The Luck of the Tiebreak, 2013 Edition

Another year, another new set of tiebreak masters.

Despite the conventional wisdom, very few players demonstrate any kind of consistent tiebreak skill over and above their regular, non-tiebreak tennis playing ability.  In other words, while someone like Novak Djokovic is bound to win well over half of the tiebreaks he plays–after all, he’s better than almost everyone he faces–there’s no secret sauce that allows him to win any more than his usual skill level would suggest.

Nowhere is this more evident than in this year’s top tiebreak performers.  I calculated the likelihood of each player winning every tiebreak they played this year, given their typical rates of serve and return points won, giving us a ranked list of those players who most exceeded and most underperformed expectations.  At the top of the list, names like Roberto Bautista Agut, Dmitry Tursunov, Marin Cilic, and Leonardo Mayer.

Maybe Bautista Agut is a clutch monster just waiting for recognition, but it’s more likely he just had a few bounces go his way.  Cilic is an excellent example: While he won 54% more tiebreaks than expected this year, 2013 was only the second season of the last six in which the Croat exceeded expectations in tiebreaks.  Whether tiebreak performance is clutch skill or simply luck, the numbers show that it isn’t persistent.

However, as I’ve noted before, a very few players do consistently outperform tiebreak expectations.  They tend to be players who find themselves in tiebreaks often, and their success may be because they manage to maintain their serve at its usual level.

John Isner and Roger Federer are the usual suspects.  Isner won 20% more tiebreaks this year than expected, in line with his numbers in 2011 and 2012.  (In 2009 and 2010, he was even better.)  Federer beat expectations by 10%, avoiding his first neutral-or-worse season since 2003 by winning a pair of breakers against tough opponents at the Tour Finals in London.

With another year’s worth of data in the books, we can safely add one more active player to this elite group.  Rafael Nadal was fifth overall this year, winning 23% more tiebreaks than expected.  Nadal hovered around the neutral level until 2008, winning almost exactly as many breakers as his overall skill level would suggest.  But since then, he has had only good tiebreak seasons.  No other player besides Isner and Federer has posted more than four better-than-expected tiebreak seasons in the last six.

For the rest of the ATP, it’s best to look at these numbers as indexes of luck.  The men at the top will probably have to win more non-tiebreak sets next year to maintain their ranking, while the guys at the bottom can expect a modest boost with just a little less bad luck.  That is, unless they play too many tiebreaks against John Isner.

The complete list of 2013 tiebreak performance is below.  ‘TBOE’ is “Tiebreaks Over Expectations,” the difference between the number of tiebreaks my algorithm expects a player to win and the number he actually won.  ‘TBOR’ is a rate version of the same stat, calculated by dividing TBOE by the total number of tiebreaks played.  TBOE rewards players like Isner who play lots of tiebreaks and play them well, while TBOR identifies those who have been particularly lucky in whatever number of tiebreaks they contested.

Player                  TB  TBWon  TBExp  TBOE    TBOR  
Roberto Bautista Agut   21     16   10.3   5.7   27.0%  
Dmitry Tursunov         21     16   10.4   5.6   26.8%  
Marin Cilic             15     11    8.2   2.8   18.7%  
Leonardo Mayer          15      9    6.8   2.2   14.9%  
Rafael Nadal            25     18   14.6   3.4   13.6%  
Gilles Simon            25     16   12.7   3.3   13.0%  
Ivo Karlovic            29     18   14.8   3.2   11.1%  
John Isner              53     36   30.1   5.9   11.1%  
Andy Murray             23     16   13.5   2.5   11.0%  
Fabio Fognini           23     14   11.7   2.3   10.0%  
Juan Martin Del Potro   33     21   17.7   3.3   10.0%  
Benoit Paire            29     17   14.3   2.7    9.3%  
Philipp Kohlschreiber   33     19   15.9   3.1    9.3%  
Jerzy Janowicz          26     15   12.9   2.1    8.2%  
Jarkko Nieminen         27     14   11.9   2.1    7.9%  
Bernard Tomic           30     16   13.7   2.3    7.6%  
Julien Benneteau        24     14   12.4   1.6    6.9%  
Alexandr Dolgopolov     21     11    9.6   1.4    6.8%  
Ernests Gulbis          23     13   11.5   1.5    6.4%  
Tommy Haas              26     16   14.4   1.6    6.3%  
Jeremy Chardy           21     12   10.7   1.3    6.0%  
Roger Federer           25     15   13.6   1.4    5.4%  
Grega Zemlja            19     10    9.0   1.0    5.3%  
Feliciano Lopez         24     14   12.9   1.1    4.4%  
Jo Wilfried Tsonga      30     17   15.8   1.2    4.2%  
Ryan Harrison           15      7    6.4   0.6    4.1%  
Tommy Robredo           24     14   13.1   0.9    3.8%  
Novak Djokovic          28     19   17.9   1.1    3.8%  
Lleyton Hewitt          16      9    8.4   0.6    3.5%  
Daniel Brands           19     10    9.4   0.6    3.4%  
Fernando Verdasco       24     14   13.5   0.5    1.9%  
David Ferrer            21     12   11.8   0.2    1.0%  
Kei Nishikori           16      9    8.9   0.1    0.9%  
Martin Klizan           15      7    6.9   0.1    0.9%  
Kevin Anderson          35     19   19.1  -0.1   -0.2%  
Marinko Matosevic       16      9    9.1  -0.1   -0.4%  
Mikhail Youzhny         23     11   11.4  -0.4   -1.8%  
Milos Raonic            36     19   19.7  -0.7   -1.9%  
Sam Querrey             31     15   15.6  -0.6   -2.1%  
Stanislas Wawrinka      32     17   17.7  -0.7   -2.3%  
Florian Mayer           18      8    8.4  -0.4   -2.4%  
Gael Monfils            27     13   13.7  -0.7   -2.5%  
Igor Sijsling           19      9    9.5  -0.5   -2.6%  
Andreas Seppi           19      9    9.5  -0.5   -2.8%  
Denis Istomin           24     11   11.8  -0.8   -3.2%  
Richard Gasquet         29     15   16.0  -1.0   -3.4%  
Daniel Gimeno Traver    18      7    7.6  -0.6   -3.5%  
Vasek Pospisil          24     11   11.9  -0.9   -3.6%  
Tomas Berdych           34     17   18.6  -1.6   -4.7%  
Victor Hanescu          24     10   11.2  -1.2   -5.2%  
Ivan Dodig              27     12   13.5  -1.5   -5.7%  
Robin Haase             24     10   11.4  -1.4   -5.9%  
Albert Ramos            16      7    7.9  -0.9   -5.9%  
Benjamin Becker         18      7    8.1  -1.1   -5.9%  
Horacio Zeballos        20      7    8.2  -1.2   -6.2%  
Jurgen Melzer           19      8    9.4  -1.4   -7.4%  
Nicolas Almagro         34     17   19.5  -2.5   -7.5%  
Lukas Rosol             15      6    7.3  -1.3   -8.9%  
Evgeny Donskoy          17      6    7.7  -1.7  -10.2%  
Alejandro Falla         15      6    7.6  -1.6  -10.9%  
Grigor Dimitrov         22      9   11.5  -2.5  -11.4%  
Marcos Baghdatis        20      6    9.5  -3.5  -17.4%  
Carlos Berlocq          18      7   10.2  -3.2  -17.5%  
Juan Monaco             15      5    7.7  -2.7  -18.3%  
Janko Tipsarevic        19      5    8.7  -3.7  -19.5%  
Edouard Roger Vasselin  19      4    8.2  -4.2  -22.3%