With the Olympics starting in just a few days, it’s no surprise that this week’s two ATP 250 events barely qualify as sideshows. No man inside the top 20 is participating in either one, and journeymen such as Bjorn Phau and Blaz Kavcic are seeded.
In fact, Kitzbuhel and Los Angeles sport two of the weakest fields in recent history, handing out some of the cheapest ranking points ever offered by tour-level events.
To the naked eye, it’s plenty clear that these tournaments don’t measure up to the standard of, say, Halle or Doha. But attaching numbers to those claims is more difficult. You could compare average or median ranking, the cut, the ranking of the lowest seed, or even the ranking of the top seed. However, none of these provide the whole picture.
To quantify field strength using just a number or two, in a way that allows us to compare 28-man 250s to 48, 56, or 64-player 500s, to 128-player slams, let’s turn to a method suggested by Carl Bialik. We’re most concerned with how difficult these tournaments are to win. So, since some player ranked roughly #10 in the world is in the field at almost every event, let’s compare the probability that the #10-ranked player would take the title.
At most grand slam and masters-level tournaments, the #10 player in the world has a 1-3% chance of winning. It’s awfully unlikely, though definitely nonzero. At a lower-level tournament like Atlanta last-week, the #10 player–in this case, John Isner–was the most likely winner, though he had some high-quality competition from Mardy Fish, Kei Nishikori, and eventual winner Andy Roddick. In more extreme cases, like this week’s Los Angeles event, no one inside the top 40 is participating. So if #10 entered, he would be the overwhelming favorite.
The field in Kitzbuhel this week is so weak that, had a hypothetical #10 player entered, he would have a 45% chance of winning the title. That’s the highest we’ve seen on the ATP tour in at least the last four years. The LA draw is stronger in this regard. Thanks in part to the currently underrated Sam Querrey, the hypothetical #10 would have a mere 31% chance of winning. As we’ll see in a moment, though, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
10 events have had sufficiently weak draws to give the #10-ranked player a 30% or better chance of winning, but Kitzbuhel is the worst of all. Los Angeles, while relatively stronger, is the weakest hard court event. In the last year, there have been 42 events flying the ATP 250 banner. By this metric, the average 250 draw would give the #10 player a 23.6% of winning. By comparison, the #10 player has, on average, a 10.4% chance of winning an ATP 500 event. (Hamburg last week was an aberration, clocking in at 22%, higher than half of the 250s.)
Much like next week’s 500-level event in Washington, LA’s Farmers Classic is a direct casualty of the Olympics. As part of the US Open Series, it typically attracts quite a few top hard-courters. Last year’s field included both Fish and Juan Martin Del Potro, and the #10 player would have a had mere 16% chance of winning, on par with the relatively strong 250 fields in Buenos Aires and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
A slightly different metric exposes the true dearth of quality players in Los Angeles this week. In addition to calculating the probability that the #10 player would win, we can check the probability that the #50 player would win an event. For a draw of any quality, that number is close to zero. For these weaker 250 fields, the additional perspective gives us more nuance. If an event is packed with guys ranked around #100, as LA is, it is easy pickings for someone like Benoit Paire or Xavier Malisse. If there are plenty of top-70 or top-80 players, the #50 entrant will have a much tougher time.
Measured by the probability of the #50 player winning an event, Los Angeles has the weakest field of any tournament back to 2009. The hypothetical #50 would have an 11.7% chance of winning, better than the chances for the #10 player in Doha, Halle, or Queen’s Club! It’s also the only time I found that #50 would have been better than a 10% chance. Unsurprisingly, Kitzbuhel checks in near the top, in third place, with a 6.9% chance of the #50 player winning.
To some extent, the Olympics are to blame. But more generally, it is a reminder than all ranking points aren’t created equal. It’s another flaw in the ranking system: Simply because the ATP awards the same 250 to a wide range of events does not mean that they are equally challenging.
Put another way, the massive gaps between 250s (and, to a lesser extent, 500s) are an opportunity for enterprising players. While some players were resting last week, Juan Monaco picked up the cheapest 500 points on offer all year to jump into the top ten. In Washington, another cheap 500 will go to a player who probably would’ve lost in the first two rounds at the Olympics. There may be more to tennis than ranking points, but there’s certainly more to ranking points than meets the eye.
Below, find more on the rather complicated methodology of this study, along with a table comparing all tournaments of the last 52 weeks.