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.


Filed under Olympics

5 responses to “Is Roger Federer the Olympic Favorite?

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that “For any player, and especially for a thirty-something, past results are no guarantee of future performance.”

    But I disagree that “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.”

    I think what these things really tell us is that the first statement is the more accurate of the two. Attempts to make statistical sense of Federer’s losses in the past year are just too gross in nature to really work. It’s like trying to predict the weather. Can’t really be done.

    That said, I think the broad statistical strokes that you have come up with in your JRank system are useful. And I definitely agree with your conclusion – there’s no way to meaningfully pick a single “favorite” in an event as complex as this one coming up.

    • Note, I should have said that trying to predict the weather down to a granular level doesn’t work. The broad outlines, yes. So the broad outline that “one of these three men will probably take home the gold” does work.

  2. The News of RAFA’S handing back the flag (withdrawing from the Spanish Olympic team due to an undisclosed injury, probably the same knee tendons that were his excuse fro bailing on an exhibition on July 4 in Madrid) should jigger the odds for Joker and Fed, neither of whom will now have to contend with Rafa in their half.

    Will parity in the ATP start to resemble the WTA, or worse yet, the men’s golf tour?

  3. William O'Brien

    With Nadal’s withdrawal, the biggest factors to decide between Federer and Djokovic are the draw and the weather (ie roof open/closed). If Ferrer is in Federer’s quarter, putting Murray in Djokovic’s, that is a huge bonus to Fed (more so than the other way around since Ferrer has beaten Djokovic on quick surfaces before).

  4. Daniel Pino

    I agree with you, this time more than ever, it is very difficult to choose a favorite. However, I think that one of the problem of statistics is that it is not possible to take into account many important variables that can have a very significant impact on the result of a match.

    You are citing some losses Federer had recently, but from the Djoko side, you are probably not seeing the amount of work that Djoko had to provide to clinch some of his latest victories. It is clearly as dominant as he was last year.

    All this to say that I don’t agree with you when you say that players like Tsonga or Berdych are not likely to take down Djoko. If Tsonga is in a good day, serving well as he did when he beat Federer last year, he can take down any player.

    I think tennis is at highest level, and the gap between the top three or four players with others is not that wide, and any top ten (20?) player in a good day can send home any top seed at any moment, even if that player is named Djoko, Nadal, Federer, or Murray.

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