Dominic Thiem and the Best Deciding-Sets Seasons in ATP History

Yesterday at the ATP World Tour Finals, Dominic Thiem won a three-set match against Gael Monfils, his 22nd deciding-set victory of 2016. Despite losing to Novak Djokovic in three sets on Sunday, Thiem is enjoying one of the best deciding-set seasons in ATP history.

The loss to Djokovic was only Thiem’s third in 25 deciding sets this year. He began the season with 14 consecutive deciding-set wins, including back-to-back third-set tiebreaks in Buenos Aires against Rafael Nadal and Nicolas Almagro. He strung together another seven straight between May and September, including a grass-court upset of Roger Federer in Stuttgart.

Among players who contested at least 20 deciding sets in a season, Thiem’s winning percentage of 88% is the fifth-best record in the ATP’s modern era. Not every player reaches the 20-decider threshold–some, like Djokovic, avoid it by winning most of their matches in straight sets–but it’s no statistical oddity. There have been nearly 1,000 player-seasons with at least 20 deciders since the 1970s, including Andy Murray’s 17-6 record in 2016.

Outstanding single-season deciding-set records don’t guarantee long-term success. Thiem appears on this list amid a mix of famous and lesser-known names, from Federer to Onny Parun:

Player           Year  Deciders  Wins  Win Perc  
Mario Ancic      2006        24    22     91.7%  
Ilie Nastase     1971        23    21     91.3%  
Tom Okker        1974        20    18     90.0%  
Roger Federer    2006        20    18     90.0%  
Dominic Thiem    2016        25    22     88.0%  
Kei Nishikori    2014        24    21     87.5%  
Stan Smith       1972        22    19     86.4%  
Joakim Nystrom   1984        22    19     86.4%  
Guillermo Vilas  1977        29    25     86.2%  
Onny Parun       1975        34    29     85.3%

Parun’s 1975 season is particularly notable, as no other player has won so many deciding sets in a single year. In 1996, Yevgeny Kafelnikov came close, winning 28. One gets the idea he was trying: He played 105 matches that year, 40 of which went the distance. In more recent years, big names have played more limited schedules, and Thiem is the only active player to win at least 22 deciding sets in a single season. Dmitry Tursunov gave it a shot in 2006, playing 37 deciders, but he won only 20.

Like so many tennis stats, this one can be fluky. For every Kei Nishikori–who has won an incredible 77% of deciding sets at tour level, including some record-setting streaks--there is a Grigor Dimitrov, who won 18 of 22 deciding sets in 2014, then barely broke even the following year, claiming only 11 of 21. Of the 27 players who have posted a 20-decider, 80% winning percentage season, not a single one managed an 80% winning percentage the following year.

For all of his talents, Thiem probably won’t follow in Nishikori’s footsteps. The Austrian won only half of his 40 deciding sets before this season. But a more modest record in these matches is hardly insurmountable. In 1996, Pete Sampras put together his best deciding-sets record, winning 83% of his 24 deciders. The following year, his record fell to a pedestrian 56%, which didn’t keep him from winning two Grand Slams and finishing the season at the top of the rankings.

If Thiem is to continue climbing the rankings, he’ll be better off taking Djokovic’s path, winning most of his deciding sets, but playing them much less frequently. In the last decade, Novak has played 20 deciding sets in a season only three times, and he has only gone the distance 10 times in 2016. Even Nishikori would have to agree: Djokovic’s method is working just fine.

Elina Svitolina and Multiple #1 Upsets

Last week in Beijing, Elina Svitolina beat new WTA #1 Angelique Kerber. It was the first time the Ukrainian defeated Kerber this season, but it wasn’t her first 2016 triumph over a player ranked #1. At the Rio Olympics in August, Svitolina upset then-top-ranked Serena Williams.

It’s unusual for a player to face two (or more) different #1-ranked opponents in the same season. Since 1985, it has happened 136 times on the WTA tour and 148 times on the ATP tour. That’s less than five times per season per tour.

Of course, it’s much less common to upset multiple #1-ranked opponents, as Svitolina did. This was only the 16th time a woman did so (again, since 1985), while it has happened on the men’s side 18 times.

Here is a full list of WTA player-seasons that featured defeats of more than one top-ranked player:

Year  Player               Upsets                      
2016  Elina Svitolina      Kerber; Serena              
2010  Samantha Stosur      Serena; Wozniacki           
2009  Venus Williams       Serena; Safina              
2008  Dinara Safina        Henin; Sharapova; Jankovic  
2006  Justine Henin        Davenport; Mauresmo         
2003  Justine Henin        Serena; Clijsters           
2002  Kim Clijsters        Serena; Venus               
2002  Serena Williams      Capriati; Venus             
2001  Lindsay Davenport    Capriati; Hingis            
1999  Amelie Mauresmo      Hingis; Davenport           
1999  Venus Williams       Davenport; Hingis           
1997  Amanda Coetzer       Hingis; Graf                
1996  Jana Novotna         Graf; Seles                 
1996  Kimiko Date Krumm    Graf; Seles                 
1991  Martina Navratilova  Graf; Seles                 
1991  Gabriela Sabatini    Graf; Seles

It’s quite an accomplished list. As we might expect, there’s a lot of overlap between the players who achieved these upsets and past and future #1-ranked players. The real standouts here are Justine Henin and Venus Williams, who managed the feat twice, and Dinara Safina, who faced three different #1s in 2008, going undefeated against them.

Here are the men who beat multiple #1s in the same season:

Year  Player                 Upsets             
2013  Juan Martin Del Potro  Nadal; Djokovic    
2012  Andy Murray            Federer; Djokovic  
2011  David Ferrer           Nadal; Djokovic    
2011  Jo Wilfried Tsonga     Nadal; Djokovic    
2010  Marcos Baghdatis       Nadal; Federer     
2009  Juan Martin Del Potro  Nadal; Federer     
2008  Andy Murray            Nadal; Federer     
2008  Gilles Simon           Nadal; Federer     
2003  Rainer Schuettler      Roddick; Agassi    
2003  Fernando Gonzalez      Hewitt; Agassi     
2001  Greg Rusedski          Safin; Kuerten     
2001  Max Mirnyi             Safin; Kuerten     
1995  Michael Chang          Agassi; Sampras    
1992  Richard Krajicek       Courier; Edberg    
1991  Guy Forget             Edberg; Becker     
1991  Andrei Cherkasov       Edberg; Becker     
1990  Boris Becker           Lendl; Edberg      
1988  Boris Becker           Wilander; Lendl

This list isn’t quite as impressive, though it does capture several very good players at their best.  It also highlights the world-beating potential of Max Mirnyi, who–despite never reaching the top 15 himself–finished the 2001 season with a 3-1 record against ATP #1s.

The rarity of facing multiple #1s in the same season–let alone beating them–stops us from drawing any meaningful conclusions about what Svitolina’s feat indicates for her future. At the very least, however, it reminds us of the Ukrainian’s potential as a future star, and puts her among some very good historical company.

Andrey Kuznetsov and Career Highs of ATP Non-Semifinalists

When following this week’s ATP 250 tournament in Winston-Salem and seeing Andrey Kuznetsov in the quarterfinals the following question arose: Will he finally make it into the first ATP semifinal of his career? As shown here Andrey – with a ranking of 42 – is currently (by far) the best-ranked player who has not reached an ATP SF. And it looks as if he will stay on top of this list for some time longer after losing to Pablo Carreno Busta 4-6 3-6 on Wednesday.

With stats of 0-10 in ATP quarterfinals, he is still pretty far away from Teymuraz Gabashvili‘s streak of 0-16. Despite having lost six more quarterfinals before winning his first QF this January against a retiring Bernard Tomic, Teymuraz climbed only to a ranking of 50. Still, we could argue that the QF losing-streak of Teymuraz is not really over after having won against a possibly injured player.

Running the numbers can answer questions such as “Who could climb up highest in the rankings without having won an ATP quarterfinal?” Doing so will put Andrey’s number 42 into perspective and will possibly reveal some other statistical trivia.

Player                Rank            Date   On
Andrei Chesnokov        30      1986.11.03    1
Yen Hsun Lu             33      2010.11.01    1
Nick Kyrgios            34      2015.04.06    1
Adrian Voinea           36      1996.04.15    1
Paul Haarhuis           36      1990.07.09    1
Jaime Yzaga             40      1986.03.03    1
Antonio Zugarelli       41      1973.08.23    1
Bernard Tomic           41      2011.11.07    1
Omar Camporese          41      1989.10.09    1
Wayne Ferreira          41      1991.12.02    1
Andrey Kuznetsov        42      2016.08.22    0
David Goffin            42      2012.10.29    1
Mischa Zverev           45      2009.06.08    1
Alexandr Dolgopolov     46      2010.06.07    1
Andrew Sznajder         46      1989.09.25    1
Lukas Rosol             46      2013.04.08    1
Ulf Stenlund            46      1986.07.07    1
Dominic Thiem           47      2014.07.21    1
Janko Tipsarevic        47      2007.07.16    1
Paul Annacone           47      1985.04.08    1
Renzo Furlan            47      1991.06.17    1
Mike Fishbach           47      1978.01.16    0
Oscar Hernandez         48      2007.10.08    1
Ronald Agenor           48      1985.11.25    1
Gary Donnelly           48      1986.11.10    0
Francisco Gonzalez      49      1978.07.12    1
Paolo Lorenzi           49      2013.03.04    1
Boris Becker            50      1985.05.06    1
Brett Steven            50      1993.02.15    1
Dominik Hrbaty          50      1997.05.19    1
Mike Leach              50      1985.02.18    1
Patrik Kuhnen           50      1988.08.01    1
Teymuraz Gabashvili     50      2015.07.20    1
Blaine Willenborg       50      1984.09.10    0

The table shows career highs (up until #50) for players before they won their first ATP QF. A 0 in the last column indicates that the player can still climb up in this table, because he did not win a QF, yet. There may also be retired players being denoted with a 0, because they never managed to get past a QF during their career.

I wonder, who had Andrei Chesnokov on the radar for this? Before winning his first ATP QF he pushed his ranking as far as 30. He later went on to have a career high of 9. Nick Kyrgios could also improve his ranking quickly without the need to go as deep as a SF. His Wimbledon 2014 QF, Roland Garros 2015 R32, and Australian Open 2015 QF runs helped him to get up until #34 without a single win at an ATP QF. Also, I particularly would like to highlight Alexandr Dolgopolov who reached #46 before having even played a single QF.

Looking only at players who are still active and able to up their ranking without an ATP SF we get the following picture:

Player                 Rank            Date
Andrey Kuznetsov         42      2016.08.22
Rui Machado              59      2011.10.03
Tatsuma Ito              60      2012.10.22
Matthew Ebden            61      2012.10.01
Kenny De Schepper        62      2014.04.07
Pere Riba                65      2011.05.16
Tim Smyczek              68      2015.04.06
Blaz Kavcic              68      2012.08.06
Alejandro Gonzalez       70      2014.06.09

Andrey seems to be relatively alone with Rui Machado being second in the list having reached his highest ranking already about five years ago. Skimming through the remainder of the table, we would be surprised if anyone soon would be able to come close to Andrey’s 42, which doesn’t mean that a sudden unexpected streak of an upcoming player would render this scenario impossible.

So what practical implications does this give us for analyzing tennis? Hardly any, I am afraid. Still, we can infer that it is possible to get well within the top-50 without winning more than two matches at a single tournament over a duration that can even range over a player’s whole career. Of course it would be interesting to see how long such players can stay in these ranking areas, guaranteeing direct acceptance into ATP tournaments and, hence, a more or less regular income from R32, R16, and QF prize money. Moreover, as the case of 2015-ish Nick Kyrgios shows, the question arises how one’s ranking points are composed: Performing well at the big stage of Masters or Grand Slams can be enough for a decent ranking while showing poor performance at ATP 250s. On the other hand, are there players whose ATP points breakdown reveals that they are willing to go for easier points at ATP 250s while never having deep runs at Masters or Grand Slams? These are questions which I would like to answer in a future post.

This is a guest article by me, Peter Wetz. I am a computer scientist interested in racket sports and data analytics based in Vienna, Austria. I would like to thank Jeff for being open-minded and allowing me to post these surface-scratching lines here.

Teymuraz Gabashvili and ATP Quarterfinal Losing Streaks

Yesterday in Moscow, Teymuraz Gabashvili played his 16th career tour-level quarterfinal. Facing 118th-ranked Evgeny Donskoy, it was his best chance yet to reach an ATP semifinal, but just as in each of his previous 15 attempts, he lost.

No other player has contested so many tour-level quarterfinals without ever winning one. But while the streak of 16 consecutive quarterfinal losses is a rarity, it’s not a record. The all-time mark belongs to Gianluca Pozzi, who dropped 18 in a row between 1993 and 2000. Pozzi’s record, depressing as that streak is, might be an inspiration to Gabashvili: At age 35, Pozzi finally broke the streak, defeating Marat Safin, one of the best players he ever faced in a quarterfinal.

Gabashvili and Pozzi are among only twelve players who have strung together more than 10 quarterfinal losses at tour level. Here’s the complete list, including the dates of the first and last loss in each streak:

Player               QFs L Streak     Start       End  
Gianluca Pozzi                 18  19930104  20000501  
Teymuraz Gabashvili            16  20070219         *  
Paul Annacone                  14  19860127  19880704  
Ivan Molina                    12  19751110  19791105  
Mischa Zverev                  11  20060925  20090713  
Diego Perez                    11  19861124  19920810  
Anand Amritraj                 11  19750304  19810706  
Dennis Ralston                 11  19701101  19800602  
Bob Carmichael                 11  19720918  19751231  
Ricardas Berankis              10  20120917         *  
Yen Hsun Lu                    10  20070219  20130923  
Mikhail Youzhny                10  20041101  20060130

Ricardas Berankis is the only other player on this list to have an active streak, and since he’s five years younger than Gabashvili, another few years of mild success and quarterfinal futility could put him in the running for the all-time record. Alas, neither player is likely to repeat the post-streak success of Mikhail Youzhny, who went on to play 63 more tour-level quarterfinals, winning 33 of them.

If there’s a silver lining for Gabashvili, it’s that he’s reached all of those quarterfinals, sparing himself the fate of Rolf Thung, a Dutch player from the 1970s who reached the round of 16 at 18 tour events and lost them all.

Benoit Paire and Overqualified Challenger Contenders

With three ATP tour-level events on the slate this week, Benoit Paire considered his options and elected to play none of them. Instead, the world #23 is the top seed at the Brest Challenger, making him the highest ranked player to enter a challenger this year–by a wide margin.

Top-50 players may only enter challengers if they are given a wild card, and top-ten players may not enter them at all. Still, since 1990, a top-50 player has played a challenger just over 500 times, at a rate of about 20 per year. (Some of these players didn’t need a wild card, as entry is determined by ranking several weeks before the tournament, during which time rankings rise and fall.)

Many of the high-ranked wild cards fall into one of two categories: Players who lose early in Slams, Indian Wells, or Miami; and clay-court specialists seeking more matches on dirt. Paire’s decision this week–like the Frenchman himself–doesn’t follow one of these common patterns.

Anyway, here are the top-ranked players to contest challengers since 1990, along with their results. A result of “W” means that the player won the title, while any other result indicates the round in which the player lost.

Year  Event           Player               Rank  Result  
2003  Braunschweig    Rainer Schuettler    8     R16     
1991  Johannesburg    Petr Korda           9     SF      
1994  Barcelona       Alberto Berasategui  10    W       
1994  Graz            Alberto Berasategui  11    R16     
2008  Sunrise         Fernando Gonzalez    12    QF      
2004  Luxembourg      Joachim Johansson    12    W       
2011  Prostejov       Mikhail Youzhny      13    QF      
2008  Prostejov       Tomas Berdych        13    QF      
2003  Prague          Sjeng Schalken       13    W       
2005  Zagreb          Ivan Ljubicic        14    W       
2004  Bratislava      Dominik Hrbaty       14    F       
2004  Prostejov       Jiri Novak           14    QF      
2003  Prostejov       Jiri Novak           14    R32     
2007  Dnepropetrovsk  Guillermo Canas      15    SF      
2002  Prostejov       Jiri Novak           15    F       
1998  Segovia         Alberto Berasategui  15    QF      
1997  Braunschweig    Felix Mantilla       15    F       
1997  Zagreb          Alberto Berasategui  15    W

(Schuettler and Korda were outside the top ten a couple of weeks before their respective challengers.)

A look at this list suggests that Alberto Berasategui entered challengers as a top-fifty player more than anyone else. He’s close–with 12 such entries, he’s tied for second with Jordi Arrese. The player who dropped down a level the most times is Dominik Hrbaty, who played 17 challengers while ranked in the top 50. (The active leaders are Jarkko Nieminen with ten and Andreas Seppi with nine.)

Despite all those attempts, Hrbaty wasn’t particularly successful as a high-ranked challenger player. He won only 2 of those 17 events, reaching only one other final. Top-50 players aren’t guaranteed to win these titles, of course, but in general, they have outperformed Hrbaty, winning 18% of possible titles. Here are top-50 players’ results broken down by round:

Result       Frequency  
Title            18.1%  
Loss in F         9.3%  
Loss in SF       11.3%  
Loss in QF       17.1%  
Loss in R16      22.0%  
Loss in R32      22.2%

Paire is a better player than this sample’s average ranking of 37. Combined with a favorable surface, he gets a much more optimistic forecast from my algorithm, with a slightly better than one-in-three chance of winning the title. With a futures title, an ATP trophy, and a pair of challenger triumphs already in the books this year, it seems fitting that Benoit would add another oddity to his wide-ranging season.

Continue reading Benoit Paire and Overqualified Challenger Contenders

Lucky Losers and Familiar Faces

In the final round of qualifying Monday in Moscow, Darya Kasatkina easily defeated Paula Kania. Thanks to a couple of late withdrawals, both players ended up making the main draw … and tomorrow, they’ll play each other again.

This scenario is rare, but not unheard of. Since the mid-1990s, there have been 30 other instances when two women faced each other in qualifying and then again in the main draw. Most recently, Lauren Davis defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova twice at the 2013 Canadian Open. One year earlier, in Sydney, Alexandra Dulgheru beat Sofia Arvidsson in the first round of the main draw despite losing to her in the final round of qualifying.

Tomorrow’s Kasatkina-Kania rematch is far from a sure thing. In those 30 prior matches, barely more than half of the qualifiers–17 of 30–have managed to win both matches.

This sort of rematch is similarly uncommon on the ATP tour. Since 2007 (the earliest year for which I have qualifying results), this has happened a dozen times. Most recently, Albert Ramos-Vinolas defeated Robin Haase in back-to-back rounds in Monte Carlo. Ramos was on the opposite side of things five years ago, when Pablo Cuevas beat him twice in Valencia.

Earlier this year, in a variation on the theme in Auckland, Kenny de Schepper beat Alejandro Falla to qualify, and after both players won their first-round matches, Falla triumphed in the second-round rematch.

Programming note: After watching this sort of ad hoc research disappear into the barely-searchable void that is the Twitter archive, it occurred to me to post occasional brief notes such as this one. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but at least it’ll be easier to find in the future. These curiosities won’t interfere with or replace my longer, more analytical posts.

A New Way of Looking at Lottery Matches

When Rafael Nadal was eliminated from the US Open last week, a bit of bad luck was involved. He won only two fewer points than his opponent, Fabio Fognini, claiming 49.7% of the total points played. In his career up to that point, Rafa had won 8 of 18 matches in which he won between 49% and 50% of total points. It doesn’t take much to flip the result of such a match.

Matches in which neither player wins more than 51% of points represent nearly one in ten contests on the ATP tour. As Michael Beuoy demonstrated last year, those matches are very much up for grabs: the player with the most points wins less than 65% of the time.

In writing about the small subset of matches in which the loser wins a higher percentage of return points than the winner, Carl Bialik has coined the useful term “lottery matches.” However, Bialik has limited the term to those matches that have an unexpected result. I’d like to expand the definition a bit to all those tight matches that could go either way, even if the player who wins the most points ends up winning as expected.

(A quick side note: Bialik prefers comparing return points, the building blocks of his Dominance Ratio metric. Matches are won a bit more frequently when the winner’s DR is below 1.0 than when he wins fewer than 50% of total points played. These metrics often overlap, of course. To make this arcane subject a bit more accessible, I’m going to stick with the traditional total-points-won stat.)

As Beuoy showed, matches aren’t guaranteed to go to the player who wins the most points unless that guy wins at least 53% of points. (Even then, there’s a slight possibility of an upset, but it’s sufficiently rare that, for today’s purposes, I’m going to ignore it.) 52.5% is much better than 50.5%, but at 52.5%, you’re still going to lose about one of every 25 matches.

By extending the “lottery match” umbrella to all those matches in which neither player wins 51%, 52%, or even 53% of total points, we acknowledge that none of these matches are sure things, and we can look at a broader range of matches to determine whether players are winning as many tight matches as they should. Further, by considering such a category of tight matches, we’ll be able to identify those men who play a lot of them–and by doing so, leave themselves vulnerable to lucky upsets.

Winning the lottery (matches)

Let’s start with the broadest category: all matches in which neither player won more than 53% of total points. These represent everything from true toss-ups at 50% to near-guarantees at 52.9%. Using Beuoy’s model, we can take the total points won from each of these matches and calculate the likelihood that the player with the greater number of points won the match.

Nadal, for instance, is one of the more effective players in these tight matches. Going into the US Open, he had played 168 of them, winning 115. By taking the total points won from each of these matches, we find that he “should have” won only 102.5 of them, meaning that by some combination of clutch play and luck, he’s outperformed expectations by 12%.

Among active players with at least 100 of these matches, Nadal ranks an impressive fourth overall, behind John Isner, Fognini, and Jurgen Melzer. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are just inside the top 20, exceeding expectations by 6% and 5%, respectively, while Roger Federer is much further down the list, winning 7% fewer of these tight matches than he should.

Finding Fed on the negative end of this list is a surprise, since Federer, Nadal, and Isner are among the very, very few players who consistently beat expectations in tiebreaks. Tiebreak skill should be closely related to outperforming expectations in tight matches. In any event, my collaborator on a related project, Ryan Rodenberg, has written at length about Federer’s lack of success in some lottery matches.

When we narrow the focus to matches in which neither player won more than 51% of points–true toss-up matches–Nadal is still among the best. In fact, the top four of Rafa, Fognini, Melzer, and Isner remains the same, as each of those players has won between 36% and 38% more often than they should in contests with these extremely slim margins.  Once again, Djokovic and Murray are positive, at +16% and +6%, respectively, while Federer trails far behind, at -9%.

Careening downward

A big advantage of using the broader, 53-percent-of-points definition of lottery matches is that it gives us a larger sample to work with. Nadal has only played 27 matches in his career when the loser won more points than the winner did, and only 40 when neither player topped 51% of total points won.

In the 53% category, though, Nadal has amassed several matches each year of his career, allowing us to look at more meaningful trends. Each season from 2005-11, he averaged about 15 tight matches per year, and won at least one more than we would’ve expected of him, often two or three. Since the beginning of last year, though, he’s played 25, winning only 13 when he should have won 16.

Even with the bigger sample, these are small margins. If Nadal comes roaring back next year and beyond, again winning more close matches than expected, we’ll ultimately see these two seasons as outliers. Yet most of Nadal’s peers post surprisingly consistent records in tight matches. In the last decade, Djokovic and Murray have each had only one season each below -10%, and Federer has reliably underperformed, never reaching +7% for a full season. Not every player is as good in these matches as Nadal, but the ones who do excel post roughly similar numbers from one year to the next.

The bigger picture

Winning tight matches is useful, but as Federer’s experience demonstrates, it’s hardly necessary. And in the case of Fognini, exceeding expectations in lottery matches is hardly sufficient for more general success.

Even better than winning tight matches is winning easy matches, and a useful side effect of studying lottery matches is generating measurements of who plays them the most–and, of course, the least.

Lottery matches–again, those in which neither player wins more than 53% of points–represent fewer than 20% of Rafa’s career matches. His 19.7% rate of close contests is lower than any other player since 2000 (minimum 100 matches). In this category, the big four are bunched together as expected. Among active players, Federer is second lowest, Djokovic is third, and Murray is eighth. Kei Nishikori and David Ferrer are also among the top ten.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find the usual big-serving suspects. Vasek Pospisil tops the list at 49.5%, with Ivo Karlovic (44.5%), Isner (41.9%), and Jerzy Janowicz (40.5%) filling out the top four.

Analyzing the results of very close matches–whichever definition you prefer–is a useful way of identifying players on lucky or unlucky streaks, or even those who appear to play particularly well on big points. However, the more meaningful metric–certainly the one that more closely correlates with elite-level success–is the one that tells us who is avoiding tight matches. The only thing better than luck is not needing it.