The big story from yesterday’s action at the US Open was the dominance of the world #1s. Both Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams dished out two 6-0 sets, making one wonder if we’d been transported back in time to the first Tuesday, when top players are more likely to face opponents who don’t challenge them.
Djokovic’s drubbing of Marcel Granollers was only the 146th men’s Grand Slam match of the Open era in which one player won two bagel sets. That’s a little less than once per Slam for that time period.
Only 15 of those double-bagels have come in the fourth round or later, and such final-16 drubbings have gotten more rare over time–only 5 of the 15 have taken place since 1983. The most recent was Rafael Nadal‘s defeat of Juan Monaco at last year’s French Open, 6-2 6-0 6-0. Roger Federer shows up on the list as well, twice: His quarterfinal win over Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 Australian, 6-3 6-0 6-0, and the final in his 2004 US Open title over Lleyton Hewitt, 6-0 7-6 6-0.
Double bagels are a bit more common in the women’s game, though not as frequent for Serena at Slams as you might expect. While there have been over 180 in the Open era, yesterday’s defeat of Carla Suarez Navarro was only her fourth. Several of the game’s greats tallied more than that, notably Chris Evert with 13, Margaret Court with 8, and Steffi Graf with 7.
Where Serena stacks up more impressively is in her record of 6-0 sets this year. She has now served a bagel in ten different Grand Slam matches in 2013, including two double bagels. Only Court in 1969 and Graf in 1988 won a 6-0 set in more Slam matches in a single year, and only Graf won more 6-0 sets at Slams in a single year.
Of course, Serena isn’t done yet. However, in nine career matches against her semifinal opponent, Na Li, she has only won a single set 6-0. She might not want to do it again: After serving a bagel set to open their 2008 in Stuttgart, Serena lost the next two sets for her only career loss against Li.
As we all mulled over Roger Federer’s future yesterday, Carl Bialik outlined a useful way of thinking about break point conversions. As I noted yesterday, while Federer has played horribly on such key points in his last several slam losses, it’s not clear how much we should read into those numbers. Yes, he probably would’ve won the match had he converted more break points, but does a dreadful 2-for-16 showing (or several) mean he is a fundamentally different player than he used to be?
Carl’s algorithm involves comparing performance on break points to performance on all other points. If tennis players were robots, we would expect them to perform exactly as well at 30-40 as they do at 30-0. The only slight difference is that most break points take place in the ad court, and lefties have an advantage there. For now, let’s ignore that.
Thus, a player who wins 44% of break point opportunities against only 40% of other return points is playing 10% better in those pressure situations. We might even say he is performing well in the clutch.
I ran these numbers for every member of the top 50 in 2013. As is so often the case, the results don’t offer a lot of confidence in the connection between break point results and clutch skills.
The four players who have performed the best this year on break points, relative to other points in the same matches, are Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (+14%), Martin Klizan (+12%), Nicolas Almagro (+10%), and Ernests Gulbis (+10%). Of the big four (or five, or seven), tops is Rafael Nadal, at +5%.
(These numbers don’t include the US Open. If they did, presumably Robredo would move up a few spots.)
Federer ranks 38th among the top 50, winning 2.6% fewer break points than non-break points. That’s certainly nothing to be proud of, but it’s only two spots behind Novak Djokovic, at -1.7%.
Another approach that matches our intuition a little better is to look only at break point opportunities–that is, clutch return points. Here, Federer is -7.8%, worse than 40 members of the top 50. Djokovic and Andy Murray are still in the bottom half, but a full 10 spots ahead of Roger, at -3.2% and -3.7%, respectively. Nadal is +2.1%.
If nothing else, these numbers show us how thin the margins are in top-level men’s tennis. A few percentage points differentiate the very best from a fading player having a disappointing season.
The presence of Djokovic so far down these lists serves as another reminder. Converting break points is a numbers game. Look through Novak’s season and you’ll find a couple 3-for-11s, a 2-for-12, and a 4-for-18 (against Bobby Reynolds!). You only need to convert a few to win a match, and the best way to convert a few is to earn as many as possible.
In other words, break point conversion rates represent only a small part of a player’s performance on any given day. Earning those break opportunities can be every bit as important, and that’s one category in which Federer remains strong.
If you missed it last night, check out my recap and detailed stats for Murray vs. Istomin.
Here’s another interesting graph from Betting Market Analytics, showing win probability throughout yesterday’s Ivanovic-Azarenka match. Because Vika was so heavily favored yesterday, she retained a better than 50/50 chance of winning the match even after Ana took the first set.