Many high-profile players will be missing from the 2020 US Open. Rafael Nadal opted out of the abbreviated North American swing, and Roger Federer will miss the rest of the season due to injury. More than half of the WTA top ten is skipping Flushing Meadows as well. The thinned-out fields increase the odds that a few remaining favorites, such as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, add another major trophy to their collection.
As a result, pundits and fans are discussing whether the 2020 US Open deserves an “asterisk.” The idea is that, because of the depleted fields, this slam is worth less than others, so much so that the history books* should note the relative meaninglessness of this year’s titles.
* Nobody buys history books anymore, so we’re really talking** about a page on the US Open website, and a never-ending edit war on Wikipedia.
** Yes, I see the irony.
From what I’ve seen, people are thinking about this the wrong way. Yes, a weak field makes it easier–in theory–to win the tournament. It’s certainly true that the 2020 champions won’t have to go through Nadal or Ashleigh Barty to get their hardware. But the field isn’t what matters.
The field isn’t what matters
I repeated that on purpose, because it’s that important. The winner of a grand slam must get through seven matches. The difficulty of securing the title depends almost entirely on his or her opponents in those seven matches. Each main draw consists of 128 players, but 120 of them are mostly irrelevant.
I say “mostly” because I can foresee some objections. Sometimes a player can compete so hard in a loss that they weaken their opponent for the next round. Take the 2009 Madrid Masters, in which Nadal needed four hours to defeat Djokovic in the semi-final, then lost to Federer in the final. We could say that Djokovic’s presence was relevant, even though Federer won the title without playing him. That sort of thing happens, though probably not as much as you think. Even when it does, it needn’t be a top tier player who wears out their opponent in an early round.
Another objection is that a depleted field affects seedings. For instance, Serena’s current WTA ranking is 9th, an unenviable position going into most slams. The 9th seed lines up for a fourth-round match with a top-eight player, meaning that she could face four top-eight players en route to the title. But with all the absences, Williams will instead be seeded third, behind only Karolina Pliskova and Sofia Kenin.
I’m not dismissing these concerns out of hand. They do matter a bit. But they only matter insofar as they affect the way the tournament plays out. The difference between the difficulties facing the 3rd and 9th seeds could be enormous … or it could be nothing, especially if the draw is riddled with early upsets.
Difficulty is a continuum
Even if you grant some credence to the objections above (or others that I haven’t mentioned), I hope you’ll agree that the most meaningful obstacles standing between a player and a grand slam title are the seven opponents he or she will need to overcome.
If those seven opponents are, on average, very strong, we would say that the player faced a particularly tough path to a slam title. Take Stan Wawrinka’s 2014 Australian Open title: he beat both Djokovic and Nadal at a time when those two were dominating the game. If the collective skill level of the seven opponents doesn’t amount to much–at least by grand slam standards–we’d say it was an easy path. For example, Federer clinched the 2006 Australian Open despite facing only a single player ranked in the top 20, and none in the top four.
We can quantify path difficulty in a variety of ways. One approach that will be useful here is to calculate the odds that an average slam champion would beat those seven opponents. The difference between easy and hard championships is enormous. The typical major titlist (that is, someone with an Elo rating around 2100) would have had a 3.3% chance of beating the seven men that Wawrinka drew in Melbourne the year that he won. Only two slam paths have ever been tougher: Mats Wilander’s routes to the 1982 and 1985 French Open titles. By contrast, the average slam champion would have had a 51% chance of going 7-0 when faced by Federer’s 2006 Australian Open draw.
The extreme “easy” draw is fifteen times easier than the extreme “hard” draw. Fifteen times! You can find plenty of champions for any approximate level of difficulty in between those extremes. The typical slam champ would’ve had a 10% chance of doing what Djokovic did in progressing through seven rounds at the 2011 US Open. Same in New York in 2012. Andy Murray’s 2016 Wimbledon path would have given the average champion a 20% chance. The 2018 Roland Garros draw was manageable for Rafael Nadal, and a typical major titlist would have had a 30% chance of securing those seven match wins.
None of this is to say that any of those players did or didn’t “deserve” their titles. Federer didn’t choose his 2006 Melbourne opponents any more than Wawrinka selected his foes eight years later. The trophy is the same, and in many important ways, their achievements are the same–both of the Swiss stars swept away all of their opponents, who in turn were the best performers (at least during those fortnights) of the players who showed up.
Asterisks for everybody
Here’s another thing 2006 Roger and 2014 Stan had in common: Almost all of the best players in the world participated in the tournaments that they ultimately won. (I say “almost” because defending champion Marat Safin was injured and missed the 2006 Aussie Open.) The “field” was effectively the same, but to win the titles, one player cruised through a two-week cakewalk and the other needed to put together one of the most impressive final weeks of the modern era.
Tennis fans have collectively decided that each major title counts as “one.” It doesn’t have to be that way: We could give more “slam points” for achievements like Wawrinka’s and grant fewer for the easy ones. Most people don’t like this idea, and I admit that it sounds a bit weird. I’m not advocating it for general use, though it is an interesting concept that I’ve pursued in a number of earlier articles, showing that Djokovic’s majors are–on average–more impressive than Nadal’s, which in turn have been tougher than Federer’s. Weighting majors by difficulty results in some changes in the order of the all-time grand slam list, ensuring that fans of all players hate me because I wrote some code and played with some spreadsheets.*
* With, I admit, malice aforethought.
Adjusting slam counts for difficulty is, in a sense, asterisking every slam title. The tricky draws get an acknowledgement of their difficult, and the ones that opened up get tweaked to account for their ease. It’s a continuum, not a simple up-and-down decision between normal slams and abnormal slams.
The 2020 US Open champions will probably have title paths that sit in the easier half of that continuum. But even that modest claim is far from guaranteed.
Let’s say Venus Williams recaptures her vintage form and wins the title, beating 3rd seed Serena in the quarter-finals, 2nd seed Kenin in the semis, and top seed Pliskova in the title match. (It doesn’t matter if the surprise winner is Venus–it could be any lower-ranked player, though Venus seems more plausible than most.) An average slam champion would beat those three players in succession about 37% of the time. 37% is already lower odds than about 20% of women’s slam draws in the last 45 years. (Kenin’s Australian Open title rated 39%.)
37% for Venus’s hypothetical title isn’t even the whole story–four more rounds of journeywomen would knock the number down to around 26%–harder than one-third of women’s slam draws. Add in another tricky opponent or two–maybe Cori Gauff, or Petra Kvitova in the fourth round–and suddenly the path to the 2020 US Open women’s championship is just as hard as the typical slam.
It’s even easier to illustrate how the 2020 US Open men’s title could be as difficult as many other slams. By the numbers, simply upsetting Djokovic (simply! ha!) is more difficult than it was to defeat all seven of Federer’s opponents at the 2006 Australian Open. That’s right: Six withdrawals and one win over Novak wouldn’t be the easiest slam victory in the last 15 years. Tack on six actual wins, including a few against strong opponents, and the result is a seven-match path that stands up against the typical non-pandemic slam.
Ironically, the player who could win the title with the weakest possible draw is Djokovic. It would be odd to claim that any of Novak’s accomplishments should be asterisked, but it does make things much simpler when he doesn’t have to beat himself.
Once again, the field doesn’t really matter. When we focus on the players who are in New York instead of the few dozen who aren’t, we see that the ingredients are in place for a couple of respectable path to US Open titles. Wilander’s and Wawrinka’s marks are probably safe, but it’s more than possible that the winners will have faced competition equivalent to that of the average slam champ.
At the very least, we don’t know any better until the tail end of the second week. Until then, asterisk talk is premature. After that, it will probably be moot.