Two days after winning a Masters title in Toronto, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played his first match in Cincinnati. Betting odds had the Frenchman as a heavy favorite over the unseeded Mikhail Youzhny, but a sluggish Tsonga dropped the match in straight sets.
An explanatory narrative springs to mind immediately: After playing six matches in a week, it’s tough to keep a winning streak going. Losing the match, even against a lesser opponent, is predictable. (Of course, it’s more predictable in hindsight.)
As usual with such “obvious” storylines, it’s not quite so straightforward. On average, ATP title winners who enter a tournament the following week perform exactly as well as expected in their first match of the next event. The same results hold for finalists, who typically played as many matches the previous week, and must also bounce back from a high-stakes loss.
To start with, I looked at the 1,660 times since the 2000 season that an ATP finalist took the court again within three weeks. Those players won, on average, 1.93 matches in their post-title event, losing their first matches 29% of the time. Their 71% next-match winning percentage is virtually identical to what a simple ranking-based model would predict. In other words, there’s no evidence here of a post-final letdown.
More relevant to Tsonga’s situation is the set of 1,055 finalists who played the following week. Those men won 1.7 matches in their next event, losing 31% of the their first matches at the follow-up event. That’s about 1% worse than expected–not nearly enough to allow us to draw any conclusions. Narrowing the set even further to the 531 tournament winners who played the next week, we find that they won 2.0 matches in their next event, losing 26.3% of their first matches, just a tick better than the simple model would predict.
Some of these numbers–1.7 match wins in a tournament; a 70% winning percentage–don’t sound particularly impressive. But we need to keep in mind that the majority of ATP tournaments don’t feature Masters-level fields, and plenty of finalists are well outside the top ten. Plus, the players who play an event the week after winning a title tend to be lower ranked. Masters events occupy back-to-back weeks on the schedule only a couple of times each season.
If we limit our scope to the more uncommon back-to-back tourneys for Masters winners, a bit of a trend emerges. The week after winning a Masters tournament, players win an average of 2.9 matches, losing their first match only 20.4% of the time. That sounds pretty good, except that, in the last 15 years, the group of Masters winners has been extremely good. That 80% first-match winning percentage is 5% below what a simple model would’ve predicted for them.
If we limit the sample even further, to Masters winners ranked outside the top five–a group that includes Tsonga–we finally find more support for the “obvious” narrative. Since 2000, 17 non-top-fivers have shown up for a tournament the week after winning a Masters event. They’ve won only 1.8 matches in their next events, losing their first match more than 40% of the time. That’s 20% worse than expected.
This small set of non-elite Masters winners is the only group I could find that fit the narrative of a post-title or post-final blues. (I tested a lot more than I’ve mentioned here, and nearly all showed players performing within a couple percent of expectations.)
Tsonga cited low energy in his post-match press conference, but we shouldn’t forget that there are plenty of other reasons the Frenchman might lose a first-round match. He’s split his six career matches against Youzhny, and 7 of his 19 losses in the past year have come to players ranked lower than the Russian. Losses don’t always need precedents, and in this case, the precedents aren’t particularly predictive.