After advancing to the Davis Cup final, Andy Murray floated the idea that he might skip the World Tour Finals to prepare. The Belgian hosts are likely to choose clay for November’s Davis Cup tie (in part to make Murray less comfortable), and if Murray reached the final round in London the week before, he would have only four days off to recover and adjust to the different surface.
A lot of factors will go into Murray’s ultimate decision: how much importance he gives each event, how much he thinks fatigue will affect him, and how likely it is that the ATP would sanction him for skipping a required event. For today, I’ll have to ignore all of those and focus on the one most amenable to analysis: The effect of switching surfaces right before a Davis Cup tie.
Shifting from one surface to another immediately before Davis Cup is common. From 2009 to the present, there have been just over 2,000 World Group, Group 1, and Group 2 Davis Cup singles rubbers, and almost 450 of those involved at least one player who had played the previous week  on a different surface. It’s very rare that both players switched surfaces, so we have a sample of 432 matches in which one player changed surfaces from the previous week, and the other player either played or (presumably) prepared on the same surface.
At the simplest level of analysis, the switchers have been surprisingly effective. In those 432 matches between switchers and non-switchers, the switchers won 275, or 63.6% of the time. When we narrow the sample to the 130 times the switcher reached at least the round of 16 the week before Davis Cup (and, thus, had even less time to adjust), the results are surprisingly similar: 82 wins, or 63.1% in favor of the switchers.
Of course, there are all sorts of biases that could be working in favor of the switchers. The better the player, the less likely he can change his schedule to better prepare for Davis Cup, leaving him stuck on the “wrong” surface the week before a tie. And the better the player, the more likely he was a switcher in the smaller sample, one of those who reached the round of 16 the week before.
To evaluate the effect of switching, then, we must proceed with more subtlety. If switchers are more likely to be the favorites, we need to consider each player’s skill level and estimate how often switchers should have won. To do that, we can use JRank, my player rating system with surface-specific estimates for each competitor.
Immediately, we lose about 15% of our sample due to matches involving at least one player who didn’t have a rating at the time . These are almost all Group 2 matches, so its doubtful that we lose very much. In the slightly smaller pool of 361 matches, the switcher won 62.0%, and when the switcher reached the round of 16 the previous week, he won 60.0%.
JRank confirms that the sample is strongly biased toward switchers. The player changing surfaces was favored in 69.8% of these contests. To take an extreme example, Murray went from hard courts at the 2013 US Open to clay courts in the World Group playoff against Croatia. Against Borna Coric, who hadn’t played the week before, Murray was a 99.1% favorite, and of course he won the match.
Once we calculate the probability that the switcher won each of the 361 matches, it turns out that the switchers “should have” won 227, or 62.8% of the time. That’s almost indistinguishable from the historical record, when the switchers won 224 matches. In the smaller sample of 120 matches when the switcher reached the round of 16 the previous week, switchers “should have” won 72 matches. As it happened, they won exactly 72.
In other words, it doesn’t appear to be a disadvantage to play Davis Cup matches on an unfamiliar surface. JRank-based predictions are primarily based on “regular” matches, so if switchers are performing at the level that JRank forecasts for them, they’re playing as well as they would at, say, the third round of a Slam, when the surface is familiar.
This isn’t a clear answer to Murray’s dilemma, of course. If he plays, say, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in back-to-back three-setters on Saturday and Sunday, then travels to a different venue, handles tons of press, and practices with a different set of coaches and fellow players before a big match the following Friday, he faces more of a challenge than your typical surface-switcher in our dataset.
However, there’s little evidence that surface-switching alone is a good reason to skip the Tour Finals. If history is any guide, Murray will play very well on the Belgian clay–just as well as he would at the same venue in the middle of the clay season.
- Out of necessity, I’m using “week” here in the sense of “ranking” or “schedule” week. For example, the “week” before last weekend’s Davis Cup ties included the US Open, as well as the Challengers that started on the middle Monday of the Slam.
- JRank rates everyone who appears in a tour-level, tour-level qualifying, or Challenger match. Ratings last for two years after the last such match, so players without any jrank rating are very marginal singles players indeed.