Slow Conditions Might Just Flip the Outcome of Federer-Nadal XL

Italian translation at

Roger Federer likes his courts fast. Rafael Nadal likes them slow. With eight Wimbledon titles to his name, Federer is the superior grass court player, but the conditions at the All England Club have been unusually slow this year, closer to those of a medium-speed hard court.

On Friday, Federer and Nadal will face off for the 40th time, their first encounter at Wimbledon since the Spaniard triumped in their historical 2008 title-match battle. Rafa leads the head-to-head 24-15, including a straight-set victory at his favorite slam, Roland Garros, several weeks ago. But before that, Roger had won five in a row–all on hard courts–the last three without dropping a set.

Because of the contrast in styles and surface preferences, the speed of the conditions–a catch-all term for surface, balls, weather, and so on–is particularly important. Nadal is 14-2 against his rival on clay, with Federer holding a 13-10 edge on hard and grass. Another way of splitting up the results is by my surface speed metric, Simple Speed Rating (SSR). 22 of the matches have been been on a court that is slower than tour average, with the other 17 at or above tour average speed:

Matches     Avg SSR  RN - RF  Unret%  <= 3 shots  Avg Rally  
SSR < 0.92     0.74     17-5   21.2%       49.5%        4.7  
SSR >= 1.0     1.14     7-10   27.0%       56.9%        4.3

At faster events–all of which are on hard or grass–fewer serves come back, more points end by the third shot, and the overall rally length is shorter. Fed has the edge, with 10 wins in 17 tries, while on slower surfaces–all of the clay matches, plus a handful of more stately hard courts–Rafa cleans up.

Rafa broke Elo

According to my surface-weighted Elo ratings, Federer is the big semi-final favorite. He leads Nadal by 300 points in the grass-only Elo ratings, which gives him a 75% chance of advancing to the final. The betting market strongly disagrees, believing that Rafa is the favorite, with a 57% chance of winning.

The collective wisdom of the punters is onto something. Elo has systematically underwhelmed when it comes to forecasting the 39 previous Fedal matches. Federer has more often been the higher-rated player, and if Roger and Rafa behaved like the algorithm expected them to, the Swiss would be narrowly leading the head-to-head, 21-18. We might reasonably conclude that, going into Friday’s semi-final, Elo is once again underestimating the King of Clay.

How big of Fedal-specific adjustment is necessary? I fit a logit model to the previous 39 matches, using only the surface-weighted Elo forecast. The model makes a rough adjustment to account for Elo’s limitations, and reduces Roger’s chances of winning the semi-final from 74.8% all the way down to 48.5%.

Now, about those conditions

The updated 48.5% forecast takes the surface into account–that’s part of my Elo algorithm. But it doesn’t distinguish between slow grass and fast grass.

To fix that, I added SSR, my surface speed metric, to the logit model. The model’s prediction accuracy improved from 64% to 72%, its Brier score dropped slightly (a lower Brier score indicates better forecasts), and the revised model gives us a way of making surface-speed-specific forecasts for this matchup. Here are the forecasts for Federer at several surface speed ratings, from tour average (1.0) to the fastest ratings seen on the circuit:

SSR  p(Fed Wins)  
1.0        49.3%  
1.1        51.4%  
1.2        53.4%  
1.3        55.5%  
1.4        57.5%  
1.5        59.5% 

In the fifteen years since Rafa and Roger began their rivalry, the Wimbledon surface has averaged around 1.20, 20% quicker than tour average. In 2006, when they first met at SW19, it was 1.24, and in 2008, it was 1.15. Three times in the last decade it has topped 1.30, 30% faster than the average ATP surface. This year, it has dropped almost all the way to average, at 1.00, when both men’s and women’s results are taken into account.

As the table shows, such a dramatic difference in conditions has the potential to influence the outcome. On a faster surface, which we’ve seen as recently as 2014, Federer has the edge. At this year’s apparent level, the model narrowly favors Nadal. Rafa has said that the surface itself is unchanged, but that the balls have been heavier due to humidity. He should hope for another muggy day on Friday–the end result could depend on it.