Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: tennis (page 1 of 2)

Titles make great players, not the other way round

Blip?

I was at the ATP Finals at the O2 on Sunday, for the excellent Goffin – Dimitrov final. As good as the match was, there was a feeling that the understudies were taking centre stage. No Rafa, no Roger. No Murray or Djokovic.

The lack of “Big 4” players at the end of year finale was acute, made real by their selling power. Djokovic was omnipresent at North Greenwich tube, fronting a Lacoste ad. Inside the 02, the merchandise stall was selling flags – but only the Swiss and Spanish. No Belgium or Bulgaria, the nationalities of the finalists.


Men’s tennis has become complacent. In the year-end tour finals, six of the last 10 years have been exclusively between the Big 4. Their dominance in the Grand Slams is well documented, but as a reminder, since 2006, it’s been only Wawrinka (x3), Cilic and Del Potro that have broken through the hegemony.

Perhaps complacency is harsh – the men’s game has been lucky, blessed even. So when injury and upset take out the big guns, it’s hardly the fault of the men left that they lack gravitas. As several people pointed out, it was the first ATP tour final between two non-grand slam winners.


Ironically, that had become more likely by the dominance of a few players in the slams. What did we expect? Federer and Nadal to go on for ever?

We have entered an unprecedented stage in tennis. With Federer and Nadal on 19 and 16 majors respectively, and Djokovic on 12, they have transcended the prestige of the events themselves. A final without any of the big 4 (or 5 if you want to count Wawrinka) is somehow diminished. It’s easy to be dismissive. The 2014 US Open final between Cilic and Nishikori? A blip. The ATP Finals with Goffin and Dimitrov? Interesting, but so what?

If Dimitrov lands a major or two in the next few years, it will be tempting to post-rationalise the final just gone as a watershed moment; equally, if he doesn’t, it’s just another of the occasional outliers.

As fans and writers, we need to remind ourselves that it is the title that confers greatness on the players, not the other way around. We do get one-off winners of major titles, and it is legitimate to say that they are not a truly great player until they deliver on the big stage again. But we should be careful not to diminish the achievements of yet-to-be-great players along the way. As much fun as 2017’s greatest hits has been with Federer and Nadal ruling the roost, I would love to see the majors go to a few new winners.

Nadal, Berdych and the upper limit of winning streaks

462326540Tomas Berdych must be a relieved man. Having lost 17 times in a row to Rafael Nadal, he has finally snapped the streak at the Australian Open.

Had he lost, it would have been a new record. Tennis rivalries do often produce one-sided periods, but 17 wins for one player in a row is the upper limit. It’s the number of consecutive wins that Bjorn Borg had over Vitas Gerulaitis; that Ivan Lendl had over Tim Mayotte; and Lendl had over, surprisingly, Jimmy Connors.

Weirdly, the upper teens seems to be the limit in other sports streaks too: the Australian cricket team went on a 16-test winning streak in 1999 to 2001. Both New Zealand (twice) and South Africa hold the record of 17 straight test wins in rugby. And Spain’s football team had a 15-game winning run.

Is there a mathematical reason for 15 to 18 being the upper limit of streaks? If it were a coin toss, then probably yes. But sport isn’t a coin toss. The win streaks get harder as teams put pressure on themselves to perform, and opponents look to topple the team of the moment. Of course, it’s easy to give a bad performance, and teams get injuries, or retirements.

The tennis streaks mentioned above have ended at 17 as one of the players retired. The interesting thing about Berdych’s victory is that it is the first reversal. Nadal may have been under par, but the pressure would have been on Berdych to win, rather than in team sports where the pressure piles onto the streak holder.

So which is the next longest active head-to-head winning (or losing) streak? I can’t find a definitive list, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Richard Gasquet against, you guessed it, Nadal. The scoreline is 0-13 in Nadal’s favour.

That quote

As Gerulaitis said after he beat Connors in 1980: “nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times”. Except the ATP record shows that his losing streak against Connors was 12, and was 16 against Borg. (There is a walkover for Gerulaitis in 1978, which you might think counts as a win, but the ATP seems to not count them in the head to heads.) I have no idea where the missing 17th match is.

Should Roger Federer keep going?

461996002Roger Federer’s third round loss at the Australian Open will raise the usual questions about this late stage of his career. Should he call it quits now? Has his time passed?

It seems odd to be urging the world’s second best player (by ranking) to retire. The heart says keep on going. The head?

There have been only 11 men in the open era of tennis to win a major in their 30s. Only four (Laver, Rosewall, Connors and Agassi) have done it more than once. For Federer to join that band, he will have to defy not just age, but statistics.

As players enter the later stages of their career, the big wins dry up. So far, the biggest gap in terms of days from penultimate major to last is Arthur Ashe, who took nearly 2,000 days between his 1970 Australian Open and 1975 Wimbledon victory.

Ashe’s gap is something of an oddity. If we look past, Federer is next with nearly 900 days between his 2010 Australian Open and 2012 Wimbledon win. That’s ahead of Sampras (791 days) from Wimbledon 2000 to the US Open 2002. Even Agassi took over 700 days between his final two slam wins in Australia.

For Federer to win another, the gap would be at least 1,000 days by the time we get to the French or Wimbledon in the summer of 2015. Not impossible, but unlikely.

In terms of slams, Federer’s last gap of 10 events is already higher than the gaps Agassi (8) and Sampras (9) posted between penultimate and last wins. If Federer were to win a slam in 2015, it would be 11, 12 or 13 slam events since his last victory – a gap that looks less and less likely to be bridged.

In other words, recent history shows that it just won’t happen. Last hurrahs don’t happen twice – and Federer has already had his.

Gap in days between penultimate and last major titles
(men over 30 in open era)

Ashe 1985
Federer* 889
Sampras 791
Agassi 728
Newcombe 479
Connors 364
Rosewall 354
Laver 65

* For Federer to win another slam, at least 1,064 days will have elapsed.

Can Federer find that elusive last big win?

Question: Should Roger Federer go quietly into the night?

It’s the first slam of 2014 – the Australian Open – and Roger Federer isn’t in the running.

That’s according to the bookies, who have made him fifth favourite and a pretty outside punt at around 20 to 1.

He’s seeded 6th, which doesn’t sound bad to mortals, but after a decade as either 1 or 2 seed at most events, it feels low.

After a 2013 when he didn’t reach a single grand slam final – and only one semi, the question of his retirement has become more of a debate about dignity than possibility. A new coach – Stefan Edberg, of all people – and a new racquet don’t seem to be putting the pep in his step yet.

One way to judge this not simply to look at Federer’s results, or demeanour, but to find a reasonable comparison. And that player is Pete Sampras – someone Federer has frequently been compared to throughout his career. The comparison is now becoming even more piquant.

Sampras had a similar period of domination in tennis, followed by a tough autumn of his career. But he did something few players get to do: he finished the game as a slam winner, taking the US Open of 2002 vs Andre Agassi, and never played on the main tour again.

The possibility of such a last hurrah is clearly what is driving Federer on. His recent losses in big events to rank outsiders and journeymen such as Tommy Robredo are awful in their way, of course. But only a couple of months on from losing to George Bastl (!) at Wimbledon 2002 in R2, Sampras was able to quit at the very top.

There are differences, of course – but these if anything should give Federer fans hope. Sampras’s ranking plummeted further than Federer’s has – he was 17th in the world in his final match, whereas Federer is still top 10.

On the other hand, Sampras had been to the US Open final in 2000 and 2001 – Federer hasn’t been in a winning position like that for some time. However, in both those matches he lost to Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt in such a manner (both straight sets losses) that it only served to highlight his decline. Basically, he was crushed. Nobody saw the 2002 US Open coming – even his rivals dismissed his chances publicly, which you’re pretty unlikely to hear about Federer this year.

So these charts should give Federer and his fans hope. They show Sampras and Federer’s slam careers – the high degree of similarity – and the last hurrah. Sampras starts with an early success that took a few years to translate into winning the big titles on a regular basis, whereas Federer won his first major later, but then won more slams more often.

The red boxy bit is their period of domination – and the red dots their slam win outliers.

The question is whether Federer can emulate Sampras with a last big win (as Edberg believes he can) – or if that last win has come and gone, in Wimbledon 2012. Statistically, it looks more and more unlikely with every passing slam. But this is more about dreams than reality.

After the US Open win against Agassi, Sampras’s only mistake was to suggest in 2003 that he might make one more run. It was pride talking, and luckily he didn’t try. But if Federer can land one more major in 2014, his course of action should be very clear: retire right then, right there.

Murray vs Djokovic charted: a streaky final

In all the excitement and euphoria of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory – in the UK, at least – one thing has hardly been mentioned: how strange a match it was.

For a 3-setter without any tiebreaks, it was as close and as tight as possible. But yet it didn’t follow the usual pattern of tight games, with each player holding serve until one blinks or a tiebreak ensues.

Instead of the “I hold, you hold” rhythm of most matches, the final instead went in hot streaks. Murray just got more of them than Djokovic.

In fact, looking at the chart below which shows the games won in the match as a descending ladder, there was only one brief period of the game (at the end of the first and start of the second sets) where both men held serve regularly.

You can see that Murray only won two games in isolation (ie sandwiched by Djokovic games). During the rest of the match, he won games in streaks of 2, 3, 3, 5 and 4.

Perhaps it was the heat, or the occasion. Whatever, it’s certainly history.

Nadal’s seeding: Wimbledon’s own subprime crisis

No one can be happy about this.

Grass court tennis has been something of an anomaly on the tour for many years now – there are only a handful of tournaments, and then the biggest catch of them all: Wimbledon.

So when the All England Championships garnered agreement back in 2001 that it could continue to re-jig its seeding, but only by accepting that it had to take the top 32 players in the world, it seemed like a victory for common sense.

And yet we are back at square one. Rafael Nadal is a two-time champion, three-time finalist. He’s just won the French Open. But because of his long injury, his ranking is #5 in the world.

No matter – Wimbledon can bump him up, to 4th or even 3rd seed, surely?

Except it hasn’t worked out that way. Wimbledon now use a formula to work out grass court credentials. It is basically a player’s ranking, plus 100% of grass court points in the last year, plus 75% of the year before.

And that is not enough for Nadal, who lost in R2 in 2012, but was a finalist in 2011. He is 5th seed, behind David Ferrer, who has been to the quarter final just once at Wimbledon.

This isn’t madness – it’s rational. But it fails the smell test. Ferrer isn’t going to win Wimbledon – whereas Nadal has a damn good chance. A decent formula has come up with a nonsense answer. And when the draw comes out on Friday, Nadal may well play any of Federer, Djokovic or Murray in the quarter-finals – a big shame.

This reminds me of the 2007-08 (and onwards) financial crisis. Essentially, the players rankings are a mark-to-market valuation of their rolling 12-month form. But we all know that they are a guide, and a fallible one at that. Otherwise the #1 ranked player would win every time.

What Wimbledon has done is add to that mark-to-market pricing their own extra value-at-grass quant formula, to try and iron out the errors in the value of players measured on other surfaces – concrete and clay, essentially.

But just like the subprime crisis which had its origins in the slicing and dicing of bad mortgages to come up with collateralised debt products, giving them an ‘A’ rating, Wimbledon has sliced and diced the grass numbers, and come up with an equally meaningless result.

Part of the problem is that Nadal and many other players don’t play the grass court warmup events – and therefore don’t have grass ranking points from lesser tournaments – as the French Open and Wimbledon are too close together in the diary. The players need rest instead.

This could all be solved by spreading out the French and Wimbledon tournaments, and creating a grass masters series event in between, to give the grass season proper ranking weight – but everyone has known that for years, and it’s not happened yet.

But unlike the financial crisis, the result of using poor incentives and ill-judged computer formulae won’t result in economic armageddon. It will just skew the tournament a bit and mess up the finals schedule, annoying a few advertisers and a lot of fans. Still a pity though. The sport deserves better.

Why Nadal-Djokovic may be the best tennis rivalry ever

French Open final, 2012

Tennis thrives on great rivalries – they are almost more famous than the players themselves. Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi, Federer-Nadal.

But the current rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal may be the best ever. Here’s the killer fact why:

They are the only pair (in the men’s game) to have contested each of the four major finals. No-one else has done that – not any of the rivalries I mentioned at the start, nor even any of the pre-open era rivalries such as Laver-Emerson.

Why is that important? Well, it shows that they are both hugely talented on all surfaces, and have stamina to get to many major finals. And although this Friday’s meeting at the French Open is a semi rather than a final, due to Nadal’s ranking slipping after a long injury, who would bet against them overtaking the record of eight slam finals held by Federer-Nadal?

Which makes you realise how many finals Nadal has played against Federer and Djokovic – only three of his 16 major finals have been against other players (Soderling, Berdych and Puerta, winning them all).

The BBC (wrongly) stated that: “The Monte Carlo final [earlier this year] was the pair’s 34th meeting, making their rivalry the most prolific in the modern game, with Nadal leading 19-15 overall and 12-3 on clay.”

Update: the BBC updated the story, thanks to Piers Newbery.

Not quite. Lendl and McEnroe played 36 times. But that’s just another milestone soon to be passed by Nadal-Djokovic. Only injury can prevent them breaking several more records.

How Murray could emulate Lendl – but not in a good way

There’s a debate on the BBC website about who would win in a hypothetical tennis match between Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray. My answer:

Neither of them. They would both probably lose.

Here goes the current thinking on Murray and Lendl: Murray hired Lendl because he’s different, and was a winner who struggled early on. Lendl has made Murray a winner – check out the Olympics, US Open. QED.

Except, not quite. Murray has lost 5 slam finals now, 2 of those under Lendl. Is this failure? Only at the highest level. But this is the level we are all talking about.

But here’s the thing: Ivan Lendl is the best runner up of all time.

There is one record of Lendl’s that Murray doesn’t want – the most times as runner up in a major. Lendl holds that crown at the moment, having been 11 times a major runner up. Yes, there were those 8 wins, but no one else has ever lost so many finals.

Now you might argue that Murray has been very unfortunate to come up against only Djokovic and Federer in slam finals – no easy ride there. But that becomes self-fulfilling as an argument. If Murray had won more than he’d lost, we’d be talking about him, not Djokovic, as a tennis great, and wondering what Novak could do to win more slams.

Here’s the list of players by most slam final losses, current players in bold, pre-Open era players in grey. A few more losses, and Murray could be in joint second place.

Runner up Winner Win %
Ivan Lendl 11 8 42
Ken Rosewall 8 8 50
Jimmy Connors 7 8 53
Roger Federer 7 17 71
Andre Agassi 7 8 53
Jean Borotra 6 5 45
Fred Stolle 6 2 25
John Bromwich 6 2 25
William M. Johnston 6 2 25
Rod Laver 6 11 65
Arthur Gore 5 4 44
Bjorn Borg 5 11 69
Andy Murray 5 1 17
Tony Roche 5 1 17
Rafael Nadal 5 11 69
Gottfried Von Cramm 5 2 29
Jack Crawford 5 6 55
Jaroslav Drobny 5 3 38
Stefan Edberg 5 6 55
Herbert Lawford 5 1 17

Murray’s US Open victory: in numbers

2: number of players other than Federer, Djokovic or Nadal to win a slam since Marat Safin in 2005. (Murray and Del Potro)

4: different winners of the tennis majors in 2012. The last time that happened was 2003.

5: Murray won a major in his 5th final, the same as coach Ivan Lendl.

25: winners minus unforced errors deficit for Murray in the final. In all previous rounds he was in credit.

35: break points in the match, with 17 breaks of serve

54: shots in the longest rally of the match.

286: majors since last British winner in 1936. h/t Andy Murray website

294: minutes, the longest US Open final, along with Lendl-Wilander in 1988. h/t Guardian. The only longer final in history is the 2012 Australian Open final.

Plus killer fact to give Murray complete credit, h/t John Crace of the Guardian:

When [Federer, Nadal and Djokovic] won their first major they did so against opponents who had never won a major as well. Murray did so against a man who has won five grand slams and was the defending US Open champion.

The problem with Ashe

Poor old Arthur Ashe. The stadium that bears his name is not a fitting legacy. Every year there is the same problem at the US Open – rain, a Monday final (the 5th in a row) and the debate over building a roof.

The US Open has always put TV interests over those of the players, and the latest final weekend delay will only fuel the debate. But here’s the issue. Ashe is simply too big to put a roof on, without being completely rebuilt. There are bigger stadiums with roofs, of course. But to adapt what’s in place is really hard, given the way the tied stands slope upwards.

Compare Rod Laver arena in Australia, the main court of the Australian Open. I’ve overlaid the Google maps images of both stadiums. You can see how Ashe swallows it up easily.

Source: Google Maps

The US Open needs to get it’s act together, and scrap the plan announced this year that had no roof.

Otherwise, this is what the US Open will be known for:

 

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