Unbroken Grand Slam Quarterfinalists

Through the first four rounds at Wimbledon, Roger Federer‘s serve has not been broken. In that span, he has faced nine break points, including only four in his last three matches.

Since 1991–the first year for which match stats are available–this is only the 8th time a player reached the quarters of a men’s major without losing serve. Only Federer in 2004 and Ivo Karlovic in 2009 have done so at Wimbledon. Federer and Nadal are the only players to have done so more than once. (Fed was also unbroken through four matches in Melbourne last year, and Rafa accomplished the feat  at the 2010 and 2013 US Opens.)

Roger’s nine break points faced are a bit less impressive. More than 5% of the 752 Grand Slam quarterfinalists since 1991 have allowed fewer, including Federer himself on several occasions. He allowed only three break points at Wimbledon in 2007, and only four at three other majors.

Dominant as such a performance is, it’s less clear whether it has any predictive value. A major confounding factor is quality of competition–would anyone expect Paolo Lorenzi or Santiago Giraldo to break Federer on grass? While he built on these superb serving performances and went on to win the title at Wimbledon in 2004 and 2007, he failed to do so at the three majors when he allowed only four break points through this stage of the tournament.

Without accounting for player quality, there is a weak negative correlation between matches won at the event and break points (and breaks) allowed. (For instance, for matches won and break points allowed in the first four matches, r = -0.25. Excluding Roland Garros, r = -0.27.) In other words, if all you know about two players is how many break points they faced in the first four rounds, bet on the guy who faced fewer.

But it’s a weak relationship, and when player quality is taken into account, it vanishes to almost nothing. Eight of the 24 players who were broken one or fewer times in the first four rounds went on to win the title, but I suspect that has more to do with the prevalence of Rafa, Roger, and Pete Sampras–the best players are most likely to go unbroken, and the best players are most likely to go deepest at Slams.

When the best players struggle on serve in early rounds, it’s hardly a death knell for their title chances. Only four times in Fed’s 31 previous hard- and grass-court Slam quarterfinal runs has he been broken more than six times before the quarters, and he won the tournament one two of those four occasions. He’s surely happy to be into the quarterfinals this week with a minimum of fuss, but the fuss level only says so much about how happy he’ll be come Sunday.

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Margin of Error Podcast: Episode 21

A new podcast is out!

Amy and I have plenty to say about the final 16 (or 18, or 19) men and women at Wimbledon. We take you through the first week’s upsets, marathons, and controversies, and look ahead to how the final rounds will play out.

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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Margin of Error Podcast: Episode Twenty with Carl Bialik

Our Wimbledon preview podcast is out!

With Wimbledon only hours away, Amy and I are joined by FiveThirtyEight.com’s Carl Bialik as we preview the upcoming Grand Slam.

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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Teenagers, Thirty-Somethings, and Americans at Grand Slams

I’ve put together a few reports showing how age distributions and US presence have changed over the years at Grand Slams.  Let’s start with player age.

The average age of players in the Wimbledon men’s singles draw is 27.7 years, which is just short of the all-time record, 27.8, set at Roland Garros last month, and equal to last year’s figure at Wimbledon. There are two teens in the draw (up one from last year), and 34 thirty-somethings, which is tied for third-most since 1982.

This report shows the complete year-by-year breakdown for the last 30 years’ worth of men’s slam draws.

The average age in the Wimbledon women’s draw is also very high by historical standards.  At 25.2 years, it’s tied with this year’s French Open and 2012 Wimbledon for the highest ever.  43-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm moves the needle all by herself; without her, the average would be 25.0, still considerably higher than any other pre-2010 slam.

There are ten teenagers in the draw, which is very low for the WTA, but safely above the all-time low of 7, set at Wimbledon two years ago. The total of 16 players aged 30 or over is good for third-most of all time, behind this year’s and last year’s French Opens.

Here’s the WTA report showing these numbers for each slam in the last 30 years.

(All of the figures above for 2014 Wimbledon could change slightly if more lucky losers are added to the draw.)

I also put together a couple of reports showing the number of Americans in each slam draw, broken down by direct entrants, qualifiers, lucky losers, and wild cards, along with the top seed, the number of seeds (and top 16 seeds), plus the number of Americans in each round:

Enjoy!

 

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Margin of Error Podcast: Episode Nineteen

We missed a week, so you’ll never know what we thought about the conclusion of the French Open … but we’re back, and almost as good as usual.

A week into grass season, Amy and I take you through the results in Halle, Birmingham, and London while looking ahead to this week in Eastbourne, s’Hertogenbosch, and Wimbledon qualifying.

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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Margin of Error Podcast: Episode Eighteen

A new podcast is out!

It’s the midway point of the French Open, so Amy and I recap the action so far and preview the final eight men and women.

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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The Effect of 32 Seeds

In the middle of 2001, the Grand Slams doubled the number of seeds in the draw from 16 to 32, a change “designed to protect star players and satisfy clay and grass specialists.”

The intended beneficiaries of the change were, of course, all seeded players. Those in the top 16 no longer had to worry about facing a fellow top-32 player until the third round. Those ranked from 17-32, who before the change may have faced a top 16 player in the first round, now received the same protection.

The costs of the 32-seed system are borne by two groups: unseeded players, who are now more likely to face a top-ranked player early; and first-week fans, who would like to see more “compelling” early-round matches. While it’s easy to point to shock upsets like Serena Williams’s exit today as a counterpoint, the first two rounds at Slams often feel like warm-up matches for the biggest stars, with fringe players as their hapless foils.

On the other hand, it’s tough to get an intuitive sense of just how much is at stake here. It may not be as much as you think. From 1989 to 2000, men’s seeds were upset 263 times in the first two rounds of slams. Only 51 of those losses were to players in the top 32. In other words, more than 80% of those upsets would have occurred even with a 32-seed format, and presumably, some of the remaining 51 matches would still have resulted in upsets.

From the perspective of the top 16 seeds, there may not be that much difference between opponents ranked in the next 16 and those ranked lower still. To cherry-pick just one example, there are many seeded players Stanislas Wawrinka would have rather faced this week than Guillermo Garcia Lopez.

For top-four women, it hasn’t made a difference at all. In the twelve years before the switch, they reached the third round in 176 of 190 attempts. In the twelve years after the format change, women seeded 1-4 no longer risked facing a top-32 player in the first two rounds, and reached the third round in 178 of 191 attempts.

In fact, for top-16 women’s seeds in general, the 32-seed format has not helped. From 1989-2000, women’s seeds reached the third round 77.6% of the time, the fourth round 63.5% of the time, and the quarterfinals 40.8% of the time. From 2002-13, with lower-ranked early-round opponents, the corresponding numbers were 78.2%, 60.1%, and 37.1%.

It’s likely that some of the differences have to do with the increasing depth of the women’s game, but it’s hardly the case that the 32-seed format has drastically changed the nature of the majors, at least for the players who have been seeded all along. Men’s top-16 seeds have benefited, reaching the third, fourth, and quarterfinal rounds about 10% more often since the switch to 32 seeds, but even here, we’re not seeing radically different second weeks.

The real change, as you might suspect, appears when we consider the balance of power between the new seeds (17-32) and the rest of the field. From 1989-2000, when there were only 16 seeds and those two groups were treated the same way, men’s players ranked 17-32 reached the third round about twice as often (35% to 17%) as their lower-ranked competitors. Women in the 17-32 range held a wider advantage of 39% to 15%.

Now that there are 32 seeds and the 17-32 group is protected, those gaps have substantially grown. From 2002-13, men seeded outside the top 16 have reached the third round 53% of the time, compared to 12% for unseeded players. Seeded women in the 17-32 range have reached the third round 49% of the time, while unseeded women have equaled their male counterparts at 12%.

These differences, big as they are, aren’t going to affect most fans’ enjoyment of the majors. The format change means that Rafael Nadal faces a player ranked 60th in the world in the second round and a player ranked 30th in the third round. He’ll almost always win both matches, so the end result is the same. A surprise run to the quarterfinals isn’t much different if it’s made by world #25 than by #50.

However, the 32-seed format does amplify the gap between tennis’s haves and have-nots. Yes, he Grand Slams have massively increased prize money in the last few years for all main-draw competitors–first-round losers in Paris earn more than $32,000 for their efforts. But players who reach the third round are able to triple that money.

As we’ve seen, the format change has made it much more likely that #32 reaches the third round (and takes home a nearly six-figure purse) at the expense of everyone ranked lower–despite having little effect on the makeup of the field in the fourth round and beyond.  Plus, the ranking points on offer at Slams mean that third-rounders are that much more likely to earn a seed at the next major, starting the next round of the same cycle.

Seeding 32 players instead of 16 doesn’t have much of an effect on the fates of top players, especially on the women’s side. It can, however, lessen interest in the first several days of play, and it certainly supports an arbitrary middle tier of players at the expense of the rest of the field.

If the 32-seed era were to end here, there’s little reason for tennis fans to miss it.

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