The Unexpectedly Predictable IPTL

December is here, and with the tennis offseason almost five days old, it’s time to resume the annual ritual of pretending we care about exhibitions. The hit-and-giggle circuit gets underway in earnest tomorrow with the kickoff, in Japan, of the 2016 IPTL slate.

The star-studded IPTL, or International Premier Tennis League, is two years old, and uses a format similar to that of the USA’s World Team Tennis. Each match consists of five separate sets: one each of men’s singles, women’s singles, (men’s) champions’ singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Games are no-ad, each set is played to six games, and a tiebreak is played at 5-5. At the end of all those sets, if both teams have the same number of games, representatives of each side’s sponsors thumb-wrestle to determine the winner. Or something like that. It doesn’t really matter.

As with any exhibition, players don’t take the competition too seriously. Elites who sit out November tournaments due to injury find themselves able to compete in December, given a sufficient appearance fee. It’s entertaining, but compared to the first eleven months of the year, it isn’t “real” tennis.

That triggers an unusual research question: How predictable are IPTL sets? If players have nothing at stake, are outcomes simply random? Or do all the participants ease off to an equivalent degree, resulting in the usual proportion of sets going the way of the favorite?

Last season, there were 29 IPTL “matches,” meaning that we have a dataset consisting of 29 sets each of men’s singles, women’s singles, and men’s doubles. (For lack of data, I won’t look at mixed doubles, and for lack of interest, forget about champion’s singles.) Except for a handful of singles specialists who played doubles, we have plenty of data on every player. Using Elo ratings, we can generate forecasts for every set based on each competitor’s level at the time.

Elo-based predictions spit out forecasts for standard best-of-three contests, so we’ll need to adjust those a bit. Single-set results are more random, so we would expect a few more upsets. For instance, when Roger Federer faced Ivo Karlovic last December, Elo gave him an 89.9% chance of winning a traditional match, and the relevant IPTL forecast is a more modest 80.3%. With these estimates, we can see how many sets went the way of the favorite and how many upsets we should have expected given the short format.

Let’s start with men’s singles. Karlovic beat Federer, and Nick Kyrgios lost a set to Ivan Dodig, but in general, decisions went the direction we would expect. Of the 29 sets, favorites won 18, or 62.1%. The Elo single-set forecasts imply that the favorites should have won 64.2%, or 18.6 sets. So far, so predictable: If IPTL were a regular-season event, its results wouldn’t be statistically out of place.

The results are similar for women’s singles. The forecasts show the women’s field to be more lopsided, due mostly to the presence of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Elo expected that the favorites would win 20.4, or 70.4% of the 29 sets. In fact, the favorites won 21 of 29.

The men’s doubles results are more complex, but they nonetheless provide further evidence that IPTL results are predictable. Elo implied that most of the men’s doubles matches were close: Only one match (Kei Nishikori and Pierre-Hugues Herbert against Gael Monfils and Rohan Bopanna) had a forecast above 62%, and overall, the system expected only 16.4 victories for the favorites, or 56.4%. In fact, the Elo-favored teams won 19, or 65.5% of the 29 sets, more than the singles favorites did.

The difference of less than three wins in a small sample could easily just be noise, but even so, a couple of explanations spring to mind. First, almost every team had at least one doubles specialist, and those guys are accustomed to the rapid-fire no-ad format. Second, the higher-than-usual number of non-specialists–such as Federer, Nishikori, and Monfils–means that the player ratings may not be as reliable as they are for specialists, or for singles. It might be the case that Nishikori is a better doubles player than Monfils, but because both usually stick to singles, no rating system can capture the difference in abilities very accurately.

Here is a summary of all these results:

Competition      Sets  Fave W  Fave W%  Elo Forecast%  
Men's Singles      29      18    62.1%          64.2%  
Women's Singles    29      21    72.4%          70.4%  
ALL SINGLES        58      39    67.3%          67.3%  
Men's Doubles      29      19    65.5%          56.4%  
ALL SETS           87      58    66.7%          63.7%

Taken together, last season’s evidence shows that IPTL contests tend to go the way of the favorites. In fact, when we account for the differences in format, favorites win more often than we’d expect. That’s the surprising bit. The conventional wisdom suggests that the elites became champions thanks to their prowess at high-pressure moments; many dozens of pros could reach the top if they were only stronger mentally. In exhos, the mental game is largely taken out of the picture, yet in this case, the elites are still winning.

No matter how often the favorites win, these matches are still meaningless, and I’m not about to include them in the next round of player ratings. However, it’s a mistake to disregard exhibitions entirely. By offering a contrast to the high-pressure tournaments of the regular season, they may offer us perspectives we can’t get anywhere else.