Australian Open Coverage at The Economist

I wrote three pieces for the Economist’s Game Theory blog in the last week. The most recent was on Novak Djokovic, who has been dominant on hard courts, but whose few hiccups have come mostly against young players:

Mr Medvedev [followed] a path blazed by Mr Tsitsipas. The Greek prospect allowed Mr Djokovic to hit backhands at a typical 46% clip. But by hitting harder, riskier shots to that side of his opponent, he took Mr Djokovic’s down-the-line weapon out of the game. Mr Djokovic typically sends about one-seventh of his backhands up the line, but against Mr Tsitsipas last summer, that number was cut in half, and Mr Djokovic failed to record a single winner in that direction. In the Melbourne final, Mr Nadal allowed the world’s top-ranked player far more freedom: Mr Djokovic hit one in five of his backhands down the line, and a quarter of those shots ended the point in his favour. Only once has Mr Nadal held his rival’s down-the-line rate below 10%: the 2013 US Open final, the last time the Spaniard got the better of one of their hard-court duels.

After the women’s final, I looked at Naomi Osaka’s accomplishments in comparison to other players in history who were so much younger than tour average. She fares very well by that measure:

Few women have achieved as much as Ms Osaka while being so much younger than tour members as a group. The average age of the top 50 is about 27, nearly six years older than the back-to-back major winner. Only four other players since 1985 have won majors while they were at least 5.5 years younger than the mean of their peers: Ms Williams, Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, and Jelena Ostapenko, who won the 2017 French Open but failed to maintain her place in the top ten. None of those players matched Ms Osaka’s feat of following her first grand slam championship by winning another at the first opportunity, and only Ms Hingis claimed her second grand slam within a year of her first. It is too much to predict of any young player that she match the career accomplishments of Ms Williams, whose big-serving style Ms Osaka emulates. But even matching the more modest feats of Ms Hingis and Ms Sharapova, who are tied with five slams apiece, would rank her among the all-time greats.

Finally, I covered Karolina Pliskova’s monumental quarter-final comeback against Serena Williams. There are few, if any, precedents for such a momentum shift in the modern era:

Because collecting point-by-point data for tennis matches is a fairly modern practice, we cannot know for sure where this turnaround ranks in the sport’s long history. But among the 2,300-odd women’s contests that have been manually recorded by volunteers for the Match Charting Project, an online repository of tennis data, there is no example of a greater collapse. Most of the project’s sample is composed of high-profile matches from the 21st century, but there are also a handful of grand-slam duels of yore. Tennis’s most notorious choking incident—when Jana Novotna seemingly lost the ability to hit the ball against Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final, after serving for game point at 4-1 in the deciding set—looks unremarkable when compared to Ms Williams’ downfall, with a peak win probability of 95.6%.

Go read them all: