Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the (Extremely Specific) Post-Masters Blues

Two days after winning a Masters title in Toronto, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played his first match in Cincinnati. Betting odds had the Frenchman as a heavy favorite over the unseeded Mikhail Youzhny, but a sluggish Tsonga dropped the match in straight sets.

An explanatory narrative springs to mind immediately: After playing six matches in a week, it’s tough to keep a winning streak going. Losing the match, even against a lesser opponent, is predictable. (Of course, it’s more predictable in hindsight.)

As usual with such “obvious” storylines, it’s not quite so straightforward. On average, ATP title winners who enter a tournament the following week perform exactly as well as expected in their first match of the next event. The same results hold for finalists, who typically played as many matches the previous week, and must also bounce back from a high-stakes loss.

To start with, I looked at the 1,660 times since the 2000 season that an ATP finalist took the court again within three weeks. Those players won, on average, 1.93 matches in their post-title event, losing their first matches 29% of the time. Their 71% next-match winning percentage is virtually identical to what a simple ranking-based model would predict. In other words, there’s no evidence here of a post-final letdown.

More relevant to Tsonga’s situation is the set of 1,055 finalists who played the following week. Those men won 1.7 matches in their next event, losing 31% of the their first matches at the follow-up event. That’s about 1% worse than expected–not nearly enough to allow us to draw any conclusions. Narrowing the set even further to the 531 tournament winners who played the next week, we find that they won 2.0 matches in their next event, losing 26.3% of their first matches, just a tick better than the simple model would predict.

Some of these numbers–1.7 match wins in a tournament; a 70% winning percentage–don’t sound particularly impressive. But we need to keep in mind that the majority of ATP tournaments don’t feature Masters-level fields, and plenty of finalists are well outside the top ten. Plus, the players who play an event the week after winning a title tend to be lower ranked. Masters events occupy back-to-back weeks on the schedule only a couple of times each season.

If we limit our scope to the more uncommon back-to-back tourneys for Masters winners, a bit of a trend emerges. The week after winning a Masters tournament, players win an average of 2.9 matches, losing their first match only 20.4% of the time. That sounds pretty good, except that, in the last 15 years, the group of Masters winners has been extremely good. That 80% first-match winning percentage is 5% below what a simple model would’ve predicted for them.

If we limit the sample even further, to Masters winners ranked outside the top five–a group that includes Tsonga–we finally find more support for the “obvious” narrative. Since 2000, 17 non-top-fivers have shown up for a tournament the week after winning a Masters event. They’ve won only 1.8 matches in their next events, losing their first match more than 40% of the time. That’s 20% worse than expected.

This small set of non-elite Masters winners is the only group I could find that fit the narrative of a post-title or post-final blues. (I tested a lot more than I’ve mentioned here, and nearly all showed players performing within a couple percent of expectations.)

Tsonga cited low energy in his post-match press conference, but we shouldn’t forget that there are plenty of other reasons the Frenchman might lose a first-round match. He’s split his six career matches against Youzhny, and 7 of his 19 losses in the past year have come to players ranked lower than the Russian. Losses don’t always need precedents, and in this case, the precedents aren’t particularly predictive.

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Westerhof, Van Der Duim, and a Strong Whiff of Match Fixing

This afternoon at the ATP Meerbusch Challenger in Germany, all eyes were definitely not on a first-round match between Dutchmen Boy Westerhof and Antal Van Der Duim. Both are ranked outside the top 250, neither has ever cracked the top 200, and both are in their late twenties.

It appears that the two players assumed no one would be watching. Before the match, the markets on Betfair were very suspicious:

For those of you not accustomed to parsing betting markets, here’s a summary of what the market thought was going to happen:

  • Van Der Duim’s chances of winning the match were between 75% and 80%.
  • Van Der Duim’s odds of winning the first set were roughly 35%.
  • There was a better than 50/50 chance that Van Der Duim would win the match in three sets. The odds of any other specific outcome (e.g. Westerhof wins in three) were minuscule in comparison.

The match odds in themselves might have raised a few eyebrows, but could be written off as owing to Westerhof’s recent run of poor play, or perhaps some information gathered on site about a nagging injury. When combined with the other markets, however, it’s clear that something very fishy was going on.

The match went precisely according to script. After Westerhof took the first set, 6-4, the market got more and more confident about Van Der Duim winning the second set:

Van Der Duim remained the favorite even after going down an early break in the second set. Shortly thereafter, with no cameras watching, Westerhof seems to have decided not to waste any more time:

https://twitter.com/baselinebetting/status/498823405282807809

In the end, Van Der Duim beat Westerhof, 4-6 6-3 6-3. No one following the betting markets was at all surprised.

Nor should we be shocked that this sort of thing happens. With the middling prize money on offer at Challenger events–Westerhof will get about $500, and if Van Der Duim loses in the next round, he’ll be awarded about $800–there’s more money to be made by losing matches than winning them.

While we don’t know how often matches are fixed, something was very wrong about this one. Because the markets so blatantly telegraphed the fix, it poses an important question to the sport’s governing bodies. If they don’t take this opportunity to act, it will send a very clear message to Challenger-level players that match-fixing is acceptable practice.

(Thanks to the three Twitter users quoted above, who brought this match to my attention.)

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Filed under Betting, Challengers, Match Fixing

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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ATP Single-Country Finals in the Open Era

Today’s Washington final between Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil is the first all-Canadian final in the Open era. Here’s a list of the other 20 countries that have represented both sides of an ATP final, along with the total number of such finals and the most recent such match:

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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

Serve-and-Pray: The Quirks of Isner’s Early Exit

The big story after Steve Johnson‘s upset of John Isner today was Isner’s unhappiness with his court assignment. Still, for those of us more interested in the game itself than in post-match carping, Johnson’s surprise victory was plenty notable.

Almost every Isner match is a serve-dominated, one-dimensional contest. This one was even more unidimensional than usual. Both players won 89% of first-serve points, a combined mark that stands as the most extreme of the season. Two players haven’t combined to win more than 89.2% of first serve points since Brisbane early last season, when Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic combined for an outrageous 94.0% of first-serve points won.

The difference between Isner and Johnson–slim as it was–appears in their success rate on second-serve points. Johnson won an impressive 68% of second offerings, while Isner won only 43%. That typically doesn’t do the job–since 2010, Isner has won only eight of 36 matches when he wins fewer than 45% of second-serve points. Still, he managed to avoid clustering too many of those ineffective second serves, allowing Johnson only two break points.

As bad as that second-serve winning percentage is, it would often by sufficient when combined with that other-worldly win rate on first serves. Taken together, he won 73% of service points, which–barring particularly good or bad streaks–translates to a hold of serve in 93% of service games. That’s Isner’s hold rate for the season so far, and sure enough, it was his hold rate today, when he was broken only once in 16 tries.

While Big John often seems unbreakable, he typically loses a service game or two in every match–even on the days he wins. He’s been broken exactly once in nine hard-court matches this year, and he’s won seven of those matches.  Since 2010, he’s won 45 of the 60 matches in which his opponent broke him exactly one time–many of them thanks to his excellent tiebreak record.

But today, his opponent really was unbreakable. Compared to Johnson’s service numbers, Isner’s look positively pedestrian. Steve won 80% of service points, which–again, barring too much streakiness–translates to a hold of service in an incredible 97.8% of service games. Put another way, that’s one break of serve every eight sets or so.  (For reference, Isner’s 93% season-to-date average is best on tour, and no one topped 92% for the 2013 season.)

Johnson’s not usually that good–Isner’s indifferent return game explains much of the magnitude of these numbers. Still, it’s an extremely bad return performance by any standard. It’s only the fifth time since 2010 that Isner has won so few return points in a match he completed, and it’s only the second time this year he has failed to earn a single break point. Remarkably, that last aspect of return futility isn’t always enough to keep him out of the win column: Three times, he has won a tour-level match without earning any break points.

Today, despite the lack of break points, despite the dismal second-serve percentage, despite winning 12 fewer points than his opponent, he found himself in a third-set tiebreak, two points away from victory. Big John’s game isn’t much fun to watch–while this all transpired, I was across the grounds taking in a doubles match–but on paper, his results are endlessly fascinating.

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Filed under American tennis, John Isner