My U.S. Open tournament forecasts will update every 15 to 30 minutes for the next two weeks.
Click below to see each player’s chances of reaching each round:
On Friday, I saw parts of eleven matches, including many of the men who ended up qualifying for the main draw. Since I’ve already written about many of these players (Tuesday notebook; Wednesday notebook), I’ll keep this brief.
Joao Souza vs David Goffin
Souza, a 23-year-old Brazilian, is a big guy with a big game. He plays as explosively as anyone I’ve ever seen in qualifying, reminding me of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his ability to impose his will on a match. Goffin is a steady counterpuncher and was holding his own until Souza just exploded near the end the first set, hitting untouchable serves and forehands to seal the set. Judging from his track record so far, Souza doesn’t reliably play at that level, but there’s no doubt the talent is there.
Goffin is a very different player. I saw parts of his second and third-round matches yesterday, and was impressed both times. He has a very slight build and is only 20, suggesting that more power is on the way. Now, he looks like Gilles Simon’s 12-year-old brother, and plays quite a bit like Simon, moving very well around the court and hitting solid groundstrokes off of both wings. The 7-5 7-5 loss to Souza notwithstanding, he seemed mentally strong, holding his own against physically superior players.
Sergei Bubka vs Rogerio Dutra da Silva
I’m afraid I can’t explain Bubka’s superiority here, since I only saw the second set, which Dutra da Silva won 6-4. The Brazilian is skinny but hits like a big man, finding impressive angles to crush forehand winners. Like Souza, he has the talent to simply bowl someone over, and Bubka didn’t have the defensive skills to stop him. But this time, Dutra da Silva didn’t maintain that level.
I wish I had more to say about Bubka, but he didn’t do much to impress. He hits hard and is reasonably steady, which was apparently enough against the mercurial Brazilian.
Augustin Gensse vs Laurynas Grigelis
I wrote about Grigelis on Wednesday. He crushed Adam Kellner, though he let up a bit near the end the first set. It would appear that his mind is holding him back; he sputtered to a 6-1 7-6 win over a weak 2nd-round opponent in Bastian Knittel. In two tight sets on Friday against Gensse, he couldn’t close it out.
Gensse is a typical qualifying journeyman, hitting reasonably big shots without quite the consistency necessary to reach the next level. I also saw the end of his 2nd-round victory over Joao Sousa (not Souza, mentioned above), and held on while Sousa’s game simply collapsed.
Grigelis may have more potential than any other player in this year’s qualifying tournament, so it’s a shame to see him fail to convert on the opportunity to make his first US Open main draw.
Louk Sorenson vs Gastao Elias
I saw the Irishman in his 2nd-rounder, which started bright and early at 10am. When I arrived, Elias was dictating play, forcing Sorenson to play clay-court tennis. Elias looked good, with steady topspin groundstrokes and the ability to recover from defensive positions. Sorenson was too erratic to do anything with that.
But near the end of the first set, everything changed, and I’m not sure how. Elias started missing, Sorenson’s forehand came alive, and Louk was up a break in the second set before Elias knew what had happened. Elias–still only 20–has the brighter future of the two–especially on clay–but Sorenson came through when it mattered. He came back later in the day to beat Martin Fischer in straight sets and qualify for the main draw.
Vasek Pospisil vs Charles-Antoine Brezac
This was another second-rounder. I wrote about both players earlier this week, and was excited to see Pospisil take on a stronger opponent. The second set lived up to my expectations, with one deuce game after another before the Canadian finally broke for a 6-1 7-5 victory.
20 years old and about 6’4″, it’s no surprise that Pospisil isn’t yet in full control of his strokes. He wasn’t as consistent as the veteran Brezac, but there’s no questioning his vast potential. The serve is huge, and his awareness of the court is far beyond his years. He didn’t come in as often as he could have, but neither did Brezac, so he got away with it. Pospisil came back out to beat another journeyman, Grega Zemlja, to qualify for the main draw.
Malek Jaziri vs Guillaume Rufin
Rufin retired two games after I arrived, so I suspect anything I observed about him isn’t very accurate. Jaziri got lucky with that outcome, even though he was up a set at the time. The Tunisian is a clay-courter, and he didn’t make any concession to the hard surface in yesterday’s match. He had the loopiest groundstrokes I saw all week, and I’m not sure I saw him hit a single winner. He drew Thiemo de Bakker in the first round, one of the few possibilities that might get him a main draw win.
Conor Niland vs Matwe Middelkoop
Niland was a mess in the first set, losing 6-2 on the “strength” of a backhand that went everywhere but inside the lines. Throughout the match, he displayed one of the least consistent two-handed backhands I’ve ever seen, hitting flat, topspin, and extreme topspin shots with more or less the same motion.
After a bathroom break between sets, Niland came back out a different man. The backhand didn’t win him points, but it stopped losing them, and got him in position for several inside-out forehand winners. Middelkoop got lulled into passivity by winning the first set, and didn’t recover before Niland took control of the match. Unfortunately for Conor, his backhand will be exposed about two games into his first-rounder with Novak Djokovic.
Romain Jouan vs Denis Kudla
Kudla was simply overmatched. (I also wrote about his win on Tuesday.) At this stage in his young career, the young American is basically a counterpuncher, occasionally going on offense with an exceptional backhand. From the beginning of the match, Jouan looked erratic, but he was consistent enough to overpower Kudla again and again. As was the case earlier this week, Kudla didn’t display the best tactics, going for down-the-line backhands from defensive positions. Jouan put him on defense all the time, and it was clear that the American didn’t have an answer for it.
Like Souza, Jouan is a powerful, imposing player. Against a better opponent, it’s questionable whether he can maintain that level, and he’ll likely be demolished by Tomas Berdych next week.
A few more notes on qualifying winners:
I’ve seen Michael Yani several times, and written about him here and here. Same with Marsel Ilhan: here. Jesse Huta Galung is a very stylish, smooth player who has never gotten the results I think he deserves–I don’t think he consistently serves and volleys, but he has the talent to do so. I wrote about Go Soeda earlier this week. When I saw Robert Farah a few years ago, he was an electrifying, inconsistent player, with an odd mix of flat, hard groundstrokes and clay-court tactics.
Serena Williams dominates my most recent WTA hard court rankings, so it’s no surprise that she’s favored to win the U.S. Open. As was the case before Wimbledon, it’s remarkable to see how chaotic the women’s field is. While Novak Djokovic has a 28% chance of winning the men’s event, Serena is the only woman in double digits, at 14.2%.
Because of Serena’s low seeding at #28, a decisive match may take place in the first week. Assuming some easy wins for both Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the two ladies will face off in the third round. My algorithm gives the American a 59% chance of winning that match, meaning it could be the toughest test she faces in the entire tournament.
Behind Serena, Carolina Wozniacki has a 9.8% chance of winning the U.S. Open, followed by Maria Sharapova at 9.2%. Next up are Petra Kvitova at 8.0% and Vera Zvonareva at 7.9%. An amazing 21 women (compared to 13 men) have at least a 1% chance of going home a champion. These include the unseeded Venus Williams (1.8%) and the 32nd seeded Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (1.0%, or 0.25% per name).
The conspiracy-minded among you might note that top seeds Wozniacki and Zvonareva have the most favorable first-round odds, despite my system ranking them only 3rd and 7th on hard courts. Their opening opponents, Nuria Llagostera Vives and Stephanie Foretz Gacon, are the 16th and 23rd weakest players in the draw, according to the current WTA rankings. (My system isn’t as reliable that far down the WTA list.) Caro and Vera are the only two players with a better-than-90% chance of winning their openers, though both Sharapova, Marion Bartoli, and Andrea Petkovic are at an even 90%.
Here are a few interesting first-rounders. In each of these, my system gives neither player a better than 55% chance of advancing, with the favorite in bold:
Get ready for a shock: I’m forecasting Novak Djokovic as the winner of this year’s U.S. Open. I give Djokovic a 27.8% chance of winning the tournament–a higher probability than I gave him at Wimbledon.
There’s a marked difference between Novak and the rest of the pack, in part because Juan Martin del Potro could wreak havoc with the bottom half of the draw. I give Rafael Nadal a 14.6% chance, Andy Murray 9.2%, and Delpo 6.6%.
Federer comes in fourth behind Murray, at 8.9%. Making his road tricky is a likely quarterfinal matchup with either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Mardy Fish. Fish does better in my hard-court rankings than on the ATP computer, and is sixth-most likely to win the tournament at 4.2%. Tsonga comes in 7th at 3.8%, as he shines on hard courts. Also, my algorithm takes into account Tsonga’s wins over Fed.
Seeded Americans Andy Roddick and John Isner do better than their rankings would suggest, in large part due to their hard-court prowess. Roddick has a 2.1% chance, and Isner 0.2%. The overall chance that an American wins the event is 6.6%–just a tick above the combined probability of Fish or Roddick winning, and equal to Delpo’s shot.
The unseeded player my system favors is Nikolay Davydenko, at 0.7%. Recent disasters aside, he is one of the few players who has proven he can beat the best players in the game. As I recently wrote, his inconsistency may actually be a good thing.
There are several first-rounders that figure to be extremely tight matches. Here are all the opening matchups where the favorite (in bold) has less than a 55% chance of getting through to the second round:
According to my ranking algorithm, Serena Williams is best player headed into the 2011 US Open. It isn’t even close. Keep in mind that my system is focused specifically on who can beat whom on hard courts, not on a nebulous sense of the “best, most consistent player.” Serena may not be likely to show up at any given tournament, but when she does, she wins.
Thanks to a solid grass-court season and her win in Montreal, Serena is well ahead of the pack. Kim Clijsters still has a lock on the #2 spot, but she won’t be in New York. Wozniacki, Azarenka, and Sharapova are very tightly packed in the next three spots, in that order.
Despite playing even less than her sister has, Venus Williams comes in at #14. Fans of American tennis will find some promise here–my system favors Melanie Oudin (58), Vania King (75), and Sloane Stephens (81), while all are currently outside the WTA top 100.
Here is the full list. Check back later this weekend for tournament predictions based on these rankings and the full draw.
RANK PLAYER PTS 1 Serena Williams 8504 2 Kim Clijsters 6683 3 Caroline Wozniacki 6307 4 Victoria Azarenka 6178 5 Maria Sharapova 6158 6 Petra Kvitova 5846 7 Vera Zvonareva 5698 8 Samantha Stosur 4547 9 Na Li 4528 10 Agnieszka Radwanska 4379 11 Marion Bartoli 4152 12 Andrea Petkovic 3862 13 Dominika Cibulkova 3704 14 Venus Williams 3589 15 Sabine Lisicki 3409 16 Shuai Peng 2978 17 Ana Ivanovic 2918 18 Daniela Hantuchova 2887 19 Svetlana Kuznetsova 2841 20 Jelena Jankovic 2737 RANK PLAYER PTS 21 Alisa Kleybanova 2500 22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2494 23 Flavia Pennetta 2475 24 Roberta Vinci 2253 25 Yanina Wickmayer 2246 26 Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 2212 27 Nadia Petrova 2209 28 Francesca Schiavone 2139 29 Shahar Peer 2097 30 Jie Zheng 2084 31 Julia Goerges 1812 32 Lucie Safarova 1746 33 Galina Voskoboeva 1735 34 Kaia Kanepi 1731 35 Ekaterina Makarova 1727 36 Maria Kirilenko 1718 37 Tsvetana Pironkova 1597 38 Elena Vesnina 1387 39 Kateryna Bondarenko 1364 40 Christina McHale 1318 RANK PLAYER PTS 41 Petra Cetkovska 1295 42 Gisela Dulko 1279 43 Iveta Benesova 1234 44 Tamira Paszek 1227 45 Klara Zakopalova 1195 46 Dinara Safina 1189 47 Bethanie Mattek-Sands 1146 48 Aravane Rezai 1133 49 Virginie Razzano 1111 50 Anastasija Sevastova 1098 51 Jarmila Gajdosova 1092 52 Sara Errani 1076 53 Vera Dushevina 1063 54 Petra Martic 1052 55 Alona Bondarenko 983 56 Marina Erakovic 965 57 Bojana Jovanovski 964 58 Melanie Oudin 947 59 Anna Chakvetadze 928 60 Magdalena Rybarikova 901 RANK PLAYER PTS 61 Alize Cornet 891 62 Simona Halep 885 63 Timea Bacsinszky 863 64 Polona Hercog 823 65 Greta Arn 823 66 Aleksandra Wozniak 816 67 Ksenia Pervak 810 68 Romina Oprandi 800 69 Kimiko Date-Krumm 780 70 Alexandra Dulgheru 772 71 Jelena Dokic 767 72 Elena Baltacha 754 73 Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 753 74 Agnes Szavay 751 75 Vania King 709 76 Ayumi Morita 708 77 Angelique Kerber 707 78 Johanna Larsson 702 79 Melinda Czink 700 80 Sofia Arvidsson 685 RANK PLAYER PTS 81 Sloane Stephens 659 82 Anabel Medina Garrigues 650 83 Kirsten Flipkens 637 84 Monica Niculescu 623 85 Carla Suarez Navarro 618 86 Alla Kudryavtseva 618 87 Lucie Hradecka 607 88 Yaroslava Shvedova 599 89 Kristina Barrois 591 90 Regina Kulikova 590 91 Anastasia Rodionova 580 92 Sorana Cirstea 577 93 Vesna Dolonts 576 94 Eleni Daniilidou 563 95 Urszula Radwanska 557 96 Olga Govortsova 534 97 Arantxa Rus 523 98 Anastasiya Yakimova 522 99 Shuai Zhang 517 100 Kai-Chen Chang 512
Today was the second half of the first round at U.S. Open qualifying. For my notes on several Tuesday matches, click here.
In ten hours and almost as many matches, I covered a lot of ground today–I’ll have to be brief in much of the following.
Thomas Schoorel vs Stefano Galvani
The young Schoorel has had a breakthrough year, reaching a few main draws and consistently going deep in challengers. It’s no secret why: He booms a massive lefty serve and couples it with an equally devastating forehand. His slice backhand can also be a weapon. All of that was on display today, but it wasn’t enough.
He looks like a sulky teenager, slumped down as if he’d rather not be so tall. Even his assets (serve, forehand) were erratic, and his one-handed backhand was embarrassing–I wouldn’t be surprised if half of his non-slice backhands were errors. Someone with Schoorel’s weaponry shouldn’t lose many points on serve, and he was challenged in nearly every service game.
Some of the credit for that must go to the veteran Stefano Galvani. Galvani is a classic counterpuncher, compact and steady, with good control over his serve. He learned early on that Schoorel would fall apart by the fifth or sixth shot of the rally (if he made it that far), and that earned him the straight-set win.
Gianluca Naso vs Thomas Fabbiano
What a contrast this one was. I only saw the first several games, but it was enough to get a feel for the match. Naso is tall, well-built, and Italian to the core. His game is nothing like Fabio Fognini’s, but his way of handling himself on court is very similar: He’ll hit great shots and look good–if he needs to go off balance or hit a weak reply, he often doesn’t bother. It’s not a great strategy to reach the next level, but it’s fun to watch.
I saw Naso a few years ago in qualifying; he’s better now, with the same asset, a huge forehand that he’s willing to hit anywhere, no matter how far he has to run around it. Like the Fognini-esque style, it’s a little silly, but it’s beautiful to watch.
Naso’s younger compatriot, Thomas Fabbiano, is more like Galvani. Smaller, compact, and (theoretically) consistent, he’ll hit defensive shots and look less stylish smashing two-handed backhands. In the short time I watched, I didn’t see many positives in his game, except for an unusual fluency mixing up a good slice and a strong two-hander.
Cedrik-Marcel Stebe vs Igor Sijsling
Stebe has rocketed up the rankings this year. While most of his success has come on clay (including a couple of recent wins over Davydenko), he did beat Ryan Harrison in a tough five-setter to qualify at Wimbledon. Whatever worked for him on grass wasn’t on show today. I wanted to fall in love with Stebe’s game, but Stebe’s game was in love with unforced errors.
Sijsling is someone I’ve seen before–the typical veteran of challengers and qualifying rounds, with a few big weapons but without the consistency to win tour-level matches. He didn’t do anything particularly well–all I have in my notes is that he kept Stebe deep, which is probably what the German wanted anyway.
I looked hard for what has made Stebe so successful. It’s the backhand–he can hit a two-hander from anywhere, to anywhere. For a left-hander, that creates some interesting angles. His forehand is solid as well, but both shots landed behind the baseline way too much to make today’s match interesting.
Facundo Bagnis vs Marius Copil
I was drawn to this one to see Bagnis, a 21-year-old Argentine who has had success on clay this season, but it was Copil who was worth sticking around for. This was probably the best match I saw all day, getting to 5-5 in the third set before Bagnis handed his opponent the match.
Copil has a big game, especially for someone so young (he turns 21 in October), highlighted (of course) by the serve. Both offerings pushed Bagnis well behind the baseline, and the topspin second serve was the best I’ve seen so far this week. He hasn’t yet learned how to follow up the serve and big groundstrokes–he was awkward on the rare occasions he came forward–but against a laid-back opponent like Bagnis, that was ok.
Bagnis is another lefty, but doesn’t seem to take advantage of that in any way, especially on the serve. The best skill he showed today was return of serve, and against Copil, that’s saying something. Bagnis frequently had to return second serves above his head, and usually pushed them back deep. As long as he was reasonably comfortable, he could hit solid groundstrokes all day long, but he isn’t quite steady enough (yet) to succeed with that kind of passive game at the ATP level.
Mischa Zverev vs Bastian Knittel
The less said about this one, the better. I only watched it because there was little else on offer. Zverev was a joke. He has so much talent, but I can’t remember the last time I saw someone look so apathetic in US Open qualies. I think he was looking past this match (and possibly the rest of the season) and forgot that he needed to occasionally land the ball inside the court to advance to the next round.
Knittel was more spirited and aggressive, but the older player showed little evidence of belonging anywhere near the top 100. His groundstrokes on both wings were oddly jerky, suggesting that against a more aggressive opponent, he won’t be able to keep up.
Laurynas Grigelis vs Adam Kellner
The Lithuanian Grigelis is the youngest non-American (and youngest direct entry) player in the qualifying draw, but there’s no doubt he belongs. He comprehensively outplayed Kellner from just about every angle except for noise and girth. The first word in my notebook concerning Kellner is “ouch.”
Kellner hits with a lot of power and little control. His first serve percentage was well below half for the set-plus I saw today, and any groundstroke he tried to put near a line had about the same chance of going in. Like Zverev and Stebe, he did more to lose the match than his opponent did to win it.
All that isn’t meant to detract from Grigelis. The Lithuanian’s groundstrokes are fantastic, especially a backhand that he likes to direct up the line. He still has some physical development coming, and once the serve catches up to the rest of his game, he could give Richard Bernakis a challenge for the top-ranked player from Lithuania–and I think highly of Bernakis as well. I hope to see Grigelis against a stronger opponent this week to get a better sense of his current level.
Charles-Antoine Brezac vs Daniel Kosakowski
I wasn’t expecting much from the American wild card Kosakowski, but especially after he played his way into the match, he showed that he belongs at this level. He lost the match 6-2 6-4, which understates how tight the second set was.
One remarkable thing about Kosakowski is that he almost never hit a slice. Maybe five in a set and a half. Instead, he hit one-handers from everywhere, including defensive positions that would push almost everyone else to the slice. Yet he got those shots back. His groundstrokes are nothing like Denis Kudla’s, but the overall game plan is the same–put a mediocre serve in the box, then slug away. In the second set, that often worked.
Brezac is a challenger-tour warrior, and proved too steady and too smart for the American today. He was equally prepared to slug it out from the baseline–if anything, he made a mistake by playing Kosakowski’s style. On the rare occasions he moved forward, he looked very good, with some of the prettiest touch volleys I’ve seen this week. While the focus was on the young American, Brezac played like someone who could spend a couple of years in the top 100, though he has yet to crack the top 200.
Vasek Pospisil vs Chris Guccione
This was something of a disappointment. I had never seen Guccione before, and for whatever reason, expected something more than Karlovic-lite. Gooch hit his share of aces and volley winners, but lost enough points on serve that I’m shocked he was only broken once. For a tall lefty known for his serve, I don’t see what the fuss is about.
Pospisil is nearly as tall, and his serve is as good. He made a good impression a couple of weeks ago by beating Chela and playing Federer well in Montreal, and while Guccione didn’t bring out that level of play, he showed a much more well-rounded game than his opponent. As was the case with Grigelis, I hope I can see Pospisil play someone more interesting.
James Ward vs Michael Yani
Ward was on my radar because, according to my hard-court ranking system, he’s the best player in the qualifying draw. According to how he played today, I’m wrong. The Brit beat Wawrinka and Querrey at Queen’s club, and reached the final in the last two challengers he played. Clearly there was another level he didn’t bring out on court today.
In this match, Ward looked hopelessly one-dimensional, hitting big (but erratic) serves, thinking about moving forward but unsure how to do so, slicing way more than he had to (including several forehands!) and shanking more forehands than the wind could explain. As I did with Stebe, I looked hard for what has worked for Ward, and I couldn’t figure it out.
All Yani had to do was play steady, and that’s his forte. (I wrote about him two years ago, as well.) He has no weapons to speak of, but he fights hard and mixes things up. That’s often enough to qualify, as it was for Yani in 2009.
The first round of U.S. Open qualifying is always something of a mixed bag. Plenty of great players, including both up-and-comers and vets who just missed the cut, but just as many guys who may never crack the top 200. I try to see everyone at least once, but with 128 men in the draw, that’s no easy task!
Here’s what I was able to see today.
Go Soeda  vs Tim Smyczek
Smyczek has been on my radar all year. He’s a bit like the pre-suspension Wayne Odesnik: Not really one of the official young stars on the US scene, but young, American, and winning some matches. He’s qualified for a few ATP events this year, and in addition to a win over Kei Nishikori, he has pushed both Phillip Kohlschreiber and Grigor Dimitrov to third-set tiebreaks.
In a set and a half, it was hard to see how he did any of those things. Smyczek is a little guy, listed at 5’9″, and his first serve might easily be mistaken for a spin-less second offering. He moves well and his groundstrokes are solid, but his game doesn’t feature a single shot one might call a weapon. He didn’t move forward with much confidence or handle himself very well when he got there.
I kept waiting for signs of the fighting spirit that got him to those tiebreaks earlier in the year. No dice. Soeda is a veteran–also without any major weapons on show–and he simply outclassed the American. While Soeda has the game to keep himself on the fringes of the top 100, it would take a major breakthrough for Smyczek to accomplish the same.
Adrian Menendez-Maceiras vs Alexander Waske
No prospects here–after tiring of Smyczek-Soeda, I wanted to see how 36-year-old Alexander Waske looked. The good news: Better than Thomas Muster. The bad news: Not much better than Muster.
Waske is a big server of a generation ago, back when a big serve could get you into the top 100 all by itself. The German’s game plan seemed to involve going for lots of aces, and then hitting defensive slices on nearly every other shot. He came up with incredible power on the serve, which is about all you can say for him.
Menendez didn’t have much more to offer. He managed to lose the first set before I arrived–how he got broken is tough to imagine–but came back to win a second-set tiebreak and the match. He’s ranked well outside the top 200, and that seems about right–a real threat in qualifying would’ve dismissed Waske is half the time.
Amer Delic vs Evgeny Donskoy 
The 20-year-old Donskoy was my top priority on today’s slate. He’s a clay court specialist, while Delic has much more match experience and a more hard-court friendly game (and height!). When I made it over from the Waske match, Donskoy was falling behind in the second set after losing a first-set tiebreak. He wasn’t hitting anything very hard, and something about the surface or the balls seemed to be giving him trouble–groundstroke after groundstroke landed a few inches deep.
He didn’t need to change his game plan–just find the range. A few games into the second set, he did so, and once that happened, he lived up to billing as a rising clay-court star. Even on a fast surface, he was too much for Delic, pounding flat groundstrokes off of both wings, including some particularly impressive down-the-line shots. Like many young players from Eastern Europe, he relentlessly targets the backmost few inches of the court.
Once Donskoy won the second set, Delic just went away. He dumped a few easy sitters into the net, got frustrated, and even managed to lose a point on a code violation while serving 0-30. By that point, Donskoy didn’t need the help and won the final set 6-2.
Andrea Arnaboldi vs Denis Kudla
Kudla’s backhands can be a sight to see. Like Donskoy, he can pound his opponent’s baseline, and does so with impressively flat shots. Unfortunately, that leaves him with little margin for error, especially on down-the-line shots, which he kept going for today. Combine that with a middling serve, and Kudla’s current game isn’t making it easy for him to win matches at this level.
But today, he came out on top, needing a third-set tiebreak to do so. Arnaboldi was all over the place mentally, especially in the third set when a series of line calls didn’t go his way. In better moments, he used his left-handedness to great effect, generating interesting angles around the court, and forcing Kudla to go for lower percentage shots.
I hope Kudla can improve his serve and develop a better tactical tennis mind. His groundstrokes would be a great addition to the ATP tour, but it will take more time before he’s much of a threat at the next level.
Richard Berankis  vs Guillermo Alcaide
Seeding and ranking aside, Berankis is probably the best player is the qualifying draw, and he appears to be healthy. He played a nearly flawless match, beating Alcaide 6-2 6-2.
It’s all the more impressive because of the demands Alcaide made on the Lithuanian’s return game–Alcaide has a downright huge serve. He hits it effortlessly, but the sound it makes off the racket makes you think it’s 130mph, easy. Sadly, that’s about all that I can say about his game. Berankis, on the other hand, belongs in the main draw, and it’s a shame he has to spend all week proving it.
Bradley Klahn vs Tennys Sandgren
As college players, these two guys don’t have ATP rankings that represent their true skill levels. Were they to go full-time on the pro tour, it’s tough to imagine either of them outside of the top 250. This might have been the highest-quality tennis I saw all day.
Both put some serious firepower on display–Sandgren on the serve, Klahn with an unorthodox lefty forehand. Klahn’s forehand motion is similar to Jeremy Chardy, starting with a very closed racket face, then whipping through the ball to create a relatively flat topspin trajectory. Marsel Ilhan is another guy who hits it like that, and Klahn was more consistent with his forehand than I’ve seen from either Ilhan or Chardy.
It seemed like both players could dominate, given the power on their shots. But while Klahn ended up winning the 2nd and 3rd sets at 6-2 apiece, it never felt like a blowout–Sandgren was in most games, including some return games, and hit his share of impressive shots. The difference, oddly enough for a matchup between young Americans, was in Klahn’s movement and touch around the net. Both men came in (and coaxed the other in) with some frequency, and Klahn occasionally approached the net behind an iffy approach shot. The aggression generally paid off.
Both of these guys have bright futures, and Klahn has a real chance of finding himself in the main draw a week from now.
Earlier today, I published a thorough analysis of the last ten years of US Open draws, showing that while first and second seeds have had extremely easy first-round matchups, there is no other credible statistical evidence that suggests any nonrandom manipulation of the draw.
If you want to take a look at the draws yourself, I’ve made it easier. The following files not only have the full draws going back to 2001, but they also include each player’s ATP or WTA ranking at the time of the tournament, their ordinal ranking among the players in the draw, the ordinal ranking of their first-round opponent, and the ordinal ranking of their best-possible second round opponent.
Click to download the files:
Here’s a quick rundown of the columns you’ll find in each sheet:
Last week, an ESPN “Outside the Lines” article called into question the fairness of the U.S. Open main draw. A researcher discovered that the top two seeds (both men and women) have gotten very easy first-round assignments.
This is one small step away from a direct accusation of draw-rigging by the USTA. It’s a serious claim, and while the article’s author leans heavily on a single academic who supports the methodology used, it’s not at all clear that anything unacceptable is going on.
What they found
For some reason, the study focused on the top two seeds. It’s not at all clear why it did so–I have no idea what the USTA’s motive would be for rigging the draw in favor of the top two seeds, regardless of their identity. Sure, there were a few years when a Federer-Nadal final would have been particularly mouthwatering, or when American viewers craved a Serena-Venus showdown in Flushing, but why would the USTA be tweaking a draw in favor of Gustavo Kuerten? Marat Safin? Amelie Mauresmo? Dinara Safina?
For the moment, let’s set that major concern aside. To quantify the difficulty of each player’s first-round opponents, the ESPN study invented a metric called “difficulty score.” We’ll come back to “difficulty score” in a bit.
A simple look at the lists they assembled of first-round opponents does suggest that something untoward is going on. In the last ten years of men’s draws, a top-two seed has faced a top-80 opponent only four times, and not once in the last five years. Seeded players should face top-80 opponents about half the time.
If we are truly interested in the first-rounders assigned to top-two seeds, it’s clear that these players have been given an easier path than what would be statistically expected. But it’s not yet clear that it’s anything other than good luck.
Breaking down “difficulty score”
Here’s the explanation of the metric that ESPN used:
So if a top two seed faced the 33rd-ranked player in the first round, he/she would get a difficulty score of 0.995 for that round; if he/she faced the 128th-ranked player in the first round, the score for that round would be 0.005. An average opponent (ranked around 80th or 81st), would correspond to a difficulty score near 0.500, which should be the average difficulty score over several years of draws.
I don’t understand why the ESPN study needed to switch from ordinal rankings (1 to 128) to difficulty scores between 0.005 and 0.995. But I replicated the work using ordinal rankings instead of difficulty scores, and came up with the same results.
The average first round opponent for the top two seeds in each year’s men’s draw has been about the 98th-best player in the draw. Given that seeds can draw anyone from 33 to 128, the average “should” be around 80. With difficulty scores, ESPN says that the likelihood of the last ten years of easy draws is 0.3%. With ordinal rankings, I found approximately the same. The last thing the sports-analysis world needs is another superfluous metric, but at least this one doesn’t appear to be misleading.
What about better reasons for rigging?
The core problem here is this: Why do we care specifically about the draws for the first two seeds? Or, why would the USTA care enough to compromise the fairness of the draw?
As ESPN highlighted, some of the first-round victims are American wild cards. Scoville Jenkins, for instance, was fed to the wolves twice, once each against Federer and Roddick. If we’re really fishing for an explanation, perhaps the USTA wants to put up-and-coming stars such as Jenkins, Devin Britton, and Coco Vandeweghe on a big stage, either to showcase these players, or to make otherwise pedestrian blowouts more interesting. I suppose I’d rather watch Nadal play Jack Sock than, say, Diego Junqueira.
But that’s ex post facto reasoning of the most blatant sort. If the USTA were going to rig the draw, wouldn’t they be more likely to do so in favor of top Americans? Or in favor of a broader range of seeds, to better ensure marquee matchups for the second week? Or rig second-round matchups for top players, to ensure that the big names make it to the middle weekend?
If no evidence of draw manipulation appears in any of those other scenarios, it would seem that ESPN discovered something more like the famous correlation between the S&P 500 and butter production in Bangladesh. If your search for a newsworthy conclusion is sufficiently wide, you’re bound to find something.
The top seeds
As I’ve said, there’s no doubt that the top two seeds in the men’s draw have had an easy go of it in the last ten years, since the draws started seeding 32 players instead of 16. The same is true of the women.
The top two in both the men’s and women’s draws faced an opponent who ranked roughly 98th out of the 128 field. The odds of this happening on either side are tiny–about 0.25%. The chances that a single tournament would randomly produce draws so easy for the top two men and women for ten years are effectively zero.
Beyond the top two, however, any suspicions quickly disappear. The average opponent for the top four seeded men has been ranked about 89 out of 128, meaning that #3 and #4 face opponents around #80–dead average. The average first-round assignment for the top eight seeded men has been around 87, meaning that seeds 5-8 face average opponents in the mid-80s. Nothing to cause a raised eyebrow there, and the numbers are almost identical on the women’s side.
To go one step further, there’s no evidence of manipulation in the second-round draws. In fact, the top two women’s seeds faced particularly tough 2nd round opponents–there was only a 20% chance that those twenty women would be given as tough of 2nd round assignments as they have.
Before looking at the draws of U.S. players, a quick summary. While the top two seeds were given very low-ranked opponents in the first round, the effect did not extend to the second round, or to any seeds beyond the top two.
The American draws
If the USTA were to tweak the draws, you’d expect them to do so in favor of the home players, if for no other reason than television ratings. But they haven’t.
Let’s start with the American men. The top two ranked American men each year have faced opponents ranked, on average, 79 of 128. That’s a bit tougher than average. If we expand the analysis to the top four ranked Americans, or just seeded Americans, the results stay around average. If anyone is manipulating the draws in favor of American men, they are either doing it without regard for ATP rankings, or they aren’t doing a very good job.
More surprising is the average opponent of all American men. The average opponent of an American man in the last ten years has been 61.2 — considerably lower than 80, in part because unseeded men may draw seeded players in the first round. But the average shouldn’t be that low. In fact, there is only a 20% chance that American men would be given such a tough assignment.
Results for the women are mostly similar. The top two American women each year have gotten a slightly easy draw–the average opponent rank is 83 of 128. Keep in mind, however, that this overlaps with the analysis of the top two seeded women–five of the 20 top-two-seeded women were Americans, and in almost each one of those five cases, those women faced one of the weakest players in the draw. In other words, there’s more evidence that the draw is skewed in favor of the top two seeds than the top two Americans.
As with the men, American women in general have been given tough assignments. In fact, there is only a 16% chance that American women would face such tough first round opponents as they have.
What this means
If the USTA (or anyone else) is messing with the US Open draws, they are doing so in a nearly inscrutable way. The only evidence of manipulation is with each year’s top two seeds, as ESPN highlighted.
The theory I mentioned above–that it might be desirable to pit top players against up-and-coming Americans–is appealing, but also not supported by the evidence. Only five of the 20 opponents of top-two men’s seeds (and six of 20 women’s opponents) has been American, despite the fact that the U.S. contributes five or six lowly-ranked wild cards each year, in addition to a disproportionate number of qualifiers.
It’s an odd situation. The first-round opponents of the top two seeds makes for a plausible target of draw manipulation, if not the most obvious one.
Postscript: One more question
I mentioned earlier that I’d rather watch Nadal play Jack Sock than Diego Junqueira. I like up-and-comers, and it’s always interesting to see whether a new opponent forces a top player to change tactics. It makes for a more interesting match than Nadal (or any top-tenner) against a 29-year-old who has hovered for years around #100.
My question, then: If you’re Rafa Nadal, and (presumably) you want to go deep at the U.S. Open, who would you rather play? The American wild card ranked #450, or the veteran ranked #99? A tougher question: Sock, or a veteran who was nearly seeded, like Fabio Fognini? I can see different players making different choices, but I don’t think it’s clear cut.
It is the draws of Jenkins, Britton, Glatch–in other words, the Jack Socks of previous years–that give us this evidence of manipulation. On paper, the 127th-highest-ranked player in the draw looks like the 127th-best, but in practice, it’s not nearly so clear cut. And if these wild cards really are “wild cards,” what looks like an easy draw may not be much easier than yet another dissection of Sergiy Stakhovsky or Albert Montanes.
It may be true that at some stage, the US Open draws are being manipulated for (and only for) the top two seeds in each field. But that doesn’t tell us whether those players are gaining anything from it. It’s far from clear that the lowest-ranked players in each draw are the easiest opponents.
Tomorrow, 128 men will begin battling for the last 16 spots in the US Open main draw. (Technically, given withdrawals, it’ll probably be more like 18 or 19 spots, but as of now, it’s 16.)
It’s my favorite time of year, and if you live near New York, it should be yours as well. But unless you’re an extreme tennis nut, most of the names aren’t very familiar.
Click here for a quick “guide” to the 128 contenders, including their seed, country of origin, birthday, current ATP ranking, and current hard-court “jrank”–that is, their standing in my ranking system. (The table is too wide to display well on this site.)
If you want to play with the guide, feel free to download it in CSV format.