Only three ATP players this year have won more than five matches against top-ten-ranked opponents: Rafael Nadal (20), Novak Djokovic (18), and Stanislas Wawrinka (7). It’s a good single-stat representation of Stan’s great year, as the Swiss had only won 18 matches against top-ten opponents in the previous eight seasons, including a painful 2-11 showing last year.
Wawrinka’s ability to play at the level of the very best players makes one wonder if he will move even higher in the rankings next year. Is it possible that players who amass so many top-ten victories are slated for bigger and better things?
Certainly, seven top-ten wins in a season is no mean accomplishment. Andy Roddick finished the 2003 season as World #1 with only six such wins, and Nadal ascended to #2 in 2005 with only five top-ten wins. Since 1991, 25 players have finished a season in the top five while winning fewer matches against top-ten opponents than Wawrinka did this year. And of course, with at least three matches against top-flight opponents this week, Stan might not be done.
On the other hand, tallying a bunch of victories against top-ten opponents doesn’t always predict further success. Since 1991, 42 players have won at least seven such matches while finishing outside the top five. Of those, only 12 improved their overall winning percentage the next year. On average, those players saw their overall winning percentages drop eight percent.
One particularly bizarre precedent for Stan’s top-ten success is Vince Spadea‘s 1999 campaign. While he barely broke even on the season, winning 33 of 60 matches, eight of those wins were against top-ten opponents, including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (twice!). The next year, he lost his first sixteen matches in a row and tallied only three tour-level wins–against anyone.
There are a few extreme examples in the other direction. Sampras went 8-7 against top-ten opponents in 1991, finishing the year at #6. He continued his climb into the tennis stratosphere the following season. 19-year-old Lleyton Hewitt won 10 of 16 top-ten matches in 2000 en route to a #7 ranking. A year later, he was #1 in the world. And for a case even closer to home for Wawrinka, a young man named Roger won 10 matches against top-ten opponents in 2002, finishing the year at #6. It would be a long time before his ranking returned to such a low point.
Of course, Pete, Lleyton, and Roger were youngsters on their way up. No matter how distended the ATP aging curve becomes, it’s safe to assume that Wawrinka is not at an equivalent stage of his career.
It’s a familiar story with tennis statistics. Wawrinka has a great season, so we look for the reason why. (Top-ten wins? Improved second-serve win percentage? Better tiebreak win percentage?) It’s easy to find numbers that show us what worked this year, much more difficult to convincingly explain why. It’s more difficult still to support a conviction that the player has “turned a corner” and we can expect more of this high-quality play from him next year.
Top-ten win tallies like Wawrinka’s aren’t any better at picking future winners than tiebreak records like his 17-12 mark are. It’s no more than a fun stat and a useful marker of a solid year. But don’t fret, Stan fans, it doesn’t make a coherent case for a decline, either. Stan may well be a top-ten mainstay for the next few years–after all, somebody’s got to be.