Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Tag: Roger Federer

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.

Djokovic vs Federer vs chance: is the draw fixed?

On Friday, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic line up in the semi-final at Wimbledon. Although they have never played each other on grass before, a semi-final meeting has a very familiar ring to it.

Well, that’s because it is familiar – and a bit too frequent, when you look at the odds.

In fact, since Djokovic broke into the top 4, it is amazing how many times he and Federer have been placed in the same half of the draw. For those unfamiliar with how it should work, here it is:

  • The number 1 and 2 seeds are placed at opposite ends of the draw. Then, the 3rd and 4th seeds are picked at random and placed in one half or the other, away from the top 2 seeds so that they can only meet at the semi-final stage.
  • For many years, Federer was #1 in the world, with Nadal #2 and Djokovic #3 or #4. Now, Djokovic is #1, with Federer #3. Never in a slam have Federer and Djokovic been 1 and 2 seeds.

So, to recap: for since half way through 2007, for each of the four slams in a year, it has been a 50:50 chance that Federer and Djokovic should end up in the same half of the draw.

In fact, since Djokovic has broken into the top 4, (which has coincided with an ever-present Federer in the top 3), they have been in the same half of a grand slam draw 16 times out of 21.

To get 16 heads flipping a coin 21 times is not good odds. For what should be a 50 per cent chance, it is running at over 76 per cent. That looks suspicious.

And in 2009 and 2011, they were in the same half for EVERY slam. That’s a 1 in 16 chance for the year, repeated.

Overall, unless my statistics is letting me down, the chance of 16 out of 21 coin tosses coming up heads is 0.0097 – that’s the binomial probability. Here’s the calculator I used – enter 0.5, 21 and 16 to see the results. That’s not very likely.

[Aside: They are such good players, that out of the 16 times they have been in the top 4 seedings and drawn in the same half, they have managed to get to play each other 9 times, with one or both players going out before the semi stage 7 times.]

Why would you want to play Federer and Djokovic in the same half? To get Nadal in the final, that would be one possibility, to try and engineer more Nadal-Federer finals. Or, more likely, it’s just chance. But a few more Federer-Djokovic semis, and perhaps the players should be hiring statisticians as well as dieticians.

Here’s the data in a Google spreadsheet.

The perils of comparing the greatest at different sports

It could almost be a sport itself – debating who is the greatest sportsman of their sport / generation / all time. The great names are easy to think of – Pele, Federer, Bradman, Woods. Or is it Maradona, Laver, Tendulkar, Nicklaus?

The arguments will rumble on, but a few statistical caveats should always be kept in mind. One is: You can’t compare between sports very easily.

Here’s an example which has made me furious. In a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Jay Elwes tries to make the case for Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar being the best sportsman in the world. Fair enough, a good candidate I’d agree. But just read the following paragraph:

At which point, a question arises: can Federer, perhaps the greatest ever tennis player, be measured alongside Tendulkar? One instructive comparison is the distance by which each leads the trailing pack. Federer has won 16 Grand Slam tennis titles. In second place is Pete Sampras on 14, which makes Federer 14 per cent more successful than his nearest competitor. Tendulkar has scored a total of 32,803 runs for India in Test and one-day internationals combined. Ponting, in second place, has scored 25,769, meaning that Tendulkar has scored 27.3 per cent more again than his nearest rival. His lead is nearly twice that of Federer.

I’d like to say this is a small blip, but it’s not. It seems to be the main data to buttress his argument. What’s wrong with this? In no particular order:

  • Why are total runs so important? Tendulkar is great, but he’s played more matches than anyone else too in both tests and one-day internationals.
  • How on earth can you make sense of a “percentage lead” when the range is 0 to 16? And compare it to a measurement system with range 0 to 30,000 plus? Idiotic.
  • If Federer wins the US Open next month, that puts him 21 per cent more successful than Sampras, up from 14 per cent. And the point is?
  • Comparing grand slams to runs is just bonkers. You accumulate runs, win or lose. You can’t do that with grand slams.
  • Why not compare total tennis match victories to runs? Or test match wins to tournament wins? It would be a more like-for-like comparison, although similarly meaningless.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Cricket and tennis lend themselves to some fascinating statistical analyses. But this is not an “instructive comparison”. It’s grossly misleading, shows little thought, and does the debate about great sportsman no favours. Prospect magazine is a superb publication, but this is not one of their better articles.

Tennis: A rivalry in decline

Lost in all the battle of the streaks – Nadal on clay vs Djokovic in 2011 – was the fact that Nadal and Federer met again in a semi final on Saturday.

It’s a bit of a comedown for the greatest rivalry * in modern tennis. Nadal and Federer have played two semis in a row now, after previously playing in eight finals straight. Overall, of their 24 meetings, 18 have been in finals.

This is going to happen more now that Djokovic is number 2, and closing in on the top spot. At every big event there is a good chance they will be in the same half of the draw.

While nothing lasts forever in sport, I do still hope they play another big final this year. Strangely, it’s been over two years now that they met in a slam. The last meeting was the Aussie Open of 2009, which was a great match.

* greatest rivalry = based on the seven slam finals contested, two more than the next rivalries of Sampras-Aggasi and Lendl-Wilander; and on the time at number 1 and 2 together in the rankings (most of the last six years).

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