Category Archives: Rankings

Tommy Robredo and the Men Who Beat Number One

Today in Cincinnati, Tommy Robredo took out the top-ranked player in the world, Novak Djokovic, in straight sets. Robredo has had a fine career, peaking in the top five and beating many of the world’s best, but it was only the second time in eight tries that he managed to defeat a reigning world number one.

The first time Robredo accomplished the feat was more than eleven years ago, at the 2003 French Open, where he upset Lleyton Hewitt in five sets. Since then, his only chances to beat number ones have come against Roger Federer, and he lost in all five tries. When the Spaniard finally scored a win over Fed in New York last year, Roger had long since fallen out of the top spot.

With today’s win, Robredo becomes the 66th man since the advent of the ATP ranking system who has beaten at least two different number ones. Only 13 active players have managed the feat.

23 players in ATP history have beaten at least three players who were ranked number one at the time. Coincidentally, the man who defeated the most number ones was present at today’s match. Boris Becker upset six different players in the top spot, compiling a very impressive 19-16 career record against players ranked number one.

Next on the list is Michael Chang, who beat five different number ones (though he only won 7 of 27 matches against them), while Federer, Andre Agassi, Greg Rusedski, and Dominik Hrbaty beat four. Four more active players have defeated three number ones: Andy Murray , David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Each of those four recorded their upsets against Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer, except for Ferrer, who has never beaten Fed but did defeat Agassi when the American held the top spot.

Becker’s 19 wins against top-ranked players is also a record, though he has to share this one with Nadal, who is 19-10 against number ones. Boris and Rafa tower far above the next players on the list, Djokovic and Bjorn Borg, who each have 11 career wins against number ones. Next on the list among active players are Murray (9), del Potro (6), Ferrer (5), and Federer (5).

Robredo doesn’t quite rank among this elite company, but his second top-ranked scalp adds a little more luster to an already lengthy list of career highlights.


Filed under Rankings, Trivia

Erratic Results and the Fate of Jerzy Janowicz

When Jerzy Janowicz defeated Victor Estrella in the first round at Roland Garros on Sunday, it was the Pole’s first win since Februrary, breaking a string of nine consecutive losses. Janowicz’s results have been rather pedestrian ever since his semifinal run at Wimbledon last year, yet the 720 points he earned for that single performance have kept his ranking in the top 25 and given him a seed at the Grand Slams.

As we’ve discussed many times on this site, occasional greatness trumps consistent mediocrity, at least as far as ranking points are concerned. The system rewards players who bunch wins together–Janowicz current holds about 1500 points, barely double what he earned from that single event last year.

In the short term, bunching wins is a good thing, as Janowicz has learned. But from an analytical perspective, how should we view players with recent histories like his? Does the Wimbledon semifinal bode well for the future? Does the mediocre rest of his record outweigh a single excellent result? Does it all come out in the wash?

It’s a question that doesn’t pertain only to Janowicz. While 48% of Jerzy’s points come from Wimbledon, 49% of Andy Murray‘s current ranking point total comes from winning Wimbledon. Another reigning Slam champion, Stanislas Wawrinka, owes 34% of his point total to a single event.  By contrast, for the average player in the top 50, that figure is only 21%. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are among the most consistent on tour, at 16% and 10%, respectively.

Since 2010, there has only been one top-40 player who earned more than half of his year-end ranking points from a single event: Ivan Ljubicic, whose 1,000 points for winning Indian Wells dominated his 1,965 point total. His top-16 ranking at the end of that year didn’t last. He didn’t defend his Indian Wells points or make up the difference elsewhere, falling out of the top 30 for most of 2011. Of course, he was in his 30s at that point, so we shouldn’t draw any conclusions from this extreme anecdote.

When we crunch the numbers, it emerges that there has been no relationship between “bunched” ranking points and success the following year. I collected several data points for every top-40 players from the 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons: their year-end ranking, the percentage of ranking points from their top one, two, and three events, and the year-end ranking the following year.  If bunching were a signal of an inflated ranking–that is, if you suspect Janowicz’s abilities don’t jibe with his current ranking–we would see following-year rankings drop for players who fit that profile.

Take Jerzy’s 2012, for example. He earned 46% of his points from his top event (the Paris Masters final), 53% from his top two, and 57% from his top three.  (Corresponding top-40 averages are 21%, 34%, and 44%.)  He ended the year with 1,299 ranking points. At the end of 2013, his ranking no longer reflected his 600 points from Paris. But unlike Ljubicic in 2010, Janowicz boosted his ranking, improving 24% to 1,615 points.

The overall picture is just as cloudy as the juxtaposition of Ljubicic and Janowicz. There is no correlation between the percentage of points represented by a player’s top event (or top two, or top three) and his ranking point change the following year.

For the most extreme players–the ten most “bunched” ranking point totals in this dataset–there’s a small indication that the following season might disappoint. Only three of the ten (including Janowicz in 2012-13) improved their ranking, while three others saw their point total decrease by more than 40%. On average, the following-year decrease of the ten most extreme player-seasons was approximately 20%. But that’s a small, noisy subset, and we should take the overall results as a stronger indication of what to expect from players who fit this profile.

There’s still a case to be made that Jerzy is heading for a fall. He hasn’t racked up many victories so far this year that would offset the upcoming loss of his Wimbledon points. And his Wimbledon success was particularly lucky, as he faced unseeded players in both the fourth round and the quarterfinals. Even if he is particularly effective on grass, it’s unlikely the draw will so heavily favor him again.

But however a player earns his disproportionately large point total, the points themselves are no harbinger of doom. On that score, anyway, Janowicz fans can expect another year in the top 25.

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Filed under Rankings, Research

New Ranking Maps and Charts

I’m excited to share with you a couple of new features I’ve been working on for

First is an interactive ranking map:


The above map shows the geographic concentration of teenagers in the WTA top 1000.  Click through to the full-size map, and you can mouse over any country to find out how many players they have in that category.

More importantly, you can customize the map in a variety of ways.  Choose from either the ATP or WTA rankings, decide how deep you’d like to go in the rankings, and if you’d like, limit the age range.  It’s a great way to see which countries are most dominant on each tour, and it’s also an opportunity to visually investigate which nations are likely to hold that power in the near future.

Next is an interactive ranking history chart:


This chart shows ranking points for the big four over the past three years.  Again, if you click through to the full-size map, you’ll get more features: mouse over any line to see the date and the player’s ranking points at the date.

Like the map, the ranking chart is fully interactive.  You can select anywhere from one to four players–for now, only in the ATP top 100–choose a timeframe, and select either ranking or ranking points.

One option I want to call you attention to is one of the timeframes: “Year-end (by age).”  Here, instead of dates, the horizontal axis shows ages.  For instance, this graph shows the big four’s year-end rankings at each age.



Filed under Rankings, Tennis Abstract

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.


Filed under Forecasting, Rankings

If Rafa Only Plays on Clay

Since suffering the injury that would lead him to miss the second half of 2012, Rafael Nadal has said that he may have to cut back his tournament schedule so that he plays fewer matches on hard courts.

For someone who wants to remain at the top of the game, that’s a tough ask.  The majority of ATP ranking points come from hard-court tournaments.  If Rafa stuck to the clay, he would only be able to contest one of the four majors.

Becoming a full-time clay courter would almost certainly knock Nadal out of the running for world #1.  (As well as give him plenty of R&R in Mallorca.)  But how bad is it?  Let’s consider the possibility that in some future season, he only plays on clay.

Here is a possible 2013 schedule for a clay-only player, along with each event’s ranking points.  Three 250s are on this schedule, placed to provide warm-ups after each multi-week layoff:

20-Feb  Buenos Aires   250   
27-Feb  Acapulco       500   
09-Apr  Casablanca     250   
16-Apr  Monte Carlo    1000  
23-Apr  Barcelona      500   
07-May  Madrid         1000  
14-May  Rome           1000  
28-May  Roland Garros  2000  
09-Jul  Stuttgart      250   
16-Jul  Hamburg        500

If Rafa ran the table and won all of those events, that’s 7000 ranking points (only two of the 250s would count).  Unless the rest of the field becomes much more level, that won’t be good enough for the #1 ranking.  But it is a greater point total than Rafa has right now, and it would keep him in the top four.  Even averaging finalist points for these 10 events would allow him to remain in the top eight.

(Getting credit for those tournament wins would be a little trickier.  Players are required to show up for at least 4 500-level events, including one after the US Open.  If you only play on clay, there are no options.  To avoid the dreaded “zero-pointer” for not playing, Rafa might have to contest, say, Valencia.  However, points from those events no longer automatically count as one of a player’s top 18 events, so as long as the requirement was met, Rafa’s six non-slam, non-required-Masters events could be Monte Carlo, Acapulco, Barcelona, Hamburg, and two 250s.)

In practice, it’s tough to imagine that Rafa (or anyone else, short of Alessio Di Mauro) would avoid hard-court events entirely.  Much more likely is a scenario in which he plays all the clay court events possible and competes in hard-court events only when he feels sufficiently healthy.  That might mean an occasional semifinal run; it probably also means more second-round exits.

As unlikely and unusual as it would be, the all-clay schedule may be Nadal’s best route to setting more records.  With fewer injuries and much more rest, it’s easy to imagine him racking up another four or five French Open titles, along with perhaps ten more Masters crowns.  It would be an unusual career trajectory, to be sure, but it would also generate more fodder for the next ten years of GOAT debates.



Filed under Rankings

The Case for the Race

Last week, Peter Bodo argued in favor of giving the ATP year-to-date “Race to London” more weight over the traditional rolling 52-week ranking.  It’s a relevant point right now, when Roger Federer leads in the 52-week tally, but Novak Djokovic dominates in the year-to-date numbers.

In other words, Fed is racking up more records at #1 while Djokovic will almost certainly go in the books as the top player of 2012.  Bodo doesn’t go far enough: The old-fashioned rankings are weird, confusing, and–why stop there?–bad for tennis.

In most of the world’s most popular sports, everybody starts the year with a clean slate.  Imagine if a baseball team opened their schedule having to “defend” their previous year’s April winning streak.  Or if your favorite football team started the season seventh in their division.  This is essentially what happens when the ATP heads to Australia in January, altering rankings only when players do something different than what they accomplished last year.

Not only does this make it hard too root for underdogs in tennis, it makes it hard for the underdogs themselves.  You may not pity Bernard Tomic, but he surely spoke for many mid-pack players when he spoke about the mental challenge of defending points, not just beating world-class tennis players.  In other sports, hope springs eternal.  In tennis, it’s an immense struggle to crack the top 20 for a single week.

The greatest advantage of the Race is that it is so easy to understand.  Tomas Berdych reached the semifinals last week, so he gets 360 points.  Simple as that.  No comparison to last year’s totals, no concern about whether points are going on or coming off at a stagger from last year because of the Olympics, and–blessedly–nary a mention of zero-pointers.  Tennis rankings will always be more than simply incrementing the win column, but this is pretty close.

Bodo cites the unpredictability of the turn-of-the-century Australian Open as a reason why the Race didn’t catch on.  It doesn’t make sense to have Petr Korda atop much of anything, right?  In fact, that’s the beauty of it.  The 52-week rankings simply entrench the Big Four in our minds, while an emphasis on the race would make us think twice the next time a Korda, or a Marcos Baghdatis, or a Marin Cilic, makes a January splash.  Fans are smart enough to realize that leading the rankings early in the season isn’t the same as finishing at the top.

Some version of the 52-week ranking system will never go away, and that’s how it should be.  It’s purpose is to rate players–for seeding, and even more importantly, for tournament entry.  As I’ve written at length, it’s not a very good system for that purpose.  If we focused on the Race instead, the tournament entry methodology could become much more sophisticated and do a better job of putting the best players on court every week.

With its increasing focus on qualification for the Tour Finals, the ATP has taken some big steps toward presenting tennis as a high-stakes, year-long season, not merely a disjointed mishmash of events competing for attention.  Highlighting the Race rankings would make for much more spectator enjoyment.  It might even open the door to more important discussions of the chaotic tour schedule, eventually offering fans a coherent tennis season to follow every week.


Filed under Rankings

The Ever-Expanding Top Ten

Tennis fans talk about “cracking the top ten,” “top ten scalps,” and “top ten talent,” suggesting that this ranking milestone is a failsafe marker of the current elite.  While the top ten isn’t quite the same as the big four, the connotation is that the top ten is a class above.

Yesterday, Juan Monaco joined that group.  His Hamburg title earned him the 500 points to put him over the top, capping the best 52-week span of his career.  Since this time last year, he’s played five finals, won three titles, and reached the semis at the Miami Masters.

Job well done, Pico: We can now add you to an illustrious list featuring such names as Mikhail Youzhny, Nicolas Massu, Radek Stepanek, Arnaud Clement, and Marcos Baghdatis.  Kind of like an Olympic medal, an appearance in the top ten is something they can never take away from you.

As my snark implies, the top ten mystique is misplaced.  Sure, a berth in the top ten is an impressive accomplishment.  For that matter, a spot in the top 100 is far out of reach of mere mortals.  But with so many top-tenners hanging around, there’s barely enough mystique to go around.

Any given week, of course, there’s only room for ten men in the top ten.  But the last few spots are–and always have been–a revolving door.  At any given time, there are a staggering number of past, present, and future top ten players in the active ranks.

In fact, of the 146 players ever to reach the ATP top 10, 36 of them are in this week’s rankings.  A few, such as Massu, Thomas Muster,  and Fernando Gonzalez are retired (or might as well be).  But that still leaves more than 30 “top-tenners” among active players.  Even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For a fuller perspective, head back a decade to the 2002 end-of-year rankings.  In December of that year, 70 of the men who appeared in the ATP rankings would, at some point in their career, crack the top ten.  If we set aside youngsters like Monaco and Rafael Nadal who were on the way up in late 2002, we find that of the top 100 on December 16, 2002, 47 could write “former top-ten player” on their Wikipedia pages.

Dwell on that for a moment.  Nearly half of the top 100 had this elite status.  You could nearly fill the Paris Masters draw with past, present, and future top-tenners.

Ten years from now, the same will probably be said about the class of 2012.  “Only” 28 of the current top 100 have spent time in the top ten, but for many of the other 72, there’s plenty of time to add to the list.  It seems a given that Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, and Kei Nishikori will at some point crack the top 10, while players like Alexandr Dolgopolov, Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov, Vasek Pospisil, and Cedrik Marcel Stebe are poised to follow them to the top.

Your list may be different than mine, but the details don’t matter.  A year ago, most people wouldn’t have guessed Monaco would crack the top 10.  When Janko Tipsarevic was ranked around #50 on his 26th birthday, no one imagined he’d spend months at #8.  To say that Dimitrov, or Pospisil, or David Goffin is a future top-tenner doesn’t mean he’s going to take over the sport and beat all comers, it just means that he’ll put together a year with a couple of 250 titles and a handful of solid wins against other top players.

Next time someone offers you to bet you that so-and-so won’t ever reach #10 in the world, it’s worth careful consideration.  The top ten is bigger than it sounds.


Filed under Rankings