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.

Dominic Thiem and Reversible Blowouts

A few weeks ago in Rome, Dominic Thiem got destroyed by Novak Djokovic, 6-1 6-0. It was a letdown after Thiem’s previous-round upset of Rafael Nadal, and it seemed to provide a reminder of the old adage that tennis is about matchups. Even someone good enough to beat the King of Clay might struggle against a different sort of opponent.

Those struggles didn’t last. On Wednesday, Thiem faced Djokovic again, this time in the French Open quarterfinals, and won in straight sets. In less than three weeks, the Austrian bounced back from a brutal loss to defeat one of the greatest players of all time.

I’ve written before about the limited value of head-to-head records: When the head-to-head suggests that one player will win but the rankings disagree, the rankings prove to be the better forecaster. More sophisticated rating systems such as Elo would presumably do better still, though I haven’t done that exact test. There are certainly individual cases in which something specific about a matchup casts doubt on the predictiveness of the rankings, but if you have to pick one or the other, head-to-heads are the loser.

What about blowouts? Going into Wednesday’s quarterfinal, my surface-specific Elo ratings suggested that Thiem had a 26% chance of scoring the upset. The recent 6-1 6-0 loss was factored into those numbers, but only as a loss–there’s no consideration of severity. Should we have been even more skeptical of Thiem’s chances, given the most recent head-to-head result?

As it turns out, Thiem is far from the first player to turn things around after such a nasty scoreline. The most famous example is Robin Soderling, who lost 6-1 6-0 to Nadal in Rome in 2009, then bounced back to register one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, knocking out Rafa at Roland Garros. Few recoveries are so dramatic, but there are hundreds more.

Most players who lose lopsided scorelines–for today’s purposes, I’m considering any match in which the loser won two games or fewer–never get a chance to redeem themselves. I found roughly 2250 such matches in the ATP’s modern era, and the same two players met again less than half of those times. The fact that the head-to-head continues is a signal itself: Mediocre players–the ones you’d expect to lose badly–don’t get another chance. Even some top-20 players rarely meet each other on court, so the sort of player who earns the chance for redemption might have already proven that his lopsided loss was just an off day.

Of the 951 occasions that a player loses badly and faces the same opponent again, he gets revenge and wins the next match 277 times–about 29%. Crazy as it sounds, if the only thing we knew about Djokovic and Thiem entering Wednesday’s match was that Djokovic had won the last match 6-1 6-0, our base forecast would’ve been pretty close to the 26% that the much-more sophisticated Elo algorithm offered us.

29% is much higher than I expected, but it is lower than the typical rate for players in this situation. I found all head-to-heads of at least two meetings, and for every match after the first, counted whether it maintained or reversed the previous result. In addition to isolating lopsided scores, I also considered matches in which the loser won a set, on the assumption that those might be tighter matchups. Finally, for each of those categories, I tracked whether the follow-up matches were on the same surface as the previous one. Here are the results, with all win percentages shown from the perspective of the player who, like Thiem, lost the first encounter:

Score     Next Surface  Matches   Wins  Win %  
Any loss  All             68128  26586  39.0%  
Any loss  Same            31084  11855  38.1%  
Any loss  Diff            37044  14731  39.8%  
Bad loss  All               951    277  29.1%  
Bad loss  Same              457    128  28.0%  
Bad loss  Diff              494    149  30.2%  
Won set   All             26075  11286  43.3%  
Won set   Same            11766   4974  42.3%  
Won set   Diff            14309   6312  44.1%

The chances of recovering from a bad loss are better than I thought, but they are considerably worse than the odds that a player reverses the result after a less conspicuous scoreline–39%. The table also shows that the player seeking revenge is more likely to get it if the opportunity arises on a different surface, though not by a wide margin.

It’s clear that players are less likely to recover from a bad loss than from a more typical one, but how much of that is selection bias? After all, most of the players who lose 6-1 6-0 aren’t of the caliber of Thiem or Soderling, even if they are good enough to stick around in main draws and ultimately face the same opponent again.

To answer that question, I looked again at those 950 post-blowout matches, this time with pre-match Elo ratings. After eliminating everything before 1980 and a few other matchups with very little data, we were left with just under 600 data points. In this subset, Elo predicted that the players who lost badly had a 33.6% chance of winning the follow-up match. As we’ve seen, the actual success rate was 29%. Players who won lopsided matches outperformed their Elo forecast in the next meeting.

It’s not a huge difference, but enough to suggest that the matchup tells a little bit about how the next contest will go. One match can make a difference in the forecast–as long as it isn’t against Dominic Thiem.

Digging into the cases when a player lost badly and then recovered, I found a couple of entertaining examples:

  • Former No. 7 Harold Solomon beat Ivan Lendl in their first meeting, 6-1 6-1. Later that year, they met again at the US Open, and Lendl won, 6-1 6-0 6-0. Lendl also won their six matches after that.
  • Over the course of four years, Phil Dent and Mark Cox played three lopsided matches against each other. Cox won the first, Dent got revenge in the second, and Cox reversed things again in the third.

Roger Federer’s Impressive but Not-Entirely-Relevant Dominance of the Istanbul Field

Roger Federer has faced 14 of the 27 other players in this week’s Istanbul field, and owns a career record of 59-1 against them. His one loss came to Jurgen Melzer, while more than half of his win total is thanks to his decade-long dominance of Mikhail Youzhny (16-0) and Jarkko Nieminen (14-0).

It’s rare that players of Federer’s stature contest such small events, so we don’t expect to see such lopsided head-to-heads very often. In fact, if we limit our view to events where a player faced at least 10 of the other entrants, it is only the 17th time since 1980 that someone has entered an event with a won-loss percentage of 95% or better against the field.

Federer himself represents two of the previous 16 times this has happened. The most notable of them is 2008 Estoril. He had previously faced 14 of the other players in the draw, and had never lost to any of them in 46 meetings. There are only four other instances of players undefeated against a field, all between 1980 and 1984 and in many fewer matches.

The most eye-grabbing of those early-80s accomplishments was Ivan Lendl‘s record entering the 1980 Taipei event. He had faced 15 of the men in the draw, posting a record of 24-0 up to that point. Lendl’s name is the most common on the list, having entered tournaments with a 95% won-loss record against the field on four different occasions, highlighted by a 79-4 mark against the other competitors at Stratton Mountain in 1988.

Federer won the 2008 title in Estoril and Lendl claimed the 1980 trophy in Taipei, but Lendl was ousted in the second round of the 1988 Stratton Mountain event. Federer has also demonstrated that a stratospheric record against the field is no guarantee of success.

After Estoril, Roger’s second-best record entering an event was in Gstaad in 2013. He held a 73-3 record against the field, with each of the three losses coming against different opponents. He lost his opening-round match in straight sets to Daniel Brands. His record against the field of the previous week’s Hamburg event was nearly perfect as well at 137-8, but Federico Delbonis stopped him in the semifinals there.

Rafael Nadal can tell a similar story. His best record against a field was in Santiago two years ago, coming back from injury. He had lost only 1 of 28 career matches against the other players in the draw. That week, Horacio Zeballos doubled Rafa’s loss count.

In fact, of the 16 times that a player went into an event with a 95% or better record against the field, the favorite won only six of them. Expanding the sample to records of 90% or better, the dominant player won 30 of 72 titles. Neither mark is as good as we’d expect if the historically great players continued to win matches at a 95% or 90% clip. In practice, head-to-head records just aren’t as predictive as they seem to be.

As is evident from some of the examples I’ve given, there are mitigating circumstances for many of these losses, and they aren’t entirely random. These days, when a player enters an event that seems below him, there’s a reason for it. Nadal rarely plays 250s; he was doing so to work his way back into match form. Federer rarely seeks out smaller events on clay; he was experimenting with a new racket.

This week, there’s no reason why Fed shouldn’t perform at his usual level–at least his usual level for clay–and win the four matches he needs to claim yet another title. But if he suffers his second loss against the players gathered in Istanbul this week, it won’t be quite as much of a shock as that 59-1 record implies.

New “Head-to-Head View” at TennisAbstract.com

I’m really excited to announce some new features on Tennis Abstract — I hope you like them as much as I do.

Let’s start with the Head-to-Head view, which you can access by clicking near the upper left corner of any ATP player’s page. Marin Cilic, for example:

h2h1

Click on the “Head-to-Head beta” link, and you get this:

h2h2

 

As you can tell, there is a huge amount of data available here. What you’re looking at is a statistical summary of every single one of this player’s H2H records at the professional level. (As you’ll see on the page itself, the screenshot doesn’t show it all–there are ten more statistical categories for each H2H, including things like service points won and break point conversion rate.)

By default, the H2H table is sorted by number of matches. But like the standard “Match Results” table on Tennis Abstract, you can sort by most other columns simply by clicking on the column header, like TB (“tiebreaks”) here:

h2h3

 

Thanks to the power of Tennis Abstract’s filters, there’s a lot more you can do with this view. As you’ve seen, the H2H view defaults to a player’s career results. Let’s say, though, that you want to see Cilic’s H2H records only on clay. Use the filters in the left-hand column as you normally would, and select clay courts:

h2h4

 

As usual, you can apply as many filters as you want, so you could look at a player’s head-to-heads in a single seasonat the Challenger level, in deciding sets, or even show a summary of a player’s head-to-heads against all opponents from a single country.

Specifically for head-to-head purposes, I added a new filter: “Minimum matches.” This way, if you’re comparing a player’s H2H stats against several opponents, you can filter out matchups that haven’t occurred very much. Here’s an example, which shows Cilic’s highest H2H winning percentages, minimum five matches:

h2h5

 

I also added another new filter that will come in handy on the standard results tab as well: “Vs Current Rank.” (The separate “Vs Rank” filter, which has always been on the page, filters by opponent rank at the time of the match; the new filter uses the most current rankings.) For instance, here are Cilic’s H2Hs against the current top 10:

h2h6

 

Another neat aspect of the “Vs Curr Rank” filter is the ability to select “Active” or “Inactive” players. (These are determined solely by whether a player is in this week’s ATP rankings.) You could display all H2Hs against active players, or in the traditional Match Results view, quickly identify matches against retired/inactive players.

All of this is available for every ATP player, past and present.

In the process of working on the new features, I made a few other improvements that I hope powerusers will recognize and enjoy. For many statistical columns in both the match results and head-to-head views, I customized the sorting behavior, so matches without stats would automatically go to the bottom. I also made a bit of progress toward making the browser back button work as expected. There’s still some work to do there, but it’s much better than it was a few days ago.

Enjoy!

No One Beats Nicolas Almagro Eleven Times In a Row*

*except David Ferrer

No one seriously thought Nicolas Almagro had a chance to beat Rafael Nadal yesterday. Despite a loss last week, Rafa remains the best player in the world on clay, a fact Nico knows well, having lost to his fellow Spaniard every time they’ve played, including eight meetings on clay, most recently in last year’s Barcelona final.

As dominating as the Big Four have been, head-to-head records this lopsided remain quite rare. While Nadal and Novak Djokovic have butted heads 40 times and Djokovic has played Roger Federer 34 times, it’s unusual for any pair of players to cross paths so often. Any player might draw Rafa in the first or second round, but only a consistently good player reaches enough later rounds to face the top players so often. Seven of the 10 Nadal-Almagro matches, for example, have come in the quarterfinals or later.

An extremely lopsided head-to-head requires two players who win enough matches to repeatedly face each other, including one who is considerably better than the other. Nadal-Almagro fits that description quite well.

As I wrote a few months ago, head-to-head records don’t have the predictive power that many of us imagine they do, though extreme records like this one are a bit more predictive than ATP ranking. When a player faces an opponent that he has beaten ten times in a row, he wins “only” 86% of the time, or about six out of seven matches.

Still, there aren’t very many head-to-heads like this one, so it’s a rare event when a long-suffering underdog finally comes through. Almagro was only the 14th player in ATP history to win a match against someone who was undefeated against him in 10 or more meetings.

Thanks to the gradual fade of Federer and the sudden vincibility of Nadal, many of the previous 13 have occurred recently.  Almagro is the third player to reverse an 0-10 (or worse) against Nadal, following in the footsteps of Fernando Verdasco (2012 Madrid) and Stanislas Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open).

Federer has lost to four players against whom he amassed records of 10-0 or better: Tommy Robredo (2013 US Open), Robin Soderling (2010 Roland Garros), Nikolay Davydenko (2009 Tour Finals), and Fernando Gonzalez (2007 Masters Cup).

Jimmy Connors also did it twice. He won his first eleven matches against Sandy Mayer before falling,  and he won his first 15 against Eliot Teltscher before losing. In a bit of odd trivia, Arthur Ashe is the only man to be on both sides of this coin: He won his first ten Open-era meetings with Roy Emerson before losing, and he beat Rod Laver only after losing his first ten Open-era matches against the Rocket.

There isn’t much of a pattern to these streak-breaking matches. The players who finally lose to their longtime rival tend to be relatively old, but so do their opponents–with rare exceptions, it’s tough to tally ten or more meetings with a player unless both are very good, and when both players are so consistently reaching semifinals and finals, the head-to-head record tends not to be so one-sided.

Almagro’s triumph leaves us with exactly ten remaining undefeated tour-level head-to-heads of ten matches or more.  Federer and Nadal figure heavily here, as well. Roger owns five of the ten, against Mikhail Youzhny (15-0), Ferrer (14-0), Jarkko Nieminen (14-0), Feliciano Lopez (10-0), and Andreas Seppi (10-0). Rafa represents another two: Richard Gasquet (12-0) and Paul Henri Mathieu (10-0). Djokovic is 10-0 against Seppi, and Tomas Berdych is 10-0 against Kevin Anderson.

Almagro, however, remains at the top of this ignominious list, having lost all 15 of his matches with Ferrer. Had his countryman played up to seed this week, Nico might have had a chance to break another streak in the final, but Ferrer lost his opening match to Teymuraz Gabashvili, who wasn’t willing to wait to fall to 0-10. The Russian beat Ferrer in only his third try.

The Limited Value of Head-to-Head Records

Yesterday at the Australian Open, Ana Ivanovic defeated Serena Williams, despite having failed to take a set in four previous meetings. Later in the day, Tomas Berdych beat Kevin Anderson for the tenth straight time.

Commentators and bettors love head-to-head records. You’ll often hear people say, “tennis is a game of matchups,” which, I suppose, is hardly disprovable.

But how much do head-to-head records really mean?  If Player A has a better record than Player B but Player B has won the majority of their career meetings, who do you pick? To what extent does head-to-head record trump everything (or anything) else?

It’s important to remember that, most of the time, head-to-head records don’t clash with any other measurement of relative skill. On the ATP tour, head-to-head record agrees with relative ranking 69% of the time–that is, the player who is leading the H2H is also the one with the better record. When a pair of players have faced each other five or more times, H2H agrees with relative ranking 75% of the time.

Usually, then, the head-to-head record is right. It’s less clear whether it adds anything to our understanding. Sure, Rafael Nadal owns Stanislas Wawrinka, but would we expect anything much different from the matchup of a dominant number one and a steady-but-unspectacular number eight?

H2H against the rankings

If head-to-head records have much value, we’d expect them–at least for some subset of matches–to outperform the ATP rankings. That’s a pretty low bar–the official rankings are riddled with limitations that keep them from being very predictive.

To see if H2Hs met that standard, I looked at ATP tour-level matches since 1996. For each match, I recorded whether the winner was ranked higher than his opponent and what his head-to-head record was against that opponent. (I didn’t consider matches outside of the ATP tour in calculating head-to-heads.)

Thus, for each head-to-head record (for instance, five wins in eight career meetings), we can determine how many the H2H-favored player won, how many the higher-ranked player won, and so on.

For instance, I found 1,040 matches in which one of the players had beaten his opponent in exactly four of their previous five meetings.  65.0% of those matches went the way of the player favored by the head-to-head record, while 68.8% went to the higher-ranked player. (54.5% of the matches fell in both categories.)

Things get more interesting in the 258 matches in which the two metrics did not agree.  When the player with the 4-1 record was lower in the rankings, he won only 109 (42.2%) of those matchups. In other words, at least in this group of matches, you’d be better off going with ATP rankings than with head-to-head results.

Broader view, similar conclusions

For almost every head-to-head record, the findings are the same. There were 26 head-to-head records–everything from 1-0 to 7-3–for which we have at least 100 matches worth of results, and in 20 of them, the player with the higher ranking did better than the player with the better head-to-head.  In 19 of the 26 groups, when the ranking disagreed with the head-to-head, ranking was a more accurate predictor of the outcome.

If we tally the results for head-to-heads with at least five meetings, we get an overall picture of how these two approaches perform. 68.5% of the time, the player with the higher ranking wins, while 66.0% of the time, the match goes to the man who leads in the head-to-head. When the head-to-head and the relative ranking don’t match, ranking proves to be the better indicator 56.5% of the time.

The most extreme head-to-heads–that is, undefeated pairings such as 7-0, 8-0, and so on, are the only groups in which H2H consistently tells us more than ATP ranking does.  80% of the time, these matches go to the higher-ranked player, while 81.9% of the time, the undefeated man prevails. In the 78 matches for which H2H and ranking don’t agree, H2H is a better predictor exactly two-thirds of the time.

Explanations against intuition

When you weigh a head-to-head record more heavily than a pair of ATP rankings, you’re relying on a very small sample instead of a very big one. Yes, that small sample may be much better targeted, but it is also very small.

Not only is the sample small, often it is not as applicable as you might think. When Roger Federer defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round of the 2004 Australian Open, he had beaten the Aussie only twice in nine career meetings. Yet at that point in their careers, the 22-year-old, #2-ranked Fed was clearly in the ascendancy while Hewitt was having difficulty keeping up. Even though most of their prior meetings had been on the same surface and Hewitt had won the three most recent encounters, that small subset of Roger’s performances did not account for his steady improvement.

The most recent Fed-Hewitt meeting is another good illustration. Entering the Brisbane final, Roger had won 15 of their previous 16 matches, but while Hewitt has maintained a middle-of-the-pack level for the last several years, Federer has declined. Despite having played 26 times in their careers before the Brisbane final, none of those contests had come in the last two years.

Whether it’s surface, recency, injury, weather conditions, or any one of dozens of other factors, head-to-heads are riddled with external factors. That’s the problem with any small sample size–the noise is much more likely to overwhelm the signal. If noise can win out in the extensive Fed-Hewitt head-to-head, most one-on-one records don’t stand a chance.

Any set of rankings, whether the ATP’s points system or my somewhat more sophisticated (and more predictive) jrank algorithm, takes into account every match both players have been involved in for a fairly long stretch of time. In most cases, having all that perspective on both players’ current levels is much more valuable than a noise-ridden handful of matches. If head-to-heads can’t beat ATP rankings, they would look even worse against a better algorithm.

Some players surely do have an edge on particular opponents or types of opponents, whether it’s Andy Murray with lefties or David Ferrer with Nicolas Almagro. But most of the time, those edges are reflected in the rankings–even if the rankings don’t explicitly set out to incorporate such things.

Next time Kevin Anderson draws Berdych, he should take heart. His odds of beating the Czech next time aren’t that much different from any other man ranked around #20 against someone in the bottom half of the top ten. Even accounting for the slight effect I’ve observed in undefeated head-to-heads, a lopsided one-on-one record isn’t fate.

The 2014 Coach Smackdown

On the heels of the announcement that Boris Becker will coach Novak Djokovic, today we learned that Stefan Edberg will be part of Roger Federer‘s team for the first ten weeks of the season.  There will be more men’s Grand Slam champions in Australian Open coaching boxes than in the singles draw.

We’ve probably wrenched all possible commentary out of the head-to-head matchups of today’s slate of top players, so why not turn to their coaches instead?  Steve Tignor got us started:

I put together a list of 15 coaches and advisors, including Becker, Edberg, and Ivan Lendl, along with such names as Juan Carlos Ferrero, Goran Ivanisevic, and Michael Chang.  Many of them never played each other, since not all of their careers overlapped, but many of them did.

Becker, Edberg, and Lendl figure most prominently in these matchups, while Chang, Ivanisevic, and Sergi Bruguera also played plenty of matches against their fellow coaches.

Novak’s new coach barely edges out Andy Murray‘s coach as the king of his generation of advisors.  His 66-38 record against these 14 colleagues is slightly better than Lendl’s 47-28.  In eight of ten head-to-heads, Becker came out even or better. But one of those, as Tignor pointed out, is the matchup against Lendl, which the Czech leads 11-10.  If coaches can possibly accomplish such a thing, this pair might make Djokovic-Murray matches a little more interesting.

The other unfavorable head-to-head of Becker’s is my favorite quirky stat of the lot.  Twice in April 1993, when Becker was ranked fourth in the world, Franco Davin defeated him.  That’s a little better record for Davin than Juan Martin del Potro‘s 3-11 record against Djokovic.

Here’s the whole set of head-to-heads.  Don’t worry–in a few days the regular season will be back in full swing.