On Sunday, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal by a somewhat unusual score: 6-4 6-1 1-6 6-3. A four-setter in the final doesn’t raise any eyebrows, but a 1-6 set … that’s a bit of a head-scratcher, especially on a fast surface. Wimbledon is better known for server domination, which means 6-4’s, 7-5’s, tiebreaks, and the occasional 70-68.
The Djokovic-Nadal score got me curious about two questions:
- How often does a player lose a set 1-6 (or even 0-6) yet still win the match?
- How often does a player both win and lose a lopsided (6-1 or 6-0 ) set?
(Note: Yes, sometimes a 6-1 set includes only two breaks, in which case it is similar to a 6-2 set. Yet 6-1/1-6’s are far less frequent that 6-2/2-6’s. It would be nice to distinguish “two-break” 6-1’s from “three-break” 6-1’s, but for now, all we can do is enjoy the trivia and accept the limitations.)
First things first. As we might guess, scores such as these are extremely rare at Wimbledon. This year, the final was one of only two such matches. The other was Xavier Malisse’s second-round win over Florian Mayer, which went in the books as 1-6 6-3 6-2 6-2. Last year, only one Wimbledon match qualified: a first-rounder between Victor Hanescu and Andrey Kuznetsov. Oddly enough, Hanescu dropped the third set 1-6 after splitting two tiebreaks. In neither of these matches did the winner take his own lopsided set, as Djokovic did.
In this department, Wimbledon remains unique among the majors–it isn’t just a matter of “clay” and “everything else.” At this year’s Australian Open, there were eight matches with 1-6 or 0-6 scores; last year there were 11. At the 2010 US Open, there were six. These scores are more common at the slams, because the five-set format makes it more likely that the loser of an early set (by any score) can come back to win the match.
Last year, there were roughly 2600 tour-level matches that were played to their conclusion. (That is, neither player retired.) Of those, about two-thirds were straight-set victories, leaving us with 871 matches that went three sets (or five, at the slams).
Of those 871, only 94 matches contained a 1-6 or 0-6 set, and only 30 included a “lopsided” set in favor of both players, as in the Nadal-Djokovic final. Both have been somewhat less frequent so far this year; in 1546 matches, 48 saw the winner lose a lopsided set, and 11 saw both players lose a lopsided set. Combining the two years of data, the likelihood that any given match will include a 6-1 (or 6-0) and a 1-6 (or 0-6) is almost exactly 1 in 100. Again, the five-set format of the slams increases the probability a bit, while the fast courts at Wimbledon have the reverse effect.
Which players find themselves in these roller-coaster matches? To answer that question, we have to stick with the less-specific filter of matches that include a 1-6 or 0-6 set. If we also require a 6-1/6-0 from the winner, there isn’t enough data to make things interesting.
One might guess that the strongest servers would be far down the list, while counterpunchers populate the top. That isn’t the case. The players who are known for mental lapses–regardless of their serving and returning skills–seem to dominate the upper tier.
Looking at all tour-level matches from 2007 through last week, we find that Andy Murray takes the cake. He has played in 18 of these matches, dropping a lopsided set in 10 of his victories, while winning a lopsided set in 8 of his losses. Murray is in a class by himself–number two on the list is Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, at 13. In third place is Djokovic, with 12 (he is 8-4 in such matches), though the Wimbledon final was the only occurence so far in 2011.
Twelve men are clustered at 10 and 11 of these matches, and the list features a lot of Frenchmen, and several other players known for questionable mental strength:
- 11: Julian Benneteau, David Ferrer, Fabio Fognini, Fernando Verdasco
- 10: Thomaz Bellucci, Mardy Fish, Richard Gasquet, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Phillipp Petzschner, Tommy Robredo, Radek Stepanek, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Of these, Fognini (9-2) and Tsonga (8-2) have the dubious honor of winning the most matches–that is, they are on the list because they drop lopsided sets in matches that they win. Mathieu (2-8) is at the other extreme, dominating sets in the middle of losses.
The Wimbledon final was a rarity for Nadal–it was only the fourth time he’d been involved in a match with this sort of score, and it was only the second time he won a lopsided set in the middle of a loss. Roger Federer has only played in three such matches.
We probably can’t read too much into these numbers, but it is interesting to see so many of the same types of players show up at the top of a list. At the very least, we’ve learned that the 1-6 set in Sunday’s final was quite rare, and the 6-1 1-6 sequence was even rarer.