Who Actually Excels in Tiebreaks?

I’ve never understood the fixation that some fans and commentators seem to have with tiebreak winning percentage.  Sure, winning tiebreaks is nice, but it seems obvious that the main cause of exemplary tiebreak performance is being good at tennis.  Though some players may in fact be better than others at this facet of the game, a big part of what tiebreak winning percentage tells us is about general tennis skill.

In other words, Roger Federer is very good at tiebreaks because he is very good at serving and returning, the same skills that get him so many wins, regardless of whether any of the sets go to tiebreaks.

If we ignore tiebreak winning percentage, what are we left with?  It’s still tempting to wonder whether some players have a kind of special skill–calm under pressure, a particularly consistent serve–that leads them to outperform expectations in breakers.

The key word there is “expectations.”  Given Federer’s general ability on the tennis court, we should expect him to win most tiebreaks–for example, two of the last three breakers he’s played came against Stanislas Wawrinka, who he should beat regardless of the format.  But our intuition will fail us if we look at Federer’s match record and try to estimate how many tiebreaks he should have won, then compare the “should” to the “did.”

Expected tiebreaks

Sounds like something computers do better than humans.  Given a player’s percentage of service and return points won in a certain match, we can estimate how likely he was to win a tiebreak–on the assumption that his performance level stayed the same throughout the match.

If two players are equally matched, each one would be “expected” to win 0.5 tiebreaks.  That’s nonsensical for a single match, but over the course of this season, we see that of John Isner‘s 53 tiebreaks, the algorithm would expect him to win 29.  In fact, he has won 38, exceeding expectations (in raw terms, anyway) more than anyone else on tour this year.

This gives us two stats that offer more insight into a player’s tiebreak performance than “tiebreaks won” and “tiebreak winning percentage.”  The raw number, the difference between actual tiebreaks won and expected tiebreaks won, tells us how many additional sets a player has taken because of his tiebreak performance.  Call it TBOE: TieBreaks Over Expectations.  A similar rate stat is derived by dividing TBOE by the number of tiebreaks, allowing us to compare players regardless of how many tiebreaks they played.  Call that one TBOR: TieBreak Outperformance Rate.

As we’ve seen, Isner is the 2012 king of TBOE, performing well in tiebreaks and playing far more of them than anyone else on tour.  Yet three players–Steve Darcis, Andy Murray, and Jurgen Melzer–have done better by TBOR, exceeding expectations at a greater rate than Isner has.  Darcis is particularly remarkable, winning 16 of his 19 tiebreaks through last week, despite his serve and return rates in those matches suggesting he should have won only 10 of them.

(And in Vienna on Monday, he won another one, extending his already untouchable lead over the pack.)

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow, including a look at just how much meaning we can extract from TBOE and TBOR.  In the meantime,  look after the jump for the current 2012 leaderboard–through Shanghai, sorted by TBOR, minimum 15 tiebreaks.

Player                  TBs  TBWon  ExpW  TBOE   TBOR  
Steve Darcis             19     16   9.8   6.2   0.33  
Jurgen Melzer            17     12   8.3   3.7   0.22  
Andy Murray              24     17  12.1   4.9   0.20  
John Isner               53     38  28.5   9.5   0.18  
Tommy Haas               16     11   8.4   2.6   0.16  
Kevin Anderson           32     19  15.3   3.7   0.12  
Janko Tipsarevic         32     21  17.4   3.6   0.11  
David Ferrer             30     20  17.1   2.9   0.10  
Pablo Andujar            18     11   9.3   1.7   0.10  
Julien Benneteau         20     12  10.3   1.7   0.08  
Radek Stepanek           18     11   9.7   1.3   0.07  
Sam Querrey              28     16  14.2   1.8   0.06  
Andy Roddick             21     12  10.7   1.3   0.06  
Jarkko Nieminen          20     11   9.8   1.2   0.06  
Paul Henri Mathieu       15      8   7.2   0.8   0.06  
Andreas Seppi            23     13  11.8   1.2   0.05  
Jeremy Chardy            17      9   8.1   0.9   0.05  
Philipp Kohlschreiber    38     22  20.6   1.4   0.04  
Denis Istomin            28     15  14.1   0.9   0.03  
Milos Raonic             45     26  24.6   1.4   0.03  
Roger Federer            28     18  17.3   0.7   0.03  
Jo Wilfried Tsonga       31     18  17.3   0.7   0.02  
Marcos Baghdatis         22     12  11.5   0.5   0.02  
Gilles Muller            28     14  13.4   0.6   0.02  
Yen Hsun Lu              16      8   7.7   0.3   0.02  
Olivier Rochus           17      7   6.7   0.3   0.02  
Ivo Karlovic             28     14  13.6   0.4   0.01  
Nicolas Mahut            17      9   8.8   0.2   0.01  
Ryan Harrison            19      9   8.8   0.2   0.01  
Juan Monaco              18     10  10.2  -0.2  -0.01  
Juan Martin Del Potro    35     20  20.5  -0.5  -0.01  
Lukasz Kubot             18      8   8.4  -0.4  -0.02  
Viktor Troicki           18      9   9.5  -0.5  -0.03  
Tomas Berdych            28     15  15.7  -0.7  -0.03  
Fernando Verdasco        21     10  10.6  -0.6  -0.03  
Bernard Tomic            15      7   7.5  -0.5  -0.03  
Thomaz Bellucci          17      8   8.7  -0.7  -0.04  
Xavier Malisse           19      9   9.7  -0.7  -0.04  
Benoit Paire             24     11  12.2  -1.2  -0.05  
Mikhail Youzhny          20     10  11.0  -1.0  -0.05  
Kei Nishikori            16      8   8.8  -0.8  -0.05  
Grigor Dimitrov          18      9  10.0  -1.0  -0.06  
Alexandr Dolgopolov      22     10  11.4  -1.4  -0.06  
Sergiy Stakhovsky        28     12  13.8  -1.8  -0.07  
Alejandro Falla          15      6   7.1  -1.1  -0.07  
Marin Cilic              25     11  12.9  -1.9  -0.08  
Albert Ramos             28     11  13.1  -2.1  -0.08  
Edouard Roger Vasselin   15      6   7.3  -1.3  -0.09  
Novak Djokovic           25     14  16.3  -2.3  -0.09  
Nicolas Almagro          35     16  19.4  -3.4  -0.10  
Igor Andreev             19      8  10.0  -2.0  -0.10  
Mardy Fish               16      8   9.8  -1.8  -0.11  
Lukas Rosol              17      5   7.1  -2.1  -0.12  
Gilles Simon             21      8  10.8  -2.8  -0.13  
Feliciano Lopez          34     13  17.6  -4.6  -0.13  
Richard Gasquet          18      8  10.5  -2.5  -0.14  
Stanislas Wawrinka       27     10  14.0  -4.0  -0.15

7 thoughts on “Who Actually Excels in Tiebreaks?”

  1. I like the new stats you’ve invented, because they do seem to carry meaning. Even so, I’m going to venture a math question – even though in doing so I expose my ignorance: If we build stats from aggregate data such as you have done here, doesn’t that ignore valuable contextual data, in particular, how tough the opponent was, what set it was, etc.? Somehow I have this hazy notion that rather than a list of stats, what I want to see are charts (curves) or some other presentation of data that shows some of these influences which I am calling context. E.g. Isner might be the king on one level, but if level of opponent were factored in, we might find that his kingdom is smaller than it appears.

    I admit I can’t support this gut notion; I only put it forth as a rather uninformed, not very useful, but possibly relevant comment.

    1. As far as opponent difficulty is concerned, it’s partly built in, because the probability of a player winning each tiebreak is estimated from his and his opponent’s performance *that day*–each player’s service winning percentage in that match. Sure, maybe X played Y on a day that Y was slumping, but the tiebreak was on that day, too, and presumably Y’s slump didn’t end right before the tiebreak and start again right after it.

      (If the slump did end and begin like that, then he’d show up as someone who excels in this stat — as it should be, because he played the tiebreak better than the rest of the match. Do that consistently, and you’re Steve Darcis.)

      So no, there’s no consideration of how good the opponent was over the course of the season, but that’s more important if you’re evaluating a player’s general ability. What I’m trying to get at here is the difference between his general ability and his tiebreak skills, if any.

      It would interesting to consider one set separate from the others, but there just isn’t the data to do that with.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    New to this blog and thoroughly enjoyed reading a few of your interesting articles. I wonder if you have a greater wealth of these statistics? I just notice that once you get a little way down your list of players (only as far as beyond Isner) the numbers are small enough to be heavily influenced by a small number of instances. Take Haas for instance, expected to win 8.4 of 16, he actually won 11. An impressive year for the old guard in breakers for sure, but this doesn’t really constitute a pattern to me. It’s true that the players below Haas have a greater # of TB’s played. Nevertheless, these statistics would gain much from having far larger data set. Other than the bizarre case of Darcis, I would personally say only Isner and Murray have the golden combination of: 1) an impressive TBOR with, 2) enough tie-breaks played, such that it indicates a genuine ‘skill’ in breakers.

    1. Glad you found me, and thanks for reading.

      Yes, I’m writing something up for my next post that touches on the longer-term data, and I may find a way to post year-by-year tables in the near future. As we’ll see in the next post, the longer-term data make things more confused as much as it clarifies, as very few players demonstrate anything close to consistency above or below what is expected.

  3. Not that it makes a huge difference, but have you removed the tiebreak points when calculating the expected number of TB wins?

    1. Nope. Wish I could, but I only have total serve and return points won for the match.

      If I were able to remove them, it should amplify the effect a bit. If the player who won the tiebreak won, say, 75% of serve points and 30% of return points throughout the match, it would usually be the case that he did one or the other better during the tiebreak. So his non-tiebreak percentages would be a little worse, which would lead to a slightly lower estimate of his winning the tiebreak.

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