How Should We Value the Masters and Premier Titles in the Bubble?

Tennis is back, but plenty of top players are still at home–or crashing out in the early rounds of their first tournament in months. While the ATP “Cincinnati” Masters event delivered the expected winner in Novak Djokovic, the Serb never had to face a top-ten opponent. The same was true of Victoria Azarenka, who won the WTA Premier tournament with the benefit of Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal in the final round, and without playing a top-tenner on her way there.

The tennis world’s “asterisk” talk has mostly focused on the US Open, since most people care about slams and don’t care about anything else. But judging from these easy paths to the two Cincinnati titles, should we be talking asterisk about the event just passed?

Novak’s 35th, but not (quite) his easiest

Last week, I explained why I thought the asterisk talk was premature, if not wrong. The field doesn’t matter, because the player who wins the title faces only a handful of players. The presence of, say, Rafael Nadal doesn’t have much to do with the difficulty of winning the title unless the eventual winner has to go through Rafa. If the champion’s opponents are very good, the path to the title is hard; if they are relatively weak, the path to the title is easy. Keep in mind I’m using the terms “good” and “weak” in theoretical terms. On paper, Djokovic was fortunate that his semi-final and final opponents were ranked 12th and 30th, respectively, and his title path was “easy.” As it happened, he was forced to work hard for both wins.

We now know that the title paths of the Cincinnati champions were relatively easy. But just how weak were they?

I calculate the difficulty of a path-to-the-title by determining the probability that the average Masters champion on that surface would beat the opponents that the champion faced. By using the “average Masters champion,” we are taking the skill level of the actual champ out of the equation, and looking only at the quality of his opposition. The resulting numbers vary wildly, from 2.5%–the odds that a typical Masters champion would have beaten the players that Jo Wilfried Tsonga defeated to win the 2014 Canada Masters–to 61.2%–the chances that an average titlist would have beaten the players that confronted Nikolay Davydenko at the 2006 Paris Masters.

Novak’s number this week was 40.5%. In other words, an average hard-court Masters champion would have a four-in-ten shot at beating the five guys that fate threw in Djokovic’s path. That’s the 11th easiest Masters title since 1990:

Title Odds  Tournament       Winner             
61.2%       2006 Paris       Nikolay Davydenko  
50.5%       2012 Paris       David Ferrer       
49.8%       2000 Paris       Marat Safin        
48.3%       2004 Paris       Marat Safin        
47.0%       1999 Paris       Andre Agassi       
44.5%       2013 Shanghai    Novak Djokovic     
43.3%       2002 Madrid      Andre Agassi       
42.9%       2005 Paris       Tomas Berdych      
41.4%       2009 Canada      Andy Murray        
41.3%       2017 Paris       Jack Sock          
40.5%       2020 Cincinnati  Novak Djokovic     
39.6%       2011 Shanghai    Andy Murray        
39.1%       2019 Canada      Rafael Nadal       
37.9%       2008 Rome        Novak Djokovic     
36.2%       2007 Cincinnati  Roger Federer

Unless we’re prepared to put a permanent asterisk next to the Paris Masters, we should hold off on cheapening this year’s Cincinnati title. Surprisingly, Djokovic’s path was even easier at the 2013 Shanghai Masters. He had to face two top-ten opponents in the final rounds (Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro), but Elo didn’t think that highly of them at the time.

Azarenka: asterisk squared

Evaluating the WTA title is trickier. Part of the problem is the small number of “Premier Mandatory” events, and the fact that two of them (Indian Wells and Miami) have substantially larger draws, and are thus that much harder to win. The even bigger issue is how to think about Azarenka’s final-round walkover.

Let’s start with the numbers. If we consider the five opponents that Vika defeated on court and calculate the odds that an average WTA Premier (not just Premier Mandatory) champion would beat them, her path-to-the-title number is 20.7%. If we add Osaka to the mix, on the theory that Azarenka should get credit for beating her, the resulting number is 7.4%.

Compared to the ATP numbers above, those sound pretty good. But the devil lies in the tournament-category details–the average WTA Premier event is much weaker than a marquee (dare I say “premier”?) tour stop like Cincinnati. Here’s how the Cinci title-paths stack up for the last dozen years:

20.7%       2020  Victoria Azarenka  (W/O Osaka)  
7.4%        2020  Victoria Azarenka  (d. Osaka)   
7.3%        2016  Karolina Pliskova             
5.5%        2010  Kim Clijsters                 
5.5%        2012  Li Na                         
5.3%        2015  Serena Williams               
4.5%        2011  Maria Sharapova               
4.3%        2014  Serena Williams               
4.2%        2017  Garbine Muguruza              
3.9%        2019  Madison Keys                  
2.9%        2013  Victoria Azarenka             
2.0%        2009  Jelena Jankovic               
1.3%        2018  Kiki Bertens

20.7% is respectable for a run-of-the-mill Premier–in fact, Vika’s 2016 Brisbane title was almost exactly the same, at 20.8%. But Cincinnati reliably offers tougher competition. Even if we factor in the difficulty of beating Osaka, Azarenka’s path was (barely) the easiest at the event since the Premier-level designation came into being.

Yay, nay, meh

I’ll reiterate a main point from my last article about the US Open asterisk debate: There’s no simple yes or no answer when it comes to whether a title should “count.” (That’s assuming that you even think there are circumstances under which a title should be formally discounted.) Long before the COVID-19 pandemic messed with everything, there were titles–even at the grand slam level–that were a lot easier to win than others.

Djokovic’s championship falls squarely within the usual continuum, even if it will go down as one of his least challenging. Azarenka’s is tougher to define, but more because of Osaka’s withdrawal than because of the weakness of the field. The level of competition, despite missing many top players, was plenty good enough to offer Azarenka a path to the title that was comparable at least one recent Cinci championship, and plenty of other top-tier events.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a couple of predictions. First: the US Open champions will face relatively easy paths to their titles, but like Djokovic’s, they will fall on the established continuum. And second: by the end of the fortnight, you’ll hope to never hear the word “asterisk” again.