Jerzy Janowicz and the Frequency of Tiebreak Shutouts

In Marseille this week, Jerzy Janowicz played two dominant tiebreaks.  In his second-round win over Julien Benneteau, he put away the first set with a 7-0 breaker en route to a straight-set victory.  In the quarterfinals, he won another 7-0 tiebreak to even his match with Tomas Berdych before falling in three.

Amazingly, this is not the first time anyone on the ATP tour has won two tiebreaks by a score of 7-0 in back-to-back matches.  It is, however, the first time it’s been done in best-of-3 matches.  In 1992, Brad Gilbert won both his 2nd- and 3rd-round contests at the US Open in five sets, winning 7-0 tiebreaks in the 5th set both times.  If that’s not a case for fifth-set tiebreaks at slams, I don’t know what is.

Janowicz’s accomplishment and Gilbert’s feat are the only two times anyone on tour has won two shutout breakers in the same event.  That’s not much of a surprise, since there are typically fewer than 25 such tiebreaks at tour level per year.

What’s particularly odd here is that Jerzy’s two shutouts weren’t the only ones in Marseille.  In the first round, wild card Lucas Pouille was 7-0’d by Benneteau, the same guy who Janowicz victimized first. Weirdly, both losing and winning 7-0 breakers in the same event is slightly more common than winning two.  It has happened three times before, most recently at the 2009 Belgrade event by Lukasz Kubot, who shut out Karlovic in a semifinal tiebreak then got 7-0’d by Novak Djokovic in the final.

Finally, while we’re wallowing in trivia, here’s one more.  Only once has a player lost two 7-0 tiebreaks at the same event.  This is quite the feat, because to pull it off, you have to win the first match despite losing a set in painful fashion.  The only man to do it is Simone Bollelli, who beat Dmitri Tursunov in the 2nd round of the 2007 Miami Masters despite losing the first set in a 7-0 tiebreak, then lost in the 3rd to David Ferrer, who threw in another tiebreak bagel on the way to straight-set win.

Rare, but not rare enough

Shutout tiebreaks don’t occur very often, but they occur more often than we might expect.  On tour since 1991, there have been 30,259 tiebreaks, and 524 of them–about 1.7%–have been by the score of 7-0.  That’s barely more than the number that end 11-9.

However, if we assume that players who reach a tiebreak are reasonably equal, that’s almost double the frequency we would expect.  A discrepancy like that has serious implications about player consistency.

The arithmetic here is simple.  Say that both players have a 70% chance of winning a point on serve.  In order to win a tiebreak 7-0, the player who serves first must win three points serving and four points returning.  The probability of pulling that off is about (0.7^3)(0.3^4) = 0.28%.  It’s easier if you serve second.  You must win four points serving and three returning: (0.7^4)(0.3^3) = 0.65%.  In this scenario, both players have equal skills, so each one has the same chance of winning 7-0, and the chance of the breaker ending in a shutout is the sum of those two probabilities, 0.93%.

Of course, this simple model obscures a lot of things.  First, players who reach a tiebreak aren’t necessary equal.  Just last month, Bernard Tomic got to 6-6 against Roger Federer, and even more recently, Martin Alund played a tiebreak against Rafael Nadal.  Second, any competitor’s level of play fluctuates, and some guys seem to fluctuate quite a bit when the pressure is on.

Still, the gap between predicted (no more than 0.93%) and observed (1.7%) is enormous.  To predict that 1.7% of tiebreaks would end in a 7-0, we’d need to start with much more extreme assumptions.  For instance, if one player is likely to win 77% of serve points and the other only 64% of serve points, the likelihood of a 7-0 tiebreak is 1.7%.  Those assumptions also imply that, if each man kept up the same level of play all day, the better player has a 93% chance of winning the match.  Perhaps true of Nadal/Alund or even Federer/Tomic, but certainly not Janowicz/Benneteau or Janowicz/Berdych, or most of the other matches that reach a tiebreak.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that–breaking news!–players are inconsistent. Or streaky, or clutch, or unclutch … pick your favorite.  Were players machines, 7-0 tiebreaks wouldn’t come around nearly as often.  As it is, we shouldn’t expect more from Jerzy for a while … unless Brad Gilbert is planning a comeback.

The Aceless Career of Filippo Volandri

While other players racked up mighty ace totals and remarked on the fast surface in Sao Paulo last week, one man stood alone.

Filippo Volandri played three matches, eventually losing in the quarters to Martin Alund.  In his seven sets on court, he hit a grand total of one ace.  Fellow quarterfinalists Carlos Berlocq and Albert Montanes, two men who aren’t exactly known for their serving prowess, hit 21 and 10 aces, respectively, for the tournament.

This isn’t Volandri’s first time defying the trend.  His career ace rate (which takes into account most ATP events and his many challenger appearances since 2007) is 0.8%, which represents less than one ace per typical three-set match.  In no season of his career has he topped 2%.  To compare to Berlocq again: Charly’s career ace rate is close to 5%, and in only one season has his rate fallen below 2%.

As big serves are such a mainstay of the men’s game, it’s amazing to see what the Italian has accomplished without one, even on clay.  (On hard courts, Volandri has an 18 match losing streak going back to Doha in the beginning of 2008.)

Several times he has reached the final of a challenger while hitting only one ace; at the 2008 San Marino Challenger, he won the event without a single free point on serve.  He was particularly impressive early in his career in Umag.  In both 2003 and 2004 at the tour-level event, he reached the final despite hitting only one lone, early-round ace.

Perhaps it is most remarkable just how much time can pass between Volandri aces.  11 times since 2007 has the Italian put together a streak of 10 or more matches with zero aces.  In 2010, he went almost twice as long.  After managing to send a serve past Pablo Andujar in the qualifying round at Costa do Sauipe in early February, he went aceless in a first-round loss to Pablo Cuevas.  He wouldn’t hit another ace for 19 matches, not until he faced Matteo Viola at the Rome Challenger more than two months later.

That’s a stretch of over 1,200 service points.  And for Volandri, it’s not at all uncommon; just last year, he put together a stretch of 16 straight aceless matches between June and September.

Unfortunately, thanks to the speedy surface in Sao Paulo and his single ace last week, the Italian won’t be breaking his personal record soon.  But with a ranking outside the top 100 and a full year of clay-court challengers to draw upon, it’s safe to say that this story is far from over.

WTA and ITF Results on TennisAbstract!

I hope that by now, you’ve taken advantage of the wealth of ATP results and stats at  This week, I’ve expanded the site to include women’s tennis–a lot of women’s tennis.

Not only does TA now contain all the matches from the entire history of the WTA  and Fed Cup, but it is also bursting at the seams with lower-level ITFs, all the way down to 10k’s and satellites.  You can track the progress of Annika Beck, keep tabs on Melanie Oudin‘s resurgence, or simply take a look into the history of a long-running event.

(If ITFs and men’s futures are your thing, you can always get a one-page look at this week’s events–men and women–from the TA homepage.  Players in those draws are linked to their TA results pages, as well.)

All told, the site now contains 317,815 matches across 12,807 tournaments.  That’s about 13,000 players, of whom about half have WTA ranking data.

I’ve also started churning out some additional data on the ladies.  The WTA Rankings by Age report shows the highest-ranked teenagers, under-21s, under-23s, and older players, while the WTA H2H Matrix shows the head-to-head records of the WTA top 15 in one place.  And there’s more to come.

To get started, just click some clinks in those reports, or use the search box on the front page (or almost any other page) to look up the WTA player of your choice.  Enjoy!

Milos Raonic’s (Almost) Unprecedented Three-peat

Last week, Milos Raonic won the SAP Open in San Jose without dropping a set.  Juts like he did last year … and the year before.  In fact, Raonic has won every set he has ever played at this event.

That’s not just impressive, it’s only the second time in ATP history that anyone has pulled off such a feat.

Simply winning an event three times in a row is not easy task, of course, even dropping plenty of sets along the way.  Raonic was only the 27th player in ATP history to do that, though of course many of his precursors strung together streaks of more than three years, and many three-peated at more than one event.  Just last month, David Ferrer made news by going back-to-back-to-back on hard courts in Auckland, having previously three-peated on clay in Acapulco.  (Raonic won’t be joining that club anytime soon.)

What’s particularly impressive about the group of three-peating champions is how tightly it overlaps with the very best in the game’s history.  18 of the 27 three-peaters reached the #1 ranking during their careers.  Two more peaked at #2.  (Honorable mention goes to Balazs Taroczy, who never cracked the top 10, but did win Hilversum five years running.)

For all the accolades earned by those #1s, though, only one of those players did what Raonic just completed.  That was John McEnroe, who went back-to-back-to-back-to-back from 1980 to 1983 at the Sydney Indoor.  Had he not returned to the event in 1992, he would have retired with a perfect record at the tournament.

Johnny Mac had a tougher time of it than did Raonic.  Milos has only beaten one top-20 player in San Jose, and when he edged by #9 Fernando Verdasco to win his first title, he did so while winning far fewer than half of points, resulting in a pitiful dominance ratio of 0.66.  (1.0 represents an even match; Raonic’s average in San Jose is 1.71.)  The Canadian was only broken twice in these three years, but he rarely did much breaking of his own, going to nine tiebreaks.

McEnroe, by contrast, beat at least three top-20 players (including #4 Vitas Gerulaitis) and played only a single tiebreak in his  20-match winning streak.  He also had to play best-of-five-set matches in three of the four finals.

To match McEnroe’s mark, either in number of consecutive titles or difficulty of winning them, Raonic will need to start a new streak. The smaller number of ATP-level events now on the circuit, however, make it more difficult to find the perfect blend of conditions and weak opposition to put together such a streak.

That doesn’t mean McEnroe’s mark is safe, however.  Rafael Nadal is just five matches and one title way from matching at least the straight-set three-peat, sitting on a 10-match win streak in Barcelona.  In fact, Nadal has only lost one set in Barcelona since 2006.  Had he played in 2010, we might have been talking about a very different record right now.

The Fastest Surface on the ATP Tour

Last week, Rafael Nadal claimed that the indoor clay surface in Sao Paulo didn’t play like clay–it was faster than the surface of the US Open.  It also wasn’t up to standard, with frequent bad bounces and occasional slides gone wrong.

It’s easy to write off Rafa’s complaints as the whining of a once-dominant player who inexplicably loses sets to competitors who might otherwise never appear on television.  But what if he’s right?  What if some clay surfaces are faster than some hard surfaces?

In fact, I stumbled on this paradox when sharing some surface speed numbers last fall.  In the Brasil Open’s first year at a new venue in Sao Paulo, it’s main draw players hit 58% more aces than expected, the highest rate of any ATP tour event, comfortably ahead of European indoor events in Marseille and Montpellier.

Amazingly, this year, players in Sao Paulo hit 78% more aces than they would have on an average surface.  Some of the individual performances are impressive: Nicolas Almagro hit aces on 21% and 26% of service points in his two matches; Joao Souza cracked 27% in a qualifying match.  The raw numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they might be simply because most of the competitors prefer clay-courts for a reason.  Put Carlos Berlocq on an ice-skating rink and he still won’t hit many aces.  In fact, Berlocq’s ace rates last week account for three of the top eight of the 55 matches he played in the 52 weeks.

Ace rate doesn’t tell the whole surface speed story, but it’s an awfully good proxy.  It consistently places the expected indoor tournaments near the top of the rankings and traditionally slower clay events like Monte Carlo and Rome near the bottom.  So when a clay event spits out numbers like these, something wacky is going on.

Much has been written of the homogenization of surface speed, and certainly many hard courts have gotten slower.  But the clay courts in Sao Paulo aren’t drifting toward a bland average–they are going where few clay courts have gone before.  Perhaps, as more events are played on temporary surfaces, we’ll continue to see unexpected results like these.  Certainly, we cannot assume that all clay courts are created equal.

The Most Lopsided ATP Semifinals

In the latest step of Rafael Nadal‘s minor league rehab assignment comeback, he’ll play Martin Alund tonight in the Sao Paulo semifinals.  Yes, the same Martin Alund who had never played a tour-level event before last week, has a career losing record in challengers, and only made the main draw as a lucky loser.

The jrank forecast gives Alund a 4.3% chance of beating Rafa tonight which, even having seen Nadal’s unconvincing win over Carlos Berlocq last night, seems a bit generous.

It also seems odd.  Even in lower-rung ATP events, players of Alund’s caliber (even a caliber or two above that) rarely reach the semis.  In San Jose this week, the lowest-ranked player in the semifinals is #22 Tommy Haas, assuring fans in California a very different level of play today.

As it turns out, hugely lopsided semifinals do occur now and then, and occasionally they even result in upsets.

Since the beginning of 2001, there have been about 1600 tour-level semifinals.  Using jrank, I estimated each player’s chances in those matches.  Nadal’s 95.7% probability of winning tonight doesn’t even rank in the top ten most lopsided semis.

Rafa has long been a stalwart of one-sided semifinals.  His dominance on clay is reflected in the numbers, and when he does play smaller events, he makes some opponents look woefully overmatched.  Of the 11 semifinals that were more lopsided than tonight’s showdown, Rafa was the favorite in four–including last week’s dismantling of Jeremy Chardy.  At the 2008 Barcelona event, Denis Gremelmayr had a mere 1.6% chance of triumphing over Rafa.  He won a single game.

(Chardy is rated quite a bit higher than Alund, but after last week’s loss to Horacio Zeballos, Nadal’s rating has fallen accordingly.  The jrank forecast for this week’s semifinal is thus almost identical to last week’s.)

Of course, there’s a big difference between a high probability and a certainty, and some of these lopsided matchups have generated surprises.  In Washington in 2007, the virtually unknown John Isner took out Gael Monfils, despite a mere 2.4% chance of victory.  The same year in Amersfoort, qualifier and eventual champion Steve Darcis defeated Mikhail Youzhny, overcoming a pre-match probability of only 6.1%.

Even Nadal has suffered in these situations.  The third-biggest ATP semifinal upset was Rafa’s 2010 Bangkok loss at the hands of Guillermo Garcia Lopez.

In all of those examples the underdog was a player of undeniable talent, while Alund has stumbled into his first ATP semifinal.  But as Nadal’s stumbles against Zeballos and Berlocq have shown us, it doesn’t matter so much who is across the net–the king of clay is far from his usual invincible self.

(After the break, find a list of the 63 most lopsided ATP semifinals since 2001. Asterisks denote upsets.)

Continue reading The Most Lopsided ATP Semifinals

Is Davis Cup About the Chalk?

In today’s tennis landscape, Davis Cup is a weird anachronism, in which no-name players contest five-set epics for national glory.  The usual guidelines about the invincibles and the journeymen are set aside, and we can watch a few days of raw, emotional tennis.

That’s the story, anyway.  And when John Isner beats Roger Federer on clay (or loses to Thomaz Bellucci on hard), it makes for good copy.  As Sam Querrey battled Thiago Alves in Jacksonville last weekend, the USTA’s Tim Curry tweeted, “On paper the @USDavisCupTeam is in good shape. No. 20 Sam Querrey (USA) v No. 141 Thiago Alves (BRA) but @DavisCup is never about the chalk.”

In the end, of course, it was about the chalk.  Most of the time, it is.  Legendary Davis Cup upsets stand out because of their rarity, not because they define the event.

Quantifying Davis Cup favorites

To determine whether there are a disproportionate number of upsets in Davis Cup, we first need to know what a proportionate number would be.  We can get there via two (similar) routes: using a projection system to determine how many upsets there should have been, or comparing Davis Cup results to another group of similar matches.

Since the beginning of 2009, there have been exactly as many Davis Cup upsets as we would have predicted, and almost the same upset rate in Davis Cup matches as in Grand Slam matches from the same time frame.

(I’m including matches contested between top-200 players, and live rubbers from all levels of Davis Cup–though the ranking requirement means we’re mostly looking at World Group and WG Playoffs. Projections are surface-specific and are derived from jrank; I’ve also discarded matches where one player has very few [<10 clay or <30 hard matches] recent results on the surface.)

In these last four-plus years, 352 Davis Cup matches and 1853 Grand Slam matches have fit these parameters. 93, or 26.4%, of the DC matches were upsets, against 474, or 25.6%, of the Slam matches. I’m using surface-specific jrank to define “upset” here, in an attempt to remove surface (and the home team’s ability to choose it) as a confounding variable.

The similarity of those percentages starts to cast some doubt on the “different game” theory of Davis Cup. But it isn’t the whole story.

Raw tallies of upsets don’t tell us how big the upsets were, or how lopsided the average match was. For that, we need more detailed projections.

Projecting the outcome of each one of those 352 Davis Cup matches (using only data that would have been available pre-match) gives us an estimate of 92 upsets. That’s almost identical to the observed total of 93 upsets.

Importantly, the prediction algorithm I’m using here is derived from ATP results. Thus, when we say that the number of Davis Cup upsets is the same as expected, what we’re really saying is that the number of upsets is the same as would be expected if they were five-setters on the ATP tour.

Davis Cup is unusual, it is fun, and it can be thrilling. But it is “about the chalk” no more and no less than your average ATP tour event.