Rafael Nadal’s Wide-Open Monte Carlo Draw

This afternoon, Rafael Nadal will take on Albert Ramos for a chance at his tenth Monte Carlo Masters title. Since 2005, Nadal has faced the best clay-court players in the sport and, with very few exceptions, beaten them all.

Yet this year, Nadal’s path to the trophy has been remarkably easy. The three top seeds–Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Stan Wawrinka–all lost early, leaving Nadal to face David Goffin in the semifinals and Ramos (who ousted Murray) in the final. Goffin, at No. 13, was Rafa’s highest ranked opponent, followed by Alexander Zverev, at No. 20, who Nadal crushed in the third round.

When we run the numbers, we’ll see that this competition isn’t just weak: It’s the weakest faced by any Masters titlist in recent history. I’ll get into the mechanics and show you some numbers in a minute.

First, a disclaimer. By saying a draw is weak, I’m not arguing that the title “means less” or is somehow less deserved. It’s not in any way a reflection on the player. For all we know, Rafa would’ve cruised through the draw had he faced the toughest possible opponent in every round. The only thing a weak draw tells us about the champion is how to forecast his future. Had Nadal beaten multiple top-ten players this week, we might be more confident predicting future success for him than we are now, after he has beaten up on a bunch of players we already suspected he’d have no problem with.

Back to the numbers. To measure the difficulty of a player’s draw, I used jrank–my own surface-adjusted rating system, roughly similar to Elo–at the time of each Masters event back to 2002. For each tournament, I found the jrank of each player the titlist defeated, and calculated the likelihood that a typical Masters winner would beat that group of players.

That’s a mouthful, so let’s walk through an example. In the last 15 years, the median Masters winner was ranked No. 3, with a jrank (for the surface of the tournament) of about 4700, good for fourth at the moment. A 4700-rated player would have an 85.7% chance of beating Ramos, a 75.7% chance of defeating Goffin, and 87.3%, 68.4%, and 88.7% chances of knocking out Diego Schwartzman, Zverev, and Kyle Edmund, respectively. Multiply those together, and our average Masters winner would have a 34.3% chance of claiming the trophy, given that competition.

I’m using a hypothetical average Masters winner so that we measure the level of competition against a constant level. It doesn’t matter whether 2017 Nadal, peak Nadal, or someone else entirely played that series of opponents. If Djokovic had faced the same five players, we’d want the numbers to come out the same.

Here are the ten easiest paths to a Masters title since 2002, measured by this algorithm:

Year  Event                Winner          Path Ease  
2017  Monte Carlo Masters  Rafael Nadal*       34.3%  
2016  Shanghai Masters     Andy Murray         33.0%  
2011  Shanghai Masters     Andy Murray         30.8%  
2013  Madrid Masters       Rafael Nadal        30.8%  
2012  Paris Masters        David Ferrer        30.4%  
2010  Monte Carlo Masters  Rafael Nadal        27.3%  
2012  Canada Masters       Novak Djokovic      25.8%  
2014  Madrid Masters       Rafael Nadal        25.3%  
2016  Paris Masters        Andy Murray         24.7%  
2010  Rome Masters         Rafael Nadal        24.6%

* pending; extremely likely

The average ‘Path Ease’ is 15.6%, and as we’ll see in a moment, some players have had it much, much harder. In Shanghai last year, Murray certainly did not: His draw turned out much like Rafa’s this week, complete with Goffin along the way and a three-named Spaniard in the final–in his case, Roberto Bautista Agut.

Here are the ten most difficult paths:

Year  Event                 Winner              Path Ease  
2007  Madrid Masters        David Nalbandian         4.1%  
2007  Paris Masters         David Nalbandian         6.2%  
2014  Canada Masters        Jo Wilfried Tsonga       6.6%  
2011  Rome Masters          Novak Djokovic           6.6%  
2009  Madrid Masters        Roger Federer            7.0%  
2010  Canada Masters        Andy Murray              7.7%  
2004  Cincinnati Masters    Andre Agassi             7.9%  
2007  Canada Masters        Novak Djokovic           8.0%  
2009  Indian Wells Masters  Rafael Nadal             8.0%  
2002  Canada Masters        Guillermo Canas          8.4%

Those of us who remember the end of David Nalbandian‘s 2007 season won’t be surprised to see him atop this list. In Madrid, he beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Roger Federer in the final three rounds, and in Paris, he knocked out Federer and Nadal again, along with three other top-16 players. Making his paths even more difficult, he didn’t earn a first-round bye in either event.

Given that Monte Carlo is the one non-mandatory Masters event, I expected that, over the years, it would prove to have the weakest competition. That was wrong. Entering this week, Monte Carlo is only fourth-easiest of the nine current 1000-series events. Indian Wells–which requires at least six victories for a title, unlike most of the others, which require only five–has been the toughest, while Miami, which also requires six wins, is closer to the middle of the pack:

Event         Avg Path Ease  
Indian Wells          12.8%  
Canada                14.3%  
Rome                  14.6%  
Miami                 15.3%  
Cincinnati            15.7%  
Monte Carlo*          16.5%  
Madrid**              16.7%  
Paris                 16.8%  
Shanghai              21.5%

* through 2016; ** hard- and clay-court eras included

Finally, seeing the presence of Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray on the list of easiest title paths raises another question. How have the big four’s levels of competition differed at the Masters events?

Player          Titles  Avg Path Ease  
Roger Federer       26          14.6%  
Novak Djokovic      30          16.1%  
Rafael Nadal        28          16.7%  
Andy Murray         14          18.1%

not including 2017 Monte Carlo

Federer has had the most difficult paths, followed by Djokovic, Nadal, and then Murray. Assuming Rafa wins today, his number will tick up to 17.3%.

To reach ten titles at a single event, as Nadal is on the brink of doing in Monte Carlo, requires one to thrive regardless of draw luck. Rafa’s path to the trophy last year was tougher than any of his previous Monte Carlo campaigns, rating a Path Ease of 9.1%, almost difficult enough to show up on the top ten list displayed above. His 2008 title was no cakewalk either–a typical Masters winner would have only a 10.0% chance of coming through that draw successfully.

This year, Rafa’s luck has decidedly changed. To no one’s surprise, the best clay court player in history is taking full advantage.