Category Archives: Rafael Nadal

No One Beats Nicolas Almagro Eleven Times In a Row*

*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.

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Filed under Head-to-Heads, Rafael Nadal

A Glimmer of Hope for Stan Wawrinka

Stanislas Wawrinka has played 26 sets of tennis against Rafael Nadal, and lost them all. That doesn’t bode well for Stan’s chances in his first Grand Slam final.

As Novak Djokovic can tell you, though, Wawrinka has improved. He has long been a threat to top-ten players, and even before beating Djokovic in the quarterfinals, he had taken the Serb to five sets twice in twelve months.

One of the hidden signs of Stan’s rise comes from his last match with Rafa, at the London Tour Finals last November. Wawrinka lost that match in straight sets–as he has done, of course, every time he’s played Nadal–but it was the tightest match they’d played in four years, going to a pair of tiebreaks.

If we look beyond the scoreline, last fall’s contest was even closer than the pair’s previous two-tiebreak match at the 2009 Miami Masters. This time, Wawrinka won more points than Nadal did–83 to 80, good for 51% of the total. While it isn’t unheard of for the player who wins more points to lose the match, the player who wins more points does end up triumphant in more than 95% of tour-level matches. In their eleven previous meetings, Stan had never won as many as 48% of the total points played.

The quality of Wawrinka’s performance is even more striking when we turn to Dominance Ratio (DR), the ratio of the winner’s rate return points won to the loser’s rate return points won. In 93.5% of matches, the winner of the match is the man who won the higher rate of return points. By expressing this as a ratio, we can get an idea of the winning player’s dominance. 1.0 is a dead heat, and the higher than number, the more dominant the winning player.

In the match last November, Nadal’s DR was 0.86. Rafa won 31.1% of return points while Stan won 36.0%. If you look at 100 straight-sets matches with those stats, you’ll rarely find even one in which the 31.1% RPW player comes out the winner.

In fact, since 1991, there have been fewer than 150 matches in which a player had a DR less than or equal to 0.9 and still won in straight sets. (Matches that go the distance more commonly have this sort of profile, when the winner takes two [or three] tight sets but loses a blowout set, with a score like 7-6 1-6 7-6.)  Only about 50 of these were more extreme than the Nadal-Wawrinka match.

Based on the evidence of this last matchup, we can conclude that Wawrinka has the skills to challenge Nadal. Yet despite coming much closer than in any of their eleven previous meetings–Rafa’s lowest DR in any of them was 1.13–the Swiss didn’t win. Why not?

Let’s recognize the core issue: Stan may have won more points, but he won them at the wrong times. (Or, he didn’t win quite enough of them at the right times.) He held serve more convincingly than his opponent did but didn’t play as well in the tiebreaks. Any explanation has to address this “wrong time” issue. Here are a few:

  1. Nadal raised his game in the important moments. There’s some evidence for this–he outperforms expectations in tiebreaks, and he also wins more break points than non-break points. Some of the break point advantage comes from being left-handed (and taking proper advantage of it), though his break point advantage seems to be even bigger than his lefty advantage.
  2. Wawrinka faltered in the important moments. From the stat sheet of a single match, it would be tough to distinguish this from the first explanation. But perhaps he was overwhelmed by the opportunity he had generated for himself.
  3. Luck. Randomness in tennis isn’t limited to net cords, bad calls, and mishits. If you put two tennis-playing robots out on the court and had them play five consecutive matches, the result wouldn’t be the same every time. Wawrinka misses shots sometimes, and according to the stat sheets (though I’ve never seen it myself), Nadal does too. Just because one of those errors comes at a key moment doesn’t mean the man who committed it is a mental midget.

As much as we like to assign narratives to every possible nook and cranny of a tennis match, I suspect the truth of the matter is a hefty dose of #3 with a bit of #1 thrown in. When the outcome of a match comes down to two seven-point tiebreaks, it’s anybody’s game. It just wasn’t Stan’s that day.

If I’m right, there just might be hope for Wawrinka today. In his last two sets against Nadal, he held his own, which is more than just about everybody else on tour can say for themselves.

Unfortunately for Stan, one meeting doesn’t outweigh eleven, and a bit of momentum won’t erase Rafa’s well-earned status as the world #1. Perhaps worst of all, Wawrinka has proven himself Nadal’s almost-equal in two sets. Today, he’ll have to win three.

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Filed under Australian Open, Rafael Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka

The Luck of the Tiebreak, 2013 Edition

Another year, another new set of tiebreak masters.

Despite the conventional wisdom, very few players demonstrate any kind of consistent tiebreak skill over and above their regular, non-tiebreak tennis playing ability.  In other words, while someone like Novak Djokovic is bound to win well over half of the tiebreaks he plays–after all, he’s better than almost everyone he faces–there’s no secret sauce that allows him to win any more than his usual skill level would suggest.

Nowhere is this more evident than in this year’s top tiebreak performers.  I calculated the likelihood of each player winning every tiebreak they played this year, given their typical rates of serve and return points won, giving us a ranked list of those players who most exceeded and most underperformed expectations.  At the top of the list, names like Roberto Bautista Agut, Dmitry Tursunov, Marin Cilic, and Leonardo Mayer.

Maybe Bautista Agut is a clutch monster just waiting for recognition, but it’s more likely he just had a few bounces go his way.  Cilic is an excellent example: While he won 54% more tiebreaks than expected this year, 2013 was only the second season of the last six in which the Croat exceeded expectations in tiebreaks.  Whether tiebreak performance is clutch skill or simply luck, the numbers show that it isn’t persistent.

However, as I’ve noted before, a very few players do consistently outperform tiebreak expectations.  They tend to be players who find themselves in tiebreaks often, and their success may be because they manage to maintain their serve at its usual level.

John Isner and Roger Federer are the usual suspects.  Isner won 20% more tiebreaks this year than expected, in line with his numbers in 2011 and 2012.  (In 2009 and 2010, he was even better.)  Federer beat expectations by 10%, avoiding his first neutral-or-worse season since 2003 by winning a pair of breakers against tough opponents at the Tour Finals in London.

With another year’s worth of data in the books, we can safely add one more active player to this elite group.  Rafael Nadal was fifth overall this year, winning 23% more tiebreaks than expected.  Nadal hovered around the neutral level until 2008, winning almost exactly as many breakers as his overall skill level would suggest.  But since then, he has had only good tiebreak seasons.  No other player besides Isner and Federer has posted more than four better-than-expected tiebreak seasons in the last six.

For the rest of the ATP, it’s best to look at these numbers as indexes of luck.  The men at the top will probably have to win more non-tiebreak sets next year to maintain their ranking, while the guys at the bottom can expect a modest boost with just a little less bad luck.  That is, unless they play too many tiebreaks against John Isner.

The complete list of 2013 tiebreak performance is below.  ‘TBOE’ is “Tiebreaks Over Expectations,” the difference between the number of tiebreaks my algorithm expects a player to win and the number he actually won.  ‘TBOR’ is a rate version of the same stat, calculated by dividing TBOE by the total number of tiebreaks played.  TBOE rewards players like Isner who play lots of tiebreaks and play them well, while TBOR identifies those who have been particularly lucky in whatever number of tiebreaks they contested.

Player                  TB  TBWon  TBExp  TBOE    TBOR  
Roberto Bautista Agut   21     16   10.3   5.7   27.0%  
Dmitry Tursunov         21     16   10.4   5.6   26.8%  
Marin Cilic             15     11    8.2   2.8   18.7%  
Leonardo Mayer          15      9    6.8   2.2   14.9%  
Rafael Nadal            25     18   14.6   3.4   13.6%  
Gilles Simon            25     16   12.7   3.3   13.0%  
Ivo Karlovic            29     18   14.8   3.2   11.1%  
John Isner              53     36   30.1   5.9   11.1%  
Andy Murray             23     16   13.5   2.5   11.0%  
Fabio Fognini           23     14   11.7   2.3   10.0%  
Juan Martin Del Potro   33     21   17.7   3.3   10.0%  
Benoit Paire            29     17   14.3   2.7    9.3%  
Philipp Kohlschreiber   33     19   15.9   3.1    9.3%  
Jerzy Janowicz          26     15   12.9   2.1    8.2%  
Jarkko Nieminen         27     14   11.9   2.1    7.9%  
Bernard Tomic           30     16   13.7   2.3    7.6%  
Julien Benneteau        24     14   12.4   1.6    6.9%  
Alexandr Dolgopolov     21     11    9.6   1.4    6.8%  
Ernests Gulbis          23     13   11.5   1.5    6.4%  
Tommy Haas              26     16   14.4   1.6    6.3%  
Jeremy Chardy           21     12   10.7   1.3    6.0%  
Roger Federer           25     15   13.6   1.4    5.4%  
Grega Zemlja            19     10    9.0   1.0    5.3%  
Feliciano Lopez         24     14   12.9   1.1    4.4%  
Jo Wilfried Tsonga      30     17   15.8   1.2    4.2%  
Ryan Harrison           15      7    6.4   0.6    4.1%  
Tommy Robredo           24     14   13.1   0.9    3.8%  
Novak Djokovic          28     19   17.9   1.1    3.8%  
Lleyton Hewitt          16      9    8.4   0.6    3.5%  
Daniel Brands           19     10    9.4   0.6    3.4%  
Fernando Verdasco       24     14   13.5   0.5    1.9%  
David Ferrer            21     12   11.8   0.2    1.0%  
Kei Nishikori           16      9    8.9   0.1    0.9%  
Martin Klizan           15      7    6.9   0.1    0.9%  
Kevin Anderson          35     19   19.1  -0.1   -0.2%  
Marinko Matosevic       16      9    9.1  -0.1   -0.4%  
Mikhail Youzhny         23     11   11.4  -0.4   -1.8%  
Milos Raonic            36     19   19.7  -0.7   -1.9%  
Sam Querrey             31     15   15.6  -0.6   -2.1%  
Stanislas Wawrinka      32     17   17.7  -0.7   -2.3%  
Florian Mayer           18      8    8.4  -0.4   -2.4%  
Gael Monfils            27     13   13.7  -0.7   -2.5%  
Igor Sijsling           19      9    9.5  -0.5   -2.6%  
Andreas Seppi           19      9    9.5  -0.5   -2.8%  
Denis Istomin           24     11   11.8  -0.8   -3.2%  
Richard Gasquet         29     15   16.0  -1.0   -3.4%  
Daniel Gimeno Traver    18      7    7.6  -0.6   -3.5%  
Vasek Pospisil          24     11   11.9  -0.9   -3.6%  
Tomas Berdych           34     17   18.6  -1.6   -4.7%  
Victor Hanescu          24     10   11.2  -1.2   -5.2%  
Ivan Dodig              27     12   13.5  -1.5   -5.7%  
Robin Haase             24     10   11.4  -1.4   -5.9%  
Albert Ramos            16      7    7.9  -0.9   -5.9%  
Benjamin Becker         18      7    8.1  -1.1   -5.9%  
Horacio Zeballos        20      7    8.2  -1.2   -6.2%  
Jurgen Melzer           19      8    9.4  -1.4   -7.4%  
Nicolas Almagro         34     17   19.5  -2.5   -7.5%  
Lukas Rosol             15      6    7.3  -1.3   -8.9%  
Evgeny Donskoy          17      6    7.7  -1.7  -10.2%  
Alejandro Falla         15      6    7.6  -1.6  -10.9%  
Grigor Dimitrov         22      9   11.5  -2.5  -11.4%  
Marcos Baghdatis        20      6    9.5  -3.5  -17.4%  
Carlos Berlocq          18      7   10.2  -3.2  -17.5%  
Juan Monaco             15      5    7.7  -2.7  -18.3%  
Janko Tipsarevic        19      5    8.7  -3.7  -19.5%  
Edouard Roger Vasselin  19      4    8.2  -4.2  -22.3%

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Rafael Nadal, Top Twosomes, and the Future

The only match that either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic lost in London was the final, when Nadal fell to Djokovic.  It was a good summary of the season as a whole.  The top two weren’t undefeated for the entire season, but they might as well have been.

Between them, Rafa and Novak lost only 16 matches this year, six of them to each other.  Fittingly, they split those six matches.  No single player poses a serious threat to their dominance.  Only Juan Martin del Potro defeated both this year, and he lost his five other encounters with the top-ranked duo.  The injured Andy Murray remains only a wildcard, having split Grand Slam finals with Djokovic this year but without having played Nadal since 2011.

Barring a huge upset loss in Davis Cup, Djokovic will end the season with the best-ever winning percentage for a #2-ranked player.  His 88.9% just edges out the 88.7% posted by Nadal in 2005, when he finished second to Roger Federer.  In the last thirty years, only five other #2’s won at least 85% of their matches.

Taking these six prior pairs as the best single-year twosomes the ATP has recently produced, it’s surprising to see what happened to them the following year.  In three of those seasons, neither of the ultra-dominant duos finished the next season at #1.  A third player overcame them both.

Here is the list of the seven most dominant twosomes of the last thirty years, along with their year-end rankings 12 months after the end of their notable seasons (Nx):

Yr  #1              W-L    Nx  #2              W-L    Nx  
83  John McEnroe    62-9    1  Mats Wilander   74-11   4  
85  Ivan Lendl      83-7    1  John McEnroe    72-10  14  
87  Ivan Lendl      70-7    2  Stefan Edberg   76-12   5  
89  Ivan Lendl      80-7    3  Boris Becker    58-8    2  
05  Roger Federer   81-4    1  Rafael Nadal    79-10   2  
12  Novak Djokovic  75-12   2  Roger Federer   74-13   6  
13  Rafael Nadal    76-7    ?  Novak Djokovic  72-9    ?

In 1988, Mats Wilander overcame both Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg to claim the #1 position.  In 1990, it was Edberg who leapfrogged Lendl and Boris Becker.  This year, of course, Nadal reclaimed the top spot from last year’s top two of Djokovic and Federer.

Those of us who watched the Tour Finals for the last week might find it hard to imagine that anyone–certainly not any of the other six men in London–would outperform either Rafa or Novak over the course of a season.  But injuries strike, slumps take hold, and–unlikely as it may seem in 2013–young players emerge and dominate. For all of the radical changes in the game since the late 80s, these precedents serve as an important reminder of the unpredictability of tennis.

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Filed under Forecasting, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Rankings

Round Robin Shutouts

At this year’s World Tour Finals, we were spared the knottiest sort of round robin tiebreakers.  Each group had a clear winner (Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) who went undefeated, along with another player (David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet) who failed to win a single match.

Since 1987, 33 players have recorded a 3-0 record in Tour Finals round-robin play.  This year is the first time since 2010 (Nadal and Roger Federer) that two players have done so, and before that, we have to go back to 2005 (Federer and Nikolay Davydenko).  It’s not that rare of an event–this year is the 11th time since 1987 that two players have beaten every opponent in their group.

Undefeated players are hardly guaranteed further advances, however.  Those 33 undefeated competitors have a mere 17-16 record in the semifinals, and the 17 men who reached the final won the title only nine times, against nine final-round losses.  (Twice, two undefeated players faced off in the finals–the aforementioned 2010 event along with 1993, when Michael Stich and Pete Sampras contested the title.)

The tiny sample of three round-robin matches pales in predictive value next to the old standby of ATP ranking.  In the last 26 years, the higher-ranked player has won 16 finals.  In the more top-heavy 21st century, the title has gone to the man with the superior ranking 11 of 13 times.  (Advantage: Nadal.)

That said, the gap between the two finalists is traditionally greater than it is expected to be tomorrow.  (If Stanislas Wawrinka upsets Novak Djokovic in the second semifinal, you can disregard this paragraph.  Sorry, Stan, but I’m betting against you.)  Only twice in the round-robin era have the top two players in the ATP rankings met in the concluding match of the Tour Finals–2010 (again) and 2012 (Djokovic d. Federer).

Not a shutout, but shut out

Exactly as many players–33 through 2012–have gone 0-3 in the round robin as the number who did the opposite.  Ferrer and Gasquet find themselves in quality company.

Ferrer is the 7th player ranked in the top three to lose three round robin matches.  In 2001, #1 Gustavo Kuerten was winless, only a year after claiming the championship.  Jim Courier (1993), Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003), and Nadal (2009) went 0-3 from a #2 ranking, while Thomas Muster (1995) and Djokovic (2007) did so while ranked #3.

Ferrer is notable for another dubious achievement: going 0-3 twice.  He previously did so in 2010, so this year, he matches the mark of Michael Chang, the only other man in the round-robin era to post multiple 0-3s, having gone winless in both 1989 and 1992.

His age may work against him, but there is a glimmer of hope for Ferrer.  Four players (including Kuerten, mentioned above) have gone 0-3 at one Tour Finals and won the title at another.  Andre Agassi was winless in 1989, then won the event in 1990.  Stich was 0-3 in 1991, then claimed the title in 1993.  As we’ve seen, Djokovic failed to win a single match in 2007, yet came back to win the tournament in 2008.  (Then did so again last year.)

If Nadal wins tomorrow, we can add one more name to this list, in his case finally adding the trophy to his collection four years after suffering through a winless week.  His 4-0 record so far this week may be no guarantee of success in the final, but it will hardly count against him.

Match reports: I charted today’s Federer-Nadal semifinal, as well as yesterday’s Federer-del Potro match.  Click the links for exhaustive serve, return, and shot statistics.

Worth a read: Carl Bialik analyzes ATP rematches–pairings like Fed-Delpo that faced off in back-to-back weeks.  As usual, we have to rewrite the rules for Rafa.

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Filed under David Ferrer, Forecasting, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Records, World Tour Finals

2013 World Tour Finals Forecast

The field for the World Tour Finals next week is set, and the round robin groups are determined.  That allows us to simulate the event, and–using my player ratings–project the outcome.  (My ratings don’t yet incorporate Paris results. David Ferrer and Roger Federer may get mild boosts once their showings this week are considered.)

Obviously, Rafael Nadal is your favorite.  He has a substantial advantage in every category. He’s more likely than any other contender to progress through the round robin stage undefeated, to reach the final four, to play in the title match, and to win the championship.

Not only is Nadal the best player in the field–even on hard courts–but he was also favored by the draw.  For all of Ferrer’s success in Bercy, he is a weaker hard-court player than Juan Martin del Potro, who will play in Novak Djokovic‘s half during the round robin stage.  Federer, despite his decline, is a still more of a hard-court threat than Tomas Berdych–and Nadal drew Berdych.  The only disadvantage in Nadal’s fortunes is represented by Stanislas Wawrinka, who is considerably more dangerous than Richard Gasquet.  As the forecast below shows, Gasquet is very unlikely to be a factor here.

Here is the complete forecast, showing each player’s chances of winning 3, 2, 1, or 0 matches in the round robin, along with reaching the semis, reaching the final, and winning the event:

Player     3-0  2-1  1-2  0-3     SF      F      W  
Nadal      35%  44%  18%   3%  81.0%  49.2%  31.1%  
Djokovic   25%  45%  26%   5%  70.8%  43.0%  25.0%  
Ferrer      8%  34%  42%  16%  42.4%  16.4%   6.0%  
Del Potro  15%  41%  35%   9%  55.9%  29.4%  14.1%  
Federer    11%  37%  39%  12%  48.4%  23.8%  10.7%  
Berdych     7%  32%  43%  18%  39.6%  15.2%   5.4%  
Wawrinka    6%  31%  43%  19%  37.0%  13.7%   4.8%  
Gasquet     4%  22%  45%  29%  24.9%   9.3%   3.1%

As I mentioned above, while Nadal (and, to a lesser extent, the other three members of his group) got the fortunate draw, the impact isn’t that great.  Here is a “draw-neutral” forecast, which randomizes the group assignments with each simulation:

Player        SF      F      W  
Nadal      77.9%  48.4%  30.2%  
Djokovic   74.4%  43.8%  25.7%  
Ferrer     40.6%  16.0%   5.9%  
del Potro  57.3%  30.2%  14.5%  
Federer    50.5%  24.4%  10.6%  
Berdych    37.7%  14.6%   5.3%  
Wawrinka   32.4%  12.4%   4.3%  
Gasquet    29.3%  10.2%   3.4%

The biggest losers in the draw ceremony were Djokovic and Gasquet.  While Novak’s chances of reaching and winning the final are similar, the draw pushed his probability of surviving the round robin stage from 74.4% down to 70.8%.  The odds are against Gasquet in any scenario, but the specific group assignments determined today knocked his chances of surviving the first three matches from 29.3% down to 24.9%.

The good news for Gasquet is that he’s a much, much better eight seed than Janko Tipsarevic was last year.  And with Richie at the end of what may be his career year, it’s that much more likely that anyone in the field of eight could make things interesting this week.

[update: Thanks to Jovan M. for catching some dodgy numbers in the first table. Due to a coding error, I showed each player's chances of reaching each win total to be too low.  The SF/F/W columns in both tables are unchanged.]

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Filed under Forecasting, Rafael Nadal, World Tour Finals

Can Rafael Nadal Win Seventeen Slams?

Rafael Nadal just won his thirteenth Grand Slam.  He’s 27 years old.  If he wins four more, he’ll match Roger Federer. If he wins five more, he’ll set a new all-time record. (Assuming, of course, that Roger is done. No guarantees there.)

Can Rafa do it?  I think he can, and while he is one of a kind, there are some historical precedents that suggest he will.

Before diving into the numbers, there’s the argument I’ve always used in favor of Nadal piling up plenty of Slams.  They hold the French Open every year.  Each clay season that Rafa is healthy and playing like Rafa, he’s probably going to add at least one title to the list.

He’ll be just shy of his 28th birthday at the 2014 French Open, meaning that if he keeps winning every match he plays at Roland Garros, he’ll have four more French Open titles right about the time he turns 31, at the 2017 French Open.  With what seems like half the tour playing quality tennis at age 30, and with Rafa aggressively skipping events this year, it’s easy to imagine him winning four more Slams on clay.

Or seven more.  As long as he can stay healthy enough to play on his favorite surface, one gets the sense it’s up to him.

Setting aside Rafa’s historic dominance in Paris, a look at other modern-era players who have piled up Grand Slam titles suggests that 27 or 28 is hardly the end of the road.

In the last 40 years, only 25 Slam titles have gone to players over the age of 27 and a half.  But an awful lot of those 25 titles have been claimed by players who–like Nadal–had already put together quite the resume.

In search of precedents, I looked at the six other players who have won the most Grand Slams in the Open era.  To make the list, you need at least eight.  Of those, only Bjorn Borg failed to win at least one after his 27th birthday.  (Borg, of course, was basically out of tennis at 26.)  The other five each won at least three when they were older than Nadal is now.

Federer won four of his 17 from the age of 27 and 10 months.  Pete Sampras won three from the age of 27 and 11 months.  Ivan Lendl won three of his eight slams from the age of 27 and a half.  Jimmy Connors had only won five of his eight slams by the age of 29 and 10 months.  Andre Agassi won five of his eight slams after turning 29.

In other words, the players who came closest to matching Nadal’s level of  achievement had plenty left in the tank for the last few years of their careers.  And most of these players accomplished these feats in eras when 30 year olds weren’t nearly as successful as they are right now.

Average these six players, and we find that they won 23% of their slams after turning 27.  (More, if Federer wins another.)  If Nadal matches that number, he’ll have won four more, tying Roger’s all-time record.

It seems likely that Rafa will defy–and improve upon–history in at least one way: by showing that Roland Garros can be won by a “old” player.  Since 1974, only four French Open titlists have won the tournament while older than Nadal is now.  Lendl and Federer did it age 27, Agassi won at 29, and Andres Gomez won at 30.  Every other Slam has had more winners in this age bracket.

But with Nadal’s performance this year, dominating on both clay and hard courts, it seems foolish to point to any precedent that suggests he might soon falter at the French.

While there’s no such thing as guaranteed Grand Slam titles–surely Novak Djokovic would have something to say about that, even in Paris–the evidence strongly points to at least a few more for the King of Clay.  And as the newly-minted King of North American Hard, Nadal is well positioned to win five more and claim the all-time record.

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Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic: Recap and Detailed Stats

There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Novak Djokovic, but “sloppy” usually isn’t one of them.  Despite plenty of brilliance from the Serbian, he made far too many mistakes to win today.  Of course, the man on the other side of the net, Rafael Nadal, may be the best in game at forcing his opponent to attempt low-percentage shots out of pure desperation.

This morning, I predicted that, in order to win the match, Nadal would need to serve well, piling up more quick service points than usual, as Djokovic is a master of neutralizing the server’s advantage.  Give him a few shots, and it doesn’t matter who delivered the serve or how well they hit it.

That isn’t what happened.  Nadal won fewer than one in five service points on or before his second shot.  (Djokovic did a little better by that metric, but at 21%, not by much.)  Instead, Rafa won the way Novak usually does: by neutralizing his opponent’s serve.

Rafa won 45% of return points today, a mark he has never before reached against Djokovic on hard courts.  Even more importantly, he won return points at the same rate when Djokovic was serving at 30-30 or later.  Djokovic won what would normally be an impressive number of return points: 38%.  In recent years on hard courts, that was always enough to beat the Spaniard.

It was a different kind of hard-court match today, one that was decided in grueling rallies.  20% of points played today reached at least ten strokes, and Rafa won 59% of them.  Of points that finished more quickly, Djokovic simply gave away too many.  By my unofficial (and rather strict) count, he hit over 60 unforced errors, more than double Nadal’s total.

Too many of those sloppy shots came at crucial moments.  A bad forehand miss on a mid-court sitter gave Nadal set point in the third set, which Rafa converted on the first try.  Serving down a break in the fourth at 1-4, Djokovic quickly went up 30-30, then missed his second shot on three straight points to give Nadal another break point.  At 30-0 in that game, it was possible to imagine Novak clawing his way back.  Once the double break was sealed, the match was over.

Djokovic showed plenty of brilliance, especially in the second and third sets, and contributed to some incredible tennis moments, including ten rallies that exceeded 20 shots.  Indeed, Djokovic converted a break chance by claiming the best of those, a 54-stroke slugfest in the second set (video here).  He didn’t go quietly until that dreadful game at 1-4.

By beating Djokovic at his own game, Nadal solidified his status as the most dominant player on hard courts.  His undefeated record on the surface this year didn’t leave that in much doubt, but it had been three years since he won a hard-court Grand Slam.  Assuming he stays healthy, even Rafa might agree that he heads to Australia as the player to beat.

Here are the complete point-by-point stats from the match.

Here is a complete win-probability graph, as well.

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Filed under Match charting, Match reports, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, U.S. Open

Djokovic-Nadal XXXVII: The (Actual) Keys to the Match

Both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have had easy routes to the US Open final.  Neither was tested before the semifinals, and neither has yet to play a top-eight opponent.  Yet both were pushed further than expected in their last matches.  Djokovic nearly lost in another tough five-setter against Stanislas Wawrinka, and Nadal looked almost human at times, spraying errors in his match with Richard Gasquet.

For all that, the field is down to the final two.  They’ve played 36 times before, with Nadal leading the career matchup 21-15. On hard courts, it is the 18th meeting, with Djokovic leading 11-6.  It is their eleventh encounter in a Grand Slam, of which Rafa has won seven of the previous ten, while they’ve split their two previous US Open finals.

Based on the most relevant pieces of this head-to-head–the last seven Djokovic-Nadal matches on hard courts, dating back to the 2010 US Open–we can identify some clear trends that tell us what to watch for, and what each player must do to seal the US Open title.

The key: Rafa’s service games

Of these last seven hard-court matches, Nadal has won three and Djokovic has won four.  If we could find some statistical indicators that each player reached when they won and failed to accomplish when they lost, we might be on to something.  Think of it like IBM’s Keys to the Match, but with actual predictive value.

Sure enough, there are plenty of indicators that fit the bill, and they almost all center on Nadal’s serve:

  • In four of the matches, Nadal has served fewer than 5% aces.  In the other three, at least 7% aces.  He lost all four of the former, and won all three of the latter.
  • In four of the matches, Nadal won fewer than 70% of his first-serve points.  In the other three, he won at least 71%.  He lost all four of the former, and won all three of the latter.
  • In three of the matches, Nadal won fewer than 47% of his second-serve points.  In the other four, won at least 56%.  He lost all of the former, and won all but one (the 2011 Indian Wells final) of the latter.

We can sum up the importance of Nadal’s service games from a more Djokovic-centered perspective:

  • In three of the matches, Djokovic won no more than 33% of return points.  In the other four, he won at least 37% of return points.  Care to guess which matches he won?

Djokovic’s service non-indicators

The numbers are not nearly so clear for Djokovic’s service games.  In the two meetings when Novak hit the most aces, Rafa won.  In three of the only four matches when Djokovic made 62% or more of his first serves, Rafa won.  (These are starting to sound like some of the more inane of the IBM keys.)

Generally, winning 65% of first serves is good enough for Novak to beat Nadal, except for last month’s match in Canada, when he won 71% of first serves and lost in a third-set tiebreak.  In Djokovic’s worst second-serve performance of the seven matches, the 2011 US Open final, he barely won 44% of those points, yet won the match.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Djokovic’s service stats don’t matter.  It’s no accident that Novak’s first-serve percentages were much higher in the three sets he won against Wawrinka than in the two sets he lost.  On the contrary, Djokovic’s serve just isn’t as potentially dominant as Nadal’s is.

For example, in Saturday’s semifinals, Nadal won 36% of his service points on or before his second shot, while Djokovic won only 24% of his service points that way.  Nadal’s number isn’t staggeringly high (for example, both Kevin Anderson and Marcos Baghdatis topped 40% in that category in their second-round match) but it’s a number he can earn only when serving well.  When he isn’t earning those cheap, quick points against Djokovic, Novak takes away the server’s advantage, threatening to break in almost every service game.

By contrast, Djokovic–like Victoria Azarenka–doesn’t consistently earn that type of advantage on serve.  Sure, he gets some free points that way, but in general, he takes the slight advantage that serving confers and uses that as an edge in a longer rally.  In the semifinal against Wawrinka, his average service point–including aces and unreturnables–lasted more than five shots.

Getting one number for Novak

Individually, Djokovic’s service stats don’t tell us much.  But if we consolidate them into one number–Nadal’s return points won–we get a little better clue of what beating Novak requires.  In the three matches where Nadal failed to win 34% of return points, he lost.  In the two matches where he won at least 42% of return points, he won.

But if you’re counting, you’ve surely noted that I left out two matches.  In Montreal last month, Nadal won only 34.7% of return points, and won.  In the 2011 US Open final, he won 41.7% of return points, yet lost.  Djokovic can be so effective in his own return games–or simply unbeatable when given break point opportunities, like he was that day–that even a masterful return performance like Nadal displayed in that final isn’t always good enough.

So Novak’s numbers just aren’t as indicative as his opponent’s.  Instead, keep your eyes on Rafa’s serve statistics.  Despite the many long, gut-busting rallies we can expect this afternoon, Nadal has this match–like his previous hard-court meetings with the world #1–on his own racquet.

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Nadal d. Gasquet: Recap and Detailed Stats

Not often do we come away from a straight-set victory with newfound respect for the loser, but that’s the appropriate reaction today.

As I discussed this morning, Richard Gasquet has never accomplished much of anything against Rafael Nadal. The 10-0 head-to-head, if anything, disguises how lopsided it has been.

Today, for two sets, the Frenchman came as close to going toe-to-toe with Nadal as he probably ever will. From the start, he was playing a much more varied game than we are accustomed to from him, serving aggressively, rushing the net at any provocation, and even standing inside the stadium to return serve.

Despite getting broken three times, Gasquet never really went away. After he lost his first service game, it looked like another Nadal-administred drubbing in the works, but Richard held serve for the remainder of the set, finishing at 6-4.

In the second, he once again lost the first game of the set on serve, but went one better. He broke Nadal back, the first service game Nadal has lost in New York. Gasquet took advantage of Rafa’s carelessness to stay on serve until they reached a tiebreak.

Then came the disappointment of the match. Gasquet opened the breaker with a double fault, and serving at 1-6, he doubled once more. That was the only sign of the passive, unthreatening Richard we got all day.

The third set was more lopsided, though Gasquet kept playing aggressive tennis. Nadal was just too good. (Gasquet didn’t help, double faulting twice from 30-30 in the final game, but in the end, it was just the difference between 6-2 and 6-3.)

For Gasquet to beat Rafa, he would have to play the match of a lifetime. He didn’t come close to doing that today, but he did show up with a better set of tactics than he generally brings to bear. While a more varied attack from the Frenchman won’t earn him a spot in the top five, it will ensure he remains in the top ten.

Here are the complete point-by-point stats for the match, and in case you missed it earlier, here’s my recap of the Djokovic-Wawrinka semifinal.

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Filed under Match charting, Rafael Nadal, Richard Gasquet, U.S. Open