This is a guest post by Peter Wetz.
Sebastian Ofner, the still relatively young Austrian, received some media attention this June when he qualified for the Wimbledon main draw at his first attempt and even reached the round of 32 by beating Thomaz Bellucci and Jack Sock. Therefore, some people, including me, had an eye on the 21-year-old when he made his ATP tour debut* at Kitzbuhel a few weeks later, where he was awarded a wild card.
Stunningly, Ofner made it into the semifinals despite having drawn top seed Pablo Cuevas in the second round. Cuevas, who admittedly seems to be out of form lately (or possibly is just regressing to his mean), had a 79% chance of reaching the quarterfinal when the draw came out, according to First Ball In’s forecast.
Let’s look at the numbers to contextualize Ofner’s achievement. How deep do players go when making their debut at ATP level? How often would we expect to see what Ofner did in Kitzbuhel?
The following table shows the results of ATP debutantes with different types of entry into the main draw (WC = wild card, Q = qualifier, Direct = direct acceptance, All = WC + Q + Direct). The data considers tournaments starting in 1990.
Round WC Q Direct All R16 14.51% 26.73% 24.46% 21.77% QF 2.39% 6.39% 4.32% 4.64% SF 0.51% 2.30% 2.16% 1.59% F 0.17% 0.64% 0.72% 0.46% W 0.17% 0.26% 0.72% 0.27%
Since 1990 there have been 1507 ATP debuts: 586 wild cards (39%), 782 qualifiers (52%) and 139 direct acceptances (9%). Given these numbers, we would expect a wild card debutante to get to the semifinal (or further) every 9 years. In other words, it is a once in a decade feat. In fact, in the 28 years of data, only Lleyton Hewitt (Adelaide 1998), Michael Ryderstedt (Stockholm 2004) and Ernests Gulbis (St. Petersburg 2006) accomplished what Ofner did. Only Hewitt went on to win the tournament.
More than half of the players of all entry types who reached the final won the tournament. Speaking in absolute terms, 4 of 7 finalists (of ATP debutantes) won the tournament. (Due to the small sample size, it is perfectly possible that this is just noise in the data.)
If we exclude rounds starting from the semifinals because of small sample sizes, qualifiers outperform direct acceptances. This may be the result of qualifiers having already played two or three matches and having already become accustomed to the conditions, making it easier for them than it is for debutantes who got accepted directly into the main draw. But to really prove this, more investigation is needed.
For now we know that what Sebastian Ofner has achieved rarely happens. We should also know that by no means is his feat a predictor of future greatness.
* I define Kitzbuhel as Ofner’s ATP tour debut because Grand Slam events are run by the ITF. However, Grand Slam statistics, such as match wins, are included in ATP statistics.
Peter Wetz is a computer scientist interested in racket sports and data analytics based in Vienna, Austria.