Yesterday, Sam Querrey posted an unusual achievement and did so in an unusual way. He beat soon-to-be-#1 Novak Djokovic–a career milestone no matter how it happened. And he did it after losing the first set 6-0.
This was only the fifth time in his ATP-level career that Querrey lost a set 6-0 (though it was the second time in two weeks), and it was the first time he was bageled in the first set. Big servers like Sam aren’t generally found on either end of a bagel, since their style of play tends to ensure that both players win a service game or two. Querrey has only bageled other players five times on tour. Oddly enough, three of those have been in Los Angeles.
However rare 6-0 sets are, the shocking thing here is that he bounced back. Not just in the sense that he recovered from the mental blow of winning a mere 10 of 35 first-set points, but that he won two sets from a player who seemed to be so vastly superior to him on court.
As you might imagine, that doesn’t happen very often. Of about 2100 best-of-three matches this year through the end of last week, 58 began with a bagel. The first-set loser only came back to win three of those 58 times. And of course, the losers in those three-setters were hardly of Djokovic’s caliber: Peter Polansky, Maximo Gonzalez, and Jarkko Nieminen. (It wasn’t the first time for the Finn–he lost a match 6-0, 6-7, 6-7 in 2009.)
A bit of context
2012 has been a tough year for the victims of first-set bagels. When we expand our focus to the entire 21st century, it turns out that first-set bagels have been occurring at a typical rate this year–about 2.5%, or 1 in 40 matches–but that players are finding it tougher to bounce back.
In best-of-three matches over the last thirteen seasons, there have been 753 first-set bagels. The winner closed it out in straight sets 568, or 75.3%, of those times. The rate this year has been almost identical, with straight-set wins finishing off 43 of the 58 matches with first-set bagels.
In the remaining matches, the underdogs have historically found easier going. Over the last thirteen years, the player who lost the first set 0-6 managed to come back and win the match 75 times–about once every ten matches. This year, Querrey was only the fourth (of 59, now) to do so.
What’s most interesting about the historical total of 75 is that is not much less than the number of matches that the first-set winner wins in three sets.
Let me put that another way. Since 2000, the player who was bageled in the first set has come back to win the second set 185 times. Since the vast majority of those second set scores are 7-6, 7-5, and 6-4, the first-set winner almost always had a more dominant run than the second set winner. But that once-dominant first-set win only wins three-setters 40% of the time.
As we’ve seen, Querrey was only the fourth player to complete the comeback this year, though he was the 13th to reach a third set. Based on the previous rate, we should have seen another couple of recoveries from an 0-6 start.
Winning the second set, as Querrey did today, doesn’t exactly put the comebacker on equal footing, but recent history shows that we can’t put too much weight on that outlier of a first set. Perhaps 6-0s are simply too extreme to carry much weight. Or perhaps winning the second set–even if it’s a much tighter margin than the first–provides a boost that carries over into the third set.
In any event, players should take heart in the knowledge that after dropping the first set 6-0, all is not lost. But Querrey, who has now been bageled more in the last two weeks than he had been in the previous four years combined, probably shouldn’t hinge his hopes on many more fights like the one he posted yesterday.
After the jump, find the complete list of tour-level 0-6 comebacks since 2000.