Dodig’s Consistency, IBM’s Offensive, and Hopeless Wild Cards

Ivan Dodig just missed out on a seeding at this year’s US Open.  Ranked 37th when seeds were assigned, he had ascended as high as #35, largely on the strength of his fourth-round showing at Wimbledon.

While the Croatian could have drawn any seed as early as the first round, he got lucky, pulling 27th-seeded Fernando Verdasco.  My forecast underlines his fortune, giving him a 51% chance to advance to the round of 64, then roughly even odds again to make the round of 32 against (probably) Nikolay Davydenko–another player who fell just outside the seed cut.

Making the Dodig-Verdasco comparison more interesting is that in the last 52 weeks, the unseeded player has won more matches (38 to 29) with a higher winning percentage (58% to 56%).  What the Spaniard has done, however, is bunch his wins much more effectively than his first round opponent.  While Dodig achieved a career highlight with his R16 showing in London, Verdasco made the quarters.  Fernando reached the final in Bastad, and earlier in the year, won two matches at the Madrid Masters.

A telling comparison is that while Dodig has lost five opening-round matches in the last year, Verdasco has lost nine.  As Carl Bialik explained two years ago, consistency isn’t such a great thing in tennis.  Certainly, the ATP rankings–and the seedings that utilize them–prefer inconsistency.

You know there’s a Grand Slam in the offing when the PR pieces from IBM start to appear.  Last week, a particularly bald-faced plant showed up in the New York Times, a publication that–one fervently hopes–should know better.

This particular piece includes such hard-hitting journalism as, “The keys are updated during matches to track any shift in momentum, and they correlate well with the final outcome,” and “These extra features are likely to drive traffic to the event’s Web site, USOpen.org, and its various mobile versions. ”

The Times should be embarrassed.  What makes this particularly frustrating to the statistically-oriented fan is that while IBM speaks the right language, the results of this effort to “fulfill fans’ desire for deeper knowledge” are so disappointing.

The much-vaunted Keys to the Match are frequently arbitrary, often bizarre.  In Kei Nishikori‘s second-round match at Wimbledon, one of his “Keys” was to “Win between 71 and 89 of winners on the forehand side.”  He didn’t do that–whatever it means, exactly. He didn’t meet the goals set by his two other Keys, either, yet he won the match in straight sets.

Most frustrating to those of us who want actual analysis, the underlying data–to the extent it is available at all–is buried almost beyond the possibility of a fan’s use.  IBM–like Hawkeye–is collecting so much data, yet doing so little with it.

Lots of fans do desire more statistical insight. Much more. The raw material is increasingly collected, yet the deeper knowledge remains elusive.

Stay with me as I leap from one hobby-horse to another.

Wild cards cropped up as a topic of conversation last weekend, largely thanks to Lindsay Gibbs’s piece for Sports on Earth, in which Jose Higueras said, “If it was up to me, there would be no wild cards. Wild cards create entitlement for the kids. I think you should be in the draw if you actually are good enough to get in the draw.”

I don’t object to wild cards used as rewards, like the one that goes to the USTA Boys’ 18s champion, or the ones that the USTA awards based on Challenger performance in a set series of events.  There’s even a place for WCs as a way to get former greats into the draw. James Blake shouldn’t have gotten the deluge of free passes that he has received in the last few years, but it’s probably good for the sport to have him in more top-level events than he strictly deserves.

The problem stems from all the other wild cards, and not just from a player development perspective.  Are fans going to get that much enjoyment out of one or two matches from the likes of Rhyne Williams and Ryan Harrison, Americans who didn’t have a high enough ranking to make the cut?  Of the fourteen Americans in the men’s main draw, six were wild cards, and it would shock no one if those six guys failed to win a single match.

There are further effects, as well.  By exempting Williams, Harrison, Tim Smyczek, and Brian Baker from the qualifying tournament, fans seeking quality American tennis last week barely got to see any.  Donald Young–who has received far too many wild cards himself–was the only American to qualify, largely because the US players at the same level as the other would-be qualifiers didn’t have to compete.  The remaining Americans were in over their heads.

This leads me to a great alternative suggested by Juan José Vallejo on Twitter: Be liberal with free passes in qualifying, and take the opportunity to promote those early rounds much more.  At the Citi Open a few weeks ago, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday for qualifying were comparable to those Monday and Tuesday.  Because qualifying often falls on the weekend, the crowds are there.  But if they want to see Jack Sock play, they’ve got to come back Tuesday night (and spend a lot more money), and they’re much more likely to see him overmatched by a better, more experienced player.

Cut the entitlement, improve the quality of main draw play, and give the fans more chances to watch up-and-coming stars.  I wish there was a chance this would happen.