Forecasting the Laver Cup

This weekend brings us the first edition of the Laver Cup, a star-studded three-day affair that pits Europe against the rest of the world. The European team features Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and even though several other elites from the continent are missing due to injury, the European team is still much stronger on paper.

Here are the current rosters, along with each competitor’s weighted hard court Elo rating and rank among active players:

EUROPE                  Elo Rating  Elo Rank  
Roger Federer                 2350         2  
Rafael Nadal                  2225         4  
Alexander Zverev              2127         7  
Tomas Berdych                 2038        14  
Marin Cilic                   2029        15  
Dominic Thiem                 1995        17  
                                              
WORLD                   Elo Rating  Elo Rank  
Nick Kyrgios                  2122         8  
John Isner                    1968        22  
Jack Sock                     1951        23  
Sam Querrey                   1939        25  
Denis Shapovalov              1875        36  
Frances Tiafoe                1574       153  
Juan Martin del Potro*        2154         5

*del Potro has withdrawn. I’ve included his singles Elo rating and rank to emphasize how damaging his absence is to the World squad.

“Weighted” surface Elo is the average of overall (all-surface) Elo and surface-specific Elo. The 50/50 split is a much better predictor of match outcomes than either number on its own.

Nick Kyrgios can hang with anybody on a hard court. But despite some surface-specific skills represented by the American contingent, every other member of the World team rates lower than every member of team Europe. This isn’t a good start for the rest of the world.

What about doubles? Here are the D-Lo (Elo for doubles) ratings and rankings for all twelve participants, plus Delpo:

EUROPE                  D-Lo rating  D-Lo rank  
Rafael Nadal                   1895          4  
Tomas Berdych                  1760         28  
Marin Cilic                    1676         76  
Roger Federer**                1650         90  
Alexander Zverev               1642         99  
Dominic Thiem                  1521        185  
                                                
WORLD                   D-Lo rating  D-Lo rank  
Jack Sock                      1866          8  
John Isner                     1755         29  
Nick Kyrgios                   1723         45  
Sam Querrey                    1715         49  
Denis Shapovalov**             1600        130  
Frances Tiafoe                 1546        166  
Juan Martin del Potro*         1711         55

** Federer hasn’t played tour-level doubles since 2015, and Shapovalov hasn’t done so at all. These numbers are my best guesses, nothing more.

Here, the World team has something of an edge. While both sides feature an elite doubles player–Rafa and Jack Sock–the non-European side is a bit deeper, especially if they keep Denis Shapovalov and last-minute Delpo replacement Frances Tiafoe on the sidelines. Only one-quarter of Laver Cup matches are doubles (plus a tie-breaking 13th match, if necessary), so it still looks like team Europe are the heavy favorite.

The format

The Laver Cup will take place in Prague over three days (starting Friday, September 22nd), and consist of four matches each day: three singles and one doubles. Every match is best-of-three sets with ad scoring and a 10-point super-tiebreak in place of the third set.

On the first day, the winner of each match gets one point; on the second day, two points, and on the third day, three points. That’s a total of 24 points up for grabs, and if the twelve matches end in a 12-12 deadlock, the Cup will be decided with a single doubles set.

All twelve participants must play at least one singles match, and no one can play more than two. At least four members of each squad must play doubles, and no doubles pairing can be repeated, except in the case of a tie-breaking doubles set.

Got it? Good.

Optimal strategy

The rules require that three players on each side will contest only one singles match while the other three will enter two each. A smart captain would, health permitting, use his three best players twice. Since matches on days two and three count for more than matches on day one, it also makes sense that captains would use their best players on the final two days.

(There are some game-theoretic considerations I won’t delve into here. Team World could use better players on day one in hopes of racking up each points against the lesser members of team Europe, or could drop hints that they will do so, hoping that the European squad would move its better players to day one. As far as I can tell, neither team can change their lineup in response to the other side’s selections, so the opportunities for this sort of strategizing are limited.)

In doubles, the ideal roster deployment strategy would be to use the team’s best player in all three matches. He would be paired with the next-best player on day three, the third-best on day two, and the fourth-best on day one. Again, this is health permitting, and since all of these guys are playing singles, fatigue is a factor as well. My algorithm thus far would use Nadal five times–twice in singles and three times in doubles–and I strongly suspect that isn’t going to happen.

The forecast

Let’s start by predicting the outcome of the Cup if both captains use their roster optimally, even if that’s a longshot. I set up the simulation so that each day’s singles competitors would come out in random order–if, say, Querrey, Shapovalov, and Tiafoe play for team World on day one, we don’t know which of them will play first, or which European opponent each will face. So each run of the simulation is a little different.

As usual, I used Elo (and D-Lo) to predict the outcome of specific matchups. Because of the third-set super-tiebreak, and because it’s an exhibition, I added a bit of extra randomness to every forecast, so if the algorithm says a player has a 60% chance of winning, we knock it down to around 57.5%. When I dug into IPTL results last winter, I discovered that exhibition results play surprisingly true to expectations, and I suspect players will take Laver Cup a bit more seriously than they do IPTL.

Our forecast–again, assuming optimal player usage–says that Europe has an 84.3% chance of winning, and the median point score is 16-8. There’s an approximately 6.5% chance that we’ll see a 12-12 tie, and when we do, Europe has a slender 52.4% edge.

If Delpo were participating, he would increase the World team’s chances by quite a bit, reducing Europe’s likelihood of victory to 75.5% and narrowing the most probable point score to 15-9.

What if we relax the “optimal usage” restriction? I have no idea how to predict what captains John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg will do, but we can randomize which players suit up for which matches to get a sense of how much influence they have. If we randomize everything–literally, just pick a competitor out of a hat for each match–Europe comes out on top 79.7% of the time, usually winning 15-9. There’s a 7.6% chance of a tie-breaking 13th match, and because the World team’s doubles options are a bit deeper, they win a slim majority of those final sets. (When we randomize everything, there’s a slight risk that we violate the rules, perhaps using the same doubles pairing twice or leaving a player on the bench for all nine singles matches. Those chances are very low, however, so I didn’t tackle the extra work required to avoid them entirely.)

We can also tweak roster usage by team, in case it turns out that one captain is much savvier than the other. (Or if a star like Nadal is unable to play as much as his team would like.) The best-case scenario for our World team underdogs is that McEnroe chooses the best players for each match and Borg does not. Assuming that only European players are chosen from a hat, the probability that the favorites win falls all the way to 63.1%, and the typical gap between point totals narrows all the way to 13-11. The chance of a tie rises to 10%.

On the other hand, it’s possible that Borg is better at utilizing his squad. After all, it doesn’t take an 11-time grand slam winner to realize that Federer and Nadal ought to be on court when the stakes are the highest. This final forecast, with random roster usage from team World and ideal choices from Borg, gives Europe a whopping 92.3% chance of victory, and median point totals of 17 to 7. The World team would have only a 4% shot at reaching a deadlock, and even then, the Europeans win two-thirds of the tiebreakers.

There we have it. The numbers bear out our expectation that Europe is the heavy favorite, and they give us a sense of the likely margin of victory. Tiafoe and Shapovalov might someday be part of a winning Laver Cup side, but it looks like they’ll have to wait a few years before that happens.

Update: One more thing… What about doubles specialists? Both captains have two discretionary picks to use on players regardless of ranking. Most great doubles players are much worse at singles, but as we’ve seen, a player can be relegated to a lone one-point singles match on day one, and as a doubles player, he can have an effect on three different matches, totaling six points.

Sure enough, swapping out Dominic Thiem (a very weak doubles player for whom indoor hard courts are less than ideal) for Nicolas Mahut would have increased Europe’s chances of winning from 84.3% to 88.5%. On the slight chance that the Cup stayed tight through the final doubles match and into a tiebreaker, the doubles team of Mahut-Nadal (however unorthodox that sounds) would be among the best that any captain could put on the court.

There’s even more room for improvement on the World side, especially with del Potro out. At the moment, the third-highest rated hard court player by D-Lo is Marcelo Melo, who would be a major step down in singles but a huge improvement on most of the potential partners for Sock in doubles. If we give him a singles Elo of 1450 and put him on the roster in place of Tiafoe and pit the resulting squad against the original Europe team (with Thiem, not Mahut), it almost makes up for the loss of Delpo–World’s chances of winning increase from 15.7% to 19.3%.

Unfortunately, Borg and McEnroe may have missed their chance to eke out extra value from their six-man rosters–this is a trick that will only work once. If both teams made this trade, Mahut-for-Thiem and Melo-for-Tiafoe, each side’s win probability goes back to near where it started: 85.8% for Europe. That’s a boost over where we started (84.3%), just because Mahut is better suited for the competition than Melo is, as an elite doubles specialist who is also credible on the singles court. No one available to the World team (except for Sock, who is already on the roster) fits the same profile on a hard court. Vasek Pospisil comes to mind, though he has taken a step back from his peaks in both singles and doubles. And on clay, Pablo Cuevas would do nicely, but on a faster surface, he would represent only a marginal improvement over the doubles players already playing for team World.

Maybe next year.

 

The Unexpectedly Predictable IPTL

December is here, and with the tennis offseason almost five days old, it’s time to resume the annual ritual of pretending we care about exhibitions. The hit-and-giggle circuit gets underway in earnest tomorrow with the kickoff, in Japan, of the 2016 IPTL slate.

The star-studded IPTL, or International Premier Tennis League, is two years old, and uses a format similar to that of the USA’s World Team Tennis. Each match consists of five separate sets: one each of men’s singles, women’s singles, (men’s) champions’ singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Games are no-ad, each set is played to six games, and a tiebreak is played at 5-5. At the end of all those sets, if both teams have the same number of games, representatives of each side’s sponsors thumb-wrestle to determine the winner. Or something like that. It doesn’t really matter.

As with any exhibition, players don’t take the competition too seriously. Elites who sit out November tournaments due to injury find themselves able to compete in December, given a sufficient appearance fee. It’s entertaining, but compared to the first eleven months of the year, it isn’t “real” tennis.

That triggers an unusual research question: How predictable are IPTL sets? If players have nothing at stake, are outcomes simply random? Or do all the participants ease off to an equivalent degree, resulting in the usual proportion of sets going the way of the favorite?

Last season, there were 29 IPTL “matches,” meaning that we have a dataset consisting of 29 sets each of men’s singles, women’s singles, and men’s doubles. (For lack of data, I won’t look at mixed doubles, and for lack of interest, forget about champion’s singles.) Except for a handful of singles specialists who played doubles, we have plenty of data on every player. Using Elo ratings, we can generate forecasts for every set based on each competitor’s level at the time.

Elo-based predictions spit out forecasts for standard best-of-three contests, so we’ll need to adjust those a bit. Single-set results are more random, so we would expect a few more upsets. For instance, when Roger Federer faced Ivo Karlovic last December, Elo gave him an 89.9% chance of winning a traditional match, and the relevant IPTL forecast is a more modest 80.3%. With these estimates, we can see how many sets went the way of the favorite and how many upsets we should have expected given the short format.

Let’s start with men’s singles. Karlovic beat Federer, and Nick Kyrgios lost a set to Ivan Dodig, but in general, decisions went the direction we would expect. Of the 29 sets, favorites won 18, or 62.1%. The Elo single-set forecasts imply that the favorites should have won 64.2%, or 18.6 sets. So far, so predictable: If IPTL were a regular-season event, its results wouldn’t be statistically out of place.

The results are similar for women’s singles. The forecasts show the women’s field to be more lopsided, due mostly to the presence of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Elo expected that the favorites would win 20.4, or 70.4% of the 29 sets. In fact, the favorites won 21 of 29.

The men’s doubles results are more complex, but they nonetheless provide further evidence that IPTL results are predictable. Elo implied that most of the men’s doubles matches were close: Only one match (Kei Nishikori and Pierre-Hugues Herbert against Gael Monfils and Rohan Bopanna) had a forecast above 62%, and overall, the system expected only 16.4 victories for the favorites, or 56.4%. In fact, the Elo-favored teams won 19, or 65.5% of the 29 sets, more than the singles favorites did.

The difference of less than three wins in a small sample could easily just be noise, but even so, a couple of explanations spring to mind. First, almost every team had at least one doubles specialist, and those guys are accustomed to the rapid-fire no-ad format. Second, the higher-than-usual number of non-specialists–such as Federer, Nishikori, and Monfils–means that the player ratings may not be as reliable as they are for specialists, or for singles. It might be the case that Nishikori is a better doubles player than Monfils, but because both usually stick to singles, no rating system can capture the difference in abilities very accurately.

Here is a summary of all these results:

Competition      Sets  Fave W  Fave W%  Elo Forecast%  
Men's Singles      29      18    62.1%          64.2%  
Women's Singles    29      21    72.4%          70.4%  
ALL SINGLES        58      39    67.3%          67.3%  
                                                       
Men's Doubles      29      19    65.5%          56.4%  
ALL SETS           87      58    66.7%          63.7%

Taken together, last season’s evidence shows that IPTL contests tend to go the way of the favorites. In fact, when we account for the differences in format, favorites win more often than we’d expect. That’s the surprising bit. The conventional wisdom suggests that the elites became champions thanks to their prowess at high-pressure moments; many dozens of pros could reach the top if they were only stronger mentally. In exhos, the mental game is largely taken out of the picture, yet in this case, the elites are still winning.

No matter how often the favorites win, these matches are still meaningless, and I’m not about to include them in the next round of player ratings. However, it’s a mistake to disregard exhibitions entirely. By offering a contrast to the high-pressure tournaments of the regular season, they may offer us perspectives we can’t get anywhere else.