Last night, Lukas Rosol shocked the tennis world by beating Rafael Nadal. Immediately, the verdict was in: One of the greatest (the greatest?) upsets of all time. Completely unthinkable. Impossible to see coming.
And to a certain extent, that’s correct. Nobody picked Rosol to beat Nadal; I’d be surprised if anyone went on the record forecasting that the Czech would win a single set. But for all that, the superlatives have gone too far. It’s one thing to predict that Djokovic/Nadal/Federer/whoever will win a certain match. It’s another to make the broader claim that they will always beat opponents of a certain level. The first claim is a sound one; the second is madness.
One way to look at this is a glance at the betting market. For high-profile matches, punters and sportsbooks give us a good idea of the conventional wisdom going into a match. Pre-match odds varied from (very roughly) 25:1 to 75:1. Even if we go to an extreme and take odds of 100:1, that means that the market gave Rosol a 1% chance of victory. A small chance, but far from a zero chance.
So, of course, Nadal should have gotten through to the third round–he probably should have gotten to the semifinals. But with 1% underdogs at every step, every once in a while it’s not going to happen. Consider that each of the top three play two matches against unseeded opponents at every slam. That’s six opportunities at every slam for a greatest upset of all time. The occasional first- or second-rounder doesn’t fit the bill, like Nadal-Isner at last year’s French, but later-round matches take their place, like Federer-Goffin last month.
Given 24 opportunities per year, there should be one such upset every four years. That’s still newsworthy, but statistically speaking, it’s not the greatest upset in tennis history, it’s the greatest upset in very recent memory. And that’s just counting slams.
Part of the reason we overreact to these things is that our brains aren’t wired to think about small probabilities–it’s either likely or it’s not. Another reason is the historically unprecedented dominance of the big three.
Contributing to the effect is something that Steve at Shank Tennis pointed out: The media is inaccurately portraying Rosol as a “nobody.” Sure, Rosol has never played a Wimbledon main draw before, and he’s beaten a top-20 opponent only once. But this is the third-ranked player from the Czech Republic, a man who has been in the top 101 for more than a year, peaking inside the top 70. In any major team sport, a top-100 player is among the top five on his team; number 65 might make an all-star team.
When Donald Young beat Andy Murray, we were shocked, but not to the same extent–we all know about Young’s potential, and besides, American fans have been talking about him for years. Even when Alex Bogomolov registered the same upset the following week, it was a recognizable name, also in part due to US wild cards and press attention.
Rather than dismissing yesterday’s match as a freak event involving a player who we’ll never hear from again, we’re better off to treat it as a sign of just how strong the back of the field is. Rosol is not the only man outside of the top 50 with a thunderous game. He’s not the only threat on tour who was never talked up as a junior. And he’s certainly not going to be the last “journeyman” to register a high-profile upset over an “unbeatable” opponent.