How Elo Solves the Olympics Ranking Points Conundrum

Last week’s Olympic tennis tournament had superstars, it had drama, and it had tears, but it didn’t have ranking points. Surprise medalists Monica Puig and Juan Martin del Potro scored huge triumphs for themselves and their countries, yet they still languish at 35th and 141st in their respective tour’s rankings.

The official ATP and WTA rankings have always represented a collection of compromises, as they try to accomplish dual goals of rewarding certain behaviors (like showing up for high-profile events) and identifying the best players for entry in upcoming tournaments. Stripping the Olympics of ranking points altogether was an even weirder compromise than usual. Four years ago in London, some points were awarded and almost all the top players on both tours showed up, even though many of them could’ve won more points playing elsewhere.

For most players, the chance at Olympic gold was enough. The level of competition was quite high, so while the ATP and WTA tours treat the tournament in Rio as a mere exhibition, those of us who want to measure player ability and make forecasts must factor Olympics results into our calculations.

Elo, a rating system originally designed for chess that I’ve been using for tennis for the past year, is an excellent tool to use to integrate Rio results with the rest of this season’s wins and losses. Broadly speaking, it awards points to match winners and subtracts points from losers. Beating a top player is worth many more points than beating a lower-rated one. There is no penalty for not playing–for example, Stan Wawrinka‘s and Simona Halep‘s ratings are unchanged from a week ago.

Unlike the ATP and WTA ranking systems, which award points based on the level of tournament and round, Elo is context-neutral. Del Potro’s Elo rating improved quite a bit thanks to his first-round upset of Novak Djokovic–the same amount it would have increased if he had beaten Djokovic in, say, the Toronto final.

Many fans object to this, on the reasonable assumption that context matters. It certainly seems like the Wimbledon final should count for more than, say, a Monte Carlo quarterfinal, even if the same player defeats the same opponent in both matches.

However, results matter for ranking systems, too. A good rating system will do two things: predict winners correctly more often than other systems, and give more accurate degrees of confidence for those predictions. (For example, in a sample of 100 matches in which the system gives one player a 70% chance of winning, the favorite should win 70 times.) Elo, with its ignorance of context, predicts more winners and gives more accurate forecast certainties than any other system I’m aware of.

For one thing, it wipes the floor with the official rankings. While it’s possible that tweaking Elo with context-aware details would better the results even more, the improvement would likely be minor compared to the massive difference between Elo’s accuracy and that of the ATP and WTA algorithms.

Relying on a context-neutral system is perfect for tennis. Instead of altering the ranking system with every change in tournament format, we can always rate players the same way, using only their wins, losses, and opponents. In the case of the Olympics, it doesn’t matter which players participate, or what anyone thinks about the overall level of play. If you defeat a trio of top players, as Puig did, your rating skyrockets. Simple as that.

Two weeks ago, Puig was ranked 49th among WTA players by Elo–several places lower than her WTA ranking of 37. After beating Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, and Angelique Kerber, her Elo ranking jumped to 22nd. While it’s tough, intuitively, to know just how much weight to assign to such an outlier of a result, her Elo rating just outside the top 20 seems much more plausible than Puig’s effectively unchanged WTA ranking in the mid-30s.

Del Potro is another interesting test case, as his injury-riddled career presents difficulties for any rating system. According to the ATP algorithm, he is still outside the top 100 in the world–a common predicament for once-elite players who don’t immediately return to winning ways.

Elo has the opposite problem with players who miss a lot of time due to injury. When a player doesn’t compete, Elo assumes his level doesn’t change. That’s clearly wrong, and it has cast a lot of doubt over del Potro’s place in the Elo rankings this season. The more matches he plays, the more his rating will reflect his current ability, but his #10 position in the pre-Olympics Elo rankings seemed overly influenced by his former greatness.

(A more sophisticated Elo-based system, Glicko, was created in part to improve ratings for competitors with few recent results. I’ve tinkered with Glicko quite a bit in hopes of more accurately measuring the current levels of players like Delpo, but so far, the system as a whole hasn’t come close to matching Elo’s accuracy while also addressing the problem of long layoffs. For what it’s worth, Glicko ranked del Potro around #16 before the Olympics.)

Del Potro’s success in Rio boosted him three places in the Elo rankings, up to #7. While that still owes something to the lingering influence of his pre-injury results, it’s the first time his post-injury Elo rating comes close to passing the smell test.

You can see the full current lists elsewhere on the site: here are ATP Elo ratings and WTA Elo ratings.

Any rating system is only as good as the assumptions and data that go into it. The official ATP and WTA ranking systems have long suffered from improvised assumptions and conflicting goals. When an important event like the Olympics is excluded altogether, the data is incomplete as well. Now as much as ever, Elo shines as an alternative method. In addition to a more predictive algorithm, Elo can give Rio results the weight they deserve.

2012 Olympics Round of 16 Forecasts

Here are my forecasts for the remaining 16 players in both Olympics singles draws.  Note that Djokovic has opened up a bigger gap over Federer.  Novak is aided by Berdych’s upset, while Federer is still likely to play the top seeds in his half.

On the women’s side, the third quarter is a crowded one, with Clijsters, Sharapova, and two dangerous floaters in Ivanovic and Lisicki.

For more background, you can see my initial forecasts, (almost) current rankings, and methodology.


Player                       QF     SF      F      W  
(1)Roger Federer          85.3%  64.5%  45.1%  25.7%  
Denis Istomin             14.7%   5.0%   1.5%   0.3%  
(10)John Isner            53.5%  16.9%   7.5%   2.4%  
(7)Janko Tipsarevic       46.5%  13.5%   5.6%   1.7%  
(4)David Ferrer           63.3%  36.3%  16.2%   6.7%  
(15)Kei Nishikori         36.7%  16.0%   5.2%   1.6%  
(12)Gilles Simon          32.3%  11.7%   3.3%   0.8%  
(8)Juan Martin Del Potro  67.7%  36.0%  15.5%   6.2%  

Player                       QF     SF      F      W  
Steve Darcis              39.5%   8.9%   1.5%   0.3%  
(11)Nicolas Almagro       60.5%  18.1%   4.2%   1.3%  
Marcos Baghdatis          22.7%  11.9%   2.7%   0.7%  
(3)Andy Murray            77.3%  61.1%  29.8%  16.4%  
(5)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     67.5%  23.3%  12.0%   5.4%  
Feliciano Lopez           32.5%   6.9%   2.4%   0.7%  
(WC)Lleyton Hewitt         4.6%   0.6%   0.1%   0.0%  
(2)Novak Djokovic         95.4%  69.3%  47.3%  29.7%


Player                 QF     SF      F      W  
Victoria Azarenka   78.9%  53.3%  28.2%  18.0%  
Nadia Petrova       21.1%   7.9%   1.9%   0.6%  
Venus Williams      16.8%   2.5%   0.3%   0.1%  
Angelique Kerber    83.2%  36.3%  14.8%   7.6%  
Serena Williams     75.9%  56.2%  36.9%  26.2%  
Vera Zvonareva      24.1%  11.5%   4.4%   1.9%  
Daniela Hantuchova  36.2%   9.1%   2.9%   1.1%  
Caroline Wozniacki  63.8%  23.2%  10.6%   5.3%  

Player                 QF     SF      F      W  
Kim Clijsters       62.5%  33.2%  20.3%   8.9%  
Ana Ivanovic        37.5%  15.4%   7.4%   2.5%  
Sabine Lisicki      36.8%  15.7%   7.7%   2.5%  
Maria Sharapova     63.2%  35.6%  22.2%  10.0%  
Petra Kvitova       65.5%  45.7%  23.9%  10.2%  
Flavia Pennetta     34.5%  18.9%   7.0%   1.9%  
Maria Kirilenko     47.5%  16.2%   5.0%   1.2%  
Julia Goerges       52.5%  19.3%   6.6%   1.8%

2012 Olympics Women’s Projections

Forecasting the women’s singles event isn’t rocket science–it’s just a matter of how much you favor Serena Williams over everyone else.

My algorithm gives Serena a 22.7% chance of taking home the gold.  While the draw did her a favor, placing Kim Clijsters in the other half, it wasn’t perfect: Jelena Jankovic is a relatively difficult first round match.  With a randomized draw, Serena’s chances are nearly 25%.

Following the American is her very likely semifinal opponent, Victoria Azarenka, who I give a 18.4% chance of winning it all.  With an easier draw in the early rounds, Azarenka has a slightly better chance of making it to the semis (49.0% to 45.6%), but is less likely to come out of that showdown triumphant.

No one else has a double-digit chance of winning the tournament.  Williams and Azarenka are followed, in order, by Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, and Clijsters.

Below, find the forecast for the entire field.  To see my current hard-court rankings, click here, and for some background on the system, click here.  I’ve also posted projections for the men’s singles event.

Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Victoria Azarenka            92.3%  79.6%  65.3%    18.4%  
Irina-Camelia Begu            7.7%   2.6%   0.8%     0.0%  
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez  55.6%  10.6%   4.9%     0.1%  
Polona Hercog                44.4%   7.2%   3.0%     0.0%  
Anna Tatishvili              55.5%  12.3%   1.6%     0.0%  
Stephanie Vogt               44.5%   8.4%   0.9%     0.0%  
Jie Zheng                    49.9%  39.5%  11.6%     0.5%  
Nadia Petrova                50.1%  39.8%  11.8%     0.5%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Sara Errani                  62.9%  35.8%  13.2%     0.2%  
Venus Williams               37.1%  16.3%   4.4%     0.0%  
Marina Erakovic              45.6%  20.8%   6.1%     0.1%  
Aleksandra Wozniak           54.4%  27.1%   8.6%     0.1%  
Galina Voskoboeva            69.5%  23.6%  13.7%     0.4%  
Timea Babos                  30.5%   5.7%   2.2%     0.0%  
Petra Cetkovska              29.5%  17.0%  10.2%     0.3%  
Angelique Kerber             70.5%  53.6%  41.8%     4.9%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Serena Williams              83.9%  73.9%  60.2%    22.7%  
Jelena Jankovic              16.1%   9.6%   4.4%     0.2%  
Mona Barthel                 43.0%   6.3%   2.2%     0.0%  
Urszula Radwanska            57.0%  10.2%   4.2%     0.1%  
Francesca Schiavone          46.9%  18.8%   4.4%     0.2%  
Klara Zakopalova             53.1%  23.1%   6.0%     0.2%  
Sofia Arvidsson              28.1%  11.8%   2.3%     0.0%  
Vera Zvonareva               71.9%  46.3%  16.3%     1.6%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Na Li                        61.5%  41.9%  23.1%     2.3%  
Daniela Hantuchova           38.5%  22.0%   9.6%     0.5%  
Alize Cornet                 26.5%   5.5%   1.2%     0.0%  
Tamira Paszek                73.5%  30.6%  13.2%     0.6%  
Anabel Medina Garrigues      34.7%  10.3%   3.4%     0.0%  
Yanina Wickmayer             65.3%  27.8%  13.3%     0.7%  
Anne Keothavong              14.5%   3.9%   0.8%     0.0%  
Caroline Wozniacki           85.5%  58.0%  35.3%     4.1%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Samantha Stosur              81.9%  39.2%  23.9%     2.4%  
Carla Suarez Navarro         18.1%   3.3%   0.9%     0.0%  
Kim Clijsters                76.2%  48.7%  33.5%     5.6%  
Roberta Vinci                23.8%   8.8%   3.7%     0.1%  
Agnes Szavay                 21.8%   1.5%   0.1%     0.0%  
Elena Baltacha               78.2%  16.0%   2.7%     0.0%  
Christina McHale             43.9%  35.4%  13.9%     0.7%  
Ana Ivanovic                 56.1%  47.2%  21.3%     1.7%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Sabine Lisicki               95.1%  66.0%  31.5%     2.7%  
Ons Jabeur                    4.9%   0.5%   0.0%     0.0%  
Simona Halep                 61.6%  22.8%   7.6%     0.2%  
Yaroslava Shvedova           38.4%  10.7%   2.6%     0.0%  
Petra Martic                 37.2%   9.2%   3.2%     0.1%  
Lucie Safarova               62.8%  21.5%  10.1%     0.5%  
Shahar Peer                  18.4%   7.7%   2.6%     0.0%  
Maria Sharapova              81.6%  61.6%  42.3%     7.6%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Petra Kvitova                80.7%  61.8%  41.0%     6.5%  
Kateryna Bondarenko          19.3%   8.5%   2.8%     0.0%  
Su-Wei Hsieh                 42.9%  11.3%   3.8%     0.1%  
Shuai Peng                   57.1%  18.4%   7.5%     0.2%  
Sorana Cirstea               41.5%  16.9%   6.4%     0.2%  
Flavia Pennetta              58.5%  28.8%  13.2%     0.9%  
Tsvetana Pironkova           42.8%  21.5%   9.2%     0.5%  
Dominika Cibulkova           57.2%  32.8%  16.1%     1.3%  
Player                         R32    R16     QF        W  
Maria Kirilenko              85.9%  60.6%  23.8%     1.0%  
Mariana Duque-Marino         14.1%   3.8%   0.4%     0.0%  
Silvia Soler-Espinosa        45.6%  15.3%   3.2%     0.0%  
Heather Watson               54.4%  20.3%   4.8%     0.0%  
Varvara Lepchenko            73.2%  13.1%   5.0%     0.0%  
Veronica Cepede Royg         26.8%   2.0%   0.4%     0.0%  
Julia Goerges                30.0%  23.0%  14.1%     0.7%  
Agnieszka Radwanska          70.0%  61.9%  48.2%     8.4%

2012 Olympics Men’s Projections

The draw is out.  Roger Federer is in one half, and everybody else is in the other.

Maybe that’s a harsh assessment of the 31 men who share the Olympic singles bracket with the world number one, but it’s a tough conclusion to avoid.  In the other half, Novak Djokovic is slated to meet Andy Murray in a semi, while Roger’s likely opponents are David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro,  against whom he is on a combined 10-match winning streak.  Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdychtwo men who I noted could derail Fed’s quest for the gold–are also in the bottom half, with Tsonga lined up against Djokovic and Berdych against Murray.

The only thing that could count against Federer are some past near-misses.  In the first round, he’ll face Alejandro Falla, and in the second, he could see Julien Benneteau.  Both men have taken him to five sets on the Wimbledon grass–in both cases, winning the first two sets.  In a best-of-three event, there isn’t quite so much wiggle room.  But even in the quarterfinals, Fed’s likely opponents are John Isner, David Nalbandian, and Janko Tipsarevic.  He couldn’t have drawn it up any better if they had let him.

This is a rare occasion where the draw does make a difference.  According to jrank, Djokovic still has a moderate edge over Federer on hard courts.  If the draw were randomized, Novak would have a 23.8% chance of winning the gold, while Roger would be a close second at 21.9%.  With the actual draw, the difference is more than halved.  Federer’s chances stay the same, with Novak’s dropping to 22.7%.

After the top two, Murray is the clear-cut choice for the bronze, with a 12.1% chance of winning the tournament outright.  Ferrer and Delpo follow, in position to take advantage of the weaker top half should Federer fall.

Below, find the forecast for the entire field.  To see my current hard-court rankings, click here, and for some background on the system, click here.  Women’s Olympic singles forecasts will be posted in a little while.

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(1)Roger Federer          88.0%  69.8%  59.5%    21.9%  
Alejandro Falla           12.0%   4.1%   1.8%     0.0%  
Julien Benneteau          43.9%  10.5%   5.9%     0.3%  
Mikhail Youzhny           56.1%  15.6%   9.9%     0.9%  
(WC)Adrian Ungur          20.2%   2.9%   0.2%     0.0%  
Gilles Muller             79.8%  32.2%   6.2%     0.1%  
Denis Istomin             44.3%  27.5%   6.4%     0.2%  
(14)Fernando Verdasco     55.7%  37.5%  10.2%     0.6%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(10)John Isner            72.9%  54.2%  31.4%     2.6%  
Olivier Rochus            27.1%  14.4%   5.1%     0.1%  
Yen-Hsun Lu               56.4%  19.1%   6.5%     0.1%  
(WC)Malek Jaziri          43.6%  12.4%   3.5%     0.0%  
Lukas Lacko               40.8%  13.7%   5.7%     0.1%  
Ivo Karlovic              59.2%  25.1%  12.6%     0.4%  
David Nalbandian          50.3%  30.8%  17.7%     1.2%  
(7)Janko Tipsarevic       49.7%  30.4%  17.5%     1.1%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(4)David Ferrer           82.6%  59.4%  41.0%     6.8%  
(WC)Vasek Pospisil        17.4%   6.5%   2.1%     0.0%  
Philipp Kohlschreiber     75.7%  29.7%  15.4%     0.9%  
(WC)Blaz Kavcic           24.3%   4.5%   1.1%     0.0%  
Radek Stepanek            50.3%  21.5%   7.8%     0.3%  
Nikolay Davydenko         49.7%  20.9%   7.5%     0.2%  
Bernard Tomic             43.8%  23.6%   9.4%     0.5%  
(15)Kei Nishikori         56.2%  34.0%  15.7%     1.2%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(12)Gilles Simon          62.9%  36.4%  16.3%     0.8%  
Mikhail Kukushkin         37.1%  16.7%   5.6%     0.1%  
Lukasz Kubot              48.1%  22.1%   8.1%     0.2%  
Grigor Dimitrov           51.9%  24.7%   9.5%     0.3%  
Andreas Seppi             56.2%  17.5%   8.2%     0.2%  
Donald Young              43.8%  11.6%   4.7%     0.1%  
Ivan Dodig                25.3%  13.5%   6.3%     0.1%  
(8)Juan Martin Del Potro  74.7%  57.3%  41.4%     5.9%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(6)Tomas Berdych          70.7%  49.7%  33.6%     3.0%  
Steve Darcis              29.4%  14.6%   6.9%     0.1%  
Santiago Giraldo          44.9%  15.0%   6.6%     0.1%  
Ryan Harrison             55.1%  20.7%  10.2%     0.2%  
Alex Bogomolov Jr.        70.9%  27.3%   9.9%     0.1%  
Carlos Berlocq            29.1%   5.9%   1.2%     0.0%  
Viktor Troicki            45.0%  29.1%  13.0%     0.4%  
(11)Nicolas Almagro       55.0%  37.7%  18.5%     0.8%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(16)Richard Gasquet       67.9%  39.9%  15.0%     0.9%  
Robin Haase               32.1%  12.9%   3.1%     0.0%  
Go Soeda                  33.8%  12.5%   2.9%     0.0%  
Marcos Baghdatis          66.2%  34.7%  12.1%     0.6%  
(WC)Somdev Devvarman      33.6%   4.8%   1.4%     0.0%  
Jarkko Nieminen           66.4%  16.1%   7.4%     0.2%  
Stanislas Wawrinka        26.2%  17.1%   9.6%     0.6%  
(3)Andy Murray            73.8%  62.1%  48.5%    12.1%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(5)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     78.7%  54.8%  38.2%     5.1%  
(WC)Thomaz Bellucci       21.3%   8.4%   3.2%     0.0%  
Tatsuma Ito               28.1%   6.5%   2.2%     0.0%  
Milos Raonic              71.9%  30.3%  16.8%     0.9%  
Dmitry Tursunov           36.6%  13.9%   4.3%     0.1%  
Feliciano Lopez           63.4%  32.6%  13.5%     0.6%  
David Goffin              40.0%  19.0%   6.6%     0.2%  
(9)Juan Monaco            60.0%  34.6%  15.2%     0.8%  

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(13)Marin Cilic           56.2%  43.0%  13.1%     1.2%  
Jurgen Melzer             43.8%  31.4%   8.2%     0.5%  
(WC)Lleyton Hewitt        31.7%   5.2%   0.4%     0.0%  
(WC)Sergiy Stakhovsky     68.3%  20.3%   3.1%     0.1%  
Andy Roddick              78.0%  22.3%  13.6%     1.5%  
Martin Klizan             22.0%   2.6%   0.8%     0.0%  
Fabio Fognini              9.0%   2.7%   0.9%     0.0%  
(2)Novak Djokovic         91.0%  72.4%  59.9%    22.7%

The Historically Weak Fields in Kitzbuhel and Los Angeles

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.

Continue reading The Historically Weak Fields in Kitzbuhel and Los Angeles

Why More Players Should Have Skipped the Olympics

The Olympics only come every four years, and they have everything: precious metals, prestige, and national pride, along with extremely fit and horny women.

That’s good enough for most top players.  18 of the top 20 men are slated to participate, and nearly every player in the 64-man draw is ranked inside the top 100.  This is a Masters-quality field, if not a touch better.

But aside from status and off-court perks, the competitors will not be rewarded accordingly.  The ATP treats the Olympic singles event as less than a Masters tournament, giving the winner 750 ranking points and the runner-up 450.  As Ben Rothenberg has pointed out, that means the silver medalist–probably one of the top four players in the world–will receive fewer points that week than the winner in Washington.  Only one player in top 20 (Mardy Fish) is scheduled to compete in the US event.

More players should have made the sensible decision, skipping the Olympics in favor of Washington, perhaps adding Los Angeles or Kitzbuhel as well.  Ranking points are as cheap at those events as they are expensive in London.

At a gut level, it’s unthinkable to skip the Olympics.  All those intangibles count for a lot.  If you’re a top-ten player, a few hundred extra ranking points wouldn’t make much of a difference, and an extra $50,000 in prize money barely registers.  For mid-packers, though, “intangibles” sounds like a cynical euphemism for no money and a mediocre ranking boost.

Consider the case of Mardy Fish, the highest ranked player to opt for Washington over London.  Based on a simulation of possible Olympic draws (see below for details), Fish could expect to net about 80 ranking points at the Olympics.  The odds would favor him to win an opener, give him a decent shot at reaching the round of 16, and then turn against him.  Two or three matches, no prize money, not much national pride.

In Washington, the story is much different.  There, Fish is the runaway favorite.  If he’s healthy (a big if), he has at least a 1 in 5 chance of winning the tournament.  By my simulation, he can expect to gain 176 ranking points (with, of course, a decent chance of as many as 500), along with a cool $72,000.

An even more instructive example is that of Donald Young.  Young is in the midst of a horrible losing streak, and he’ll head to London with a roughly 2 in 3 chance of heading home without a single victory.  Expected ranking points: 24.

For Young, more is at stake than a few thousand dollars in prize money.  He reached the semis in Washington last year, so he is defending 180 points this week.  Losing all of those points will probably knock him out of the top 80.  There’s a big difference between a ranking in the 50s and one in the 80s: The first gets you direct entry into almost every tournament; the second leaves you in qualifying (unseeded, sometimes!) for most Masters.  Had Young elected to play Washington, he could have expected to defend at least half of his points.  That wouldn’t just earn him about $30,000 for his week’s work, it would give him a ranking that would make it enormously easier for him to earn points and prize money for the next several months.

The American’s situation is unique in that he may be at a crossroads in his career.  But the same reasoning applies to every player who doesn’t feel like he has a legitimate shot at a medal.  The odds are against Radek Stepanek reaching the second round in London–he’ll lose almost all of the 500 points he’s defending from last year’s Washington title.  Or Carlos Berlocq: It’d be hard to back the dirtballing counterpuncher at a grass-court challenger.  He could’ve spent next week as a top-four seed on clay, at Kitzbuhel.

Maybe for Stepanek, Berlocq, or even Young, the experience will be worth it.  But every scheduling decision made by a player–especially a veteran–has an impact on his prospects for months to come.  Is the experience worth dropping down to qualifying at the next several Masters-level events?  Would missing the experience be acceptable in exchange for getting a cheap ranking boost and earning a seed at the U.S. Open?

As much as it goes against our nationalist, media-driven instincts, Mardy Fish, Alexander Dolgopolov, and a very small number of other non-Olympians made the smart choice.  As the first-round losers start to pile up next weekend in London, Washington will look like an excellent place to be.

After the jump, find a quick explanation of my tournament simulations, along with expected ranking points and prize money for top players in Washington and London.

Continue reading Why More Players Should Have Skipped the Olympics

Is Roger Federer the Olympic Favorite?

Roger Federer is back at #1.  Is he the best player in the game right now?  More immediately, is he the favorite when the world’s best return to Wimbledon for the Olympics?

In theory, the world number one should be the favorite, especially on the favorite’s preferred surface.  Especially a few weeks after winning a grand slam at the same venue.  Yet there is nothing like a consensus: Bettors are generally giving a slight edge to Novak Djokovic, the same man who lost to Federer only a couple of weeks ago.  My ranking system also gives the edge to Djokovic.

How is the world number one not number one?  Two issues are in play here.  First, Federer, at nearly 31 years of age, can’t be expected to keep playing like he did two weeks ago, or like he did last fall.  Second, the Olympic draw isn’t likely to substantially affect Djokovic’s chances, but it could cast serious doubt on Federer’s.

For any player, and especially for a thirty-something, past results are no guarantee of future performance.  ATP rankings are based entirely on past results, some nearly one year old, weighted as if they happened yesterday.  Considering Federer’s career as an arc, with 2012 doubtless located on the downslope, Wimbledon looks more like an aberration than a rebirth.  Repeated losses earlier in the year to Djokovic and hiccups against Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick, not to mention a near-disaster against Julien Benneteau, may tell us more than a couple of strong wins against Djokovic and Murray.

This isn’t to say Federer can’t win the gold medal.  But he wasn’t the favorite going into Wimbledon, and aside from the order of the ATP rankings, not much has changed since then.

Still lurking are many men who could upset Roger, and that’s where the draw comes in.  Before the Olympic draw is released, we need to remember all the players Federer didn’t have to beat en route to his seventh Wimbledon title.  His fourth round and quarterfinal opponents were Xavier Malisse and Mikhail Youzhny, players who would make more sense as Fed’s second and third round victims.

Federer has lost to three active players in his Wimbledon career: Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  Other recent losses on hard courts: Haas, Roddick, and John Isner.  He could’ve drawn at least one, or as many as three of those guys at Wimbledon instead of a lineup of journeymen.  His Olympic draw may not be so fortunate.

Djokovic, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of anyone to fear.  His chances (real or perceived) of Olympic gold won’t change much if Berdych or Tsonga shows up in his quarter.

But to say that Federer is not the favorite doesn’t mean that Novak is an overwhelming one.  He gets that honor almost by default.  For the first time in what seems like years, we’re entering a major event without a clear frontrunner.  Everyone’s flaws have been exposed.  Nadal crashed out of Wimbledon and hasn’t won a hard-court event since 2010.  Federer’s dominance and health both eluded him in Wimbledon’s middle rounds.  Djokovic’s aura of streak-inspired invincibility is long gone.

One of these three men will probably take home the gold.  But pick one, and your man is likely to disappoint you.

Update: A couple of hours after I posted this, Nadal withdrew. That betters the chances of Federer and Djokovic.  The other winner is David Ferrer, who gets a top four seed.  That’s no cakewalk to the semis with such a deep draw, but it’s certainly easier than needing to beat one of the big four just to get to the bronze medal match.