Best of Five and Marin Cilic’s Improbable Collapse

Leading up to the final two rubbers of this year’s Davis Cup final in Croatia, the hosts were heavily favored. They held a 2-1 advantage, and both of the remaining singles matches would pit a Croatian against a lower-ranked Argentine. To win the Cup, they only needed to win one of those matches.

When Marin Cilic built a two-set lead over Juan Martin del Potro, Croatian fans could be forgiven for thinking it was in the bag. Instead, Delpo fought back to win in five sets, and Federico Delbonis upset a flat Ivo Karlovic to seal Argentina’s first-ever Davis Cup title. Some people will point to the Cilic-Delpo match time of 4:53 as another reason to switch to best-of-three. The rest of us will see it as yet another reminder of why best-of-five must retain its role on tennis’s biggest stages.

In a best-of-three format, Cilic would’ve claimed the Cup for Croatia after two hours of play. Instead, he merely came very close. My Elo singles ratings gave Cilic a 36.3% chance of beating Delpo and Karlovic a 75.8% chance of defeating Delbonis. Taken together, that’s a likelihood of 84.6% that Croatia would claim the trophy. After Cilic won the first two sets, his odds increased to about 81%, pushing Croatia’s chances over the 95% mark. In fourteen previous tries, del Potro had never recovered from an 0-2 deficit.

And then Argentina came back. Comebacks from two sets down tend to stick in our memory, so it’s easy to forget just how rare they are. Yesterday’s match was only the 28th such comeback in 2016. That’s out of a pool of 656 best-of-five contests, including 431 in which one player built a 2-0 lead. This year isn’t unusual: Going back to 2000, the number of wins from a 0-2 deficit has never exceeded 32.

Comebacks from 0-2 are even rarer in Davis Cup. At the World Group level this year, including play-offs, Delpo was the 61st player to fall into a 0-2 hole, but he was only the second to recover and win the match. The other was Jack Sock, whose July comeback (over Cilic–more on that in a bit) wasn’t enough to move his USA squad into the semifinals. Since 2000, 5.8% of 2-0 leads turn into comeback victories, but only 4.3% of World Group 2-0 leads do the same.

Cilic’s season has defied the numbers. In addition to his 2-0 collapses against Sock and del Potro, he held a 2-0 advantage before losing to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. His 2016 is only the third time in ATP history that a player lost three or more matches after winning the first two sets. The previous two–Viktor Troicki’s 2015 season and Jan Siemerink’s 1997–are unlikely to make Cilic feel any better.

Still, even Cilic’s record indicates the rarity of victories from an 0-2 disadvantage. Before the Wimbledon quarterfinal, the Croatian had never lost a match after taking the first two sets, for a record of 60-0. Even now, his Davis Cup record after going up two sets to love is a respectable 11-2. His overall career mark of 95.7% (66-3) is better than average.

Unless Cilic crumbles under certain spotlights (but not others, as evidenced by his five-set win over Delbonis on Friday), his series of unfortunate collapses may just be a fluke. In addition to that 60-0 streak, he has never had a problem converting one-set leads in best-of-three matches. This year, he won 29 out of 33 best-of-threes after winning the first set, an above-average rate of 88%. (And one of the losses was against Dominic Thiem, so he never had a chance.)

The longer the match format, the more likely that the better player emerges triumphant. That’s why there are fewer upsets in best-of-five than in best-of-three, and why tiebreaks are often little better than flips of a coin. Usually that works in favor of a top-tenner such as Cilic: In most matchups he is the superior player. But in two of his three collapses this season, he’s fallen victim to a favorite who uses the longer format to overcome an early run of poor form.

The debate over best-of-five will surely continue, despite this weekend’s Davis Cup tie adding another unforgettable five-set epic to an already long list. But after Delpo’s performance yesterday, you’ll have a harder time finding someone to campaign for shorter matches–especially in Argentina.

Guaranteed Five-Setters, Exhausting Routes to R4, and Master Bakers

With so many of the world’s top players in action yesterday, it’s only fitting to lead with Denis Istomin and Andreas Seppi.

Istomin and Seppi have now met four times in the last 15 months, all at Grand Slams.  And thanks to yesterday’s effort, they’ve now gone five sets in all four of those matches.

Cue the chorus: “That’s got to be some kind of record, right?”

Yep, it is.  While their US Open third-rounder was Seppi and Istomin’s seventh meeting overall, it was only their fourth at a major, meaning that each time they’ve met in the best-of-five format, they’ve gone the distance.  Two pairs of players (Thomas Muster and Albert Costa, and Guillermo Canas and Gaston Gaudio) have met three times in a best-of-five and reached a decider each time, but no two players had ever gone four-for-four.

In fact, Seppi and Istomin are only the eighth pairing in the Open era to record four or more five-setters.  Petr Korda and Pete Sampras played four five-setters in five matchups, but their first such meeting, a 1992 Davis Cup match, only went four sets.  Radek Stepanek and David Ferrer are also close, having played four five-setters in five best-of-five meetings.

Most of the pairs that have played so many five-setters required many more meetings to do so.  You might be familiar with some of the guys who make up the three head-to-heads that have played five five-setters: Jimmy ConnorsJohn McEnroe, Stefan EdbergIvan Lendl, and Roger FedererRafael Nadal.  But all of those pairs met more than 10 times in best-of-five situations.  In this context, all those three- and four-setters seem rather weak.

When the Australian Open draw comes out, while everyone else figures out whose quarter Federer landed in, I’ll be checking Seppi’s proximity to Istomin.

When Marcel Granollers edged by Tim Smyczek in five sets yesterday, the big story was the futility of American men’s tennis.  (Thankfully, for the depressed patriots among us, Sloane Stephens was putting up a spirited challenge against Serena Williams on another court.)

However, the Spaniard was making a bit of history of his own.  In beating Jurgen Zopp, Rajeev Ram, and Smyczek, he’s won three five-setters in his first three rounds, becoming only the 15th man to do so in the Open era, the first since Janko Tipsarevic did so at Wimbledon in 2007.  It’s only the third time someone has done it at the US Open.  The last man to do so in New York was Wayne Ferreira, in 1993.

Amazingly, three players have gone five sets in each of their first four matches in a slam.  The last such occurrence was when Dominik Hrbaty reached the fourth round at the Australian, in 2006.  He fell to Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth round.

This is one bit of history that Granollers surely won’t be making.  As remarkable as it is to reach the fourth round of the back of all those five-setters, it isn’t a good sign when you lose two sets apiece to three players ranked outside the top 100.

It certainly doesn’t bode well when your next opponent is Novak Djokovic.

As Federer, Nadal and Djokovic plow their way through the early rounds this year, none is wasting any time.  All three players have posted a 6-0 set in their second- or third-round matches, exclamation points amidst broader displays of dominance.

A quick check of the database reveals yet another category in which Federer is charging toward the top.  The Open era record for bagel sets won at Grand Slams is held by Andre Agassi, who retired with 49.  Fed’s bagel of Adrian Mannarino on Saturday was the 43rd of his career.

Here is the all-time list:

Player           Slam bagels  
Andre Agassi              49  
Roger Federer             43  
Ivan Lendl                42  
Jimmy Connors             41  
Bjorn Borg                35  
Guillermo Vilas           29  
John Mcenroe              29  
Stefan Edberg             25  
Boris Becker              23  
Rafael Nadal              22  
Novak Djokovic            21

Andy Murray is tied for 19th, with 16.

This is one category which highlights the extreme dominance of some of the greatest female players in history.  Chris Evert puts Agassi, Federer, and everyone else to shame, with a record 104 Grand Slam bagels.  Serena Williams’s first-round defeat of Francesca Schiavone moved her past Arantxa Sanchez Vicario into fifth place on the all-time list:

Player                   Slam bagels  
Chris Evert                      104  
Steffi Graf                       74  
Martina Navratilova               70  
Monica Seles                      51 
Serena Williams                   49 
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario           47  
Margaret Court                    44  
Gabriela Sabatini                 44  
Lindsay Davenport                 43  
Maria Sharapova                   41

With a quarterfinal matchup against Carla Suarez Navarro, it’s possible Serena isn’t done for the year.  Each of the two previous times the two women have played, Williams has won a 6-0 set.