Roger Federer’s Impressive but Not-Entirely-Relevant Dominance of the Istanbul Field

Roger Federer has faced 14 of the 27 other players in this week’s Istanbul field, and owns a career record of 59-1 against them. His one loss came to Jurgen Melzer, while more than half of his win total is thanks to his decade-long dominance of Mikhail Youzhny (16-0) and Jarkko Nieminen (14-0).

It’s rare that players of Federer’s stature contest such small events, so we don’t expect to see such lopsided head-to-heads very often. In fact, if we limit our view to events where a player faced at least 10 of the other entrants, it is only the 17th time since 1980 that someone has entered an event with a won-loss percentage of 95% or better against the field.

Federer himself represents two of the previous 16 times this has happened. The most notable of them is 2008 Estoril. He had previously faced 14 of the other players in the draw, and had never lost to any of them in 46 meetings. There are only four other instances of players undefeated against a field, all between 1980 and 1984 and in many fewer matches.

The most eye-grabbing of those early-80s accomplishments was Ivan Lendl‘s record entering the 1980 Taipei event. He had faced 15 of the men in the draw, posting a record of 24-0 up to that point. Lendl’s name is the most common on the list, having entered tournaments with a 95% won-loss record against the field on four different occasions, highlighted by a 79-4 mark against the other competitors at Stratton Mountain in 1988.

Federer won the 2008 title in Estoril and Lendl claimed the 1980 trophy in Taipei, but Lendl was ousted in the second round of the 1988 Stratton Mountain event. Federer has also demonstrated that a stratospheric record against the field is no guarantee of success.

After Estoril, Roger’s second-best record entering an event was in Gstaad in 2013. He held a 73-3 record against the field, with each of the three losses coming against different opponents. He lost his opening-round match in straight sets to Daniel Brands. His record against the field of the previous week’s Hamburg event was nearly perfect as well at 137-8, but Federico Delbonis stopped him in the semifinals there.

Rafael Nadal can tell a similar story. His best record against a field was in Santiago two years ago, coming back from injury. He had lost only 1 of 28 career matches against the other players in the draw. That week, Horacio Zeballos doubled Rafa’s loss count.

In fact, of the 16 times that a player went into an event with a 95% or better record against the field, the favorite won only six of them. Expanding the sample to records of 90% or better, the dominant player won 30 of 72 titles. Neither mark is as good as we’d expect if the historically great players continued to win matches at a 95% or 90% clip. In practice, head-to-head records just aren’t as predictive as they seem to be.

As is evident from some of the examples I’ve given, there are mitigating circumstances for many of these losses, and they aren’t entirely random. These days, when a player enters an event that seems below him, there’s a reason for it. Nadal rarely plays 250s; he was doing so to work his way back into match form. Federer rarely seeks out smaller events on clay; he was experimenting with a new racket.

This week, there’s no reason why Fed shouldn’t perform at his usual level–at least his usual level for clay–and win the four matches he needs to claim yet another title. But if he suffers his second loss against the players gathered in Istanbul this week, it won’t be quite as much of a shock as that 59-1 record implies.