Category Archives: WTA

Bouchard, Radwanska, and Second Serve Futility

In yesterday’s women’s semifinals, we were treated to some impressive return-of-serve performances. Li Na won almost 65% of points on Eugenie Bouchard‘s serve–a higher percentage than she won on her own.

A less positive view of the situation is that we saw some dreadful serving performances. In particular, both Bouchard and Agnieska Radwanska struggled to win any points at all on their second serves. Genie won just 5 of 27 after missing her first serve, while Aga won only 2 of 16.

You don’t need an IBM Key to the Match to realize that those numbers aren’t going to cut it.

The WTA features a more return-oriented game and more breaks of serve than the ATP does, but these numbers are far out of the ordinary, especially for a solid server such as Bouchard. Here are some circuit-wide averages, derived from about 1,000 tour-level matches played last season:

  • WTA players win 55.5% of service points: 62.3% on first serves and 44.6% on second serves.
  • When the second serve lands in play–in other words, excluding double faults, players win 51.8% of second-serve points.
  • In the average losing performance, players won 57.1% of first-serve points, 40.0% of second-serve points, and 47.2% of second-serve points in play.

Then again, Li and Dominika Cibulkova–especially the Slovakian–aren’t average returners. In 16 Cibulkova wins for which I have serve statistics, she never failed to win at least half of second-serve return points. Only once did she win less than 58% of them, and her median performance was a whopping 63% of second-serve points won. In 7 of the 16 matches, she won second-serve return points at a higher rate than her own first-serve points.

Domi’s dismantling of Radwanska’s second serve still stands out, but in this context, it doesn’t look quite so unusual. When Cibulkova is hitting the ball well, you might as well be throwing batting practice once you miss your first offering.

While Li’s best return performances don’t quite stack up with Cibulkova’s, she has little trouble neutralizing her opponents in Melbourne. In six matches, she has won more than half of second-serve return points in every match, peaking with a 12-of-15 performance in the fourth round against Ekaterina Makarova. Overall, Li has won 86 of 136 second-serve return points in the tournament, good for 63%.

On Saturday, one of these powerful forces will have to give way to the other. The last time Li and Cibulkova met, in Toronto last summer, Domi had one of her worst serving performances of the year, winning only 35.5% of second-serve points, 44.0% of those that landed in play. In that match, Cibulkova failed to display the dominating return game that has been her trademark in Australia, winning barely half of Li’s second offerings, and only 41% when excluding double faults.

But as Cibulkova showed by crushing Radwanska for only the second time in six career meetings, her performances aren’t predictable. Her all-or-nothing style guarantees that we’ll see some fireworks in the final from both servers and returners. And at the rate she’s going, Domi might set some more records in the process.

For even more detailed analysis of yesterday’s semifinals, check out the charting-based analysis of Li-Bouchard and Radwanska-Cibulkova.

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Filed under Australian Open, Serve statistics, WTA

Bouchard, Halep, and First-Time Quarterfinalists

Two of the final eight women in Melbourne, Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep, are playing in their first Grand Slam quarterfinals. Let’s take a look at how other women have done in their first appearances this late in a Slam.

In the Open era, 267 different women have reached the final eight of a Slam. At the time of their debut quarterfinal, their average age was roughly 21 years and four months. Their average WTA ranking was 42, not considering those who predated the ranking system or those who reached their first quarterfinal as an unranked player.

Of the 267, 197 (73.8%) progressed no further in their breakthrough slam. 52 (26.4%) won one more match, losing in the semifinals; 12 (6.1%) reached the final but lost; and the remaining six players won the title when the reached their first Open-era quarter.

However small 6 of 297 sounds, such an outcome is actually even rarer. Three of those six first-time quarterfinalists don’t really count–they reached their first QF in 1968, the first year of the Open era. Billie Jean King, winner of the Australian Open that year, isn’t that great a comp for Bouchard or Halep. The only other players to win a Grand Slam in their first quarterfinal appearance are Chris O’Neil (1978 Australian), Barbara Jordan (1980 Australian), and Serena Williams (1999 US Open).

While we can’t count on Bouchard or Halep winning the tournament this week, their appearances in Slam quarterfinals at relative young ages bodes well. The earlier a player reaches her first major QF, the more QFs she is likely to reach over the course of her career.  In fact, of the 22 women who have reached more than 10 Slam quarterfinals since 1984, only one of them–Jana Novotna–failed to reach her first one in her teens. She didn’t make it until the ripe old age of 20 years and 8 months.

Bouchard has just snuck in before her 20th birthday, which she’ll celebrate next month. Her most age-appropriate comp is Victoria Azarenka, who reached her first major quarterfinal–at the 2009 French Open–just a few weeks younger than Genie is now. Less than five years later, Vika will play her 12th Slam QF.

Less optimistic comparisons for Bouchard are Yanina Wickmayer and Anna Chakvetadze, both of whom reached their first major quarterfinal in the last two months of their teens. Chakvetadze made two more final eights; Wickmayer is still looking for her second.

If history is any guide, Halep’s prospects are bleaker. At 22 years and four months, she is much older than any of the players who have reached double-digit Slam quarterfinals except for Li Na, who is playing in her 10th QF this week. Li didn’t play in the final eight of a Grand Slam until she was 24 years old.

The 61 players who reached their first Slam QF at an older age than Halep did not, on average, achieve much more. They’ve totaled 81 additional QFs–well below two per person.

Of course, the age profile of the WTA is changing, so a 22-year-old debutante isn’t nearly the oddity it was a decade or two ago. It’s no coincidence that Halep’s most optimistic comp is Li, an active player. That’s the most positive outlook for the Romanian, anyway. To rack up an impressive career record, she’ll have to follow Li’s lead and overcome a late start.

The ATP final eight also features a newbie, Grigor Dimitrov. The changing age profile of the ATP is even more drastic, so age-based analysis is less meaningful. But we can take a quick look at the precedents for the Bulgarian’s first Slam quarterfinal.

There have been 329 ATP Slam quarterfinalists in the Open era, and first-timers stand a better chance in the men’s game. 32.5% of debut Slam quarterfinalists have advanced to the semis, and 13 of them (4.0%) went on to win the tournament. Then again, none of them had to beat Rafael Nadal in the quarters.

While Dimitrov is older than Halep–and as noted, 22-year-olds didn’t used to be considered so young on the ATP tour–there are some positive examples for Grigor to follow.

Michael Stich reached his first Slam QF at almost exactly the same age as Dimitrov is now, and he not only reached the semis at that event (the 1991 French Open), but qualified for the final eight in nine more majors. Jo Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, and Nikolay Davydenko all reached their first Slam QF later than Dimitrov, and each has played in the final eight at least ten times.

On average, those optimistic comps are outweighed by all the guys who made it to one or two Slam QFs later in their career. The 153 players who reached their first final eight later than Dimitrov’s current age have returned to a total of 362 additional quarterfinals–good for one or two more appearances per player.

Despite all the hype, Dimitrov’s performance this year isn’t a drastic breakthrough. It’s only a single step in the right direction–especially considering that he reached this milestone by beating the #73 player in the world. He could be the next Tsonga, or he could be the next Robby Ginepri.

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Filed under Aging trends, Grand Slams, Simona Halep, WTA

Should WTA Players Approach the Net More?

21st-century women’s tennis is a baseline game. Some players are better able to identify opportunities to approach the net than others, and some can handle themselves quite well when they get there. But if a fan from a few decades ago were dropped off at the 2014 Australian Open, she would be shocked by the rarity of net points and the clumsiness of many players when they move forward.

Since almost all television commentators were excellent players in a more net-centric era, a frequent refrain during almost any broadcast is that players should rush the net more often. “Frequent” might be understating it–in a fit of pique, I was driven to say this:

Regardless of repetition, it’s worth further investigation. It’s certainly true that a skilled netwoman could win more points by moving forward. But when pros don’t emphasize that part of their game and they gain little match experience approaching the net, do they have the skills necessary to take advantage of such an opportunity?

Enter some numbers

At this point, you might be tempted to look at the oft-collected “Net Points” stat. Resist the urge. In a baseline-oriented match, net points can have little to do with net approachesAttempting to return a drop shot is considered a net point. Putting away a weak service return is considered a net point. In many WTA matches, more than half of “net points” do not involve an approach. The player was induced to come to the net for some reason.

Making matters worse, that non-approach segment of net points has little to do with net approaches. Given a weak, floating return, any competent player should be able to whack it for a swinging volley winner. At the other end of the spectrum, chasing down a drop shot relies on a different set of skills than picking a moment to hit an approach shot and then confidently placing a volley or two.

Fortunately, the Match Charting Project gives us some more detailed, approach-specific data.

Twenty matches in the charting database are from the first month of the 2014 WTA season, most of them from the first week in Melbourne. This data differentiates between “net approaches” and “net points.” In one of the more aggressive performances in the database, Angelique Kerber, in her loss to Tsvetana Pironkova in Sydney, won 15 of 19 net points. Of her ten net approaches, she won all ten.

(For any match report in the charting database–here’s the Kerber-Pironkova match–click one of the two “Net Points” links to see those stats. There is a different table for each player.)

Kerber’s ten net approaches is tied for the most of any of the WTA matches that have been charted this year. Last night, Garbine Muguruza also tallied ten net approaches, though she did so in a longer match.

In these twenty matches, only 27 of 40 players made even one traditional net approach. Including those who made zero, the average is just over three net approaches per match. The 27 who approached the net at least once averaged 4.7 per match.

Clearly, a lot of opportunities for offense are going unclaimed.

How they’re doing

Of the 126 net approaches we’ve tracked, the approaching player has won 84–exactly two-thirds. While that isn’t an overwhelming endorsement–many approach shots are hit in response to a weak groundstroke that already puts the opponent at a disadvantage–it certainly doesn’t count as evidence against the practice.

In half of all net approaches, the netrusher either hits an outright winner at the net or induces a forced error with a net shot.  Only 12% of the time does the opponent hit a passing shot winner. In another 5% of these points, the opponent induces a forced error with a passing shot. In 12% of net approach points, the player who moved forward hits an unforced error at the net.

Of the 27 players in the database who approached the net at least once, only six failed to win half of those points (three of whom only came forward once), and three more won exactly half of their net approach points.

The women in this sample who seize the most opportunities to rush the net have been particularly successful, as well. Seven of the eight who moved forward the most won more than half of their approach points.  This allows us to tentatively conclude that all the other players–the ones who picked only a few spots to approach the net during their matches–could have seized more opportunities. There may be a limit in the modern game to how much netrushing is wise, but the observed maximum of ten points per match doesn’t seem to be it.

Inevitable unknowns

Whether we look at Kerber and her 10/10 net-approach performance in Sydney or Sloane Stephens and her 1/1 tally yesterday against Elina Svitolina, it’s impossible to know the results of the next approach shot–or the next five.  We can compare single-match results and see that it’s possible for a WTA player to have a perfect record on her ten net approaches, but we can’t perform lab experiments in which Sloane plays Svitolina again and comes forward ten times instead of one.

For all the success that players enjoy when they do move forward, there are plenty of reasons not to. As I said at the outset, today’s players don’t practice net skills nearly as much as baseline skills, and they certainly don’t get much in-match practice. If someone isn’t comfortable approaching the net at a certain time, is it really a good idea for her to do so?

In the abstract, both intuition and statistical analysis supports the position that WTA players could move forward more. When they do approach the net, they are often successful, putting away volley winners and rarely getting passed. But I suspect this implies a long-term strategy more than the sort of thing a coach should emphasize during a changeover.

When commentators suggest that a player should move forward, what I think they really mean is this: “If this player were more comfortable with her transition game, this would be a great opportunity to take advantage of that.” Or: “Players should work harder on their approach shots on the practice court so that they’re ready for opportunities like this one.” Or simply: “Martina would have won that point ten shots ago.”

There seems to be opportunity waiting for more, well, opportunistic young players. But it isn’t one that can be generated simply by a sudden coaching change or a harangue from John McEnroe. Only when a player emerges with the baseline game to contend with the best pros and a transition/net game that exceeds most of those on the tour today will we find out just how much opportunity today’s players have wasted.

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Filed under Match charting, Net play, WTA

The Changing Depth of the WTA

During yesterday’s broadcast of the Australian Open match between Alison Riske and Yanina Wickmayer, commentator Elise Burgin discussed whether the depth of the WTA has increased over the years. She felt strongly that it has, and she had a very useful illustration on screen, as 55th-ranked Riske was putting on an impressive display of shotmaking en route to a 6-1 6-1 victory.

From a quantitative perspective, “depth” can be hard to pin down. If lower-ranked players are holding their own against the top five, or ten, or thirty, it could mean that the field is very deep, or it could mean that we’re in an era without all-time greats.  As Burgin pointed out, the WTA might not currently have a top five to match those of some recent eras, but there’s little doubt that today’s top two could line up with just about any of the last few decades.

It would be very difficult to settle whether today’s top ranks are good, bad, or otherwise in historical terms, so for now, let’s assume they are average.  We’ll return to that in a bit.

Let’s start by looking at how the WTA top 32 has fared against everybody else. This encompasses about 900 matches per season. The trend isn’t overwhelming, but it does seem that the top 32 is not quite as dominant as it was in some previous periods:

depth32

The 2012 and 2013 winning percentages of 73.4% and 74.7% represented the lowest two-year span since 1984 (where my ranking database begins).  Aside from the outlier years of 2004 and 2007, the top 32 has won fewer than 77% of its matches against the pack for more than a decade.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the top 32 was consistently above that number.

Of course, drawing the line at the top 32 is arbitrary. Most of us would think of the 19th- or 26th-ranked player as part of the pack, not as a defining player of this generation.  Let’s see how the graph looks if we draw the line at the top 10:

depth10

Looking at the top 10 against everyone else doesn’t differentiate the current era quite as much as the top 32 does, but it continues to show that the pack is quite competitive in historical terms.

Since 1984, the top 10 has won almost exactly 80% of matches against everyone else, and for the last two years, the WTA has matched that number.  However, in the very recent past, from 2009 to 2011, the pack posted the three best single-season records against the top 10, peaking in 2010, when the top 10 won only 74% of matches against others.

As I noted at the outset, comparing “the top” with “the pack” in a series of years implies that one or the other is a constant. The top–especially a small group such as the top 10–almost certainly isn’t. In 2010, that great season for the pack, Serena Williams played only 29 matches, compared to 62 in 2009 and 82 in 2013. Add another 30 or 50 Serena matches to the sample and maybe the pack wouldn’t have looked so good.

While the pack is less affected by single injuries, it probably isn’t a constant either. After all, the claim that launched this post is that the pack has improved.  Thus, we can’t entirely trust these numbers as a rating of the top based on their record against the pack, or as a rating of the pack based on their record against the top.

However, we can see broad trends and supplement them with some qualitative judgments.  If you believe that today’s top ten is a particularly weak one, the fact that the pack is winning only 20% of their matches against that group isn’t exactly an endorsement. If you think the top of the game is particularly strong, that 20% looks much better, supporting Burgin’s position that the pack is better than ever.

An alternative theory that may explain this intuition about the pack is based on injuries. WTA injury numbers (based on retirements and withdrawals, anyway) are at an all-time high, and advances in sports medicine are getting players back on court quicker than ever. Thus, there is always a pool of players whose talent level is not represented by their ranking, either because they are injury prone and never reach that ranking, or because they’ve recently missed time and seen their ranking fall during that period.

Of course, there have always been players in the field returning from injury, but at any given time, there are probably more today than there were twenty years ago. And that means more unseeded, lower-ranked competitors with the capability of beating a top player. They usually don’t–as in the cases of Andrea Petkovic, Venus Williams, and Vera Zvonareva this week–but if you’re looking at a draw hunting for dark horses and interesting early-round matchups, those are the sorts of names that deliver.

Given all the moving parts in this sort of analysis, it’s tough to draw conclusions. If a couple of players suddenly emerge as dominant players and complement Serena and Vika at the top of the game, we could see these numbers swing in favor of the top. If Serena suddenly retires, they’ll probably swing in favor of the pack. For now, the best I can offer is that the pack–whether defined as those outside the top 10, top 32, or any number in between–is probably a bit better than the WTA’s historical average.

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US Open Final: Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka: Recap and Detailed Stats

Today’s final was Serena Williams‘s for the taking.  She didn’t seize it as boldly as she might have, but she performed just well enough to overcome both the windy conditions and a reliably dogged opponent in Victoria Azarenka.

When Serena is playing as well as she did during the third set, it’s tough to see how she ever loses. But today we saw an excellent illustration of both her assets and her liabilities.  If her opponent can hang around in rallies, there will be enough errors to swing some matches in the other direction. Most of the WTA rank and file can’t absorb her pace and stick around long enough to reap the benefits of those errors, but Vika can.

And when Azarenka is playing her best, as she did on occasion throughout this match, she can attack on one of Serena’s less penetrating shots, creating opportunities for her own winners. A player with a bigger serve would do that with her serve; Vika must try to do so within each rally.

By the numbers, it’s a bit of a miracle that Vika forced a third set.  Twice in the second set, Serena served for the match and was broken.  It was a testament to Azarenka’s stubbornness, always putting one more ball back in play, forcing Serena to overcome both the pressure and the wind.  In that second set, Williams had a hard time doing that.

It was the wind–and Serena’s difficulty dealing with it–that kept this match going as long as it did.  While it made life difficult for both players at times, especially when playing on the right side of the chair, Serena struggled much more.  She never really adjusted to the conditions, setting up early and taking big swings when the wind was likely to move the ball a bit too much for that.  Many of Serena’s errors–especially her 33 unforced errors on the backhand side alone–can be attributed to that sloppiness.

By the third set, the wind had settled down and so had Serena.  Azarenka provided some help with two crucial double faults in the fourth game of the set, including one on break point.  It wasn’t her first poorly-timed double fault of the match–four of her five came at 30-30 or later–but this one was the beginning of the end.  Unlike in the second set, Serena didn’t let up.  She consolidated the break by holding to love, with an unreturnable, two aces, and a running backhand lob winner.

I wrote this morning that Azarenka’s chances hinged on her serve.  She won 54.5% of her service points, a bit less than she did against Serena in Cincinnati, but better than she did in each of her last three matches in New York.  Had she limited her double faults to less important moments, 54.5% may well have been enough.

In the end, Serena was simply too strong.  Vika is the very best on tour at what she does, negating the advantage of those huge weapons, but it allows her very little margin for error against Serena.  That margin for error wasn’t quite enough for her to pull off the upset today.

Here are the point-by-point-based serve, return, and shot-type stats for the match.

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Filed under Serena Williams, U.S. Open, Victoria Azarenka, WTA

Does Azarenka Have a Chance?

The last two times Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have met on hard courts, Azarenka has come out on top.  As much confidence as that might give her going into today’s final, it might be the only evidence suggesting she’s likely to win.

Today’s match will come down to Vika’s ability to hold serve, and while she has moved quickly through her last two rounds, she has yet to show that she can serve well enough to hold off the onslaught that is Serena’s return game.

In the semifinal against Flavia Pennetta, she lost more service points than she won, and was broken in five of her nine service games.  Against Daniela Hantuchova, she lost 47% of her service points, suffering three service breaks.  Playing Ana Ivanovic, she lost more than half of her service points, and was broken seven times.

While each of those players had a nice tournament, this is not exactly a Hall of Fame lineup that has reduced Azarenka’s service games to coin flips.  None brings anywhere near the weaponry to the return game that Serena does.  And Serena is considerably more difficult to break back.

These numbers make it all the more surprising that the last meeting between these two players ended in Vika’s favor.  Thanks to the hard work of Amy Fetherolf, who charted the Cincinnati final (and analyzed the results here), we have detailed data from that most recent matchup.  Azarenka managed to win 55% of her service points (the same figure she held Serena to) and landed 11 of 12 serves on game points, winning nine of them.

Another promising data point is last year’s US Open final, in which Serena managed to win only 44% of Azarenka’s service points.  In both of these recent contests, the differences between Vika’s first-serve and second-serve success rates is tiny–in New York last year, it was a mere two percentage points–suggesting that she needs only a slight edge at the beginning of a rally to win the point.

Azarenka has the ability to step up her game for the big matches, so the question she’ll have to answer today is: Can she serve more effectively than she has all tournament?  If she does, even at the modest level she did in Cincinnati, we’re in for a very competitive afternoon of tennis.

Check out this final preview from Tom Perrotta, in which everyone agrees that Vika will raise her level today.

If you missed it yesterday, I wrote recaps of both men’s semifinals.  Djokovic-Wawrinka here, and Nadal-Gasquet here.  In those posts you can find links to my point-by-point based stats for both matches.

Finally, don’t miss this piece from Carl Bialik, in which he looks at IBM’s not-very-predictive “predictive analytics,” otherwise known as their Keys to the Match.  Next week, I’ll offer a closer look at the details of the better-performing “Sackmann Keys,” which, it turns out, have much more value for tennis analysis than merely showing up the folks at IBM.

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Filed under Serena Williams, U.S. Open, Victoria Azarenka, WTA

Serena Williams d. Li Na: Point-by-point stats

As with the earlier women’s semifinal, just the stats on this one between Serena Williams and Li Na.

Here are the numbers, on each player’s serve, return, and shot selection.  Enjoy!

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Filed under Match charting, Serena Williams, U.S. Open, WTA

Azarenka d. Pennetta: Point-by-point stats

I won’t be able to do a full recap on the women’s semifinal between Victoria Azarenka and Flavia Pennetta, but I did chart the match.

Here are point-by-point-based serve, return, and rally stats.  Enjoy!

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Filed under Match charting, U.S. Open, Victoria Azarenka, WTA

Halep’s Draw, Serena’s H2Hs, American Advancement

When the US Open Women’s draw was released on Friday, things looked awfully bright for Caroline Wozniacki.  With Maria Sharapova‘s withdrawal, Sara Errani became the #4 seed, meaning that one spot in the semis belonged to Errani–or, more likely, someone who knocked her off along the way.

But Wozniacki is no lock herself.  11 of her last 12 losses have come to players outside the top 20.  She’ll have to do much better than that to take advantage of her position in the Errani quarter.

To find a dark horse for that semifinal spot, look no further than Wozniacki’s latest conqueror, Simona Halep.  Halep crushed Petra Kvitova yesterday in New Haven, marking her fourth title of the year on three (!) different surfaces.  In her last 38 matches, the only player to beat her in straight sets has been Serena Williams.

Halep’s path to the semifinal goes starts with Heather Watson and either Donna Vekic or Mariana Duque Marino, then a possible third-rounder with Maria Kirilenko, whom she has never played.  Errani would be her fourth-round opponent if she lives up to her seeding, though that section is completely up for grabs. Wozniacki–who Halep beat on Friday in straight sets–is the presumptive quarterfinalist.

Strangely enough, Halep is one of the few players in the draw with a reason to fear Errani on hard courts.  In Miami this year, the Italian routed her 6-1 6-0.

Yesterday, when Serena Williams was asked about her rivalry with Victoria Azarenka, she said, “I think the head-to-head is close.”  It’s not: Serena has won 12 of their 15 meetings.  While Vika has won two of the last three–including each of the last two on hard courts–the American won the ten before that.

Given Serena’s dominance over the rest of the WTA, one might reasonably ask whether an 80% winning percentage actually does constitute “close” for the world #1.  Sure enough, there are few players who have topped that.

In her career, Serena has faced 42 different opponents at least five times.  Only 13 of those have won one-quarter or more of their meetings, and only five of those remain active.  To go even further, three of those five–Venus Williams, Nadia Petrova, and Francesca Schiavone–no longer figure to threaten Serena at all.

The remaining two players are Jelena Jankovic (4 wins in 10 meetings) and Samantha Stosur (3 wins in 9 meetings).  Jankovic wouldn’t face Serena until the semifinals, and Stosur until the finals, even in the unlikely event either player made it that far.

Of course, there are good players who have met Serena fewer than five times, including her possible fourth-round opponent, Sloane Stephens.  Of the 108 active players who have ever faced Williams, Sloane is one of only five who have won at least half of their meetings with her.

The three US women who qualified for the main draw pushed the total number of Americans on the women’s side to 19, the highest number since 2006.  Between those qualifiers and a few long-shot wild cards, most of the 19 will be gone a week from now.  But even accounting for plenty of attrition, the American force could continue to shine brighter than they have for nearly a decade.

Based on my draw forecast (which is in turn based on WTA rankings), we should expect to see between eight and nine US women in the second round.  Eight wouldn’t be terribly impressive–that mark was reached in both 2009 and 2011, but nine would represent a step forward, however incremental.  The last time nine or more American women reached the second round was when ten did so in 2005–and that accomplishment required 23 US players in the main draw.

My forecasts predict about four American women in the third round–equal to last year’s mark, and one short of 2011′s.  But if the home favorites can score a couple of upsets and get six women into the round of 32, it would be the first time since 2004, when eight US women made it that far.

If the American women do make a strong showing, there’s an added bonus: It might help us ignore the plight of the American men.

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Trends and Perspective on WTA Retirements and Withdrawals

Yesterday, there was no women’s singles at Indian Wells. Both Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur pulled out of their quarterfinal matches, presenting a very obvious target for anyone concerned about an injury bug in women’s tennis.

Last year, WTA retirements hit an all-time high of 4.8% of tour-level matches, almost a full percentage point above the 3.9% of matches that were not completed in 2006.  While part of the injury total was due to stomach bugs in China and food poisoning at Indian Wells, the overall trend has been upward for about 30 years:

WTArets

While it’s less clear that players are any more likely to pull out of Grand Slam matches (the dark red line in the graph above), there’s no doubt that more WTA matches are ending due to injury than they did 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

In a moment, I’ll explain why this is happening, and why the trend is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.  But first, some perspective on yesterday’s programming disaster.

Since there was nothing else to talk about yesterday in the world of women’s tennis, it was inevitable that the subject of injuries dominated. (Thanks to Federer vs. Nadal on the card, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.) Taking a tournament-wide view, though, this year’s Indian Wells WTA event has been a positive on the health front.

Women’s tennis has seen more than 1 in 50 tour-level matches end with W/O or RET in the score for more than 15 years.  Yesterday’s two withdrawals were the first two incomplete matches of the entire event–including qualifying!  Assuming we get through the semifinals and final without any further problems, that’s 93 of 95 (97.9%) of main draw matches complete, and 129 of 131 (98.5%) of main draw and qualifying matches complete.  Last year, while food poisoning dominated the headlines, there were at least three injury-related retirements from the singles draw, and two years ago, there were five.

These two quarterfinal withdrawals were bad news for television and fans, but they don’t represent a trend.

High stakes, high risk

While Indian Wells has been mostly injury-free, it also shouldn’t be seen as a trend in the positive direction.  WTA players (and ATPers, for the same reasons) are going to keep showing up at tournaments less than 100%, developing health problems midway through tournaments, and generally not finishing all the matches they start.

This isn’t because of too many hard courts, slower balls, mandatory events, doping, or even runaway racquet technology.  It’s because the financial stakes in tennis–and with it, severe inequality in the ranks–are climbing even faster than the injury rate.  The level of fitness required to compete at the highest level is always increasing, and players are forced to choose between trying to keep up or probably falling away.

A simpler example of this phenomenon, and one that makes it easier to illustrate the point, is in competitive distance running.  Marathoners rarely run more than two marathons per year, and there is very little room at the top.  Run a marathon in 2:04 and you’re a superstar. 2:05 or 2:06 and the sponsors will keep supporting you.  If you can’t break 2:10, you’re probably working full-time at a local shoe store.

The most straightforward way to improve your marathon time is to train harder, whether that means more mileage over a several-month training period or more aggressive workouts.  When the choice is between 2:05 and oblivion, the incentives are heavily structured toward overly aggressive training.  There’s not much difference between finishing with a 2:10 compared to overtraining, getting injured, and not finishing at all.

Tennis, of course, is a bit more forgiving.  You don’t need to be one of the top 10 in the world to make a decent living, but then again, to remain in the top 10, you must consistently beat players on the fringes of the top 100, where the incentives are not that different from those in distance running.

As the stakes increase, players are more willing to skirt the edge between hard training and over training.  And while players are getting closer to that line, they are hardly going too far–at least according to their own incentives.  Sure, we’d like to have seen Vika play yesterday, but a few retirements over the course of the year isn’t going to stop her from regaining the #1 ranking.  Two years ago, she pulled out of her quarterfinal with Caroline Wozniacki after only three games–and then started a twelve-match winning streak the following week.

If there were more matches on clay, players would simply push themselves harder on clay courts.  (Anyway, there is almost exactly the same percentage of WTA retirements on clay as there are on hard.)  Same thing if the balls played faster.  If there were fewer mandatory events, we’d see top players engaging in longer periods of hard training. Probably more exhibitions, too.

There are no incentives–nor should there be–for players to stay healthy for the duration of 100% of their matches.  If we want the best players in the world to entertain us with the best possible tennis they can play, retirements and withdrawals are something we’ll have to learn to accept.  We won’t get one without the other.

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