This week’s pair of ATP warmups for the Australian Open provide quite the contrast.
In Sydney, only one seeded player (the hardly automatic Andreas Seppi) reached the semifinals, and only one other even made the quarters. Across the ditch in Auckland, three of the final four are among the top four seeds, and the fourth, Gael Monfils, would typically sport a ranking in the same range.
Sydney fits a conventional narrative, while Auckland confounds it. The week before a Grand Slam, many of the top players are out of action, while those who are in action … well, let’s just say warmups don’t always appear to be their top priority.
Winning in 250s
The ATP schedule gives us a convenient natural experiment in order to determine whether slam warmups really are different.
(For convenience, I’m using the term “warmups.” However, we’re only looking at tournaments the week before a slam starts. Sydney is included, but not Brisbane, even though events two weeks before Austrlian and Wimbledon are generally called “warmups.”)
Since 2009, all of the lowest rung of tour-level events have been worth 250 points to the winner. Conveniently, all tourneys the week before slams have fallen into this category.
To see if players seem to treat slam warmups differently from other events, we can simply compare results from warmups to those from other 250s. It isn’t perfect, since a few 250s have draws of more than 32 players and the field quality isn’t identical in all tourneys at this level, but by looking at a few different metrics, we can limit the impact of those quibbles.
Let’s start by simply counting wins and losses of seeded players. In slam warmups from 2009 through 2012, seeds won about 61% of matches against unseeded opponents (224 of 365), while in other 250s, seeds win over 70% of those matches (1499 of 2129). That’s a substantial difference.
To eliminate the quirks of the bigger 250 draw at Queen’s Club, and perhaps toss out some first-round retirements as well, let’s consider the records that seeds have posted in specific rounds.
In the round of 16 at slam warmups, seeds have gone 71-50, for a winning percentage of 58.7%. At other 250s, seeds have won 591 against 223 losses, a percentage of 72.6%.
In the quarterfinals of slam warmups, seeds have beaten unseeded players in 33 of 46 matches–71.7% of encounters. In other 250s, similar matchups have gone to the seeded player 200 of 275 times, or 72.7% of the time.
It seems that many top-ranked players show up at slam warmups with the intent of getting one or two matches under their belt. (Or perhaps fulfilling an obligation to a sponsor.) Those players don’t perform up to their usual standard. But as shown by the comparable records in quarterfinals, those who come to compete play at their usual level.
A few other looks
One issue that seems to have a particular impact in slam warmups is last-minute withdrawals, like that of second-seed Gilles Simon in Sydney this week. Those don’t show up in the won-loss records.
To consider the overall picture, including withdrawals, we can count the number of seeds who reach the semifinals in our different categories of ATP 250s.
In slam warmups, the semifinal fields in the last four years have consisted of 53 seeds and 43 nonseeds–about 55% top-ranked players. In other 250 semifinals, we’ve seen 365 seeds against 191 nonseeds–66% seeds.
Yet another angle is the performance of the top four seeds. In 250s, the 5 through 8 seeds are often barely distinguishable from the rest of the pack. For example, in Sydney this week, those last four seeds are Florian Mayer, Radek Stepanek, Jeremy Chardy, and Marcel Granollers. Not much difference between those guys and unseeded semifinalists Julien Benneteau, Kevin Anderson, and Bernard Tomic.
There’s no clear line between first-rank guys and the rest of the pack, but taking the top half of the seeds seems as good as any other option.
The results are similar to what we saw with the larger pool of seeds. Overall, when a top-four seed played a non-top-four opponent in a slam warmup, he won 65% of matches (129 of 199). In other 250s, he won 74% (978 of 1321).
In the round of 16, top-fours went 51-24 in slam warmups, for a record of 68%, compared to 76% (366-114) in other 250s.
Where the top four seeds differ from other seeds is in the quarterfinal round. In slam warmup QFs, top-fours went 31-20, winning 61% of matches. In other tourneys, they won 71% (261-105). Perhaps the first-round bye in many slam warmups means that top seeds want two warmup matches, but no more.
As mentioned, these experiments give us imprecise results, as they don’t take into account the exact field quality of the various 250s. While they may not be the final word on this question, these numbers do strongly indicate that higher-ranked players don’t view slam warmups as particularly important. Against a similar pool of opponents, they win far more matches in 250s at other times throughout the year.
Perhaps that’s one reason why winning an Aussie Open warmup doesn’t forecast any particular level of success in Melbourne–these are tournaments where some of your most highly-ranked opponents just aren’t trying as hard as usual.