The Weirdest Thing About David Marrero’s Suspicious Mixed Doubles Match

You’ve probably seen the news: There was suspicious betting activity on a mixed doubles match a few days ago, hinting that some bettors knew ahead of time that David Marrero and Lara Arruabarena were going to lose to Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot.

I don’t know whether it was a fix, or if someone leaked information, or if it was a publicity stunt by Pinnacle, who reported the suspicious activity. I don’t really care. Instead, what stuck out to me was this odd claim from Marrero, as reported by the Times:

“Normally, when I play, I play full power, in doubles or singles,” said Marrero, who won the doubles title at the 2013 ATP World Tour Finals. “But when I see the lady in front of me, I feel my hand wants to play, but my head says, ‘Be careful.’ This is not a good combination.”

As the Times also points out, Marrero’s record in mixed doubles is abysmal: 7-21 (with nine different partners), including 10 consecutive losses. He has, at times, ranked among the best doubles players in the world, yet managed to lose mixed matches alongside other greats, such as Hlavackova and Sara Errani. In six matches with Arantxa Parra-Santonja, a doubles specialist with eight tour-level titles, he’s lost the lot.

Assuming Marrero isn’t regularly fixing Grand Slam mixed doubles matches–after all, fixing a match this week would be awfully dumb–it’s clear that he’s not very good in this format. Here’s the weird thing: Before this mini-scandal, nobody was paying any attention.

Yeah, of course, it’s mixed doubles, which is little more than a glorified exhibition. Tennis isn’t great when it comes to statkeeping, and there’s virtually no one paying attention to doubles stats. The situation with mixed doubles is even worse. But if singles player had a losing streak of 10 of just about anything, fans would know about it, and people would be watching closely.

Given the nature of the mixed doubles event–specialists frequently switch partners, and the format includes a super-tiebreak in place of a third set–we wouldn’t expect too many extremes. In fact, of the 36 players who have contested at least 15 mixed matches since 2009 (28 slams plus the 2012 Olympics), only Leander Paes, with a 63-21 record, has been as good as Marrero has been bad. No one else has won more than 70% of their mixed matches.

And since mixed doubles draws are full of non-specialists (like Naomi Broady and Neal Skupski, who beat Marrero and Parra-Santonja at Wimbledon in 2014) we would expect the specialists to perform better than average. Sure enough, of those 36 regulars, 25 have winning percentages of 50% or better, and all but four have won at least 43% of matches. Only Marrero and Raquel Atawo (formerly Kops-Jones) hold winning percentages below 36%.

Let’s say we give Marrero the benefit of the doubt–as far the fixing goes, anyway–and accept his claim that he’s uncomfortable playing when there’s a woman across the net. It’s a strange state of affairs when (a) he continues playing almost every possible mixed doubles event despite his discomfort; (b) women choose to partner with him, either ignorant of his discomfort or simply happy to get into the draw; and (c) it’s possible to play 21 Grand Slams before the public gets any inkling that one of the 64 players in the mixed draw has a fundamental issue playing normally on the mixed doubles court.

Such comprehensive, long-standing ignorance isn’t out of place in tennis, especially in doubles. But given what we now know about David Marrero, the suspicious betting activity isn’t the influx of money against him–it’s the fact that anyone ever put money on him to win a mixed doubles match.

Lopsided Four-Setters, Orderly Doubles, and Sock’s Luck

On Wednesday, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez appeared to give Juan Martin del Potro quite the battle, taking him to four sets, with two tiebreaks along the way.  It wasn’t what anyone expected from Delpo’s first-round match against someone ranked outside the top 70.

Looking behind the scoreline, however, it becomes evident that the Argentine dominated the match.  Frequent HT commenter Tom Welsh pointed out that del Potro’s Dominance Ratio (DR) was 1.64, a mark that Delpo had not reached in his previous nine matches, and not since posting a 1.68 DR in a routine victory against Bernard Tomic in Washington.

Of course, a stat like DR, which considers the total number of return points won and service points lost, will not capture the ups and downs within a match..  What it does tell you is, over the course of the afternoon, how well both guys were playing.  And comparatively speaking, del Potro was playing much better.

Delpo had previously played 29 matches in his career in which he finished with a DR between 1.6 and 1.7, and in all but one of those (a three-setter against Dudi Sela in Washington in 2008) he won in straight sets.

It turns out, though, that in Grand Slam play, dropping a set in the middle of an otherwise routine performance–as measured by DR–isn’t that uncommon.  While the average DR in a Slam four-setter is only 1.37, the winner has tallied a DR of 1.64 or better in more than 12% of Slam matches since 1991.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s something we should already know.  In a tennis match-especially one with tiebreaks–some points are tremendously more important than others.  Garcia-Lopez saved 9 of 13 break points.  Take away one of those in the second set, and we’re not having this discussion.  Give Delpo one more of the first 12 points in the second-set tiebreak, and things could’ve turned out differently.  One well-timed, high-leverage point has the potential to overturn dozens of points worth of poor play.

Yesterday I mused on the chaos that is men’s doubles, and the Bryan brothers’ ability to rise above it.  Yesterday’s action was surprisingly unchaotic.

By the end of play yesterday, 15 of the 16 men’s doubles seeds had completed their first-round matches.  (Sixth seeds Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Rohan Bopanna play today.)  Of those 15, 10 reached the second round, including every top-seven seed who has played.

Compare that to men’s singles, in which 10 of 32 seeds crashed out in the first round.  For a more direct comparison, consider that 4 of the top 16 men’s singles seeds lost in the first-round.  Arguably, the doubles players have a tougher task.  Since the field is made up of only 64 teams, the first round can be more challenging in doubles than in singles.

What makes the sticking power of these top seeds surprising is the number of good doubles players who aren’t part of seeded teams.  Because the game is less physically demanding, doubles specialists can play on to much more advanced ages than can singles players.  One of the teams that executed an upset yesterday, Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, was in 2008 ranked among the top few pairings in the world.  Further, plenty of singles players have proven themselves quite adept at doubles, but don’t play enough to amass much of a ranking.

Part of the reason why the seeds have progressed more-or-less intact is the US Open format of three full sets.  At other levels, the third-set match tiebreak essentially turns the contest into a coin flip.  Both the second- and fifth-seeded pairs were forced into a third set, and at an event with a ten-point tiebreak, the odds would’ve been much higher that one of them would be headed home.

Jack Sock is playing only his fifth Grand Slam, and his first as a direct entry, having recently gotten his ranking into the top 100.  Part of the reason he was able to move into that rarefied air is his lucky path to the third round in last year’s US Open.

In 2012, his first-round draw was Florian Mayer, who retired in the middle of the third set.  That gave him a shot at the relatively weak Flavio Cipolla, who he beat in straight sets.  He gave Nicolas Almagro a scare in the third round but ultimately lost.  Still, he took home 90 ranking points instead of the 10 he would’ve collected had he lost to a healthy Mayer in the first round.

Defending those points, one might expect the young American to take a tumble in the rankings after the US Open.  After all, your typical 86th-ranked player doesn’t have much chance to reach the third round, let alone do so two years in a row.

But fortune has favored him again.  In the first round, he drew Philipp Petzschner, who retired in the middle of the third set.  (Sound familiar?)  Yesterday, he defeated the clay-court specialist qualifier Maximo Gonzalez, who did him the huge favor of knocking out Jerzy Janowicz in the first round.

It’s hard to imagine an easier route to a Slam round of 32.

You may have noticed the string of three-set matches contested by Petra Kvitova, earning her the moniker “P3tra.”  Amy Fetherolf takes a closer look at The Changeover, finding that Kvitova’s season is every bit as unusual as it seems.

At his site Betting Market Analytics, Michael Beuoy shows us the trajectory of Vicky Duval’s historic first-round upset, similar to some of the win-probability work I’ve done in the past.

Finally, more Duval: I charted her match last night, and have reams of data to show for it.

How Underdogs Could Win Wimbledon Doubles

Yesterday, wildcards Jonathan Marray and Frederick Nielsen won the Wimbledon doubles title.  Nobody saw that one coming–in recent years, men’s doubles has been dominated by a small number of specialists.  When a team outside the top 10 wins an event, it’s often thanks to a top singles player or two.  Marray and Nielsen sit comfortably outside either category.

How did they do it?  Obviously, they played great tennis, winning big point after big point against some of the best doubles teams in the world.  (They played a fifth set three times in the tournament, but the Bryan brothers could only take them to four!)  Beyond that, there are structural elements making it possible: Men’s doubles has steadily become more equal, as better equipment and training have leveled the playing field.  The event is underdog-friendly, and it is particularly so at Wimbledon.

Hold machines

In most men’s doubles matches, breaks of serve are as rare as in a John Isner fifth set.  In yesterday’s final, the server won 73% of all points.  Mathematically, that translates to a hold rate of 93%, or one break every 14 games–less than one per set.  (In fact, it was even lower than that: three breaks in 53 standard games: 1 per 17.7.)

First serve percentages are even more remarkable.  Yesterday, both teams won 80% of first serve points.  In the two semfinals, more than 80% of first serve points resulted in wins for the server, and the Bryans won 85% of their first offerings.  For comparison, consider that on grass, Roger Federer’s career first serve winning percentage is 78.6%.  You get the picture: service breaks are very hard to come by.

When there are so few service breaks, sets (and by extension, matches) can hinge on a very small number of points.  Marray/Nielsen played 27 sets in the tournament, and 13 were decided in a tiebreak.  Of those 13, 11 were 7-4 or closer.  The wildcard champions squeaked through five of their six matches.

A few good points

Men’s doubles is dominated by the serve, and when the surface favors servers even more, matches–even best-of-five matches–hinge on just a few important points.  Consider Marray/Nielsen’s third-round upset of Qureshi/Rojer: 7-6(5) 7-6(4) 6-7(4) 5-7 7-5.  Essentially, 56 games–every game to the first three tiebreaks, and then to 5-5 in the final two sets–had no purpose other than wearing down the other side.  If only one or two points had gone differently in the first two sets, the AntiPak express would have won the match in the fourth set, and the Bryans would probably be lifting the trophy as usual.

This isn’t to lessen Marray/Nielsen’s achievement–far from it.  Fast-court doubles has been reduced to a thirty-point contest, and the underdog duo won all five of those mini-matches in which they found themselves.  The other 250 points function simply to prove that both teams belong there.  And any team that can win 70-75% of service points has a good chance of proving themselves.

Once you’ve reduced the match to 30 points, luck–and mental fortitude–play a bigger role.  If you’re playing Novak Djokovic on the singles court, you can be as mentally strong as you want, but if you don’t have top-ten skills, you’re going to lose.  In doubles, steely nerves at 4-4 in a breaker, maybe with a couple of lucky netcords or reflex volleys thrown in, can be enough.

While there is certainly some skill that separates the Bryan brothers from the Ratiwatana brothers, even the journeymen Thais pushed Lindstedt and Tecau to tiebreaks in two of their three first-round sets.  I hesitate to use the word “clutch,” but on Centre Court, with a hundred thousand pounds on the line, tiebreaks are about more than serves and volleys.  What the wildcards proved over the fortnight is that, at least for two weeks, they possessed the rarest of modern doubles skills: They could play the big points with the big boys.

Double London Doubles Qualifying

The top doubles players tend to stick with their partners for a long time–at the very least, through an entire season. But for all sorts of reasons, even the best players sometimes switch partners more quickly. Marc Lopez plays with Rafael Nadal sometimes, but more frequently this year with Marcel Granollers. Radek Stepanek and Leander Paes, this year’s top teams, have both played events in 2012 with others. Sometimes pairings are simply a matter of convenience.

All this can lead to some oddities in the doubles race to London. Right now, Lopez and Granollers are 8th in the race, in position to qualify for the tour finals. In 10th are Lopez and Nadal! Sure, that’s on the strength of a single tournament win, but a couple more titles at Masters events and Lopez/Nadal would find themselves in the running for the tour finals as well.

Marc Lopez’s double-dipping is unusually successful, but not that unusual. Sam Querrey is in the top 32 with two different partners (John Isner and James Blake) and Paes twice appears in the top 35 (with Stepanek and Janko Tipsarevic).

It’s early still in the 2012 race, and by September, these oddities may have faded away. But it’s tempting to wonder: Could a player qualify for London with two different partners?

Let’s take the case of Lopez. With two more Masters-or-better titles, he and Nadal would have at least 3,000 points. That would’ve been enough to qualify them for the finals last year. And if Lopez plays every other event with Granollers and puts up a decent showing in the remaining slams, it’s very possible that the Lopez/Granollers team would reach 3,000 points as well.

That was easy! If you’re a world-class doubles player, take a bit of good luck on the court (wins!) and a bit of bad luck off the court (partner injuries or drama), and you’ve got yourself doubly qualified.

To consider another example: Paes and Stepanek are, on the strength of their hot start, already qualified in all but name. If Stepanek got hurt, or went on a tear in singles and had to cut back on his doubles schedule, Paes would have more than half the season left to start over with a new partner. (Or play more with Tipsarevic, with whom he has already won a few matches.) The new pairing would have to gel quickly, but if it did, you’ve got yourself two Paes’s in London.

Now, if anybody started televising some doubles, the race would get really exciting.

Tuesday Topspin: Catching Up

Rankings report: It’s a fascinating time of the year in the rankings, as the French Open approaches and the value of a ranking in the top 32 (or 34 or 35, depending on injuries) rises.  As I wrote in February, a seed increases a player’s chances of advancing further in the tournament.  The benefit is most marked in the 30-35 range, where #32 won’t have to face another seed until the third round, while #35 could draw Rafael Nadal in the first round.

By winning in Estoril and Munich, respectively, both Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko bounced back into the top 32–Davydenko up 12 places to #28, and Delpo up 14 to #32.  Florian Mayer, the other finalist in Munich, also moved up from #35 to #30 on last week’s result.

Another big gainer was James Blake, up 40 spots to #109 on the strength of his title in Sarasota.  The losing finalist at that tournament, Alex Bogomolov, rose to #91, his career high.  Also marking a career best is Benoit Paire, who reached the semifinal in Ostrava, good enough to get him to #99, his first time in the top 100.

Big losers include Fernando Verdasco, down yet another two spots to #17, and Ernests Gulbis, who fell a whopping 31 places down to #64.  At the rate he’s going, he’ll have to qualify for Masters 1000 events this summer.

Pobrecitos: Every year, I go into the clay court season knowing it will be bad for Americans, yet every year, the top Americans manage to disappoint.  Andy Roddick may have reached a new low, losing to qualifer Flavio Cipolla.  I love Cipolla, but I root for him with full knowledge of his limitations, and those limitations should include an inability to beat Roddick.  Yet the Italian came through a very tight match, breaking four times to Andy’s two.

In the second round, Cipolla will face Michael Llodra, who had a much easier time dispatching his American opponent, allowing Sam Querrey only five games.  Querrey won only 51% of his service points, a disappointing number regardless of surface.  The only American in the second round is John Isner, who served his way past Mardy Fish.

Matches to watch: The first round isn’t quite over,  and the remaining matches include many blockbusters.  On the card for tomorrow:

  • del Potro vs Mikhail Youhzny.  The Russian hasn’t shown much in months, while Delpo sent the rest of the field a message with his 6-2 6-2 drubbing of Verdasco in the Estoril final.
  • Milos Raonic vs Feliciano Lopez.  Lopez is playing well, challenging Novak Djokovic in the Belgrade final and reaching the quarters in Barcelona.  Assuming Raonic’s back holds up, his recent results suggest he should make this match a close one.  They’ll play each other in doubles, as well, Raonic with Nicholas Almagro, and Lopez with Verdasco.
  • Kevin Anderson vs Olivier Rochus. If nothing else, it should be entertaining to watch Rochus threaten a guy more than a foot taller than he is.  The winner gets Djokovic
  • Guillermo Garcia-Lopez vs Thiemo de Bakker.  This second-rounder features two guys who weren’t favored to get there.  GGL beat 14th seed Stanislas Wawrinka (who is having an awful clay season), while de Bakker won a three-setter over Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Both guys are capable of playing at a top-20 level, and both have already recorded solid victories this week.
Two’s are wild: There are some great, bizarre doubles pairings this week.  Roddick played with Mark Knowles, becoming one of the first doubles losers of the tournament on Sunday.  Fish and Delpo are teaming up; they’ll face the equally star-studded team of Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  It isn’t quite the doubles fiesta of Indian Wells, but we’ll get to see plenty of top singles players out of their comfort zones.

Thursday Topspin: Underdog Days

It isn’t 2006 anymore: Both Nikolay Davydenko and Ivan Ljubicic were in action yesterday, and both are headed home early.  Davydenko lost in straight sets to Kevin Anderson, never even earning a break point chance against the South African.  Ljubicic fell to qualifier Paolo Lorenzi, which must be at least partly due to lingering health issues.

Holding out hope for a return to mid-2000’s form is James Blake, who squeaked into the second round against American qualifier Michael Russell.  Blake had to win it the hard way, taking tiebreaks in the second and third sets.  He’ll next face the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, a matchup that gives him a decent shot at getting through to the third round.

Bad day for Americans: Russell was representative of the U.S. qualifiers.  Robert Kendrick had to retire midway through his match against Igor Kunitsyn; Donald Young fell to Denis Istomin, and Ryan Sweeting failed to follow up on his strong showing at Indian Wells, losing to Xavier Malisse.

In fact, the only American besides Blake to win yesterday was Alex Bogomolov, who needed three sets to get by Victor Hanescu.  That’s a solid win for the resurgent Bogie, who will try to do his best Donald Young impression tomorrow when he faces Andy Murray.

More upsets: It wasn’t a good day for favorites.  Going by sportsbook odds, 9 of yesterday’s 16 matches were upsets, and one of the 7 non-upsets was the no-brainer contest between Juan Martin del Potro and Ricardo Mello.

Perhaps the most disappointing loss was Bernard Tomic’s failure to get past Pablo Andujar.  Tomic lost serve after going up 40-0 at 5-6 in the third set.  Andujar was a fantastic draw for the Aussie, as he’s a clay court specialist with very little success on hard courts.

One last result that catches my eye is Marsel Ilhan’s 6-2 6-1 victory over Tobias Kamke.  The decision isn’t a big surprise; sportsbooks had the match about even.  Whenever I’ve watched Ilhan, he’s been very streaky–the sort of guy who will win a match 7-6 0-6 6-1.  Outside of a few good challenger results, this is the first time he’s dismantled someone in the top 100 since he beat Pablo Cuevas 6-2 6-2 in the Miami first round last year.

On the card: Lots of good stuff on the schedule today.  Both American 18-year-olds will be playing: Ryan Harrison takes on Rainer Schuettler in the night session, and Jack Sock plays Carlos Berlocq this afternoon.  As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a big opportunity for Sock.  He might have drawn the weakest hard-court player in the field.

Many more young stars are in action today, as well.  Kei Nishikori takes on Jeremy Chardy; sportbooks give the Japanese a slight edge, while my projections put the match exactly even.  Richard Berankis draws Feliciano Lopez, and Grigor Dimitrov, straight from a comfortable trip through qualifying, will face Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Doubles draw: Without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the doubles field isn’t nearly as headline-grabbing as that of Indian Wells.  There are still plenty of top players involved.

Murray and Novak Djokovic are teaming up, and they face a possible second-rounder with Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor.  For that to happen, Mirnyi and Nestor will have to win their opener against Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco.

Sadly, last week’s champions Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov aren’t reuniting, though both are in the draw.  Dolgo is teaming with Nicolas Almagro, and Malisse is paired with Jamie Murray.  Dolgo and Almagro are set for a second-round match with the Bryans; the American duo will start their tournament against the wild card team of Harrison and Sock.

One more: Much later today–it will be Friday in China–there’s a great match at the Pingguo challenger.  Uladzimir Ignatik and Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, two fast-rising youngsters, face off in a quarterfinal.  Stebe is attempting to reach his third consecutive challenger semifinal is as many weeks, while Ignatik will try to beat the German for the second time.  These are both guys who you can expect to see in the top 100 within another year or two.

At the rate Stebe is climbing, he could get there by fall.

See you tomorrow!

Sunday Topspin: A Nadal-Djokovic Final

1 and 2: It’s only fitting that the new world #2 takes on the world #1 in the Indian Wells final today.  Let’s see how they got there.

Rafael Nadal‘s semifinal went more or less as expected.  It was close, about as tight as a 6-4, 6-4 match can be, but once Nadal went up a break in the first, the result was never really in doubt.  Juan Martin del Potro is close to his pre-injury form, but he didn’t show quite the confidence necessary to boss Nadal around the court the way that he does at his best.

The semi may well have been Nadal’s best win since the tour finals last November.  The highest-ranked player Nadal has beaten this year is Marin Cilic, and del Potro is at a higher level than that right now.  Given the weak draw and the less-than-convincing wins over Somdev Devvarman and Ivo Karlovic, a straight-setter yesterday was the best possible outcome for Rafa.

The other semifinal, the battle for #2, was oddly inconsistent.  Roger Federer‘s service game was below his usual standard which, combined with Novak Djokovic‘s rock-solid return game, meant that Federer was constantly stuck in ground battles that he isn’t terribly well suited to win.  Djokovic’s steady, deep groundstrokes expose holes in Roger’s game that few other players can, forcing errors that make the Swiss look like he barely belongs on the same court.

Yet Federer won the second set, and he seemed on the brink of taking control of the third before his service game completely collapsed.  It’s a big win for Djokovic–his third in a row over Federer–and it puts him back at his career-high ranking of #2.

The final matchup: Rafa is probably the better overall player; Novak might have the edge on hard courts, and he definitely is the hot player right now.

Yet the last two times these two guys faced each other on hard courts–the only two head-to-head encounters in the last 15 months–Nadal won, on big stages in London and New York.  Djokovic leads the hard-court head-to-head 7-6, and the two players have split a pair of matches at Indian Wells.

The sportsbook line gives Djokovic the slight edge, suggesting he has a 54% chance of winning.  My system concurs, favoring the Serb at 53.5%.

Doubles: I don’t really know what to say about a championship for Xavier Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov in the most loaded doubles draw in recent memory.  They won every single match in a super-tiebreak of 10-7 or 10-8, and had to beat either a top-10 singles player or a top-10 doubles team in all five rounds.

Oddly enough, they aren’t slated to team up in Miami: Malisse is on the entry list with Jamie Murray.  And Murray’s brother, his partner this past week, is apparently planning to join forces with Djokovic.  We aren’t likely to see a doubles draw in Miami quite like this week’s, but it is nonetheless shaping up to make for another event full of surprises.

Challengers: A couple of times recently, I’ve mentioned the young German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who qualified in Kyoto last week, reached the semifinals, then made it to the semis again this week at the challenger in Guangzhou.  He lost to Uladzimir Ignatik, another promising young player, who went on to win the tournament.  Ignatik, from Belarus, is only 20 years of age, and the win yesterday will inch him further inside the top 200.

Both Stebe and Ignatik will play the challenger in Pingguo next week.  Ignatik is seeded eighth and will play a first-round matchup with a qualifier, while Stebe drew Guangzhou finalist Alexander Kudryavtsev, the fourth seed.

The Indian Wells final is on the card after the women’s final, not before 1 P.M. local.  I’ll be watching!