As Novak Djokovic can tell you, though, Wawrinka has improved. He has long been a threat to top-ten players, and even before beating Djokovic in the quarterfinals, he had taken the Serb to five sets twice in twelve months.
One of the hidden signs of Stan’s rise comes from his last match with Rafa, at the London Tour Finals last November. Wawrinka lost that match in straight sets–as he has done, of course, every time he’s played Nadal–but it was the tightest match they’d played in four years, going to a pair of tiebreaks.
If we look beyond the scoreline, last fall’s contest was even closer than the pair’s previous two-tiebreak match at the 2009 Miami Masters. This time, Wawrinka won more points than Nadal did–83 to 80, good for 51% of the total. While it isn’t unheard of for the player who wins more points to lose the match, the player who wins more points does end up triumphant in more than 95% of tour-level matches. In their eleven previous meetings, Stan had never won as many as 48% of the total points played.
The quality of Wawrinka’s performance is even more striking when we turn to Dominance Ratio (DR), the ratio of the winner’s rate return points won to the loser’s rate return points won. In 93.5% of matches, the winner of the match is the man who won the higher rate of return points. By expressing this as a ratio, we can get an idea of the winning player’s dominance. 1.0 is a dead heat, and the higher than number, the more dominant the winning player.
In the match last November, Nadal’s DR was 0.86. Rafa won 31.1% of return points while Stan won 36.0%. If you look at 100 straight-sets matches with those stats, you’ll rarely find even one in which the 31.1% RPW player comes out the winner.
In fact, since 1991, there have been fewer than 150 matches in which a player had a DR less than or equal to 0.9 and still won in straight sets. (Matches that go the distance more commonly have this sort of profile, when the winner takes two [or three] tight sets but loses a blowout set, with a score like 7-6 1-6 7-6.) Only about 50 of these were more extreme than the Nadal-Wawrinka match.
Based on the evidence of this last matchup, we can conclude that Wawrinka has the skills to challenge Nadal. Yet despite coming much closer than in any of their eleven previous meetings–Rafa’s lowest DR in any of them was 1.13–the Swiss didn’t win. Why not?
Let’s recognize the core issue: Stan may have won more points, but he won them at the wrong times. (Or, he didn’t win quite enough of them at the right times.) He held serve more convincingly than his opponent did but didn’t play as well in the tiebreaks. Any explanation has to address this “wrong time” issue. Here are a few:
- Nadal raised his game in the important moments. There’s some evidence for this–he outperforms expectations in tiebreaks, and he also wins more break points than non-break points. Some of the break point advantage comes from being left-handed (and taking proper advantage of it), though his break point advantage seems to be even bigger than his lefty advantage.
- Wawrinka faltered in the important moments. From the stat sheet of a single match, it would be tough to distinguish this from the first explanation. But perhaps he was overwhelmed by the opportunity he had generated for himself.
- Luck. Randomness in tennis isn’t limited to net cords, bad calls, and mishits. If you put two tennis-playing robots out on the court and had them play five consecutive matches, the result wouldn’t be the same every time. Wawrinka misses shots sometimes, and according to the stat sheets (though I’ve never seen it myself), Nadal does too. Just because one of those errors comes at a key moment doesn’t mean the man who committed it is a mental midget.
As much as we like to assign narratives to every possible nook and cranny of a tennis match, I suspect the truth of the matter is a hefty dose of #3 with a bit of #1 thrown in. When the outcome of a match comes down to two seven-point tiebreaks, it’s anybody’s game. It just wasn’t Stan’s that day.
If I’m right, there just might be hope for Wawrinka today. In his last two sets against Nadal, he held his own, which is more than just about everybody else on tour can say for themselves.
Unfortunately for Stan, one meeting doesn’t outweigh eleven, and a bit of momentum won’t erase Rafa’s well-earned status as the world #1. Perhaps worst of all, Wawrinka has proven himself Nadal’s almost-equal in two sets. Today, he’ll have to win three.