*except David Ferrer
No one seriously thought Nicolas Almagro had a chance to beat Rafael Nadal yesterday. Despite a loss last week, Rafa remains the best player in the world on clay, a fact Nico knows well, having lost to his fellow Spaniard every time they’ve played, including eight meetings on clay, most recently in last year’s Barcelona final.
As dominating as the Big Four have been, head-to-head records this lopsided remain quite rare. While Nadal and Novak Djokovic have butted heads 40 times and Djokovic has played Roger Federer 34 times, it’s unusual for any pair of players to cross paths so often. Any player might draw Rafa in the first or second round, but only a consistently good player reaches enough later rounds to face the top players so often. Seven of the 10 Nadal-Almagro matches, for example, have come in the quarterfinals or later.
An extremely lopsided head-to-head requires two players who win enough matches to repeatedly face each other, including one who is considerably better than the other. Nadal-Almagro fits that description quite well.
As I wrote a few months ago, head-to-head records don’t have the predictive power that many of us imagine they do, though extreme records like this one are a bit more predictive than ATP ranking. When a player faces an opponent that he has beaten ten times in a row, he wins “only” 86% of the time, or about six out of seven matches.
Still, there aren’t very many head-to-heads like this one, so it’s a rare event when a long-suffering underdog finally comes through. Almagro was only the 14th player in ATP history to win a match against someone who was undefeated against him in 10 or more meetings.
Thanks to the gradual fade of Federer and the sudden vincibility of Nadal, many of the previous 13 have occurred recently. Almagro is the third player to reverse an 0-10 (or worse) against Nadal, following in the footsteps of Fernando Verdasco (2012 Madrid) and Stanislas Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open).
Federer has lost to four players against whom he amassed records of 10-0 or better: Tommy Robredo (2013 US Open), Robin Soderling (2010 Roland Garros), Nikolay Davydenko (2009 Tour Finals), and Fernando Gonzalez (2007 Masters Cup).
Jimmy Connors also did it twice. He won his first eleven matches against Sandy Mayer before falling, and he won his first 15 against Eliot Teltscher before losing. In a bit of odd trivia, Arthur Ashe is the only man to be on both sides of this coin: He won his first ten Open-era meetings with Roy Emerson before losing, and he beat Rod Laver only after losing his first ten Open-era matches against the Rocket.
There isn’t much of a pattern to these streak-breaking matches. The players who finally lose to their longtime rival tend to be relatively old, but so do their opponents–with rare exceptions, it’s tough to tally ten or more meetings with a player unless both are very good, and when both players are so consistently reaching semifinals and finals, the head-to-head record tends not to be so one-sided.
Almagro’s triumph leaves us with exactly ten remaining undefeated tour-level head-to-heads of ten matches or more. Federer and Nadal figure heavily here, as well. Roger owns five of the ten, against Mikhail Youzhny (15-0), Ferrer (14-0), Jarkko Nieminen (14-0), Feliciano Lopez (10-0), and Andreas Seppi (10-0). Rafa represents another two: Richard Gasquet (12-0) and Paul Henri Mathieu (10-0). Djokovic is 10-0 against Seppi, and Tomas Berdych is 10-0 against Kevin Anderson.
Almagro, however, remains at the top of this ignominious list, having lost all 15 of his matches with Ferrer. Had his countryman played up to seed this week, Nico might have had a chance to break another streak in the final, but Ferrer lost his opening match to Teymuraz Gabashvili, who wasn’t willing to wait to fall to 0-10. The Russian beat Ferrer in only his third try.