting last week, Juan Monaco picked up the cheapest 500 points on offer all year to jump into the top ten.  In Washington, another cheap 500 will go to a player who probably would’ve lost in the first two rounds at the Olympics.  There may be more to tennis than ranking points, but there’s certainly more to ranking points than meets the eye.

Below, find more on the rather complicated methodology of this study, along with a table comparing all tournaments of the last 52 weeks.

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The Ever-Expanding Top Ten

Tennis fans talk about “cracking the top ten,” “top ten scalps,” and “top ten talent,” suggesting that this ranking milestone is a failsafe marker of the current elite.  While the top ten isn’t quite the same as the big four, the connotation is that the top ten is a class above.

Yesterday, Juan Monaco joined that group.  His Hamburg title earned him the 500 points to put him over the top, capping the best 52-week span of his career.  Since this time last year, he’s played five finals, won three titles, and reached the semis at the Miami Masters.

Job well done, Pico: We can now add you to an illustrious list featuring such names as Mikhail Youzhny, Nicolas Massu, Radek Stepanek, Arnaud Clement, and Marcos Baghdatis.  Kind of like an Olympic medal, an appearance in the top ten is something they can never take away from you.

As my snark implies, the top ten mystique is misplaced.  Sure, a berth in the top ten is an impressive accomplishment.  For that matter, a spot in the top 100 is far out of reach of mere mortals.  But with so many top-tenners hanging around, there’s barely enough mystique to go around.

Any given week, of course, there’s only room for ten men in the top ten.  But the last few spots are–and always have been–a revolving door.  At any given time, there are a staggering number of past, present, and future top ten players in the active ranks.

In fact, of the 146 players ever to reach the ATP top 10, 36 of them are in this week’s rankings.  A few, such as Massu, Thomas Muster,  and Fernando Gonzalez are retired (or might as well be).  But that still leaves more than 30 “top-tenners” among active players.  Even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For a fuller perspective, head back a decade to the 2002 end-of-year rankings.  In December of that year, 70 of the men who appeared in the ATP rankings would, at some point in their career, crack the top ten.  If we set aside youngsters like Monaco and Rafael Nadal who were on the way up in late 2002, we find that of the top 100 on December 16, 2002, 47 could write “former top-ten player” on their Wikipedia pages.

Dwell on that for a moment.  Nearly half of the top 100 had this elite status.  You could nearly fill the Paris Masters draw with past, present, and future top-tenners.

Ten years from now, the same will probably be said about the class of 2012.  “Only” 28 of the current top 100 have spent time in the top ten, but for many of the other 72, there’s plenty of time to add to the list.  It seems a given that Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, and Kei Nishikori will at some point crack the top 10, while players like Alexandr Dolgopolov, Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov, Vasek Pospisil, and Cedrik Marcel Stebe are poised to follow them to the top.

Your list may be different than mine, but the details don’t matter.  A year ago, most people wouldn’t have guessed Monaco would crack the top 10.  When Janko Tipsarevic was ranked around #50 on his 26th birthday, no one imagined he’d spend months at #8.  To say that Dimitrov, or Pospisil, or David Goffin is a future top-tenner doesn’t mean he’s going to take over the sport and beat all comers, it just means that he’ll put together a year with a couple of 250 titles and a handful of solid wins against other top players.

Next time someone offers you to bet you that so-and-so won’t ever reach #10 in the world, it’s worth careful consideration.  The top ten is bigger than it sounds.

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Filed under Juan Monaco, Rankings

Why More Players Should Have Skipped the Olympics

The Olympics only come every four years, and they have everything: precious metals, prestige, and national pride, along with extremely fit and horny women.

That’s good enough for most top players.  18 of the top 20 men are slated to participate, and nearly every player in the 64-man draw is ranked inside the top 100.  This is a Masters-quality field, if not a touch better.

But aside from status and off-court perks, the competitors will not be rewarded accordingly.  The ATP treats the Olympic singles event as less than a Masters tournament, giving the winner 750 ranking points and the runner-up 450.  As Ben Rothenberg has pointed out, that means the silver medalist–probably one of the top four players in the world–will receive fewer points that week than the winner in Washington.  Only one player in top 20 (Mardy Fish) is scheduled to compete in the US event.

More players should have made the sensible decision, skipping the Olympics in favor of Washington, perhaps adding Los Angeles or Kitzbuhel as well.  Ranking points are as cheap at those events as they are expensive in London.

At a gut level, it’s unthinkable to skip the Olympics.  All those intangibles count for a lot.  If you’re a top-ten player, a few hundred extra ranking points wouldn’t make much of a difference, and an extra $50,000 in prize money barely registers.  For mid-packers, though, “intangibles” sounds like a cynical euphemism for no money and a mediocre ranking boost.

Consider the case of Mardy Fish, the highest ranked player to opt for Washington over London.  Based on a simulation of possible Olympic draws (see below for details), Fish could expect to net about 80 ranking points at the Olympics.  The odds would favor him to win an opener, give him a decent shot at reaching the round of 16, and then turn against him.  Two or three matches, no prize money, not much national pride.

In Washington, the story is much different.  There, Fish is the runaway favorite.  If he’s healthy (a big if), he has at least a 1 in 5 chance of winning the tournament.  By my simulation, he can expect to gain 176 ranking points (with, of course, a decent chance of as many as 500), along with a cool $72,000.

An even more instructive example is that of Donald Young.  Young is in the midst of a horrible losing streak, and he’ll head to London with a roughly 2 in 3 chance of heading home without a single victory.  Expected ranking points: 24.

For Young, more is at stake than a few thousand dollars in prize money.  He reached the semis in Washington last year, so he is defending 180 points this week.  Losing all of those points will probably knock him out of the top 80.  There’s a big difference between a ranking in the 50s and one in the 80s: The first gets you direct entry into almost every tournament; the second leaves you in qualifying (unseeded, sometimes!) for most Masters.  Had Young elected to play Washington, he could have expected to defend at least half of his points.  That wouldn’t just earn him about $30,000 for his week’s work, it would give him a ranking that would make it enormously easier for him to earn points and prize money for the next several months.

The American’s situation is unique in that he may be at a crossroads in his career.  But the same reasoning applies to every player who doesn’t feel like he has a legitimate shot at a medal.  The odds are against Radek Stepanek reaching the second round in London–he’ll lose almost all of the 500 points he’s defending from last year’s Washington title.  Or Carlos Berlocq: It’d be hard to back the dirtballing counterpuncher at a grass-court challenger.  He could’ve spent next week as a top-four seed on clay, at Kitzbuhel.

Maybe for Stepanek, Berlocq, or even Young, the experience will be worth it.  But every scheduling decision made by a player–especially a veteran–has an impact on his prospects for months to come.  Is the experience worth dropping down to qualifying at the next several Masters-level events?  Would missing the experience be acceptable in exchange for getting a cheap ranking boost and earning a seed at the U.S. Open?

As much as it goes against our nationalist, media-driven instincts, Mardy Fish, Alexander Dolgopolov, and a very small number of other non-Olympians made the smart choice.  As the first-round losers start to pile up next weekend in London, Washington will look like an excellent place to be.

After the jump, find a quick explanation of my tournament simulations, along with expected ranking points and prize money for top players in Washington and London.

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Filed under Mardy Fish, Olympics, Washington

Is Roger Federer the Olympic Favorite?

Roger Federer is back at #1.  Is he the best player in the game right now?  More immediately, is he the favorite when the world’s best return to Wimbledon for the Olympics?

In theory, the world number one should be the favorite, especially on the favorite’s preferred surface.  Especially a few weeks after winning a grand slam at the same venue.  Yet there is nothing like a consensus: Bettors are generally giving a slight edge to Novak Djokovic, the same man who lost to Federer only a couple of weeks ago.  My ranking system also gives the edge to Djokovic.

How is the world number one not number one?  Two issues are in play here.  First, Federer, at nearly 31 years of age, can’t be expected to keep playing like he did two weeks ago, or like he did last fall.  Second, the Olympic draw isn’t likely to substantially affect Djokovic’s chances, but it could cast serious doubt on Federer’s.

For any player, and especially for a thirty-something, past results are no guarantee of future performance.  ATP rankings are based entirely on past results, some nearly one year old, weighted as if they happened yesterday.  Considering Federer’s career as an arc, with 2012 doubtless located on the downslope, Wimbledon looks more like an aberration than a rebirth.  Repeated losses earlier in the year to Djokovic and hiccups against Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick, not to mention a near-disaster against Julien Benneteau, may tell us more than a couple of strong wins against Djokovic and Murray.

This isn’t to say Federer can’t win the gold medal.  But he wasn’t the favorite going into Wimbledon, and aside from the order of the ATP rankings, not much has changed since then.

Still lurking are many men who could upset Roger, and that’s where the draw comes in.  Before the Olympic draw is released, we need to remember all the players Federer didn’t have to beat en route to his seventh Wimbledon title.  His fourth round and quarterfinal opponents were Xavier Malisse and Mikhail Youzhny, players who would make more sense as Fed’s second and third round victims.

Federer has lost to three active players in his Wimbledon career: Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  Other recent losses on hard courts: Haas, Roddick, and John Isner.  He could’ve drawn at least one, or as many as three of those guys at Wimbledon instead of a lineup of journeymen.  His Olympic draw may not be so fortunate.

Djokovic, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of anyone to fear.  His chances (real or perceived) of Olympic gold won’t change much if Berdych or Tsonga shows up in his quarter.

But to say that Federer is not the favorite doesn’t mean that Novak is an overwhelming one.  He gets that honor almost by default.  For the first time in what seems like years, we’re entering a major event without a clear frontrunner.  Everyone’s flaws have been exposed.  Nadal crashed out of Wimbledon and hasn’t won a hard-court event since 2010.  Federer’s dominance and health both eluded him in Wimbledon’s middle rounds.  Djokovic’s aura of streak-inspired invincibility is long gone.

One of these three men will probably take home the gold.  But pick one, and your man is likely to disappoint you.

Update: A couple of hours after I posted this, Nadal withdrew. That betters the chances of Federer and Djokovic.  The other winner is David Ferrer, who gets a top four seed.  That’s no cakewalk to the semis with such a deep draw, but it’s certainly easier than needing to beat one of the big four just to get to the bronze medal match.

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A Friendly Reminder About Milos Raonic

It’s been an exciting couple of months in tennis, and Milos Raonic has gotten lost in the shuffle.  He hasn’t beaten a top-40 player since Barcelona in April, and he remains outside of the top 20.  His five-set battle at Wimbledon against Sam Querrey was a high-class, hard-fought effort on both sides, and naturally, Querrey got most of the press after that one.

This isn’t a sophomore slump.  It’s the calm before the storm.

Much like Juan Martin del Potro, Raonic has been stunted in 2012 by the juggernaut that has been Roger Federer.  Of Raonic’s 10 losses this year, three have come against Roger, and all three have gone three sets, two of them to a third-set breaker.

More importantly, Raonic’s ranking doesn’t tell the whole story.  The Canadian missed almost the entire second half of 2011, coming back after the US Open at half-strength.  He has almost no points to defend between now and the end of the year.

Even a modest projection for Raonic suggests that he’ll move into the top 16 by the end of the year.  And as he climbs the ladder, he’ll get better seedings, avoiding roadblocks like Federer in the 2nd round of Madrid.

If all Milos does is play up to his seed at this year’s three remaining Masters, reach the third round of the US Open, and defend his semifinal points from Stockholm, he’ll ascend to approximately #17 in the rankings.  (I’ve ignored the Olympics, since that event will inflate almost everyone’s point total.  Raonic may also further pad his total this week at Newport.)  One decent run, like a Masters quarterfinal, a 500 semifinal, or even a fourth-round finish in Flushing, puts him at the edge of the top 15.  Based on his skill level, that’s where he belongs right now.

And that conservative path is almost certainly not all that the Canadian will accomplish.  On paper, his grass season is a bit disappointing, but a three-set loss to Federer and the five-setter against the resurgent Querrey is hardly a disaster.  And Raonic’s clay season exceeded expectations, including wins over Nicolas Almagro, Andy Murray, and David Nalbandian.

A couple of rough draws have made it easy to forget about one of the game’s future stars.  Don’t be surprised to see him persistently climbing the rankings, pushing aside top-tenners, for the rest of the 2012 season.

 

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How Underdogs Could Win Wimbledon Doubles

Yesterday, wildcards Jonathan Marray and Frederick Nielsen won the Wimbledon doubles title.  Nobody saw that one coming–in recent years, men’s doubles has been dominated by a small number of specialists.  When a team outside the top 10 wins an event, it’s often thanks to a top singles player or two.  Marray and Nielsen sit comfortably outside either category.

How did they do it?  Obviously, they played great tennis, winning big point after big point against some of the best doubles teams in the world.  (They played a fifth set three times in the tournament, but the Bryan brothers could only take them to four!)  Beyond that, there are structural elements making it possible: Men’s doubles has steadily become more equal, as better equipment and training have leveled the playing field.  The event is underdog-friendly, and it is particularly so at Wimbledon.

Hold machines

In most men’s doubles matches, breaks of serve are as rare as in a John Isner fifth set.  In yesterday’s final, the server won 73% of all points.  Mathematically, that translates to a hold rate of 93%, or one break every 14 games–less than one per set.  (In fact, it was even lower than that: three breaks in 53 standard games: 1 per 17.7.)

First serve percentages are even more remarkable.  Yesterday, both teams won 80% of first serve points.  In the two semfinals, more than 80% of first serve points resulted in wins for the server, and the Bryans won 85% of their first offerings.  For comparison, consider that on grass, Roger Federer’s career first serve winning percentage is 78.6%.  You get the picture: service breaks are very hard to come by.

When there are so few service breaks, sets (and by extension, matches) can hinge on a very small number of points.  Marray/Nielsen played 27 sets in the tournament, and 13 were decided in a tiebreak.  Of those 13, 11 were 7-4 or closer.  The wildcard champions squeaked through five of their six matches.

A few good points

Men’s doubles is dominated by the serve, and when the surface favors servers even more, matches–even best-of-five matches–hinge on just a few important points.  Consider Marray/Nielsen’s third-round upset of Qureshi/Rojer: 7-6(5) 7-6(4) 6-7(4) 5-7 7-5.  Essentially, 56 games–every game to the first three tiebreaks, and then to 5-5 in the final two sets–had no purpose other than wearing down the other side.  If only one or two points had gone differently in the first two sets, the AntiPak express would have won the match in the fourth set, and the Bryans would probably be lifting the trophy as usual.

This isn’t to lessen Marray/Nielsen’s achievement–far from it.  Fast-court doubles has been reduced to a thirty-point contest, and the underdog duo won all five of those mini-matches in which they found themselves.  The other 250 points function simply to prove that both teams belong there.  And any team that can win 70-75% of service points has a good chance of proving themselves.

Once you’ve reduced the match to 30 points, luck–and mental fortitude–play a bigger role.  If you’re playing Novak Djokovic on the singles court, you can be as mentally strong as you want, but if you don’t have top-ten skills, you’re going to lose.  In doubles, steely nerves at 4-4 in a breaker, maybe with a couple of lucky netcords or reflex volleys thrown in, can be enough.

While there is certainly some skill that separates the Bryan brothers from the Ratiwatana brothers, even the journeymen Thais pushed Lindstedt and Tecau to tiebreaks in two of their three first-round sets.  I hesitate to use the word “clutch,” but on Centre Court, with a hundred thousand pounds on the line, tiebreaks are about more than serves and volleys.  What the wildcards proved over the fortnight is that, at least for two weeks, they possessed the rarest of modern doubles skills: They could play the big points with the big boys.

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New Functionality (and a little more data) on TennisAbstract.com

Since meta-sizing the TennisAbstract.com database, I’ve focused on making each player page more useful and functional.  Here are the highlights:

  • “Show Career” link.  By default, most pages show a player’s matches for the last 52 weeks.  When you start applying filters, the number of matches shrinks heavily.  In many cases, what you really want is that set of filters applied to the player’s whole career. Now, there’s a “show career” link at the bottom of every list of matches.  (Unless, of course, the table is already displaying the full career!)
  • Apply filters to a new player.  A few days ago, a reader sent me this link, carefully constructed from four different filters, with four selections in one of the filters.  Once you’ve done all that work, what if you want to see the same filters applied to a different player?  Now, instead of repeating the process, enter the player into the search box below the match list, and voila! the filters are applied to another player.
  • Ctrl-Click for multiple selections. I’ve never liked the behavior of the menus for multiple selections.  By default, if you clicked on a second selection, the page assumed you wanted both.  For instance, to change from “hard” to “clay,” for instance, you had to click on “clay,” then click on “hard” again to deselect “hard.”  Now, these selections behave more intuitively.  If you want multiple selections, hold down the control key while clicking on a filter.
  • More filters for best-of-five matches.  If you haven’t looked recently, check out the menus for “Results” and “Sets.”  Now you can search for five-setters where a player lost the first two sets, or best-of-fives that went exactly four sets, and so on.  By splitting these into two menus, there are more possible queries than ever.
  • Exclude players from results.  How impressive are Juan Martin del Potro’s results this year if you exclude his losses to Roger Federer?  The “Exclude Opp” menu makes it easy to answer questions like these.
  • More Davis Cup coverage.  I’ve added World Group Playoffs (or Challenge Rounds, or Qualifying Rounds, or whatever they called them from one year to the next) from 1981 to 2002.  Now World Group results are complete back to 1981, along with Group 1 and Group 2 back to 1993.  Still more to come.

Many of these came directly from reader suggestions.  I do appreciate every comment even though I can’t act on them all.  Many suggestions aren’t yet reflected on the site, but are moving their way up the to-do list.   Let me know what would make the site more valuable to you.

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