Two weeks ago, Andy Murray took over the ATP #1 ranking from Novak Djokovic. Yesterday, he defeated Djokovic in their first meeting since June, securing his place at the top of the year-end ranking table. Murray has been outstanding in the second half of this season, winning all but three of his matches since the Roland Garros final, and he capped the year in style, beating four top-five players to claim the title at the World Tour Finals.
Despite all that, Murray is not the best player in the world. That title still belongs to Djokovic. Since June, Murray has closed the gap, establishing himself as part of what we might call the “Big Two,” but he hasn’t quite ousted his rival. There’s no question that over this period, Murray has played better–that sort of thing is occasionally debatable, but this season it’s just historical fact–but identifying the best player implies something more predictive, and it’s much more difficult to determine by simply looking over a list of recent results.
The ATP rankings generally do a good job of telling us which players are better than others. But the official system has two major problems: It ignores opponent quality, and it artificially limits its scope to the last 52 weeks. Pundits and fans tend to have different problems: They often give too much credit to opponent quality (“He beat Djokovic, so now he’s number one!”) and exhibit an even more extreme recency bias (“He’s looked unbeatable this week!”).
Two systems that avoid these issues–Elo and Jrank–both place Djokovic comfortably ahead of Murray. These algorithms handle the details of recent matches and opponent quality differently from each other, but what they share in common is more important: They consider opponent quality and they don’t use an arbitrary time cutoff like the ATP ranking system does.
Here’s how the three methods would forecast a Djokovic-Murray match, were it held today:
- ATP: Murray favored, 51.6% chance of winning
- Elo: Djokovic favored, 61.6% chance of winning
- Jrank: Djokovic favored, 57.0% chance of winning
Betting markets favored Djokovic by a margin of slightly more than 60/40 yesterday, though bettors probably gave him some of that edge because they thought Murray would be fatigued after his marathon match on Saturday.
As I wrote last week, Elo doesn’t deny that Murray has had a tremendous half-season. Instead, it gives him less credit than the official algorithm does for victories over lesser opponents (such as John Isner in the Paris Masters final), and it recognizes that he started his current run of form at an enormous disadvantage. With his title in London, Murray reached a new peak Elo rating, but it still isn’t enough to overtake Djokovic.
Even though Elo still prefers Novak by a healthy margin, it reflects how much the situation at the top of the ranking list has changed. At the beginning of 2016, Elo gave Djokovic a 76.5% chance of winning a head-to-head against Murray, and that probability rose as high as 81% in April. It fell below 70% after the Olympics, and the gap is now the smallest it has been since February 2011.
Last week illustrates how difficult it will be for Murray take over the #1 Elo ranking place. The pre-tournament Elo difference of 91 points between the two players has shrunk by only 8%, to 84 points. Murray’s win yesterday was worth a bit more than a measly seven points, but Djokovic had several opportunities to nudge his rating upwards in his first four matches, as well. Despite some of Novak’s head-scratching losses this fall, he still wins most of his matches–some of them against very good players–slowing the decline of his Elo rating.
Of course, Elo is just a measuring stick–like any ranking system, it doesn’t tell us what’s really happening on court. It’s possible that Murray has made a significant (and semi-permanent) leap forward or that Djokovic has taken a major step back. On the other hand, streaks happen even without such leaps, and they always end. The smart money is usually on small, gradual changes to the status quo, and Elo gives us a way to measure those changes.
For Elo to rate Murray ahead of Djokovic, it will probably require several more months of these gradual changes. The only faster alternative is for Djokovic to start losing more matches to the likes of Jiri Vesely and Sam Querrey. When faced with dramatic evidence, Elo makes more dramatic changes. While Djokovic has occasionally provided that evidence this season, he has usually offered enough proof–like four wins at the World Tour Finals–to comfortably maintain his position at the top.