Del Potro’s Draws and the Possible Persistence of Bad Luck

Tennis’s draw gods have not been kind to Juan Martin del Potro this year.

In Acapulco and Indian Wells, he drew Novak Djokovic as his second-match opponent. In Miami, Delpo got a third-rounder with Roger Federer. In each of the March Masters events, with 1,000 ranking points at stake, del Potro was handed the most difficult opponents for his first round against a fellow seed. Thanks in part to the resulting early exits, one of the most dangerous players on tour is still languishing outside of the top 30 in the ATP rankings.

When I wrote about the Indian Wells quarter of death–the section of the draw containing del Potro, Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Nick Kyrgios–I attempted to quantify the effect of the draw on each player’s expected ranking points. Before each player’s name was placed in the bracket, my model predicted that Delpo would earn about 150 ranking points–the weighted average of his likelihood of reaching the third round, the fourth round, and so on–and after the draw was conducted, his higher probability of a clash with Djokovic knocked that number down to just over 100. That negative effect was one of the worst of any player in the tournament.

The story in Miami is similar, if less extreme. Pre-draw, Delpo’s expected points were 183. Post draw: 155. In the four tournaments he has entered this year, he has been uniformly unlucky:

Tournament    Pre-Draw  Post-Draw  Effect  
Delray Beach      89.3       74.0  -17.1%  
Acapulco         121.5       97.1  -20.1%  
Indian Wells     154.6      102.5  -33.7%  
Miami            182.9      155.4  -15.0%  
TOTAL            548.2      429.0  -21.7%

*The numbers above for Indian Wells are slightly different than what I published in the Indian Wells article, since the simulations I ran for this post consider the entire 96-player field, not just the 64-player second round.

The good news, as we’ll see, is that it’s virtually impossible for this degree of misfortune to continue. The bad news is that those 119 points are gone forever, and at Delpo’s current position in the ranking table, that disadvantage will affect his tournament seeds, which in turn will result in worse draws (earlier meetings with higher-ranked players, independent of luck) for at least another few weeks.

Before we go any further, let me review the methodology I’m using here. (If you’re not interested, skip this paragraph.) For “post-draw” expected points, I’m taking jrank-based forecasts–like the ones on the front page of Tennis Abstract–and using each player’s probability of each round to calculate a weighted average of expected points. “Pre-draw” forecasts are much more computationally demanding. In Miami, for instance, Delpo could’ve faced any of the 64 unseeded players in the second round and been slated to meet any of the top eight seeds in the third round. For each tournament, I ran a Monte Carlo simulation with the tournament seeds, generating a new draw and simulating the tournament–100,000 times, then summing all those outcomes. So in the pre-draw forecast, Delpo had a one-eighth chance of getting Fed in the third round, a one-eighth chance of getting Kei Nishikori there, and so on.

It seems clear that a 22%, 119-point rankings hit over the course of four tournaments is some seriously bad luck. Last year, there were about 750 instances of a player being seeded at an ATP tournament, and in fewer than 60 of those, the draw resulted in an effect of -22% or worse on the player’s expected ranking points. And that’s just one tournament! The odds that Delpo would get such a rough deal in all four of his 2017 tournaments are 1 in more than 20,000.

Over the course of a full season, draw luck mostly evens out. It’s rare to see an effect of more than 10% in either direction. Last year, Thiemo de Bakker saw a painful difference of 18% between his pre-draw and post-draw expected points in 12 ATP events, but everyone else with at least that many tournaments fell between -11% and +11%, with three-quarters of players between -5% and +5%. Even when draw luck doesn’t balance itself out, the effect isn’t as bad as what Delpo has seen in 2017.

Del Potro’s own experience in 2016 is a case in point. His most memorable event of the season was the Olympics, where he drew Djokovic in the first round, so it’s easy to recall his year as being equally riddled with bad luck. But in his 12 other ATP events, the draw aided him in six–including a +34% boost at the US Open–and hurt him at the other six. Altogether, his 2016 ATP draws gave him a 5.9% advantage over his “pre-draw” expected points–a bonus of 17 ranking points. (I didn’t include the Olympics, since no ranking points were awarded there.)

Taken together, Delpo’s 2016-17 draws have deprived him of about 100 ranking points, which would move him three spots up the ranking table. So even with a short stretch of extreme misfortune, draw luck hasn’t affected him that much. Last year’s most extreme case among elite players, Richard Gasquet, suffered a similar effect: His draws knocked down his expected take by 9%, or 237 points, a difference that would bump him up from #22 to #19 in this week’s ranking list.

There are many reasons to believe that del Potro is a much better player than his current ranking suggests, such as his Elo rating, which stands at No. 7. But his ATP ranking reflects his limited schedule and modest start last year much more than it does the vagaries of each week’s brackets. The chances are near zero that he will continue to draw the toughest player in each tournament’s field in the earliest possible round, so we’ll soon have a better idea of what exactly he is capable of, and where exactly he should stand in the rankings.

Playing Even Better Than Number One

Last night in Miami, Venus Williams beat newly re-minted WTA No. 1 Angelique Kerber. Venus, of course, has plenty of experience clashing with the very best in women’s tennis, with 15 Grand Slam finals and three spells at the No. 1 ranking herself.

Last night’s quarterfinal was Venus’s 37th match against a WTA No. 1  and her 15th win. Kerber became the sixth different top-ranked player to lose at the hands of the elder Williams sister.

All of these numbers are very impressive, especially when you consider that, taken as a whole, WTA No. 1s have won just over 88% of their nearly 2,300 matches since the modern ranking system was instituted. However, Venus doesn’t hold the record in any of these categories.

Records against No. 1s are a somewhat odd classification, since the best players tend to reach the top spot themselves. For example, Martina Hingis played only 11 matches against top-ranked opponents, barely one-fifth as many as the leader in that category. On the other hand, injuries and other layoffs have meant that many all-time greats have found themselves lower in the rankings for long stretches. That is particularly true of Venus and Serena Williams.

With her 37 matches played against No. 1s, Venus is approaching the top of the list, but it will take a superhuman effort to catch Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, at 51:

Rank  Player                   Matches vs No. 1
1     Arantxa Sanchez Vicario                51
2     Gabriela Sabatini                      38
3     Venus Williams                         37
4     Lindsay Davenport                      34
5     Conchita Martinez                      33
6     Helena Sukova                          31
7     Serena Williams                        28
8     Svetlana Kuznetsova                    27
-     Jana Novotna                           27
10    Amelie Mauresmo                        25
11    Maria Sharapova                        23

Wins against No. 1s is a more achievable goal. Martina Navratilova holds the current record at 18*, followed by Serena at 16, and then Lindsay Davenport and Venus at 15:

Rank  Player               Wins  Losses
1     Martina Navratilova    18*      
2     Serena Williams        16      12
3     Lindsay Davenport      15      19
-     Venus Williams         15      22
5     Steffi Graf            11       8
6     Gabriela Sabatini      10      28
7     Amelie Mauresmo         8      17
8     Svetlana Kuznetsova     7      20
-     Maria Sharapova         7      16
-     Mary Pierce             7      15
-     Justine Henin           7       9

*My database does not have rankings throughout Navratilova’s entire career, but other sources credit her with 18 wins.

Win percentage against top-ranked opponents is a bit trickier, as it depends where you set the minimum number of matches. I’ve drawn the line at five. That’s rather low, but I wanted to include Alize Cornet and Elina Svitolina, active players who have each won three of their six matches against No. 1s. By this standard, Venus ranks eighth, though equally reasonable thresholds of 8 or 10 matches would move her up two or three places:

Rank  Player             Wins  Losses   Win%
1     Steffi Graf          11       8  57.9%
2     Serena Williams      16      12  57.1%
3     Petra Kvitova         5       4  55.6%
4     Elina Svitolina       3       3  50.0%
-     Alize Cornet          3       3  50.0%
6     Lindsay Davenport    15      19  44.1%
7     Justine Henin         7       9  43.8%
8     Venus Williams       15      22  40.5%
9     Vera Zvonareva        4       7  36.4%
-     Dinara Safina         4       7  36.4%

Remember that the average player wins fewer than 12% of matches against No. 1s!

Finally, Venus’s defeat of Kerber gave her a win against her sixth different No. 1, moving her into second place in that department. As is so often the case, she trails only her sister, who has beaten seven. Oddly enough, there is very little overlap between Serena’s and Venus’s lists: Their only common victims are Hingis and Davenport. The full list:

Rank  Player               No. 1s defeated
1     Serena Williams                    7
2     Venus Williams                     6
3     Steffi Graf                        5
-     Kim Clijsters                      5
-     Amelie Mauresmo                    5
-     Maria Sharapova                    5
7     Petra Kvitova                      4
-     Lindsay Davenport                  4
-     Justine Henin                      4
-     Svetlana Kuznetsova                4

If Karolina Pliskova–who now stands within 1500 points of No. 1 and could further close the gap in Miami–reaches the top spot, Venus may get a chance to beat a 7th top player. Of course, Serena could get that chance, as well.

Regulations for Returning Rule-Breakers

Next month, Maria Sharapova will complete her 15-month doping ban and return to the WTA tour in Stuttgart, where she has been granted a wild card. It’s no surprise that tournaments are eager to invite an extremely marketable former No. 1, and Sharapova has already lined up wild cards for the Premier-level events in Madrid and Rome.

This has generated no small amount of controversy. Many people see wild cards as a sort of reward or gift that is inappropriate for a player caught breaking such a serious rule. Many fans and fellow players think that, even after she has undergone a severe penalty, Sharapova doesn’t deserve this type of advantage.

Crucially, neither the ITF–which handles drug testing and issued the suspension–nor the WTA–which sets the guidelines for tournament entry–has anything to say about the situation. Each event must make its own decision. The French Open may refuse to invite Sharapova this year (and Wimbledon could follow suit) but any other tournament organizer who cares about selling tickets and sponsorships would want her in the draw.

In other words, with the possible exception of Paris and London, Sharapova will be able to pick up where she left off, entering whichever tournaments she wishes. The only disadvantage is that she won’t be seeded, meaning that we could see some draws that will make the Indian Wells quarter of death look like a friendly club tournament. If she plays well and stays healthy, she’ll probably earn her way to some seeds before the end of the season.

I’m not interested the argument about whether Sharapova “deserves” these wild cards. I’m not a fan of tournaments handing prize money and ranking points opportunities to favorites in any case, but on the other hand, Maria’s penalty was already severe. It doesn’t seem right that she would spend months scrambling for points in lower-level ITFs. When Viktor Troicki was suspended for one year in 2013, he was granted only two tour-level wild cards, so he needed six months to regain his former ranking.

My concern is for the Troickis of the tennis world. Both Sharapova’s and Troicki’s comebacks will ultimately be shaped by the decisions of individual tournaments, so Sharapova–an immensely marketable multiple-Slam winner–will get in almost everywhere she wants, while Troicki was forced to start almost from zero. Put another way: Sharapova’s 15-month ban will last 15 months (exactly 15 months, since she’ll play her first-round match in Stuttgart on the first possible day) while Troicki’s 12-month suspension knocked him out of contention for almost 18 months.

The WTA needs a set of rules that determine exactly what a player can expect upon return from a suspension. Fortunately, they already have something in place that can be adapted to serve the purpose: the “special ranking” for those with long-term injuries. (The ATP’s “protected ranking” rule is similar.) If a player is out of action for more than six months, she can use the ranking she held when she last competed to enter up to eight events, including up to two Premier Mandatories and two Grand Slams. Whether the player is iconic or anonymous, she has a fair chance to rebuild her ranking after recovering from injury.

This is my proposal: When a player returns from suspension, treat her like a player returning from injury, with one difference: For the first year back, no wild cards.  Sharapova would get into eight events–she might choose Stuttgart, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros, Birmingham, Wimbledon, Toronto, and Cincinnati. If she played well in her first two months back, she would probably have a high enough ranking to get into the US Open without help, and the whole issue would cease to matter.

The details don’t need to be exactly the same as post-injury comebacks. I can imagine including two to four additional special ranking entries into ITFs or qualifying, in case a player wants to work her way back to tour level, as a sort of rehab assignment. The important thing here is that the rules would be the same for everyone. As harsh as Sharapova’s penalty is, it pales in comparison to the effect a 15-month ban could have on a less popular tour regular, as Troicki’s example demonstrates.

Like it or not, there will be more doping bans, and unless the tours institute this sort of standardized treatment, there will be more controversies about whether this player or that player deserves wild cards after they return to the tour. The ultimate severity of a penalty will always depend on many factors, but a player’s popularity should never be one of them.

The Indian Wells Quarter of Death

The Indian Wells men’s draw looks a bit lopsided this year. The bottom quarter, anchored by No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic, also features Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Nick Kyrgios. It doesn’t take much analysis to see that the bracket makes life more difficult for Djokovic, and by extension, it cleared the way for Andy Murray. Alas, Murray lost his opening match against Vasek Pospisil on Saturday, making No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka the luckiest man in the desert.

The draw sets up some very noteworthy potential matches: Federer and Nadal haven’t played before the quarterfinal since their first encounter back in 2004, and Fed hasn’t played Djokovic before the semis in more than 40 meetings, since 2007. Kyrgios, who has now beaten all three of the elites in his quarter, is likely to get another chance to prove his mettle against the best.

I haven’t done a piece on draw luck for awhile, and this seemed like a great time to revisit the subject. The principle is straightforward: By taking the tournament field and generating random draws, we can do a sort of “retro-forecast” of what each player’s chances looked like before the draw was conducted–back when Djokovic’s road wouldn’t necessarily be so rocky. By comparing the retro-forecast to a projection based on the actual draw, we can see how much the luck of the draw impacted each player’s odds of piling up ranking points or winning the title.

Here are the eight players most heavily favored by the pre-draw forecast, along with the their chances of winning the title, both before and after the draw was conducted:

Player                 Pre-Draw  Post-Draw  
Novak Djokovic           26.08%     19.05%  
Andy Murray              19.30%     26.03%  
Roger Federer            10.24%      8.71%  
Rafael Nadal              5.46%      4.80%  
Stan Wawrinka             5.08%      7.14%  
Kei Nishikori             5.01%      5.67%  
Nick Kyrgios              4.05%      2.62%  
Juan Martin del Potro     4.00%      2.34%

These odds are based on my jrank rating system, which correlates closely with Elo. I use jrank here instead of Elo because it’s surface-specific. I’m also ignoring the first round of the main draw, which–since all 32 seeds get a first-round bye–is just a glorified qualifying round and has very little effect on the title chances of seeded players.

As you can see, the bottom quarter–the “group of death”–is in fact where title hopes go to die. Djokovic, who is still considered to be the best player in the game by both jrank and Elo, had a 26% pre-draw chance of defending his title, but it dropped to 19% once the names were placed in the bracket. Not coincidentally, Murray’s odds went in the opposite direction. Federer’s and Nadal’s title chances weren’t hit quite as hard, largely because they weren’t expected to get past Djokovic, no matter when they faced him.

The issue here isn’t just luck, it’s the limitation of the ATP ranking system. No one really thinks that del Potro entered the tournament as the 31st favorite, or that Kyrgios came in as the 15th. No set of rankings is perfect, but at the moment, the official rankings do a particularly poor job of reflecting the players with the best chances of winning hard court matches.  The less reliable the rankings, the better chance of a lopsided draw like the one in Indian Wells.

For a more in-depth look at the effect of the draw on players with lesser chances of winning the title, we need to look at “expected ranking points.” Using the odds that a player reaches each round, we can calculate his expected points for the entire event. For someone like Kyle Edmund, who would have almost no chance of winning the title regardless of the draw, expected points tells a more detailed story of the power of draw luck. Here are the ten players who were punished most severely by the bracket:

Player                 Pre-Draw Pts Post-Draw Pts  Effect  
Kyle Edmund                    28.8          14.3  -50.2%  
Steve Johnson                  65.7          36.5  -44.3%  
Vasek Pospisil                 29.1          19.4  -33.2%  
Juan Martin del Potro         154.0         104.2  -32.3%  
Stephane Robert                20.3          14.2  -30.1%  
Federico Delbonis              20.0          14.5  -27.9%  
Novak Djokovic                429.3         325.4  -24.2%  
Nick Kyrgios                  163.5         124.6  -23.8%  
Horacio Zeballos               17.6          14.1  -20.0%  
Alexander Zverev              113.6          91.5  -19.4%

At most tournaments, this list is dominated by players like Edmund and Pospisil: unseeded men with the misfortune of drawing an elite opponent in the first round. Much less common is to see so many seeds–particularly a top-two player–rating as the most unlucky. While Federer and Nadal don’t quite make the cut here, the numbers bear out our intuition: Fed’s draw knocked his expected points from 257 down to 227, and Nadal’s reduced his projected tally from 195 to 178.

The opposite list–those who enjoyed the best draw luck–features a lot of names from the top half, including both Murray and Wawrinka. Murray squandered his good fortune, putting Wawrinka in an even better position to take advantage of his own:

Player              Pre-Draw Pts  Post-Draw Pts  Effect  
Malek Jaziri                21.9           31.6   44.4%  
Damir Dzumhur               29.1           39.0   33.9%  
Martin Klizan               27.6           36.4   32.1%  
Joao Sousa                  24.7           31.1   25.9%  
Peter Gojowczyk             20.4           25.5   24.9%  
Tomas Berdych               93.6          116.6   24.6%  
Mischa Zverev               58.5           72.5   23.8%  
Yoshihito Nishioka          26.9           32.6   21.1%  
John Isner                  80.2           97.0   21.0%  
Andy Murray                369.1          444.2   20.3%  
Stan Wawrinka              197.8          237.7   20.1%

Over the course of the season, quirks like these tend to even out. Djokovic, on the other hand, must be wondering how he angered the draw gods: Just to earn a quarter-final place against Roger or Rafa, he’ll need to face Kyrgios and Delpo for the second consecutive tournament.

If Federer, Kyrgios, and del Potro can bring their ATP rankings closer in line with their true talent, they are less likely to find themselves in such dangerous draw sections. For Djokovic, that would be excellent news.