Quantifying Cakewalks, or The Time Rafa Finally Got Lucky

During this year’s US Open, much has been made of some rather patchy sections of the draw. Many great players are sitting out the tournament with injury, and plenty of others crashed out early. Pablo Carreno Busta reached the quarterfinals by defeating four straight qualifiers, and Rafael Nadal could conceivably win the title without beating a single top-20 player.

None of this is a reflection on the players themselves: They can play only the draw they’re dealt, and we’ll never know how they would’ve handled a more challenging array of opponents. The weakness of the draw, however, could affect how we remember this tournament.  If we are going to let the quality of the field color our memories, we should at least try to put this year’s players in context to see how they compare with majors in the past.

How to measure draw paths

There are lots of ways to quantify draw quality. (There’s an entire category on this blog devoted to it.) Since we’re interested in the specific sets of opponents faced by our remaining contenders, we need a metric that focuses on those. It doesn’t really matter that, say, Nick Kyrgios was in the draw, since none of the semifinalists had to play him.

Instead of draw difficulty, what we’re after is what I’ll call path ease. It’s a straightforward enough concept: How hard is it to beat the specific set of guys that Rafa (for instance) had to play?

To get a number, we’ll need a few things: The surface-weighted Elo ratings of each one of a player’s opponents, along with a sort of “reference Elo” for an average major semifinalist. (Or finalist, or title winner.) To determine the ease of Nadal’s path so far, we don’t want to use Nadal’s Elo. If we did that, the exact same path would look easier or harder depending on the quality of the player who faced it.

(The exact value of the “reference Elo” isn’t that important, but for those of you interested in the numbers: I found the average Elo rating of every slam semifinalist, finalist, and winner back to 1988 on each of the three major surfaces. On hard courts, those numbers are 2145, 2198, and 2233, respectively. When measuring the difficulty of a path to the semifinal round, I used the first of those numbers; for the difficulty of a path to the title, I used the last.)

To measure path ease, then, we answer the question: What are the odds that an average slam semifinalist (for instance) would beat this particular set of players? In Rafa’s case, he has yet to face a player with a weighted-hard-court Elo rating above 1900, and the typical 2145-rated semifinalist would beat those five players 71.5% of the time. That’s a bit easier than Kevin Anderson‘s path the semis, but a bit harder than Carreno Busta’s. Juan Martin del Potro, on the other hand, is in a different world altogether. Here are the path ease numbers for all four semifinalists, showing the likelihood that average contenders in each round would advance, giving the difficulty of the draws each player has faced:

Semifinalist   Semi Path  Final Path  Title Path  
Nadal              71.5%       49.7%       51.4%  
del Potro           9.1%        7.5%       10.0%  
Anderson           69.1%       68.9%       47.1%  
Carreno Busta      74.3%       71.2%       48.4%

(We don’t yet know each player’s path to the title, so I averaged the Elos of possible opponents. Anderson and Carreno Busta are very close, so for Rafa and Delpo, their potential final opponent doesn’t make much difference.)

There’s one quirk with this metric that you might have noticed: For Nadal and del Potro, their difficulty of reaching the final is greater than that of winning the title altogether! Obviously that doesn’t make logical sense–the numbers work out that way because of the “reference Elos” I’m using. The average slam winner is better than the average slam finalist, so the table is really saying that it’s easier for the average slam winner to beat Rafa’s seven opponents than it would be for the average slam finalist to get past his first six opponents. This metric works best when comparing title paths to title paths, or semifinal paths to semifinal paths, which is what we’ll do for the rest of this post.

Caveats and quirks aside, it’s striking just how easy three of the semifinal paths have been compared to del Potro’s much more arduous route. Even if we discount the difficulty of beating Roger Federer–Elo thinks he’s the best active player on hard courts but doesn’t know about his health issues–Delpo’s path is wildly different from those of his semifinal and possible final opponents.

Cakewalks in context

Semifinalist path eases of 69% or higher–that is, easier–are extremely rare. In fact, the paths of Anderson, Carreno Busta, and Nadal are all among the ten easiest in the last thirty years! Here are the previous top ten:

Year  Slam             Semifinalist               Path Ease  
1989  Australian Open  Thomas Muster                  84.1%  
1989  Australian Open  Miloslav Mecir                 74.2%  
1990  Australian Open  Ivan Lendl                     73.8%  
2006  Roland Garros    Ivan Ljubicic                  73.7%  
1988  Australian Open  Ivan Lendl                     72.2%  
1988  Australian Open  Pat Cash                       70.1%  
2004  Australian Open  Juan Carlos Ferrero            69.2%  
1996  US Open          Michael Chang                  68.8%  
1990  Roland Garros    Andres Gomez                   68.4%  
1996  Australian Open  Michael Chang                  66.2%

In the last decade, the easiest path to the semifinal was Stan Wawrinka‘s route to the 2016 French Open final four, which rated 59.8%. As we’ll see further on, Wawrinka’s draw got a lot more difficult after that.

Del Potro’s draw so far isn’t quite as extreme, but it is quite difficult in the historical context. Of the nearly 500 major semifinalists since 1988, all but 15 are easier than his 9.1% path difficulty. Here are the top ten, all of whom faced draws that would have given the average slam semifinalist less than an 8% chance of getting that far:

Year  Slam             Semifinalist              Path Ease  
2009  Roland Garros    Robin Soderling                1.6%  
1988  Roland Garros    Jonas Svensson                 1.9%  
2017  Wimbledon        Tomas Berdych                  3.7%  
1996  Wimbledon        Richard Krajicek               6.4%  
2011  Wimbledon        Jo Wilfried Tsonga             6.6%  
2012  US Open          Tomas Berdych                  6.8%  
2017  Roland Garros    Dominic Thiem                  6.9%  
2014  Australian Open  Stan Wawrinka                  7.0%  
1989  Roland Garros    Michael Chang                  7.1%  
2017  Wimbledon        Sam Querrey                    7.5%

Previewing the history books

In the long term, we’ll care a lot more about how the 2017 US Open champion won the title than how he made it through the first five rounds. As we saw above, three of the four semifinalists have a path ease of around 50% to win the title–again, meaning that a typical slam winner would have a roughly 50/50 chance of getting past this particular set of seven opponents.

No major winner in recent memory has had it so easy. Nadal’s path would rate first in the last thirty years, while Carreno Busta’s or Anderson’s would rate in the top five. (If it comes to that, their exact numbers will depend on who they face in the final.) Here is the list that those three men have the chance to disrupt:

Year  Slam             Winner                  Path Ease  
2002  Australian Open  Thomas Johansson            48.1%  
2001  Australian Open  Andre Agassi                47.6%  
1999  Roland Garros    Andre Agassi                45.6%  
2000  Wimbledon        Pete Sampras                45.3%  
2006  Australian Open  Roger Federer               44.5%  
1997  Australian Open  Pete Sampras                44.4%  
2003  Australian Open  Andre Agassi                43.9%  
1999  US Open          Andre Agassi                41.5%  
2002  Wimbledon        Lleyton Hewitt              39.9%  
1998  Wimbledon        Pete Sampras                39.1%

At the 2006 Australian Open, Federer lucked into a path that was nearly as easy as Rafa’s this year. His 2003 Wimbledon title just missed the top ten as well. By comparison, Novak Djokovic has never won a major with a path ease greater than 18.7%–harder than that faced by more than half of major winners.

Nadal has hardly had it easy as he has racked up his 15 grand slams, either. Here are the top ten most difficult title paths:

Year  Slam             Winner                Path Ease  
2014  Australian Open  Stan Wawrinka              2.2%  
2015  Roland Garros    Stan Wawrinka              3.1%  
2016  Us Open          Stan Wawrinka              3.2%  
2013  Roland Garros    Rafael Nadal               4.4%  
2014  Roland Garros    Rafael Nadal               4.7%  
1989  Roland Garros    Michael Chang              5.0%  
2012  Roland Garros    Rafael Nadal               5.2%  
2016  Australian Open  Novak Djokovic             5.4%  
2009  US Open          J.M. Del Potro             5.9%  
1990  Wimbledon        Stefan Edberg              6.2%

As I hinted in the title of this post, while Nadal got lucky in New York this year, it hasn’t always been that way. He appears three times on this list, facing greater challenges than any major winner other than Wawrinka the giant-killer.

On average, Rafa’s grand slam title paths haven’t been quite as harrowing as Djokovic’s, but compared to most other greats of the last few decades, he has worked hard for his titles. Here are the average path eases of players with at least three majors since 1988:

Player           Majors        Avg Path Ease  
Stan Wawrinka         3                 2.8%  
Novak Djokovic       12                11.3%  
Rafael Nadal         15                13.6%  
Stefan Edberg         4                14.6%  
Andy Murray           3                18.8%  
Boris Becker          4                18.8%  
Mats Wilander         3                19.8%  
Gustavo Kuerten       3                22.0%  
Roger Federer        19                23.5%  
Jim Courier           4                26.4%  
Pete Sampras         14                28.9%  
Andre Agassi          8                32.3%

If Rafa adds to his grand slam haul this weekend, his average path ease will take a bit of a hit. Still, he’ll only move one place down the list, behind Stefan Edberg. After more than a decade of battling all-time greats in the late rounds of majors, it’s fair to say that Nadal deserved this cakewalk.


Update: This post reads a bit differently than when I first wrote it: I’ve changed the references to “path difficulty” to “path ease” to make it clearer what the metric is showing.

Nadal and Anderson advanced to the final, so we can now determine the exact path ease number for whichever one of them wins the title. Rafa’s exact number remains 51.4%, and should he win, his career average across 16 slams will increase to about 15%. Anderson’s path ease to the title is “only” 41.3%, which would be good for ninth on the list shown above, and just barely second easiest of the last 30 US Opens.

Is Jelena Ostapenko More Than the Next Iva Majoli?

Winning a Grand Slam as a teenager–or, in the case of this year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, a just-barely 20-year-old–is an impressive feat. But it isn’t always a guarantee of future greatness. Plenty of all-time greats launched their careers with Slam titles at age 20 or later, but three of the players who won their debut major at ages closest to Ostapenko’s serve as cautionary tales in the opposite direction: Iva Majoli, Mary Pierce, and Gabriela Sabatini. Each of these women was within three months of her 20th birthday when she won her first title, and of the three, only Pierce ever won another.

However, simply comparing her age to that of previous champions understates the Latvian’s achievement. Women’s tennis has gotten older over the last two decades: The average age of a women’s singles entrant in Paris this year was 25.6, a few days short of the record established at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year. That’s two years older than the average player 15 years ago, and four years older than the typical entrant three decades ago. Headed into the French Open this year, there were only five teenagers ranked in the top 100; at the end of 2004, the year of Maria Sharapova’s and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s first major victories, there were nearly three times as many.

Thus, it doesn’t seem quite right to group Ostapenko with previous 19- and 20-year-old first-time winners. Instead, we might consider the Latvian’s “relative age”—the difference between her and the average player in the draw—of 5.68 years younger than the field. When I introduced the concept of relative age last week, it was in the context of Slam semifinalists, and in every era, there have been some very young players reaching the final four who burned out just as quickly. The same isn’t true of women who went on to win major titles.

In the last thirty years, only two players have won a major with a greater relative age than Ostapenko: Sharapova, who was 6.66 years younger than the 2004 US Open field, and Martina Hingis, who won three-quarters of the Grand Slam in 1997 at age 16, between 6.3 and 6.6 years younger than each tournament’s average entrant. The rest of the top five emphasizes Ostapenko’s elite company, including Monica Seles (5.29, at the 1990 French Open) and Serena Williams (5.26, at the 1999 US Open).

Each of those four women went on to reach the No. 1 ranking and win at least five majors–an outrageously optimistic forecast for Ostapenko, who, even after winning Roland Garros, is ranked outside the top ten. By relative age, Majoli, Pierce, and Sabatini are poor comparisons for Saturday’s champion–Majoli and Pierce were only three years younger than the fields they overcame, and Sabatini was only two years younger than the average entrant. By comparison, Garbine Muguruza, who won last year’s French Open at age 22, was two and a half years younger than the field.

Which is it, then? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to that, and we probably won’t have a better idea for several more years. For most of the Open Era, until about ten years ago, the average age on the women’s tour fluctuated between 21 and 23. Thus, for the overall population of first-time major champions, actual age and relative age are very highly correlated. It’s only with the last decade’s worth of debut winners that the numbers meaningfully diverge. For Ostapenko and Muguruza–and perhaps Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova–we have yet to see what their entire career trajectory will look like. To build a bigger sample to test the hypothesis, we’ll need a few more young first-time Slam winners, something we may finally see with Sharapova and Williams out of the way.

For more post-French Open analysis, here’s my Economist piece on Ostapenko and projecting major winners in the long term. Also at the Game Theory blog, I wrote about Rafael Nadal and his abssurd dominance on clay in a fast-court-friendly era.

Finally, check out Carl Bialik’s and my extra-long podcast, recorded Monday, with tons of thoughts and the winners and the fields in general.

First Meetings in Grand Slam Finals

The 2017 Roland Garros final is crammed with firsts for 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko. Playing in only her eighth major, she had never before reached the round of 16, let alone the final two. Her opponent, Simona Halep, has been here before–she lost the 2014 French Open final to Maria Sharapova–but the two women have one first in common: Halep and Ostapenko have never played each other.

Slam finals are usually reserved for an elite group, and that select few tends to play each other quite a bit. Since 1980, women’s major finalists have had an average of 12 previous meetings. The veteran Australian Open finalists this year, Serena Williams and Venus Williams, had faced off 27 times before their clash in Melbourne.

That makes the Halep-Ostapenko debut meeting an unusual one, but the situation is not unheard of. The 2012 Roland Garros final was the first match between Sharapova and Sara Errani (they’ve since played five more). Overall, there have been five first meetings in women’s major finals in the last 35 years:

Slam     Winner           Finalist               
2012 RG  Maria Sharapova  Sara Errani         
2009 US  Kim Clijsters    Caroline Wozniacki  
2007 W   Venus Williams   Marion Bartoli      
1988 RG  Steffi Graf      Natalia Zvereva

(There were probably a few more before that, but my database is missing a lot of matches from the mid-1970s, so I don’t know for sure.)

In all of these cases, the established star defeated the upstart, which bodes well for Halep. On the other hand, the Romanian doesn’t quite measure up to the previous four winners, all of whom had won a Grand Slam title before their final on this list.

First meetings in Grand Slam finals are a bit more common in the men’s game, though it’s been nearly a decade since the last one. We’ll probably wait quite a bit longer, too. Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka will play for the 19th time on Sunday, and of the 45 possible pairings in the current top ten, only Kei Nishikori and Alexander Zverev have yet to face off. The next highest-ranked pair without a head-to-head is Andy Murray and Jack Sock which, come to think of it, would make for an interesting Wimbledon final next month.

The last debut clash on such a big stage was the 2008 Australian Open, between Novak Djokovic and Jo Wilfried Tsonga. It was the eighth in the last 35 years:

Slam     Winner            Finalist                
2008 AO  Novak Djokovic    Jo Wilfried Tsonga   
2003 US  Andy Roddick      Juan Carlos Ferrero  
1997 RG  Gustavo Kuerten   Sergi Bruguera       
1997 AO  Pete Sampras      Carlos Moya          
1996 W   Richard Krajicek  Malivai Washington   
1986 RG  Ivan Lendl        Mikael Pernfors      
1985 W   Boris Becker      Kevin Curren         
1984 AO  Mats Wilander     Kevin Curren

Before 1982, most first-meeting finals took place at the Australian Open, which at that time usually featured a weaker draw than the other Slams. For instance, the 1979 final was played by Guillermo Vilas and John Sadri. While Vilas is among the all-time greats, Sadri never advanced beyond the fourth round of any other major–where he might have encountered Vilas more often.

One thing seems certain: It won’t be the last meeting for Halep and Ostapenko. All of the pairs I’ve listed played at least once after their Slam final, and with the exception of Wilander-Curren, each one played at least twice more. Halep is only 25, so if she remains near the top of the game and Ostapenko continues climbing the ranks, the pair could aim to match Graf and Zvereva, who met 20 more times after the 1988 French Open final. The loser of today’s match will want to avoid Zvereva’s fate, though: In those 20 matches, the Belarussian won only once.

Bouncing Back From a Marathon Third Set

In this year’s edition of the French Open, we’ve already seen two women’s matches charge past the 6-6 mark in the third set. On Sunday, Madison Brengle outlasted Julia Goerges 13-11 in the decider, and yesterday, Kristina Mladenovic overcame Jennifer Brady 9-7 in the final set. Marathon three-setters aren’t as gut-busting as the five-set equivalent on the men’s tour, yet they still require players to go beyond the usual limit of a tour match.

Do marathon three-setters affect the fortunes of those players that move on to the next round? Back in 2012, I published a study showing that men who win marathon five-setters (that is, matches that go to 8-6 or longer) win fewer than 30% of their following matches, a rate far worse than what we would expect, given the quality of their next opponents. It seems likely that long three-setters wouldn’t have the same effect, especially since many top women are willing to play five-setters themselves.

The numbers bear out the intuition. From 2001 to the 2017 Australian Open, there have been 185 marathon three-setters in Grand Slam main draws, and the winners of those matches have gone on to win 42.2% of their next contests. That’s more than the equivalent number for men, and it’s even better than it sounds.

Players who need to go deep into a third set to vanquish an early-round opponent are, on average, weaker than those who win in straight sets, so many of the marathon women would already be considered underdogs in their next matches. Using sElo–surface-specific Elo, which I recently introduced–we see that these 185 marathon women would have been expected to win only 44.0% of their following matches. There may be a real effect here, but it is a minor one, especially compared to the fortunes of players who struggle through marathon five-setters.

I ran the same algorithm for women’s Slam matches that ended at 7-6, 7-5, and 6-4 or 6-3 in the final set. Since only the US Open uses the third-set tiebreak format, the available sample for that score is limited, which may explain a slightly wacky result. For the other scores, we see numbers that are roughly similar to the marathon findings. Winners tend to be underdogs against their next opponents, but there is little, if any, hangover effect:

3rd Set Score  Sample  Next W%  Next ExpW%  
Marathons         185    42.2%       44.0%  
7-6                56    48.2%       42.2%  
7-5               232    43.1%       42.7%  
6-4 / 6-3         421    41.6%       43.2%

In short: A long match often tells us something about the winner’s chances against her next foe, but it’s something that we already knew. The tight three-setter itself–marathon or otherwise–has little effect on her chances later on. That’s good news for Mladenovic, who will be back on court tomorrow against Sara Errani, an opponent likely to give her another grueling workout.

Measuring the Performance of Tennis Prediction Models

With the recent buzz about Elo rankings in tennis, both at FiveThirtyEight and here at Tennis Abstract, comes the ability to forecast the results of tennis matches. It’s not far fetched to ask yourself, which of these different models perform better and, even more interesting, how they fare compared to other ‘models’, such as the ATP ranking system or betting markets.

For this, admittedly limited, investigation, we collected the (implied) forecasts of five models, that is, FiveThirtyEight, Tennis Abstract, Riles, the official ATP rankings, and the Pinnacle betting market for the US Open 2016. The first three models are based on Elo. For inferring forecasts from the ATP ranking, we use a specific formula1 and for Pinnacle, which is one of the biggest tennis bookmakers, we calculate the implied probabilities based on the provided odds (minus the overround)2.

Next, we simply compare forecasts with reality for each model asking If player A was predicted to be the winner (P(a) > 0.5), did he really win the match? When we do that for each match and each model (ignoring retirements or walkovers) we come up with the following results.

Model		% correct
Pinnacle	76.92%
538		75.21%
TA		74.36%
ATP		72.65%
Riles		70.09%

What we see here is how many percent of the predictions were actually right. The betting model (based on the odds of Pinnacle) comes out on top followed by the Elo models of FiveThirtyEight and Tennis Abstract. Interestingly, the Elo model of Riles is outperformed by the predictions inferred from the ATP ranking. Since there are several parameters that can be used to tweak an Elo model, Riles may still have some room left for improvement.

However, just looking at the percentage of correctly called matches does not tell the whole story. In fact, there are more granular metrics to investigate the performance of a prediction model: Calibration, for instance, captures the ability of a model to provide forecast probabilities that are close to the true probabilities. In other words, in an ideal model, we want 70% forecasts to be true exactly in 70% of the cases. Resolution measures how much the forecasts differ from the overall average. The rationale here is, that just using the expected average values for forecasting will lead to a reasonably well-calibrated set of predictions, however, it will not be as useful as a method that manages the same calibration while taking current circumstances into account. In other words, the more extreme (and still correct) forecasts are, the better.

In the following table we categorize the set of predictions into bins of different probabilities and show how many percent of the predictions were correct per bin. This also enables us to calculate Calibration and Resolution measures for each model.

Model    50-59%  60-69%  70-79%  80-89%  90-100% Cal  Res   Brier
538      53%     61%     85%     80%     91%     .003 .082  .171
TA       56%     75%     78%     74%     90%     .003 .072  .182
Riles    56%     86%     81%     63%     67%     .017 .056  .211
ATP      50%     73%     77%     84%     100%    .003 .068  .185
Pinnacle 52%     91%     71%     77%     95%     .015 .093  .172

As we can see, the predictions are not always perfectly in line with what the corresponding bin would suggest. Some of these deviations, for instance the fact that for the Riles model only 67% of the 90-100% forecasts were correct, can be explained by small sample size (only three in that case). However, there are still two interesting cases (marked in bold) where sample size is better and which raised my interest. Both the Riles and Pinnacle models seem to be strongly underconfident (statistically significant) with their 60-69% predictions. In other words, these probabilities should have been higher, because, in reality, these forecasts were actually true 86% and 91% percent of the times.3 For the betting aficionados, the fact that Pinnacle underestimates the favorites here may be really interesting, because it could reveal some value as punters would say. For the Riles model, this would maybe be a starting point to tweak the model.

In the last three columns Calibration (the lower the better), Resolution (the higher the better), and the Brier score (the lower the better) are shown. The Brier score combines Calibration and Resolution (and the uncertainty of the outcomes) into a single score for measuring the accuracy of predictions. The models of FiveThirtyEight and Pinnacle (for the used subset of data) essentially perform equally good. Then there is a slight gap until the model of Tennis Abstract and the ATP ranking model come in third and fourth, respectively. The Riles model performs worst in terms of both Calibration and Resolution, hence, ranking fifth in this analysis.

To conclude, I would like to show a common visual representation that is used to graphically display a set of predictions. The reliability diagram compares the observed rate of forecasts with the forecast probability (similar to the above table).

The closer one of the colored lines is to the black line, the more reliable the forecasts are. If the forecast lines are above the black line, it means that forecasts are underconfident, in the opposite case, forecasts are overconfident. Given that we only investigated one tournament and therefore had to work with a low sample size (117 predictions), the big swings in the graph are somewhat expected. Still, we can see that the model based on ATP rankings does a really good job in preventing overestimations even though it is known to be outperformed by Elo in terms of prediction accuracy.

To sum up, this analysis shows how different predictive models for tennis can be compared among each other in a meaningful way. Moreover, I hope I could exhibit some of the areas where a model is good and where it’s bad. Obviously, this investigation could go into much more detail by, for example, comparing the models in how well they do for different kinds of players (e.g., based on ranking), different surfaces, etc. This is something I will spare for later. For now, I’ll try to get my sleeping patterns accustomed to the schedule of play for the Australian Open, and I hope, you can do the same.

Peter Wetz is a computer scientist interested in racket sports and data analytics based in Vienna, Austria.

Footnotes

1. P(a) = a^e / (a^e + b^e) where a are player A’s ranking points, b are player B’s ranking points, and e is a constant. We use e = 0.85 for ATP men’s singles.

2. The betting market in itself is not really a model, that is, the goal of the bookmakers is simply to balance their book. This means that the odds, more or less, reflect the wisdom of the crowd, making it a very good predictor.

3. As an example, one instance, where Pinnacle was underconfident and all other models were more confident is the R32 encounter between Ivo Karlovic and Jared Donaldson. Pinnacle’s implied probability for Karlovic to win was 64%. The other models (except the also underconfident Riles model) gave 72% (ATP ranking), 75% (FiveThirtyEight), and 82% (Tennis Abstract). Turns out, Karlovic won in straight sets. One factor at play here might be that these were the US Open where more US citizens are likely to be confident about the US player Jared Donaldson and hence place a bet on him. As a consequence, to balance the book, Pinnacle will lower the odds on Donaldson, which results in higher odds (and a lower implied probability) for Karlovic.

Can Nick Kyrgios Win a Grand Slam?

Today’s breaking news? Former Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis thinks that Nick Kyrgios can win the Australian Open. Hey, it’s almost the offseason. We take our news wherever we can get it.

Still, it’s an interesting question. Is it possible for such a volatile, one-dimensional player to string together seven wins on one of the biggest stages in the sport? Philippoussis–not the most versatile of players himself–reached two Slam finals. A big serve can take you far.

Last year, I published a post investigating the “minimum viable return game,” the level of return success that a player would need to maintain in order to reach the highest echelon of men’s tennis. It’s rare to finish a season in the top ten without winning at least 38% of return points, though a few players, including Milos Raonic, have managed it. When I wrote that article, Kyrgios’s average for the previous 52 weeks was a measly 31.7%, almost in the territory of John Isner and Ivo Karlovic.

Kyrgios has improved since then. In 2016, he won 35.4% of return points, almost equal to Raonic’s 35.9%–and most would agree that Milos had an excellent year. Philippoussis’s career mark was only 34.9%, though Kyrgios would be lucky to play as many tournaments on grass and carpet as Philippoussis did. Still, a sub-36% rate of return points won isn’t usually good enough in today’s game: Raonic was only the third player since 1991 (along with Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic) to finish a season in the top five with such a low rate.

Then again, Philippoussis didn’t say anything about finishing in the top five. The “minimum viable Slam-winning return game” might be different. Looking at all Grand Slam champions back to 1991, here are the lowest single-tournament rates of return points won:

Year  Slam             Player               RPW%                     
2001  Wimbledon        Goran Ivanisevic    31.1%  
1996  US Open          Pete Sampras        32.8%  
2009  Wimbledon        Roger Federer       33.7%  
2002  US Open          Pete Sampras        35.6%  
2000  Wimbledon        Pete Sampras        36.6%  
2010  Wimbledon        Rafael Nadal        36.8%  
2014  Australian Open  Stan Wawrinka       37.0%  
1998  Wimbledon        Pete Sampras        37.2%  
1991  Wimbledon        Michael Stich       37.4%  
2000  US Open          Marat Safin         37.5%

Wimbledon is well-represented here, as we might expect. Not so for Kyrgios’s home Slam: Stan Wawrinka‘s 2014 Australian Open title is the only time it appears in the top 20, even though it has played very fast in recent years. Every other Melbourne titlist won at least 39.5% of return points. As with year-end top-ten finishes, 38% is a reasonable rule of thumb for the minimum viable level, though on rare occasions, it is possible to come in below that.

The bar is set: Can Kyrgios clear it? 18 months ago, when Kyrgios’s 52-week return-points-won average was below 32%, the obvious answer would have been negative. His current mark above 35% makes the question a more interesting one. To win a Slam, he’ll probably need to return better, but only for seven matches.

The Australian has enjoyed one seven-match streak–in fact, a nine-match run–that would be more than good enough. Combining his title in Marseille and his semifinal showing in Dubai this Februrary, Kyrgios played almost nine matches (he retired with a back injury in the last one) while winning a whopping 41.5% of return points. At 42 of the last 104 Slams, the champion has won return points at a lower rate.

However, February was an aberration. To approximate Kyrgios’s success over the length of a Slam, I looked at his return points won over every possible streak of ten matches. (Most of his matches have been best-of-three, so ten matches is about the same number of points as a Slam title run.) Aside from the streaks involving Marseille and Dubai this year, he has never topped 37% for that length of time.

There’s always hope for improvement, especially for a mercurial 21-year-old in a sport dominated by older men. But the evidence is against him here, as well. Research by falstaff78 suggests that players do not substantially improve their return statistics as they mature. That may seem counterintuitive, since some players clearly do develop their skills. However, as players get better, they go deeper in tournaments and alter their schedules, changing the mix of opponents they face. Two years ago, Kyrgios faced seven top-20 players. This year he played 18. Raonic, who represents an optimistic career trajectory for Kyrgios, faced 26 this season.

Against the top 20–the sorts of Grand Slam opponents a player has to beat to get from the fourth round to the trophy ceremony–Kyrgios has won less than 30% of his career return points. Even Raonic, who has yet to win a Slam himself, has done better, and won 32.6% of return points against top-20 opponents this year.

There’s little doubt that Kyrgios has the serve to win Grand Slams. And once the Big Four retire, I suppose someone will have to win the majors. But even in weak eras, you need to break serve, and at Slams, you typically need to do so many times, and against very high-quality opponents. The evidence we have so far strongly implies that Kyrgios, like Philippoussis before him, will struggle to triumph at a Slam.

Shot-by-Shot Stats for 261 Grand Slam Finals (and More?)

One of my favorite subsets of the Match Charting Project is the ongoing effort–in huge part thanks to Edo–to chart all Grand Slam finals, men’s and women’s, back to 1980. We’re getting really close, with a total of 261 Slam finals charted, including:

  • every men’s Wimbledon and US Open final all the way back to 1980;
  • every men’s Slam final since 1989 Wimbledon;
  • every women’s Slam final back to 2001, with a single exception.

The Match Charting Project gathers and standardizes data that, for many of these matches, simply didn’t exist before. These recaps give us shot-by-shot breakdowns of historically important matches, allowing us to quantify how the game has changed–at least at the very highest level–over the last 35 years. A couple of months ago, I did one small project using this data to approximate surface speed changes–that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you can do with this data. (The dataset is also publicly available, so have fun!)

We’ve got about 30 Slam finals left to chart, and you might be able to help. As always, we are actively looking for new contributors to the project to chart matches (here’s how to get started, and why you should, and you don’t have to chart Slam finals!), but right now, I have a different request.

We’ve scoured the internet, from YouTube to Youku to torrent trackers, to find video for all of these matches. While I don’t expect any of you to have the 1980 Teacher-Warwick Australian Open final sitting around on your hard drive, I’ve got higher hopes for some of the more recent matches we’re missing.

If you have full (or nearly full) video for any of these matches, or you know of a (preferably free) source where we can find them, please–please, please!–drop me a line. Once we have the video, Edo or I will do the rest, and the project will become even more valuable.

There are several more finals from the 1980s that we’re still looking for. Here’s the complete list.

Thanks for your help!