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Not A Means, But An End

December 18th, 2012 9 comments

In 2011, for the first time in the Open Era, no male tennis player reached his first Grand Slam semifinal. In 2012 it happened for the second time. This means there hasn’t been a new face in the final four at a Major since the French Open in 2010, when both Tomas Berdych and Jurgen Melzer managed it. It goes without saying that this is the longest such gap in many decades. On the other hand, this year each of the Majors boasted a different winner – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray – which is the first time this has happened since 2003. You may curb your wonderment by recalling that these four men also comprised all the finalists. The Big Four, and despite our best marketing efforts this term retains an Orwellian whiff, have hardly become less dominant. Like all tyrants, they’ll never tire of tyranny, but at least they’ve grown a little more open to sharing amongst themselves.

The Big Four at the Majors

At the Masters level a minor revolution occurred only in the last week of the regular season, when David Ferrer defeated Jerzy Janowicz for the championship in Bercy. It was the first time a player ranked beyond the top four had claimed so august a title in precisely two years. Again, belay your astonishment. Now, as then, it was won by a world No.5 destined soon to rise higher. Indian Wells also had a maiden finalist in John Isner, but this led to nothing. The remaining eight Masters events were won by Federer (3), Djokovic (3) and Nadal (2). Meanwhile the last four at the Tour Finals included Djokovic, Federer and Murray, in addition to previous finalist Juan Martin del Potro, currently ranked No.7. There is no clear end to the repression.

Nadal of course hasn’t played a competitive match since the second round at Wimbledon, and one can be forgiven for assuming this would impact upon the Big Four’s capacity to hoard most of the points. Each of the top four often maintains a stranglehold on his respective quarter of any tournament draw. They don’t necessarily fill out the semifinals at every significant event, but they do manage it far more than at any other time in the sport’s history. Nadal’s withdrawal therefore left a fourth player with an opening. Initially this meant that Andy Murray percolated upwards to assume the third seeding, with Ferrer taking the fourth. Reuters PhotoAfter the US Open, at which Murray was triumphant, Nadal’s ranking slipped to No.4, and Ferrer now took over his compatriot’s seeding directly.

Interestingly enough, this has had only a marginal effect on the top four’s relative dominance, despite Ferrer having his finest season yet. As a group, the top four accrued only slightly fewer points than they had in 2011, which was the most dominant season by so few elite players in history.

The following graph shows the top four’s current aggregate points across all mandatory events (33,180) as a percentage of their maximum possible points (42,740 – derived from all four making at least the semifinals at every event). This is compared to the same data going back to 2000, when the current Masters format was introduced. It gives a useful measure of elite dominance.

Top 4 Points 2012This data excludes the Olympic Games, largely for the sake of convenience, and because the points awarded to the medallists has not been consistent over the years. In any case, including the Games would not materially alter the results: by factoring in the Olympics, this year the top four claimed 77.78% of available points, compared to 77.63% without them.

There was a slight dip from last year, but it’s difficult to see that Nadal’s absence was the sole reason for it. Even healthy, it is unlikely he would have played either Canada or Bercy, and he traditionally hasn’t performed strongly in Shanghai, Cincinnati or at the tour finals (especially with Spain contesting the Davis Cup final soon afterwards). The US Open is where the most points were conceded – Nadal reached the final in 2010 and 2011 – and they were lost to Ferrer, who reached the semifinal. Then again, Madrid was also a significant factor, even though Nadal was playing. Federer was the only player from the top four to reach the semifinals in the Magic Box. In any case, the upshot is that 2012 was the second most dominant season for the top four, despite Nadal missing half of it.

The main impact of Nadal’s absence has been on his own ranking. He remains at No.4, but only barely: he is just 185 points ahead of Ferrer, and if he fails to reach the Australian Open final next month he will very likely tumble out of the top four for the first time in nearly eight years, even if Ferrer doesn’t turn up. Clive Rose/Getty ImagesGiven that turning up is one of the aspects of the sport at which Ferrer excels, and that Nadal hasn’t contested a competitive match in six months, the likelihood of Nadal falling to No.5 is strong.

Also interesting from the above graph is the lack of change from 2003 to 2005, despite the seismic upheaval to the top of the men’s game wrought first by the ascension of Federer in 2004, then of Nadal a year later. The explanation is that in 2003 the points were spread evenly across the top four (Roddick, Ferrero, Federer and Agassi), while the following year, the first of Federer’s dominance, saw a far greater concentration at the top. This continued in 2005, when Nadal commenced his 160 week stint at No.2, and took most of his points from the Nos 3 and 4 (Roddick and Hewitt). But for all three years the aggregate points concentrated within the top four saw only a minor rise.

Indeed, by using the same data we can see precisely how dominant the No.1 has been in a given year. The following graph shows the year-end No.1′s points as a percentage of his maximum total points across all ‘mandatory’ events. This therefore shows how close the No.1 came to having a ‘perfect’ year.

Top 1 Points 2012This usefully demonstrates the sudden leap in 2004, but also reveals that this level of dominance has continued since, despite the increasing competition among the top three or four. For comparison’s sake, we would have to go back to 1994-1995, which were the early years of Pete Sampras’ reign, to find a commensurately dominant No.1. (However, given the more haphazard manner in which points were awarded back then the comparison is somewhat spurious.) It also demonstrates that Federer’s 2006 is the most dominant year for a single player, at least given the metrics used here: that year he claimed over 75% of the total points he could have claimed at the biggest events.

This graph also shows us that Djokovic has been slightly less imposing this year than in 2011, which I’m pretty sure we already knew, and should be obvious from the fact that he spent almost half the season at No.2. The surprise, however, is that overall he hasn’t been that much less dominant, which somewhat flies in the face of common wisdom, and indeed seems almost counter-intuitive given the year Federer had. After all, last year Djokovic won three Majors and five Masters events. This year he only won one and three respectively. How can the numbers be so close? The explanation is that by reaching the final of Roland Garros, by winning the World Tour Finals undefeated and by performing strongly elsewhere, the world No.1 mostly off-set those other tournaments at which he failed to replicate last year’s total mastery. He has put together one of the finest seasons in history, and he has managed to do it while winning ‘only’ one Major. The top four have shared plunder more equally than ever before, but Djokovic, once again, has proved that some players are just a little more equal than others.

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Hardcourt Retrospective 2012 (Part Two)

April 5th, 2012 No comments

This is Part Two of my look back at some of the players for whom the hardcourt season proved definitive, for better or for worse. The selection of players discussed might seem odd, although this is hopefully only because it is necessarily incomplete. A summary with everyone in it wouldn’t live at all, even assuming I had the wherewithal to try it. I don’t.

It is rare for any player’s ranking to plummet suddenly for no reason, and the reason is usually injury. Somdev Devvarman’s shoulder hasn’t played tennis since last October, and its ranking has fallen to No.185. Ricardas Berankis and his herniated groin are thereabouts, as well, as is Lleyton Hewitt’s big toe. Robin Soderling’s ongoing tussle with glandular fever has had profound repercussions on the upper reaches of the men’s game. In all the Swede has shed 3,115 points. To lend this flat number some depth: this is more points than the world No.9 (Tipsarevic) has in total. Added to this, the top four have between them shed almost 1,000 points over the hardcourt season. That is a lot of extra points knocking around near the top of the game, providing plenty of nourishment for sufficiently hungry and suitably opportunistic players to gorge themselves on. Soderling was still ranked No.5 when the hardcourt season commenced. He is now No.30, and still yet to attain terminal velocity. In another three months he’ll be a respectable crater, and he won’t be ranked at all. There is, tragically, talk that he won’t return.

Andy Roddick’s fall is less readily ascribed to injury, although, being American, it is more amply discussed. There have, of course, been physical issues, but it mostly seems that the game was always fated one day to catch up with him, and that one day it suddenly did. It is to his credit that he outpaced it for so long, and to our lasting wonder that he did so by playing slower. And then he goes and beats Roger Federer. Doing so has dragged his ranking back inside the top 30. He began the hardcourt season ranked No.10.

Like Janko Tipsarevic, whose stated goal of a top twenty finish in 2011 proved excessively modest, Kei Nishikori’s overshot his erstwhile ambition of achieving Project 45 by a long way. (Project 45, you may recall, was the goal whereby Nishikori would become the highest ranked Japanese male tennis player of all time.) He is now at No.17, and has thus set his successor a hell of a task. Still, it’s worth remembering that before he made it past No.45 at the Shanghai Masters, he was comically close for an agonisingly long time. But if Shanghai was his breakthrough, it was his win over Novak Djokovic in the Basel semifinal – the first time a Japanese man had defeated a reigning world No.1 – that proved to be the high point. He began the hardcourt season ranked No.52.*

I was courtside at Melbourne Park when Julien Benneteau defeated his more-lauded but painfully underfed compatriot Gilles Simon in five sets, although I mercifully only saw the last of them. (Guillermo Coria is the only tennis player I’ve ever truly disliked, but I would still rather watch him play than Simon, whose game is basically a dramatisation of a test pattern.) I’ve always held Benneteau in high regard, an opinion entirely out of proportion to how often I’d actually bothered to watch him play. It owes everything to his atypical lack of flair and deep reserves of grit, reliably vitiated by dependable gift for crumbling in the biggest moments, all the while remaining utterly French. This afternoon in Melbourne, Benneteau was slightly magnificent and a touch deranged in running down Simon in the fifth.

When the hardcourt season began he was just another ageing journeyman ranked beyond the top hundred, outrun by the race, who’d come close but had never claimed that maiden title. He has since risen 78 places, and augmented his collection with another two runner-up plates. I remarked after the first of these, in Winston-Salem, that he looked like a man who was now 0-5 in career finals, and suspects there won’t be a sixth. Well, the sixth came in Sydney in January, where he was cursed to face Jarkko Nieminen, a man who has forgotten more about losing finals than even Benneteau will ever learn. Now ranked No.31 and aged thirty, Benneteau has become the highest ranked player without a title. That’s progress.

Matthew Ebden began the hardcourt season ranked No.139, and finished it at No.75. I first saw Ebden play in Brisbane in 2011, when he shocked everyone by defeating Denis Istomin. Interviewed afterwards, Ebden was wracked by residual tremors, visibly shaken by the magnitude of the upset. It had certainly looked like an upset, with the Australian appearing woefully over-matched by the Uzbek journeyman, who had nonetheless contrived to string together enough errors to secure the loss (over 16,000 from memory). Ebden earned a wildcard into the Australian Open on the back of this, and sufficient exposure that those Australians who only attend the event in order to wave flags at obscure compatriots – which is most of them – included him in their meticulously wrought itineraries. He lost to Michael Russell in the first round.

I cannot recall seeing him again until Tokyo in October, when as a qualifier he toiled through to the round of 16, and there took a set from David Ferrer. The following week in Shanghai, again obliged to qualify, he attained the quarterfinals, knocking out Ryan Harrison and Gilles Simon en route. I have no idea what he had been doing in the meantime, but from my time-lapsed perspective he was suddenly a different player: faster, calmer and smarter.

Comparisons to Ferrer are appropriate. Like the Spaniard, Ebden has not allowed a lack of brawn to curtail a fundamentally attacking impulse – those who regard Ferrer as an exclusively defensive player have got it very wrong – and boasts a similar capacity when on his game to punch well above his weight. Buttressing these tendencies is a fairly assured all-court game, good mobility and an impressive calmness at key moments. Of course, he is not as fast as Ferrer, nor as technically assured, and he may well never breach the top fifty. Nevertheless, his exploits in Asia last year earned him a year in the top 100 – and the luxury of regular direct entry into ATP events – and so far he seems to be doing enough to stay there. Perhaps ironically, his best result came at Indian Wells a few weeks ago, when he was again compelled to qualify, before straight-setting Mardy Fish on the way to the fourth round.

*I should register an important qualification here. The period in question – July 2011 to April 2012 – includes a number of results from non-hardcourt events, most notably the Golden Swing and the Davis Cup. These results are of particular importance to players such as David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, but also to Nishikori.

Hardcourt Retrospective 2012 (Part One)

April 4th, 2012 8 comments

The ATP calendar has never made a great deal of sense, which is no great issue, since nowhere is it written that sporting schedules need to be sensible. In the case of tennis, a global concern with a vast delta of revenue streams, it mainly has to be consistent. While there are certainly issues with the current 52 week entry system, it more or less flows smoothly based on the fact that the same tournaments are mostly played at the same time each year. Olympic years, in which an additional premier event is plonked down midstream in September, thus always throw the calendar out of whack. Lesser tournaments are pushed to the banks, and the lower ranked players, for whom merely staying afloat is an admirable goal, bob and submerge fitfully.

This year, the Davis Cup quarterfinals have been hauled forward from their accustomed position after Wimbledon (when broad public interest in tennis has begun precipitously to wane), to the week after Miami (when it has barely started to wax). Those players whose nationalistic fervour demands immediate expression have already scattered to the various ties across the globe. Others, their patriotism on a slower burn, are holding out for the Olympics, and have retreated in the meantime to their pleasure barges. Davis Cup weeks always dam the season’s lurching flow, though in this case it has yielded a valuable moment to regroup, before the annual invasion of Southern Europe begins anew, launching from its traditional staging points in North Africa and, um, Houston.

With space in which to do so, it seems appropriate to look back on the hardcourt season that has just concluded, which began in Atlanta last July, and concluded in Miami a few days ago. This period incorporates the US Summer, the Asian swing, the European indoors, Australia, and the disparate events in February that culminate in the US Spring Masters, and therefore includes two majors, six Masters 1000, the World Tour Finals, and a multitude of 250 and 500 events. As I’ve said before, it’s a worthwhile way to look at the season, as a hardcourt marathon interrupted by those too-brief months on the dirt and turf of Europe. A longer perspective is always a useful thing to maintain.

Hardcourt Rankings

This list ranks players by their accumulated points across the hardcourt season.* Their actual current ranking is in brackets.

  1. (1) Novak Djokovic – 7,700
  2. (3) Roger Federer – 6,845
  3. (4) Andy Murray – 5,540
  4. (2) Rafael Nadal – 3,990
  5. (6) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – 3,780
  6. (7) Tomas Berdych – 2,995
  7. (5) David Ferrer – 2,645
  8. (8) Janko Tipsarevic – 2,550
  9. (11) John Isner – 2,270
  10. (9) Mardy Fish – 2,135

That Novak Djokovic’s hardcourt ranking matches his overall ranking suggests that his exemplary hardcourt performances were matched by brilliance on the natural surfaces, yet another example of a statistic miraculously revealing information we already knew. His accumulated point haul includes victories at the US Open and Australian Open, as well as Masters titles in Montreal and Miami. Owing to exhaustion and injury, his results fell away after the US Open, and so far he has not quite reproduced last year’s post-Melbourne level, although he isn’t far shy. In all Djokovic claimed four titles, and achieved an overall match record of 42-6 (.875).

Roger Federer’s hardcourt ranking is higher than his overall ranking, which is hardly surprising when we consider that his hardcourt points account for about 76% of his total points. This reflects lustreless results on clay and grass – the French Open being the brightest spot – mixed with blinding hardcourt performances in the European indoors and throughout February and March of this year. In all Federer won six tournaments, including a record sixth World Tour Finals, the Paris Indoors (for the first time) and Indian Wells. He failed to pass the semifinals at either of the majors. His overall match record was 46-5 (.902), the best on the tour.

Andy Murray won Masters events in Cincinnati and Shanghai, and like Federer reached the semifinals at each of the majors. Despite a weak loss at Indian Wells, he seems to have eschewed his habitual post-Melbourne failure-bender, which has only helped his ranking. He also cleaned up the entire Asian swing last September, thereby impressing everyone except Federer, whose vaguely dismissive comments inspired rancour among those Murray fans who are inclined toward defensiveness, which is to say most of them. The highlight was his third set masterpiece in the Tokyo final, in which he allowed Nadal just four points. In all Murray claimed five hardcourt titles, and compiled a record of 42-8 (.840).

Rafael Nadal’s hardcourt season was arguably the most disappointing of his career, insofar as he failed to win a single tournament, and therefore sustained the amazing streak of having never defended a hardcourt title. At the same time, he reached three finals, including at the US Open and the Australian Open, where he unhappily discovered Djokovic. His hardcourt efforts were punctuated by several self-enforced sabbaticals, following the Shanghai Masters, and after the Australian Open. Nadal’s hardcourt season ended with a withdrawal from the Miami semifinals last weekend, citing knee tendinitis. There is a fervent hope that his recovery will be swift, given Monte Carlo’s traditional role in kick-starting his year, and his ranking’s overwhelming reliance on clay and grass results. His overall hardcourt record was 31-10 (.756).

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s hardcourt campaign began auspiciously in Montreal, where he recorded his second straight victory over Federer, although he would go on to lose to the Swiss four times before the end of the year. Tsonga’s strongest results came in the European indoors, reaching the finals at Bercy and the Tour Finals, and taking the title in Vienna. His strong performances have as ever been offset by bafflingly poor ones, such as the fourth round loss to Nishikori in Melbourne. However, a sustained period without grievous injury has finally allowed Tsonga to demonstrate something of his abilities, and he will likely take over the No.5 ranking in the coming weeks. Overall through the hardcourt season he won two titles, and put together a record of 43-14 (.754).

When John Isner reached the final of Indian Wells a few weeks ago, there was mild shock among casual fans not only at his defeat of Djokovic, but at the idea that he could come so far. But it’s worth remembering that he’d only been a point away from making the previous Masters final, in Bercy. His tendency to become embroiled in draining epics has probably enhanced his reputation, but it has ultimately cost him success. Even when he wins, he can rarely muster much resistance in subsequent rounds. This cost him at the Australian Open, where an electrifying five set win over Nalbandian left little in reserve for the eminently beatable Lopez in the next round. For a guy with his weaponry, Isner must learn to win with greater efficiency. Through the hardcourt season, he won one title, and achieved a record of 33-14 (.702).

Tomorrow, Part Two will look at those players ranked beyond the top ten.

* These figures do not include Davis Cup matches played on hardcourt.

Ten Maidens

December 18th, 2011 No comments

In 2010, five different players captured a maiden title, although history does not record what they did with it after that. Whatever it was, once word got round the locker-room the deed was keenly emulated. In 2011 the number doubled. We can only hope the treatment has been humane, unlike in the seventies, when a captive maiden title might be chained up in a basement for months, and confined to a subsistence diet.

In terms of patterns, I’d love to report that hours of staring at the winners list has yielded a sudden, searing insight. Sadly, there is little to say. Every winner was from a different country. Some winners were virgins in their first final, others veterans in their fifth. I would have laid down money against at least one of them ever claiming a tour trophy, whilst two others were the most notable players without silverware. About all we can usefully say is that all of the events were 250 level, and that the top four did not grace any of them, which has become the sole precondition of anyone else winning. Is it worth mentioning that nine out of these ten players have subsequently achieved their highest year-end ranking? Sure, in much the same way that taking to a group of ten bystanders with a fire hose would result in most of them getting wet.

1. Kevin Anderson – SA Tennis Open, Johannesburg
The SA Tennis Open was only a young event, but the unfortunate alchemy of scheduling and geography conspired to fatally accelerate its life-cycle. 2009 was its heyday, and this year saw a rapid decent first into dotage, and then death. It is perhaps poetic that a local won the thing before the end, and Kevin Anderson is a likable guy and a fine player, but he posted more impressive first-round exits elsewhere this year.

2. Ivan Dodig – PBZ Zagreb Indoors, Zagreb
Zagreb also takes place the week after the Australian Open, and thus also guarantees itself a second-rate and locally-weighted draw (Goran Ivanisevic played in the doubles), but it was still a typically gutsy performance from the tour’s most rumpled player (there should be a trophy for that).

3. Milos Raonic – SAP Open, San Jose
This was not the beginning of the slide for Fernando Verdasco, but it was the point at which it became irreversible. The tipping point can be traced to the moment in the final when a fan yelled out on championship point. Busily essaying any excuse he could find, Verdasco missed what everyone else was seeing, which was that Milos Raonic had arrived.

4. Ryan Sweeting – US Men’s Clay Court Championship, Houston
The general feeling was that this was Kei Nishikori’s final to lose. For pundits this was just an abstruse and cliched idea, but for Nishikori it was a cherished goal, which he duly achieved. Sweeting was left holding the trophy, after playing the most ill-tempered first final I have ever witnessed.

5. Pablo Andujar – Grand Prix Hassan II, Casablanca
There is no category in men’s tennis at the moment that does not include a Spaniard in it, almost as though it is a structural requirement of the sport. (Swarthiest? Check. Dreamiest thighs? You bet. Most macho website? Never in doubt.) Anyhow, back in Casablanca, Pablo Andujar became his nation’s representative on the first-time titlist list, dispatching Potito Starace in a nervously-fought, low-grade final.

6. Andreas Seppi – AEGON International, Eastbourne
Unlike his finalist opponent Janko Tipsarevic, Andreas Seppi falls into the category of a seasoned tour stalwart for whom a maiden title was by no means a given. If the Italian was to break through, Eastbourne, played on grass, was perhaps the least likely venue at which to do it. This was the notorious final in which Tipsarevic retired in the final game, as Seppi served for the title, an example of sour sportsmanship will rightly dog the Serbian for years to come.

7. Alexandr Dolgopolov – ATP Studena Croatia Open, Umag
The high quality final ultimately devolved into a flurry of tense errors, dead net-cords and a busted string, but it was the mercurial Dolgopolov hoisting the unbelievably tasteful and understated trophy at the end.

8. Robin Haase – bet-at-home Cup, Kitzbühel
In his first tour final, Robin Haase became the first Dutchman since Martin Verkerk to claim a tour title, a gap of seven years. Until this point we only had the odd brilliant set to make us wonder why Haase can’t play well all the time. Now we have a whole week.

9. Florian Mayer – BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy, Bucharest
I had waited for years for Florian Mayer to start winning titles, having predicted shortly after his appearance on the scene in about 2002 that he was the next big thing, although I was not so blinkered that I believed he would dominate unopposed. Of course he would be sharing the limelight with Xavier Malisse, whose Wimbledon semifinal was clearly a portent of great things to come, and there was residual buzz about that young firebrand Federer. Nine years later, and my prediction has been borne out, if only in Bucharest. I’m willing to admit I was wrong about Malisse.

10. Janko Tipsarevic – Malaysian Open, Kuala Lumpur
It was becoming ludicrous. Janko Tipsarevic was in the midst of a career year, he’d risen over 30 places into the top 20, and he was still without a a title to his name. I think I’m right in saying it was the most talked about thing in Serbian tennis this year, although I am admittedly not abreast of Jelena Jankovic’s antics. The monkey was finally removed from Tipsarevic’s back in Malaysia, and, unbearably lightened, he soared to the Moscow title several weeks later, and eventually floated into the top ten.

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Surely It Cannot Continue

December 16th, 2011 1 comment

There is a theoretical maximum to the number of points that any single tennis player can accrue in a season, and for a long time this year Novak Djokovic was hell-bent on getting closer to it than anyone ever has. If he had his way, that theoretical number would become an actual one next to his name, or he would kill himself trying. As it was, he did almost kill himself. An on-court collapse the weekend after the US Open foreshadowed a weak end to the season. Consequently, the number buffering his ranking is large (13,630), but it isn’t the largest there has been.

Had it been larger, Djokovic might well have taken the apparently coveted Sportsperson of the Year prize doled out by Sports Illustrated, one of the few sporting publications sufficiently august to boast a swimsuit edition. (As it was, the palme went to a couple of college basketball coaches, which was doubtless nice for them. Those of us who chose to be born elsewhere in the world were united in vague surprise that Djokovic didn’t win anyway, and continued bafflement at the strange interest Americans have in university sports.) He’s probably a shoe-in for the Laureus award, anyway, assuming he can overcome spirited opposition from Sebastian Vettel and the long-serving bowling coach for the Gauteng second XI, who’ve had a good run of late, almost winning several close games.

But I have yet to broach a topic, and already I digress. My point is points, and the consideration that Djokovic didn’t quite take them all. As an interesting corollary, every event Djokovic entered but failed to win was subsequently won by Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray. Furthermore, of the ten titles Djokovic did win, in only two cases did he defeat someone other than those three in the final (Belgrade and Montreal), the point being that had he somehow lost those matches, the titles would have remained in the club. All of this is a complicated way of saying that the Big Four have once again dominated the season.

They’ve been doing so for years, of course, and the prevailing belief that they wouldn’t do it again seemed to be based on little more than the assumption that doing so defied reason, which is a species of wishful thinking. As it happened, their domination was more profound than ever. Between the four of them, they claimed every significant title available: four Majors, nine Masters 1000s, the World Tour Finals (and the Davis Cup). On top of that, they all won a 500 level event, and only Nadal failed to win a 250 level one. I am confident in saying nothing like that has happened before.

Furthermore, not only did they win these events, they often filled out the four semifinal berths as well. It has already been pointed out that 2011 was the first year since 1964 that no player reached their first Grand Slam final, and the first time in the Open era that no player reached their first Grand Slam semifinal. That’s quite staggering. There were also no new titlists at the Masters events, and no new finalists. The upshot is that an unholy proportion of available ranking points are commanded by the combined top four (with Djokovic hogging the lion’s share of those).

Since pictures render everything more excitingly comprehensible, here’s a graph to illustrate. It shows the top four’s year end points as a percentage of all available points at the mandatory events (Majors, Masters and the WTF), going back to 1990. The maximum possible points is defined by all four players reaching the semifinals or better at every event.

The spike in 1995 was due to strong seasons by Sampras, Agassi, Becker and Muster, while the subsequent plummet reflected how calamitously several of those players fell away. Since that low point in 1996, there has been a steady trend towards top-heavy domination. In 2011, the top four accrued 81.52% of the theoretical maximum. If anything it appears as though they underperformed last year, lazily gifting Masters titles to Roddick, Ljubicic and Soderling.

Is there really any reason to think things will change next year? Federer has cleared 30, but he is emphatically still Federer and the usual rules do not apply. The other three guys are either 24 or 25, allegedly prime ages for a male tennis player. We look at a year like this year, and think surely it can’t continue. But is that just wishful thinking?

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Rise and Fall (Part Two)

December 14th, 2011 2 comments

Previously I discussed the players who had complied their most memorable season in 2011, at least relative to 2010. Today I’ll talk about those who fell most sharply away. There are various reasons why this might happen. Some players subside as a matter of course, their allotted year in the light having expired. Others, veterans, will sense the race outrunning them for some time, and are finally trampled underfoot. Some get injured. Some just don’t play very well.

Here are the players who shed the most ranking points in 2011. The number in brackets is their points loss for the season.

  1. Robin Soderling (3460)
  2. Rafael Nadal (2855)
  3. Mikhail Youzhny (1815)
  4. Andy Roddick (1725)
  5. Fernando Verdasco (1690)
  6. Jurgen Melzer (1615)
  7. Sam Querrey (1271)
  8. Roger Federer (975)
  9. Marcos Baghdatis (845)
  10. Ernests Gulbis (720)

Ever since Robin Soderling’s ascent in 2009, the top eight has looked sturdier for having him in it. Now that glandular fever has buggered his season and his ranking, it feels as though a crucial link between the truly elite and the rest is missing. Clearly he wasn’t beating the top four with any regularity, but he was a sufficiently imposing quarterfinal presence to keep them honest. He has already withdrawn from next year’s Australian Open (where he has never performed well) and Brisbane (where he is the defending champion). However far he has already fallen, he has some way to go before he can begin climbing again. For a time his mid-career breakthrough was the most intriguing tale in the sport. Let’s hope he can tell it again.

Rafael Nadal’s 2010 season ranks among the most accomplished in the history of the sport. It would have been a tough act to sustain for more than a season, and thus it is essential to remind ourselves that but for the grace of Djokovic, Nadal’s 2011 might well have eclipsed it. There is no way of knowing either way, and to speculate more than idly is the business of the fanatical fan. Djokovic did happen, and Nadal merely registered a season that 99% of professional players in history must envy. He is still No.2 in the world – a not unfamiliar position – despite jettisoning a huge number of points. To put this volume into perspective, if world No.9 Janko Tipsarevic was to shed as many points as Nadal has, he would no longer be ranked as a tennis player, and still owe some change. Like Nadal, Roger Federer dropped points and fell a place in the rankings, momentarily departing the top three for the first time in over eight years. A mighty finish to the season staunched the wound in time, and provided some confusing signals heading into 2012.

Andy Roddick has been on the slide for years, and the fact that the gradient has hitherto been so shallow and smooth speaks amply of his fighting qualities. It also demonstrates how the constant and deliberate effort to purge his game of all dynamism has ensured he mostly beats those ranked below him, but can barely trouble those ranked higher. With the exception of Ferrer at the US Open, Roddick’s efforts against the best players were dire. He was savaged by Nadal in the very next round in New York, beaten up by Federer in Basel, and mugged by Murray at Queens. Indeed, Ferrer had already exacted ‘prevenge’ by cleaning Roddick up in the Davis Cup, on a slick court in Austin. The difference in 2011, and the reason why Roddick briefly departed the top 20, is that he has grown increasingly vulnerable to players below him, such as Lopez at Wimbledon. Holding the floodgates shut as proved an exacting task for many years, and as he now rounds on thirty, it might well have broken him. He will always have his serve, and it will always remain a deal-breaker on fast courts, but barring a miracle run at SW19 I suspect Roddick’s slide will only accelerate.

Youzhny and Melzer are classic examples of players who’d earned a year in the big time – Youzhny had been there before – but inevitably plummeted once their hauls went undefended. I am partial to both guys, particularly Youzhny, and so have been saddened to see it happen. My feelings regarding Verdasco are more ambivalent. He lasted a full two years in the top ten, but ever since Milos Raonic broke his will in San Jose and Memphis, he has barely put together consecutive weeks of real tennis.

When Ernests Gulbis won LA, defeating del Potro and Fish en route, there was a pervasive sense that he had finally found his way. Forgotten in all the hoopla was the fact that LA is a tournament whose best days are long past. Forgotten since has been Gulbis himself, who returned to his feckless shenanigans the following week, and has hardly been heard of since. Meanwhile the ATP website ran an inspirational puff piece on Marcos Baghdatis at the start of the season, the overarching theme of which was that the streaky Cypriot was finally prepared to buckle down and become a proper tennis player, for realsies. The video mainly consisted of him doing sit-ups on a perfect beach, although whether this was meant to stand in metonymically for a broader effort, or whether this was the true extent of his regimen, was never made clear. The upshot is that Baghdatis has attained his lowest ranking in six years, and worked damn hard to get there.

Categories: By the Numbers Tags:

Rise and Fall (Part One)

December 12th, 2011 No comments

The immediately striking feature of this year’s ATP top ten is that it bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to last year’s. Expanding the selection, the same holds true for the top fifty, and even the top hundred. Perusing the lists side by side – a mesmerically dull diversion, I can assure you – reveals that while there are inevitable exceptions, the prevailing theme has been rearrangement rather than rejuvenation.

Whether the rearrangement has merely been of deckchairs on the Titanic depends largely on your point of view. Some insist the sport has never been stronger, for all that the same guys keep winning everything. Others suggest that for a top sport to go so long without wholesale renewal is at best numbing, and at worst foreshadows an iceberg on the horizon. I am temperamentally averse to conspiracy theories and doomsday proclamations, and find myself without a strong opinion. There have been years when every winner commuted in directly from left field, but I don’t recall being more interested as a consequence. In any case, while the top four have again dominated, no one foresaw the way it would unfold. And for all that the exceptions to the general hegemony have been sparse, they’ve also been fascinating, particularly the youngsters on the rise, and the host of players claiming maiden titles. More on those later.

For now, some numbers. Here are the players who have gained the most ranking points in the last twelve months (with their point gain in brackets). This list demonstrates whose 2011 was the biggest improvement over their 2010:

  1. Novak Djokovic (7,390)
  2. Juan Martin del Potro (2,135)
  3. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (1,990)
  4. Janko Tipsarevic (1,660)
  5. Andy Murray (1,620)
  6. David Ferrer (1,190)
  7. Gilles Simon (1,160)
  8. Alexandr Dolgopolov (985)
  9. Mardy Fish (974)
  10. Milos Raonic (910)

Unsurprisingly, Djokovic is on top, although even for those of us intimate with the figures they remaining astounding. While Federer finished with a higher tally in 2006, he started from a much higher base, as the undisputed world No.1. Djokovic has been an elite player for years, but a gain like this reveals just how profoundly his breakout season has come from nowhere. Del Potro’s place is hardly surprising, since he is also an elite player, and he had almost nothing to defend this year. Both Ferrer and Fish have built on strong results last season, and have become noted presences at bigger events. Gilles Simon hasn’t, but he is somewhere back where he should be after a year marred by fatherhood.

Janko Tipsarevic is arguably the big story here. He finished 2010 ranked 49th, with 935 points to his name, having spent his final match of the year benched while Troicki won Serbia the Davis Cup. He finished this year ranked forty places higher at No.9, reached five tour finals, and actually won a few, which proved to be a refreshing change. His final match of the year was at the O2, where he took out Djokovic. That can be regarded as belated revenge for dozens of prior losses, or, radically, it can just be viewed as a tennis match.

Andy Murray gained almost as many points as Tipsarevic, and consequently saw his ranking soar from No.4 all the way to No.4. To further illustrate this – since the concept of a number not changing is just too complicated to grasp in one go – here are the top hundred players who have seen the largest ranking jump this season. Murray features nowhere on this list. The first number is the ranking jump over the last twelve months. The current ranking is in brackets.

  1. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe – 297 (81)
  2. Juan Martin del Potro – 257 (11)
  3. Bernard Tomic – 166 (42)
  4. Dmitry Tursonov – 157 (40)
  5. Flavio Cipolla – 136 (75)
  6. Alex Bogomolov Jr – 132 (34)
  7. Milos Raonic – 125 (31)
  8. Matthew Ebden – 97 (86)
  9. Lukas Rosol – 94 (70)
  10. Ryan Harrison – 94 (79)

A disparate collection, to be sure, and it would be quixotic to seek a unifying theme here. Del Potro and Tursonov are accomplished tour mainstays returning from injury, although the magnitude of their accomplishments is in inverse proportion to their flamboyance (Tursonov is hilarious). Milos Raonic features on both lists (unsurprisingly), but here he is joined by Tomic and Harrison. I will discuss this group in further detail soon, but for now it is worth pointing out that Raonic’s dramatic ascent was achieved in a season abbreviated by injury, suggesting he has a ways to rise yet.

Matthew Ebden is an interesting case: a kind of Australian Ferrer on under-drive, his ranking is testament to how even quintessential journeymen are only ever one strong run away from a year in the big time. He scrapped his way through qualifying to the quarterfinals of the Shanghai Masters, and there gave an honest account of himself against a rampant Murray, and for that has been rewarded with a year’s worth of direct entry into the majors, and a solid base from which to ascend higher should the gods smile again.

Young German lefty Cedrik-Marcel Stebe tops this list, although it was a steady year on the Challenger circuit that pushed him arse-backwards onto the main tour. Final and shocking impetus arrived when he romped to the title at the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, overcoming such A-list journeymen as Dudi Sela and Rui Machado. He posted four wins at tour level this season, and I saw two of them, and both were over Nikolay Davydenko. The prevailing vibe was that this demonstrated just how far the Russian had fallen, and I remain more or less inclined to this view. However, it is harder to defend when I note that he also beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets on clay, although the fact that he did the same to Fabio Fognini and Thomas Muster could mean anything.

Alex Bogomolov Jr also rates a mention, although he has hardly gone unmentioned of late. If Ebden’s example is suggestive, then Bogomolov’s is exemplary. A Challenger fixture for nigh on a decade, prior to last May Bogomolov had only fleetingly cracked the top 100, and that was eight years ago. I can hardly recall not seeing him grinding away at the Australian Open qualifying event each year, and on at least three occasions I have wondered aloud how this diminutive fellow with no appreciable gifts beyond doggedness and a certain flair for mis-wearing hats summoned the will to continue. Like so many Americans, his faith in the big break rewarding honest toil was apparently unshakable. It turns out his faith was justified. He is somehow two withdrawals away from an Australian Open seeding. And now, having realised the American Dream, Bogomolov has committed to pursuing a Russian one.

Next I will discuss those players who fell away in season 2011. Andy Roddick will not go unmentioned.

Categories: ATP Tour, By the Numbers Tags:

Low Ebb

September 22nd, 2011 1 comment

And so we have arrived at that point in the season when even hardcore tennis fans – historically a penalty for larcenists and false witnesses – find it hard to get motivated to follow the sport, unless they find themselves mired in Metz or Bucharest for whatever reason. The Davis Cup semifinals effectively drained whatever scant reserves remained after the US Open, leaving us groaningly supine on the floor. (Hang on, that was somebody else.) I suspect I’m not the only one whose determination to follow the continuing adventures of, say, Juan Ignacio Chela is at a low ebb.

Insofar as it gives us something coherent to look forward to, the ATP’s Asian Swing initiative can be considered a success, but that won’t commence until next week, and, unlike last year, it is doubtful whether a player of Rafael Nadal’s calibre will be gracing Bangkok. (For starters, he’s pretty dinged up. Secondly, his unlikely semifinal exit to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez from last year’s event – in which he blew no fewer than four thousand break points in the second set – probably retains some dire juju.) Anyway, even these meagre offerings are a week away, which makes the profound incongruity of the current events in France and Romania – really, clay? – even harder to fathom, and almost impossible to get aroused by.

With that in mind, and conceding that for most people the season has more or less ended – tennis will flash briefly back into consciousness for the Tour Finals and the Davis Cup finale – it’s worth looking at what the rest of the year holds. What are the things to look out for, the narratives to follow? While there are no more majors, that doesn’t mean the top players cease playing, even if some of them will not emerge from their pleasure palaces for some time yet. There is also a host of players for whom the slick lurid indoor courts of Europe represent the most attractive part of the season. And of course, there are the incomparable trophies, each a lavish monument to kitsch.

The most notable thing we won’t be seeing, at least until Basel or even Paris, is the world No.1. Novak Djokovic has a muscle tear in his rib, and will remain absent for at least a month. I think he’s getting married or something as well. Apparently Andy Murray will be his best man. Does anyone else find it jarring the way top players refer to each other in the press by their last names, even when they are close friends. Thus Djokovic will call Murray ‘Murray’ in his press conferences. Try referring to your closest friend by their surname for a day, and see how it feels. In any case, ‘Djokovic’ will be back just in time for the World Tour Finals. Winning at the O2 Arena will be a tough assignment without adequate match play, although this was a trick Federer used to pull.

Speaking of Federer, he will be the one to watch, since, probably for the first time ever, he finds himself in the position of having to defend fistfuls of points at the end of the season, courtesy of the sustained tear he went on last year upon hiring Paul Annacone. This run gained him three titles and over 3,000 points, but means that he has far more at stake than anyone else as 2011 grinds down. Of course, he won the Tour Finals in spectacular fashion in 2010, defeating Nadal, Djokovic, Soderling, Ferrer and Murray for the loss of a single set. If he doesn’t match that, there is a reasonable chance he will end the season at a modest No.4, although this will depend on Murray’s performance.

Of course, ‘depend on Murray’ is a phrase that should see only ironic deployment. I don’t want to imagine what will happen if he is in charge of organising the stripper for Djokovic’s bachelor party. (Actually I lie; imagining mishaps involving strippers is always worth the effort.) Other things to look forward to:

  • The dusted pink and purple court of Basel.
  • Players entering the court accompanied by naff theme music and light shows.
  • Delighting at whichever Frenchman brings the Paris Indoors to life.
  • Finding out whether Diego Maradona will again grace the O2 Arena, and if so, whether he will still have a cameraman assigned to finding him in the crowd.
  • Discovering whether David Nalbandian will realise his purportedly boyhood dream of winning the Davis Cup, on clay, against Spain, in Spain.
  • Whether the crowd in Shanghai remains as maniacally excitable as last years, when they gasped and hooted at every let, ballboy stumble or stray seagull.
Categories: ATP Tour, By the Numbers Tags:

This Mighty Quartet

July 18th, 2011 3 comments

There is a case to be made that there is no such thing as the Big Four. Those opposed to the idea correctly point out that Andy Murray has never won a major, and therefore does not merit inclusion in any assembly so august as to feature Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It’s a fair point, and if the criteria for membership in this purely theoretical club included a proven capacity to bag Grand Slams, then the naysayers nays would be hard to gainsay.

But insofar as the Big Four means anything at all – and it is largely a mirage – its coherence derives from the capacity to behave as a unit, one that makes less sense without Andy Murray included. The top three win just about everything, it’s true, but the top four not only win everything, but disqualify anyone else from even getting close. So like all imagined communities, it is defined by what it excludes, which in this case is just about everyone. These considerations are particularly relevant right now, having just witnessed a twelve month stretch in which the top four’s dominance is utterly unprecedented, and as we move to the North American hardcourts, a surface upon which none of the four are at their worst, and some are at their best.

In the last 12 months, there have been 14 significant tournaments contested (excluding Davis Cup, a special case). These have comprised four majors, nine Masters 1000 events, and the World Tour Finals. For top players, these comprise the compulsory parts of the season, the events to which they must turn up, or otherwise risk fines, forgo prestige and miss out on the big points hauls. The Big Four turned up at 12 of these 14 events, with Nadal missing the Paris Indoors, and Djokovic opting out of Monte Carlo. In all but one case (Cincinnati 2010), at least three of them made it to semifinals, and in every case, one of the four claimed the event. The only notable tournament that they did not win in the period was the Paris Indoors, which was won by Robin Soderling, ranked No.5. To those who suggest that Djokovic’s domination this season has skewed the figures, consider that had he lost all of his finals, he would merely have lost to Nadal or Murray. The trophy in each case would have remained in the club.

To adjust the perspective slightly: across all of these events, there have been a total of 56 semifinal spots available (14 x 4), and only 16 times did a player not of the top four progress that far. Of these 16 occasions, the only players to progress past the quarterfinals more than once were David Ferrer (who managed it at the Australian Open and at the Monte Carlo Masters, where Djokovic did not play) and Mardy Fish (semifinals in Miami, and the final in Cincinnati). In other words, in an entire year only 16 semifinal berths have been made available to the rest of the tour, which is astounding in itself, and only becomes more so when we consider that Murray’s abject failure in the American Spring freed up two of those spots (Indian Wells and Miami 2011), whilst another two were opened up when Nadal didn’t play Bercy, and Djokovic didn’t play Monaco.

As a period of domination goes, I suspect it is without precedent. Here are some numbers to back that up. As far as I can make out, these 14 events provide a sum total of 93,300 points (not including qualifying), of which a maximum of 18,500 is available to any single player (that is how many you would receive if you won every event). The theoretical maximum that a group of four players can hold at once is 42,740 (if they all reach at least the semifinals in every event). In the last 12 months, the top four accrued 37,080 points, which is about 86.76% of the theoretical limit. It is hard to overestimate just how impressive this is. In order to demonstrate it, let’s compare it against year end data for the last 21 seasons (back to 1990), with point values adjusted to reflect current ranking points:


The spike in 1995, incidentally, reflected a very strong year for Sampras, Agassi, Muster and Becker, and the subsequent nosedive reflects the precipitous slumps experienced by some of those players. We can also see how profoundly the percentage lifted in 2007, when Djokovic joined the elite. That being said, the current level is over 12% higher than at any other time in the last 20 years.

On that note, the odds are 5/1 that all four will reach the semifinals of the US Open, and 9/4 that they will between them collect the next five majors. Sounds about right.

Categories: By the Numbers Tags:

Damned Lies

May 18th, 2011 No comments

By and large, I have little time for statistics in sport, suspecting they were invented by Americans intent on ensuring the viewing public enjoys itself less. While stats at their best can prove illuminating when judiciously applied, at their worst they are worse than useless, crude or subtle distortions, yoked to dull agendas.

There is also the uneasy sense that for any sport to require so much explicative number-crunching, it must surely have something wrong with it. What is lacking, we might reasonably ask, that so many statistics are required to compensate? To foreign eyes, this seems especially so in American sports, which often seem little more than a framework over which endlessly permutating numbers may be draped to greatest advantage. Sadly, Australian sports are headed that way. Australian readers may know of Championship Data, who provide the thoroughgoing statistical analysis for the AFL and its various clubs. Champion’s breakdowns of each game are so detailed that they provide a level of understanding surpassed only by actually watching the game, and for only ten times the effort. Larger, global markets surely have their conglomerated equivalents, perpetually threatening to overwhelm the viewer, and to divest the activity of any whimsy it may lay claim to. Ultimately, the best sports say most things on their own, if permitted to, and if played or watched.

Still, with all of that said, tennis is among the few mainstream sports that is under-served by statistics. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, a great deal of tennis statistics are either inherently useless, or so thoroughly deprived of context that they grow senseless. Think, for example, of the casual equivalence that has been established between winners and unforced errors, with the implication being that the two are somehow aspects of the same thing. Forced errors, which we never hear about, and for which I’m no longer certain stats are even recorded, are generally far more revealing. The same goes for aces and double faults, which aren’t equivalent, and mean very different things when down match point than they do at 15-15 in the middle of a set. Or about break points converted or saved, which may be revealing when viewed across very large data sets, but within the context of a single match tell you hardly anything, and certainly nothing that isn’t more apparent from just watching the encounter unfold.

Secondly, statistics actually do serve a useful purpose quite apart from boring viewers to death, which is in measuring performance. In tennis – especially in singles – we have something called ‘the score’ to tell us that, and it generally lets you know who the superior player was on the day. However, in team sports performance measurement becomes far more complex, an inevitable result for any system involving a lot of moving parts. The performance of any single part is not necessarily reflected in the outcome of any given game. The score can only tell you so much, especially as results may take a while to reveal under-performance in a given player. With tennis, though, there’s just a person with a racquet. To the even moderately practised eye, on court performance on any given day will pretty much speak for itself. The numbers are just padding.

Of course, it is in comparing that match to other matches that the real statistical interest lies, and where useful information resides. This is the area in which tennis has lagged behind, and is only gradually catching up. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the efforts of hobbyists and bloggers that are yielding some of the finest results – amateurs maintaining their own databases, sifting through mountains of results, and sometimes throwing up some really fascinating results (and, inevitably, a great deal of pretty boring shit, as well).

Here are some useful sites devoted to statistical analysis of tennis, maintained tirelessly and often thanklessly, and with a devoted patience that I can barely fathom:

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