Category Archives: Washington

The Dream of the Nineties is Alive

Last weekend, the four finalists in ATP events were David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, Vasek Pospisil, and Milos Raonic. All were born in the 1990s, making the Kitzbuhel and Washington finals the first all-nineties championship matches in tour history.

It’s about time. The first half of the 1990-born cohort is already 24 years old, an age that used to suggest a tennis player was approaching his prime. Of the four finalists, only Thiem wasn’t born in 1990. (He was born in 1993, making him the youngest finalist of the season so far.)

It has never taken so long for a single-year-or-younger group of ATP players to play each other in a final. For the thirty-one years between 1960 births and 1990 births, it has, on average, taken less than 21 years before youngsters in each cohort face off for a title. It took 24 years and seven months before the 1990 group–with the help of Thiem–finally reached this milestone.

Here are the breakthrough finals for each age group in five-year intervals, to put the 1990 group in perspective:

The age of these milestone finals has been steadily creeping up over the last few years. The class of 1987 was a good one, giving us Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but even those two stars didn’t meet in a final until the 2008 Cincinnati Masters, when both had passed their 21st birthdays.

There’s a sharp downturn after that 1987 class. The ATP didn’t see a 1988-or-younger final until three years later, when Alexandr Dolgopolov faced Marin Cilic in the 2011 Umag title match. In the three years since then, there have been only six more 1988-or-younger finals, including the two last weekend.

Thiem, along with a few other young players, offers hope that the tides are beginning to turn. This week, for the first time since 2005 (when, as we’ve seen, Nadal and Berdych played the last all-teenage final), the ATP top 200 features four teenagers, two of whom–Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev–are not yet 18. Then again, neither Goffin nor Pospisil reached a final until they had been inside the top 200 for three years. We may need to keep looking to 23-year-olds for ATP firsts.

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Filed under Aging trends, Washington

Margin of Error Podcast: Episode 25

A new podcast is (finally) out!

Fresh from a week at the Citi Open in Washington DC, Amy and I run down the previous week’s events, along with some young American prospects worth watching, and preview the WTA Premier and ATP Masters tournaments getting underway in Canada.

You can find the podcast and subscribe with iTunes here. For other subscription methods, here’s an XML feed. Otherwise, keep an eye out for a new episode early each week, which I’ll post here on the blog.

Click here to listen.

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Donald Young’s Perpetual Hopes and the Lefty Serve That Isn’t

Donald Young celebrated his 25th birthday last week, and if you’ve been following the ATP for any part of the last decade, you know all about his talent, his potential, and his underwhelming results. Every time he goes deep in a tournament–as he has in Washington this week, upsetting Kevin Anderson in three sets today–all that upside talk gets dredged up again.  Is this finally the breakthrough for which we’ve waited so long?

In general, it’s a safe bet to watch longer-term trends more closely than short-term peaks and valleys. So the short, obvious answer is: No, it’s unlikely to be a sign of much greater things to come. Still, Young has beaten three top-50 players this week, and it’s a good time to take a closer look at what might be holding him back.

A prime obstacle isn’t hard to identify. Donald has one of the weakest serves on the ATP tour. While that doesn’t automatically keep him out of the top fifty in the world, it sure doesn’t help. Young’s year-to-date ace percentage, 3.4%, is among the ten worst on tour, and with the exception of David Ferrer and Roberto Bautista Agut, none of the other players on that list are inside the top 35. This year’s number is no slump, as Young’s ace rate has been below 4% every year since 2009.

Another metric to indicate the effectiveness of a player’s service game is the ratio of service winning percentage to return winning percentage (SW/RW). If a player wins lots of service points, it might be due to a good serve, or it might owe to a strong overall game. This ratio gives us a rough measure of how much a player’s success on serve is due to the serve itself.

Coming into Washington this week, Young’s SW/RW was 1.49, one of the lowest marks of any left-handed tour regular in the last ten years. A few right-handers succeed while winning only 50% more service points than return points–including Ferrer and, for one season, Andy Murray–but the average player on tour wins roughly 73% more serve points than return points. Even Rafael Nadal hasn’t fallen below the 1.5 mark since 2005.

As Ferrer has demonstrated, a player with Young’s level of service success can have a very good career on tour. Yet Ferrer’s skillset is unusual, and importantly, he’s a righty.

Not every successful ATP left-hander is a big server. Nadal won dozens of titles before fully developing the serve he uses today. Neither Fernando Verdasco nor Jurgen Melzer, two lefties who cracked the top ten, are known for overpowering deliveries. But in the last decade, Nadal is the only left-hander to consistently succeed with a SW/RW under 1.6.

It’s a different story for righties. As we’ve seen, Ferrer is a perennial top player despite Young-like serve stats. Fabio Fognini, Nikolay Davydenko, and Lleyton Hewitt have all enjoyed solid seasons without greater serve dominance than Young. (Though Hewitt has racked up better ace totals.)

Surprisingly, it isn’t that lefties are bigger servers. On average, both lefties and righties win about 73% more service points than return points. The tentative conclusion I see from these numbers is that lefties–with the typical exception of Rafa–can’t get away with a weak serve the way that right-handers can.

Young’s SW/RW this week of 1.69 suggests that, despite only 13 aces in four matches, he’s playing well behind his serve, and the results have followed.  It may be, though, that a modest improvement to his serve–or perhaps his tactics behind the serve–would be particularly valuable, seizing whatever specific advantages worked for guys like Verdasco and Melzer.

If Young is (finally) to take a big step forward, he’ll need to do more with his serve for a season–not just a week. He doesn’t need to become the next Feliciano Lopez; he just needs to be a little less like a left-handed Fognini.

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Filed under American tennis, Serve statistics, Washington

Why More Players Should Have Skipped the Olympics

The Olympics only come every four years, and they have everything: precious metals, prestige, and national pride, along with extremely fit and horny women.

That’s good enough for most top players.  18 of the top 20 men are slated to participate, and nearly every player in the 64-man draw is ranked inside the top 100.  This is a Masters-quality field, if not a touch better.

But aside from status and off-court perks, the competitors will not be rewarded accordingly.  The ATP treats the Olympic singles event as less than a Masters tournament, giving the winner 750 ranking points and the runner-up 450.  As Ben Rothenberg has pointed out, that means the silver medalist–probably one of the top four players in the world–will receive fewer points that week than the winner in Washington.  Only one player in top 20 (Mardy Fish) is scheduled to compete in the US event.

More players should have made the sensible decision, skipping the Olympics in favor of Washington, perhaps adding Los Angeles or Kitzbuhel as well.  Ranking points are as cheap at those events as they are expensive in London.

At a gut level, it’s unthinkable to skip the Olympics.  All those intangibles count for a lot.  If you’re a top-ten player, a few hundred extra ranking points wouldn’t make much of a difference, and an extra $50,000 in prize money barely registers.  For mid-packers, though, “intangibles” sounds like a cynical euphemism for no money and a mediocre ranking boost.

Consider the case of Mardy Fish, the highest ranked player to opt for Washington over London.  Based on a simulation of possible Olympic draws (see below for details), Fish could expect to net about 80 ranking points at the Olympics.  The odds would favor him to win an opener, give him a decent shot at reaching the round of 16, and then turn against him.  Two or three matches, no prize money, not much national pride.

In Washington, the story is much different.  There, Fish is the runaway favorite.  If he’s healthy (a big if), he has at least a 1 in 5 chance of winning the tournament.  By my simulation, he can expect to gain 176 ranking points (with, of course, a decent chance of as many as 500), along with a cool $72,000.

An even more instructive example is that of Donald Young.  Young is in the midst of a horrible losing streak, and he’ll head to London with a roughly 2 in 3 chance of heading home without a single victory.  Expected ranking points: 24.

For Young, more is at stake than a few thousand dollars in prize money.  He reached the semis in Washington last year, so he is defending 180 points this week.  Losing all of those points will probably knock him out of the top 80.  There’s a big difference between a ranking in the 50s and one in the 80s: The first gets you direct entry into almost every tournament; the second leaves you in qualifying (unseeded, sometimes!) for most Masters.  Had Young elected to play Washington, he could have expected to defend at least half of his points.  That wouldn’t just earn him about $30,000 for his week’s work, it would give him a ranking that would make it enormously easier for him to earn points and prize money for the next several months.

The American’s situation is unique in that he may be at a crossroads in his career.  But the same reasoning applies to every player who doesn’t feel like he has a legitimate shot at a medal.  The odds are against Radek Stepanek reaching the second round in London–he’ll lose almost all of the 500 points he’s defending from last year’s Washington title.  Or Carlos Berlocq: It’d be hard to back the dirtballing counterpuncher at a grass-court challenger.  He could’ve spent next week as a top-four seed on clay, at Kitzbuhel.

Maybe for Stepanek, Berlocq, or even Young, the experience will be worth it.  But every scheduling decision made by a player–especially a veteran–has an impact on his prospects for months to come.  Is the experience worth dropping down to qualifying at the next several Masters-level events?  Would missing the experience be acceptable in exchange for getting a cheap ranking boost and earning a seed at the U.S. Open?

As much as it goes against our nationalist, media-driven instincts, Mardy Fish, Alexander Dolgopolov, and a very small number of other non-Olympians made the smart choice.  As the first-round losers start to pile up next weekend in London, Washington will look like an excellent place to be.

After the jump, find a quick explanation of my tournament simulations, along with expected ranking points and prize money for top players in Washington and London.

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Filed under Mardy Fish, Olympics, Washington