Category Archives: Records

Dominic Thiem’s Qualifying Marathon

When Dominic Thiem beat Marinko Matosevic in Madrid qualifying this week, it was the seventh time this year he fought his way into a tour-level main draw.  Seven is an awful lot for one season–and it’s early May. Last season, Santiago Giraldo qualified more than any other player, doing so only six times.

In fact, Thiem could easily set the all-time record. Only 46 players have ever qualified for seven or more tour-level events in a season, and 29 of those have stopped at seven. 10 players have qualified eight times, including Flavio Cipolla in 2011, Teymuraz Gabashvili in 2007, and Alejandro Falla in 2007 and 2009. An even smaller group of seven players have reached nine main draws through qualifying, most recently Kevin Anderson in 2010.

No one has ever reached double digits, and Thiem has almost six months in which to close the gap.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thiem’s run is that he has failed to qualify only once this year, in Acapulco. At most ATP events, qualifying requires winning two matches, and twice this year he’s needed to win three. It’s a level of consistency almost unheard of among young players, or players of any age at his level in the rankings. It’s comparable to reaching the quarterfinals or better at seven of eight consecutive particularly strong Challengers.

If the Austrian fails to set a new record, it probably won’t be because he’s not good enough–it’s more likely to end up that way because he’s too good. His ranking started the year at #139, and after his win over Stanislas Wawrinka yesterday, he’ll ascend to almost #60 next Monday. That isn’t good enough to make the main draw cut at most Masters 1000 events, but it will earn him direct entry into anything else.

Thiem has climbed so high not just because of his success in qualifying, but also because of his performance after qualifying. In six of the seven main draws he has reached the hard way, he won at least one match, including three against seeded players. That sets him apart from other recent qualifying warriors. For instance, in 2009 Falla qualified for eight main draws and won only two matches. In 2010 Anderson won five main draw matches in nine main draws as a qualifier.

While qualifying records are impressive and entertaining, it is Thiem’s consistency and his quality play in main draws that bode well for his future as a top player on tour. Guys like Cipolla and Falla have qualified so much because they manage to stick around in a certain tier of the rankings without ever advancing any higher, not because they were ever on the brink of stardom.

That’s why, if Thiem does qualify for ten main draws this year, it will likely be the last qualifying-related record he sets. Falla leads active players with 37 successful trips through qualifying in his career, and that’s a mark the Austrian will never threaten.


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Statistical Quirks in Munich and Oeiras

From Monday to Sunday last week, the ATP 250s in Munich and Oeiras were filled with statistical quirks.  Here’s a rundown of some of the oddities you might have missed:

  • In both events, the top four seeds in qualifying advanced to the main draw. Since the beginning of the decade, there have been 173 ATP 250s, and these two events were only the 7th and 8th of those in which the four qualifiers were the top four seeds.
  • Not only that, but the four players those qualifiers defeated were the 5th through 8th seeds. Put another way, the eight players in the qualifying round were the top eight seeds.  That hadn’t happened in the 2010s–and it happened in two different tournaments last week.   Of the previous 171 events, seven seeds reached the qualifying round on four occasions, but never eight.
  • In Munich, Tommy Haas won his first two matches as a 36 year old. He wasn’t the first man that old to win a match this year–Marc Gicquel beat him to it in Montpelier–but he’s only the 12th player to do so since 2000.  Still, he has a long way to go to catch Ken Rosewall, who won over 350 tour-level matches after his 36th birthday.
  • In four matches, Fabio Fognini reached the Munich final, but he didn’t play a single direct entrant. After a first round bye, he faced Dustin Brown, a wild card, followed by three qualifiers, Thomaz Bellucci, Jan Lennard Struff, and Martin Klizan. In ATP history, no one has ever played every round of an event without facing another direct entrant.  There have been a few instances when a player faces four non-direct entrants (notably Richard Gasquet‘s 2007 Wimbledon run).  I also found a couple of WTA $10Ks in which a player faced five non-direct entrants, but there are eight qualifying and four wild card spots at that level.
  • Fognini lost to Klizan in the final, a repeat of the final result in 2012 in St. Petersburg. Klizan’s two titles both came against Fognini, making him only the fifth player in ATP history to win his only two finals against the same player.  The Slovak is in good company: The most recent guy on the list is David Ferrer, and before that was Carlos Moya.
  • Back in Portugal, the heavy favorite Tomas Berdych won the first set over Carlos Berlocq by the score of 6-0. That’s rare enough in a tour-level final. Berlocq made it much more unusual, though, when he came back to win.  It was only the 10th time in ATP history that a player won a final after dropping the first set 0-6. The last occurrence was quite recent, when Marcel Granollers came back to win in the Kitzbuhel final last year.
  • Berlocq is known as a fighter, but he had never come back from a 0-6 hole in a tour-level match before. He had done so only once as a pro, in a Challenger match against Marcos Daniel in 2004.
  • Berdych’s record was even more pure, having never lost a professional match after winning the first set 6-0.

One more quirk from the week: By winning the Tallahassee Challenger, Robby Ginepri ended an 11-year-long title drought at that level.  (Though he did win several ATP titles in that time.)  Amazingly, that isn’t a record.  Thomas Johansson went 12 years and two months between Challenger titles, and Tommy Robredo, who ended his own nearly 12-year drought when he won Caltanissetta in 2012.

The Madrid Masters has star power, but this year it’s unlikely to produce as many historical oddities as the week it follows.

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Surprise Semifinalists at the Australian Open

Of the eight singles semifinalists in Melbourne, only two entered the tournament seeded in the top four. Rafael Nadal, the top seed in the men’s draw, has survived, and Li Na, the fourth seed in the women’s draw, is the highest-ranked player still alive on her side.

We haven’t exactly followed the script.

The women’s singles draw, with the top three seeds eliminated, is particularly unusual. It is only the 10th time in the last 35 years that none of the top three seeds have made it through to the final four of a Grand Slam. Such events have been heavily concentrated in the last decade or so–the fourth seed was the highest-ranked surviving player at Wimbledon in 2011 (Victoria Azarenka) and 2013 (Agnieszka Radwanska), and the fifth seed was the apparent favorite at Roland Garros in 2011 (Francesca Schiavone).

You might notice a pattern. In these nine Slams when no top-three seed reached the semifinal stage, the best remaining player didn’t fare so well. Both Vika and Aga fell to lower-ranked opponents when they were the remaining favorites at Wimbledon, and Schiavone lost her shot at the French Open to Li. Only twice in these nine majors did the highest-remaining seed in the semifinals go on to win: Martina Hingis, when she was seed fourth at the 1997 Australian Open, and Anastasia Myskina, when she was the sixth seed at the 2004 French Open.

In a tournament full of surprises, we might not be done yet. It stands to reason that once the favorites are eliminated, the odds of subsequent upsets increase. The lower you go in the rankings, the less difference there usually is between players–there’s a bigger gap between Azarenka and Maria Sharapova than there is between, say, Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber. The smaller the gap, the more likely the upset.

While only one top-four seed remains in the men’s draw, the odds of upsets are moving in the opposite direction. While Nadal can always count on a tough fight from second-seed Novak Djokovic, he typically has little trouble with lower-ranked players. He has won his last 15 matches against the other three players left in the drawRoger Federer, Tomas Berdych, and Stanislas Wawrinka–and lost only 4 of 41 matches against the trio since 2008.

The historical precedent for this sort of semifinal draw also favors Rafa. 14 Grand Slams in the Open Era have featured a semifinal round in which the top seed is the only one remaining of the top four. The top seed has gone on to win 9 of the 14, including 8 of the last 10. The most recent final four that fit this profile was in Melbourne four years ago, when Federer swept the final two rounds without losing a set.

But even this rosy picture for Nadal offers Roger a glimmer of hope.  The last time the top seed was alone in the final four and didn’t go on to win was the 2002 US Open. Lleyton Hewitt was the #1 who failed, paving the way for a 31-year-old Pete Sampras to win one final slam before he retired.

Roger isn’t going to call it quits this week, but he’d sure like to emulate Pete’s success in seizing a wide-open Grand Slam draw.

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Novak Djokovic’s Amazing, Challenging Season End

You’ve probably heard the stats by now.  Novak Djokovic ended the 2013 season on a 24-match winning streak.  13 of his last 20 matches–all wins, of course–came against fellow members of the top ten.

Carl Bialik argues that Djokovic’s latest exploits, taken as part of his career as a whole, force us to consider him as an all-time great, in line with the seven other players who have won six to eight Grand Slam titles.  It’s a convincing case.  While Novak remains well behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in most of the usual GOAT-debate categories, those are some awfully high standards to meet.  In any other era, he wouldn’t be burdened with such impossible comparisons.

Djokovic’s season-ending streak is notable in itself.  Since 1983, only three other players have won 13 or more consecutive matches against members of the top ten: Federer (24, starting at the end of 2003, among other streaks), John McEnroe (15, in early 1984), and Nadal (13, from 2012 Monte Carlo to 2013 Monte Carlo).

Djokovic’s status among the all-time greats gets a boost when you realize that this isn’t his first such streak. Coinciding with the streak, Novak won 13 consecutive contests against top-ten players in the first five months of 2011.

What makes his most recent run all the more impressive is that he has done it with so few pauses for breath.  11 of his last 14 matches were against top tenners, as were 13 of his last 19.  By contrast, Nadal’s otherwise comparable top-ten winning streak spread over 50 matches.

In fact, the tail end of Novak’s 2013 season was one of the most challenging on record.  Since 1983, only seven men played more than half of a 20-match span against top-tenners.  Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic head the list, as usual; the others are McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Nikolay Davydenko.  Aside from Djokovic this fall, Agassi is the only one of the seven who has played 13 or more top-ten opponents in a 20-match span.  And unlike Novak, Agassi wasn’t perfect.  In his demanding stretch at the end of 1994, he lost to Goran Ivanisevic in Stockholm and to Sampras in the semis of the Tour Finals.

The nature of Djokovic’s season-ending winning streak emphasizes his stature among the sport’s greats.  In an era when a handful of contenders so thoroughly dominate the rest of the field, that small group of players is constantly facing one another.  While I don’t envy anyone playing the likes of Ivanisevic indoors, even that fearsome thought pales next to the Nadal-led gauntlet that Novak has spent the last three months navigating.

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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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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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Guaranteed Five-Setters, Exhausting Routes to R4, and Master Bakers

With so many of the world’s top players in action yesterday, it’s only fitting to lead with Denis Istomin and Andreas Seppi.

Istomin and Seppi have now met four times in the last 15 months, all at Grand Slams.  And thanks to yesterday’s effort, they’ve now gone five sets in all four of those matches.

Cue the chorus: “That’s got to be some kind of record, right?”

Yep, it is.  While their US Open third-rounder was Seppi and Istomin’s seventh meeting overall, it was only their fourth at a major, meaning that each time they’ve met in the best-of-five format, they’ve gone the distance.  Two pairs of players (Thomas Muster and Albert Costa, and Guillermo Canas and Gaston Gaudio) have met three times in a best-of-five and reached a decider each time, but no two players had ever gone four-for-four.

In fact, Seppi and Istomin are only the eighth pairing in the Open era to record four or more five-setters.  Petr Korda and Pete Sampras played four five-setters in five matchups, but their first such meeting, a 1992 Davis Cup match, only went four sets.  Radek Stepanek and David Ferrer are also close, having played four five-setters in five best-of-five meetings.

Most of the pairs that have played so many five-setters required many more meetings to do so.  You might be familiar with some of the guys who make up the three head-to-heads that have played five five-setters: Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg-Ivan Lendl, and Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal.  But all of those pairs met more than 10 times in best-of-five situations.  In this context, all those three- and four-setters seem rather weak.

When the Australian Open draw comes out, while everyone else figures out whose quarter Federer landed in, I’ll be checking Seppi’s proximity to Istomin.

When Marcel Granollers edged by Tim Smyczek in five sets yesterday, the big story was the futility of American men’s tennis.  (Thankfully, for the depressed patriots among us, Sloane Stephens was putting up a spirited challenge against Serena Williams on another court.)

However, the Spaniard was making a bit of history of his own.  In beating Jurgen Zopp, Rajeev Ram, and Smyczek, he’s won three five-setters in his first three rounds, becoming only the 15th man to do so in the Open era, the first since Janko Tipsarevic did so at Wimbledon in 2007.  It’s only the third time someone has done it at the US Open.  The last man to do so in New York was Wayne Ferreira, in 1993.

Amazingly, three players have gone five sets in each of their first four matches in a slam.  The last such occurrence was when Dominik Hrbaty reached the fourth round at the Australian, in 2006.  He fell to Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth round.

This is one bit of history that Granollers surely won’t be making.  As remarkable as it is to reach the fourth round of the back of all those five-setters, it isn’t a good sign when you lose two sets apiece to three players ranked outside the top 100.

It certainly doesn’t bode well when your next opponent is Novak Djokovic.

As Federer, Nadal and Djokovic plow their way through the early rounds this year, none is wasting any time.  All three players have posted a 6-0 set in their second- or third-round matches, exclamation points amidst broader displays of dominance.

A quick check of the database reveals yet another category in which Federer is charging toward the top.  The Open era record for bagel sets won at Grand Slams is held by Andre Agassi, who retired with 49.  Fed’s bagel of Adrian Mannarino on Saturday was the 43rd of his career.

Here is the all-time list:

Player           Slam bagels  
Andre Agassi              49  
Roger Federer             43  
Ivan Lendl                42  
Jimmy Connors             41  
Bjorn Borg                35  
Guillermo Vilas           29  
John Mcenroe              29  
Stefan Edberg             25  
Boris Becker              23  
Rafael Nadal              22  
Novak Djokovic            21

Andy Murray is tied for 19th, with 16.

This is one category which highlights the extreme dominance of some of the greatest female players in history.  Chris Evert puts Agassi, Federer, and everyone else to shame, with a record 104 Grand Slam bagels.  Serena Williams’s first-round defeat of Francesca Schiavone moved her past Arantxa Sanchez Vicario into fifth place on the all-time list:

Player                   Slam bagels  
Chris Evert                      104  
Steffi Graf                       74  
Martina Navratilova               70  
Monica Seles                      51 
Serena Williams                   49 
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario           47  
Margaret Court                    44  
Gabriela Sabatini                 44  
Lindsay Davenport                 43  
Maria Sharapova                   41

With a quarterfinal matchup against Carla Suarez Navarro, it’s possible Serena isn’t done for the year.  Each of the two previous times the two women have played, Williams has won a 6-0 set.

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