Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Tag: Ivan Lendl

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.

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

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