The Effect of 32 Seeds

In the middle of 2001, the Grand Slams doubled the number of seeds in the draw from 16 to 32, a change “designed to protect star players and satisfy clay and grass specialists.”

The intended beneficiaries of the change were, of course, all seeded players. Those in the top 16 no longer had to worry about facing a fellow top-32 player until the third round. Those ranked from 17-32, who before the change may have faced a top 16 player in the first round, now received the same protection.

The costs of the 32-seed system are borne by two groups: unseeded players, who are now more likely to face a top-ranked player early; and first-week fans, who would like to see more “compelling” early-round matches. While it’s easy to point to shock upsets like Serena Williams’s exit today as a counterpoint, the first two rounds at Slams often feel like warm-up matches for the biggest stars, with fringe players as their hapless foils.

On the other hand, it’s tough to get an intuitive sense of just how much is at stake here. It may not be as much as you think. From 1989 to 2000, men’s seeds were upset 263 times in the first two rounds of slams. Only 51 of those losses were to players in the top 32. In other words, more than 80% of those upsets would have occurred even with a 32-seed format, and presumably, some of the remaining 51 matches would still have resulted in upsets.

From the perspective of the top 16 seeds, there may not be that much difference between opponents ranked in the next 16 and those ranked lower still. To cherry-pick just one example, there are many seeded players Stanislas Wawrinka would have rather faced this week than Guillermo Garcia Lopez.

For top-four women, it hasn’t made a difference at all. In the twelve years before the switch, they reached the third round in 176 of 190 attempts. In the twelve years after the format change, women seeded 1-4 no longer risked facing a top-32 player in the first two rounds, and reached the third round in 178 of 191 attempts.

In fact, for top-16 women’s seeds in general, the 32-seed format has not helped. From 1989-2000, women’s seeds reached the third round 77.6% of the time, the fourth round 63.5% of the time, and the quarterfinals 40.8% of the time. From 2002-13, with lower-ranked early-round opponents, the corresponding numbers were 78.2%, 60.1%, and 37.1%.

It’s likely that some of the differences have to do with the increasing depth of the women’s game, but it’s hardly the case that the 32-seed format has drastically changed the nature of the majors, at least for the players who have been seeded all along. Men’s top-16 seeds have benefited, reaching the third, fourth, and quarterfinal rounds about 10% more often since the switch to 32 seeds, but even here, we’re not seeing radically different second weeks.

The real change, as you might suspect, appears when we consider the balance of power between the new seeds (17-32) and the rest of the field. From 1989-2000, when there were only 16 seeds and those two groups were treated the same way, men’s players ranked 17-32 reached the third round about twice as often (35% to 17%) as their lower-ranked competitors. Women in the 17-32 range held a wider advantage of 39% to 15%.

Now that there are 32 seeds and the 17-32 group is protected, those gaps have substantially grown. From 2002-13, men seeded outside the top 16 have reached the third round 53% of the time, compared to 12% for unseeded players. Seeded women in the 17-32 range have reached the third round 49% of the time, while unseeded women have equaled their male counterparts at 12%.

These differences, big as they are, aren’t going to affect most fans’ enjoyment of the majors. The format change means that Rafael Nadal faces a player ranked 60th in the world in the second round and a player ranked 30th in the third round. He’ll almost always win both matches, so the end result is the same. A surprise run to the quarterfinals isn’t much different if it’s made by world #25 than by #50.

However, the 32-seed format does amplify the gap between tennis’s haves and have-nots. Yes, he Grand Slams have massively increased prize money in the last few years for all main-draw competitors–first-round losers in Paris earn more than $32,000 for their efforts. But players who reach the third round are able to triple that money.

As we’ve seen, the format change has made it much more likely that #32 reaches the third round (and takes home a nearly six-figure purse) at the expense of everyone ranked lower–despite having little effect on the makeup of the field in the fourth round and beyond.  Plus, the ranking points on offer at Slams mean that third-rounders are that much more likely to earn a seed at the next major, starting the next round of the same cycle.

Seeding 32 players instead of 16 doesn’t have much of an effect on the fates of top players, especially on the women’s side. It can, however, lessen interest in the first several days of play, and it certainly supports an arbitrary middle tier of players at the expense of the rest of the field.

If the 32-seed era were to end here, there’s little reason for tennis fans to miss it.

Erratic Results and the Fate of Jerzy Janowicz

When Jerzy Janowicz defeated Victor Estrella in the first round at Roland Garros on Sunday, it was the Pole’s first win since Februrary, breaking a string of nine consecutive losses. Janowicz’s results have been rather pedestrian ever since his semifinal run at Wimbledon last year, yet the 720 points he earned for that single performance have kept his ranking in the top 25 and given him a seed at the Grand Slams.

As we’ve discussed many times on this site, occasional greatness trumps consistent mediocrity, at least as far as ranking points are concerned. The system rewards players who bunch wins together–Janowicz current holds about 1500 points, barely double what he earned from that single event last year.

In the short term, bunching wins is a good thing, as Janowicz has learned. But from an analytical perspective, how should we view players with recent histories like his? Does the Wimbledon semifinal bode well for the future? Does the mediocre rest of his record outweigh a single excellent result? Does it all come out in the wash?

It’s a question that doesn’t pertain only to Janowicz. While 48% of Jerzy’s points come from Wimbledon, 49% of Andy Murray‘s current ranking point total comes from winning Wimbledon. Another reigning Slam champion, Stanislas Wawrinka, owes 34% of his point total to a single event.  By contrast, for the average player in the top 50, that figure is only 21%. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are among the most consistent on tour, at 16% and 10%, respectively.

Since 2010, there has only been one top-40 player who earned more than half of his year-end ranking points from a single event: Ivan Ljubicic, whose 1,000 points for winning Indian Wells dominated his 1,965 point total. His top-16 ranking at the end of that year didn’t last. He didn’t defend his Indian Wells points or make up the difference elsewhere, falling out of the top 30 for most of 2011. Of course, he was in his 30s at that point, so we shouldn’t draw any conclusions from this extreme anecdote.

When we crunch the numbers, it emerges that there has been no relationship between “bunched” ranking points and success the following year. I collected several data points for every top-40 players from the 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons: their year-end ranking, the percentage of ranking points from their top one, two, and three events, and the year-end ranking the following year.  If bunching were a signal of an inflated ranking–that is, if you suspect Janowicz’s abilities don’t jibe with his current ranking–we would see following-year rankings drop for players who fit that profile.

Take Jerzy’s 2012, for example. He earned 46% of his points from his top event (the Paris Masters final), 53% from his top two, and 57% from his top three.  (Corresponding top-40 averages are 21%, 34%, and 44%.)  He ended the year with 1,299 ranking points. At the end of 2013, his ranking no longer reflected his 600 points from Paris. But unlike Ljubicic in 2010, Janowicz boosted his ranking, improving 24% to 1,615 points.

The overall picture is just as cloudy as the juxtaposition of Ljubicic and Janowicz. There is no correlation between the percentage of points represented by a player’s top event (or top two, or top three) and his ranking point change the following year.

For the most extreme players–the ten most “bunched” ranking point totals in this dataset–there’s a small indication that the following season might disappoint. Only three of the ten (including Janowicz in 2012-13) improved their ranking, while three others saw their point total decrease by more than 40%. On average, the following-year decrease of the ten most extreme player-seasons was approximately 20%. But that’s a small, noisy subset, and we should take the overall results as a stronger indication of what to expect from players who fit this profile.

There’s still a case to be made that Jerzy is heading for a fall. He hasn’t racked up many victories so far this year that would offset the upcoming loss of his Wimbledon points. And his Wimbledon success was particularly lucky, as he faced unseeded players in both the fourth round and the quarterfinals. Even if he is particularly effective on grass, it’s unlikely the draw will so heavily favor him again.

But however a player earns his disproportionately large point total, the points themselves are no harbinger of doom. On that score, anyway, Janowicz fans can expect another year in the top 25.

Custom Filters and Head-to-Heads on TennisAbstract.com

There are a couple of cool new features on TennisAbstract.com that I’d like to share with you. I’ve added another way to search for player head-to-head records, and I’ve also added even more filtering functionality to WTA pages.

Let’s start with the H2H. There have always been a variety of ways to find head-to-head records on the site, and now I’ve made it easier than ever, right on the front page:

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Start typing, and you’ll get a drop-down menu of possible players. Choose one, select another player in the field to the right, and you’ll go straight to a list of career matches between the pair.

For quite some time, there have been other ways of getting H2H results, and sometimes those methods are quicker still. First, for any upcoming match at a current tournament:

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The record shown for each matchup is the career H2H record. Click on it for the list of matches.

Next, there’s a one-click route from player pages. For any listed match on a player page, the “d.” (for “defeated”) is a link. Click on that link and you get the career head-to-head record of the two players involved in that match:

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Finally, you can use the “Head-to-Head” filter in the left-hand column.

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It takes a few more keystrokes than the other methods outlined here, but it’s a quick way to get any H2H with a particular player. Also, for power users, you can use that filter to generate a list of matches with multiple opponents:

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Custom filters

Also new today is the addition of custom date and rank filters for WTA pages. These custom filters have been available on ATP pages for several months, though I suspect many of you have yet to discover them. They work exactly the same way for men’s and women’s pages.

Let’s say, for instance, you wanted to look at Serena Williams‘s record and results since she returned to the #1 ranking last February. Click on “Time Span” in the left hand column. You’ll see a long list of years. At the bottom of the list, click on “Custom” and use the drop-down menus to select specific start and end dates:

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As an added bonus, the URL changes every time you use one of these custom filters, so once you’ve generated your list showing Serena’s 89-6 record since her return to the #1 spot, you can easily share it.

You can also get custom results for opponent ranking (the “vs Rank” filter). Let’s say you wanted to know Tomas Berdych’s record in the last year against players ranked inside the top 50, but outside the top 10:

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Enjoy!

Projected Matchups on TennisAbstract.com Tourney Pages

I’ve been tinkering around with the tournament pages on Tennis Abstract (for example, this week’s WTA event in Strasbourg), and I want to share the latest improvement with you.

If you are unfamiliar with TA’s tournament pages, it may take a moment to adjust to the method of presentation. But I’ve found that it’s a much more efficient way of presenting a lot more data than a traditional draw diagram–without the hassle of loading a PDF and zooming in and out.

In the left-hand column, you’ll find all upcoming matches, along with the career head-to-head record for each one. Click on the player links to go to their TA player page, or on the H2H record to see a list of H2H matches. Further down, you’ll find all results from the event (including qualifying rounds), most recent first. Take a close look at the “d.” in the middle of each completed match, and you’ll find that some of them are links. Click on those links to get the career H2H results for that pair of players.

In the right-hand column is a tournament forecast. The default view shows each player’s chances of reaching each round of the tournament. ATP forecasts are based on tournament simulations, which use jrank player ratings. WTA forecasts are based on official WTA rankings.

You’ll find today’s new addition here:

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You can click on the links in the top row, “Archived,” to see what the forecast looked like at earlier stages of the tournament.

New today, click on links in the “Probable matchups” row to see the most likely development of the tournament, including H2H records for likely later-round matches:

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I imagine that this will be particularly helpful at the beginning of the week for tournaments with larger draws, when you want to get a quick glance at, for instance, quarterfinal or semifinal pairings worth looking forward to.

You can always click “Current” in the top row to return to the real-time forecast.

More TennisAbstract news:

Draws and forecasts are available for French Open qualifying:

I’ll add main draw forecasts as soon as those draws are set, as well. You can find links to those on the front page of TennisAbstract.com. They’ll be updated hourly throughout the tournament.

If you’ve been wondering about some weird numbers on the ATP stats leaderboard, it’s because 2014 matches weren’t included. (Yes, I know it’s May. Ugh.) If you haven’t checked out that page, I hope you will. There are dozens of stats and hundreds of ways to filter results and generate rankings for the last two-and-a-half seasons. For instance, here are the leaders in 2014 return points won on clay.

Finally, we’ve hit a cool milestone with the Match Charting Project. Thanks to the hard work of Deb Decker, there are 50 Rafael Nadal matches in the database, including nearly every match from this year. You’ll also find at least one match for each of 90 players in the current ATP top 100 and 43 of the current WTA top 50. I hope you’ll consider contributing to this growing resource.

Entry Lists are Back!

I’ve finally been able to bring back one of my favorite features on TennisAbstract.com: ATP entry lists and player schedules!

You’ll find these in the lower right corner of the front page at tennisabstract.com.

Tour-level main draw entry lists are available about six weeks ahead of time.  Challenger, Grand Slam qualifying, and Masters qualifying lists are out three weeks ahead of time. The lists on the site are updated every few hours. For example, here’s the list for the Roland Garros main draw.

The best part of this is that I can compile upcoming player schedules in one place. As I complained not too long ago, it’s outrageous that this information isn’t more readily available. My schedules aren’t perfect–for one thing, they don’t include wild cards as they are awarded–but they go a long way to addressing the problem. On that one page, you can see where your favorite player is scheduled to appear over the next several weeks.

 

Dominic Thiem’s Qualifying Marathon

When Dominic Thiem beat Marinko Matosevic in Madrid qualifying this week, it was the seventh time this year he fought his way into a tour-level main draw.  Seven is an awful lot for one season–and it’s early May. Last season, Santiago Giraldo qualified more than any other player, doing so only six times.

In fact, Thiem could easily set the all-time record. Only 46 players have ever qualified for seven or more tour-level events in a season, and 29 of those have stopped at seven. 10 players have qualified eight times, including Flavio Cipolla in 2011, Teymuraz Gabashvili in 2007, and Alejandro Falla in 2007 and 2009. An even smaller group of seven players have reached nine main draws through qualifying, most recently Kevin Anderson in 2010.

No one has ever reached double digits, and Thiem has almost six months in which to close the gap.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thiem’s run is that he has failed to qualify only once this year, in Acapulco. At most ATP events, qualifying requires winning two matches, and twice this year he’s needed to win three. It’s a level of consistency almost unheard of among young players, or players of any age at his level in the rankings. It’s comparable to reaching the quarterfinals or better at seven of eight consecutive particularly strong Challengers.

If the Austrian fails to set a new record, it probably won’t be because he’s not good enough–it’s more likely to end up that way because he’s too good. His ranking started the year at #139, and after his win over Stanislas Wawrinka yesterday, he’ll ascend to almost #60 next Monday. That isn’t good enough to make the main draw cut at most Masters 1000 events, but it will earn him direct entry into anything else.

Thiem has climbed so high not just because of his success in qualifying, but also because of his performance after qualifying. In six of the seven main draws he has reached the hard way, he won at least one match, including three against seeded players. That sets him apart from other recent qualifying warriors. For instance, in 2009 Falla qualified for eight main draws and won only two matches. In 2010 Anderson won five main draw matches in nine main draws as a qualifier.

While qualifying records are impressive and entertaining, it is Thiem’s consistency and his quality play in main draws that bode well for his future as a top player on tour. Guys like Cipolla and Falla have qualified so much because they manage to stick around in a certain tier of the rankings without ever advancing any higher, not because they were ever on the brink of stardom.

That’s why, if Thiem does qualify for ten main draws this year, it will likely be the last qualifying-related record he sets. Falla leads active players with 37 successful trips through qualifying in his career, and that’s a mark the Austrian will never threaten.

Lleyton Hewitt and the Elusive Triple-Hundred

Lleyton Hewitt is within a whisker of qualifying for a very elite club–players who have won 100 matches on each of the three major tennis surfaces, hard, clay, and grass. He has 367 on hard, 120 on grass, and 98 on clay. If he manages to reach this milestone, he’ll be the last player to do so for a long time.

Roger Federer, of course, is already a member. Hewitt would become only the seventh, joining Fed, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, John Alexander, and Stan Smith. Arthur Ashe and Stefan Edberg are close: both retired with 99 grass-court wins.

Typically, the grass-court threshold is the most difficult to reach, but that’s not the issue for Hewitt.  In fact, the Aussie is one of only 16 players in ATP history to win 100 or more matches on grass courts.

Federer has 123 career wins on grass, good for second of all time, behind Connors. Hewitt, at 120, is the only other active player even close.  Next on the active list is Andy Murray at 74, followed by Novak Djokovic, Mikhail Youzhny, and Tommy Haas, all tied at 53. Of the 80 players in ATP history who have won at least 50 matches on grass, 73 are retired.

Of the active players with 50 or more grass-court wins, only Hewitt and Murray have won more matches on grass than on clay. That’s all a long-winded way of saying, if someone’s going to reach the 100-win milestone on three surfaces, you wouldn’t expect them to need a few more wins on clay.

No other active players are anywhere near striking distance of the 3×100 mark. While Murray could reach 100 wins on grass with a few more good seasons, his clay win total lags far behind–on that surface, he only recently got to 50.  And as we’ve seen, no other active player has more than 53 career wins on grass. The extended grass-court season, starting next year, will help players like Djokovic, but it’s safe to say that Haas’s window has closed.

In an era that barely rewards grass-court specialists, Hewitt has put himself in position to join this elite group by performing at a very high level on the surface. It’s ironic, then, that he’ll cross into such rarefied territory with a win on red clay.