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.

Christina McHale’s Tokyo Marathon

At the Japan Open in Tokyo last week, Christina McHale won her first career title. It didn’t come easy. She played three sets in every one of her five matches, going all the way to third-set tiebreaks in her first two rounds. Altogether, she spent over 13 hours on court.

We need some context to appreciate just what an outlier that is. Of 50 tour-level WTA tournaments this year, no other titlist has spent more than about 11 hours and 35 minutes on court–and that includes Grand Slam winners, who play two more matches than McHale did! Before Christina’s marathon effort last week, the champion who spent the most time on court in a 32-draw event was Dominika Cibulkova, who needed “only” 9 hours and 20 minutes to win in Eastbourne.

There’s no complete source for historical WTA match-time data, so we can’t determine just how rare 13-hour efforts were in years past. We can, however, hunt for tournaments in which the winner needed to play so many sets.

Going back to 1991–encompassing almost 1,500 events–McHale’s effort marks only the second time a player has won a tournament while playing 15 sets in five matches. The only previous instance was Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova‘s Paris title run in 2014. Serena Williams played five three-setters en route to the Roland Garros title last year, but of course, she played two other matches as well. Three other players–none since 2003–received first-round byes and then won tournaments by playing three sets in each of their four matches.

In general, we might expect a player who goes the distance in every round to struggle in the final. First of all, we would expect her to be tired–especially if, as is almost always the case, her opponent hasn’t spent as much time on court. Second, we might deduce that, if a player needed three-sets to win early rounds, she’s in relatively weak form, compared to the typical tour-level finalist.

Sure enough, the last 25 years of WTA history give us 16 players who reached a final by playing three sets in every round. Of the 16, only four–McHale, Pavlyuchenkova, and two others who didn’t require three sets in the final–won the title. The other 12 couldn’t retain their three-set magic and lost in the final.

While 16 players don’t make up much of a sample, we get a similar result if we broaden our view to those who played three-setters in exactly three of their four matches before the final. Excluding those who faced opponents who also played so many three-setters, we’re left with 134 players, only 48 (35.8%) of whom won the title match. A simple ranking-based forecast indicates that 58 (43.3%) of those players should have won, suggesting that while these players are indeed weaker than their more-dominant opponents, their underperformance may be due partly to fatigue.

McHale spent over 10 hours on court simply reaching the Tokyo final, far more than the six-plus hours required by her opponent, Katerina Siniakova. Even when a player doesn’t spend the record-setting amount of time on court that the American did this week, competitors tend to underperform after playing so many three-setters. The fact that McHale didn’t, and that she triumphed in yet another marathon match, makes her achievement all the more impressive.

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

Unlikely Davis Cup Finalists and an Early Forecast for Ghent

Among nations that have reached Davis Cup finals, neither Great Britain or Belgium quite fits the mold.

The fortunes of the UK team depend almost entirely on Andy Murray. If you have to choose one player, you couldn’t do much better, but it’s hardly a strategy with lots of room for error. While the Belgian team is a bit more balanced, it doesn’t boast the sort of superstar singles player that most successful nations can send into battle.

Thanks to injury and apathy, the Brits and the Belgians haven’t defeated the level of competition usually required of Davis Cup finalists. Belgium hasn’t had to face any singles player better than Leonardo Mayer, and the only top-ten singles player to show up against Britain was Gilles Simon.

Measured by season-best singles rankings, these are two of the weakest Davis Cup finalists in the modern era [1]. The last time a finalist didn’t have two top-50 singles players was 1987, when the Indian team snuck past the Australians in the semifinals, only to be trounced by a powerhouse Swedish side in the final. This year, neither side has two top-50 players [2].

It’s even worse for the Belgians: David Goffin, their best singles player, has never topped 14th in the rankings. Only three times since 2000 has a nation reached the final without a top-ten player, and to find a side that won the Davis Cup without a top-tenner, we must go back to 1996, when the French team, headed by Arnaud Boetsch and Cedric Pioline, claimed the Cup.

Even when a nation reaches the final without a top-ten singles player, they typically have another singles player in the same range. Yet Belgium’s Steve Darcis has only now crept back into the top 60.

Despite a widespread belief that you can throw logic out the window in the riot that is Davis Cup, the better players still tend to win. Here are Elo-rating-based predictions for the four probable rubbers on clay:

  • Murray d. Darcis (94.3%)
  • Goffin d. GBR-2 (90.1%)
  • Murray d. Goffin (86.7%)
  • Darcis d. GBR-2 (78.1%)

Predicting the outcome of any doubles matches–let alone best-of-five-setters with players yet to be determined, probably including one very good but low-ranked player in Andy Murray–is beyond me. But based on the Murray brothers’ performance against Australia and the Belgians’ lack of a true doubles specialist, the edge has to go to Britain–let’s say 65%.

If we accept these individual probabilities, Great Britain has a 65.2% chance of winning the Davis Cup. That doesn’t take into account home court advantage, which will probably be a factor and favor the Belgians [3].

It’s a huge opportunity for the Brits, but it’s still quite a chance for Belgium, which hasn’t been this close to the Davis Cup for a century.  After all, the Cup is inscribed with country names, not judgments about that nation’s easy path to the final.

Continue reading Unlikely Davis Cup Finalists and an Early Forecast for Ghent

Is Serena Williams Taking Advantage of a Weak Era?

tl;dr: No.

Serena Williams is, without question, the best player in women’s tennis right now. She’s held that position off and on for over a decade, and it’s easy to make the case that she’s the best player in WTA history.

The longer one player dominates a sport, the tougher it is to distinguish between her ability level and the competitiveness of the field. Is Serena so successful right now because she is playing better than any woman in tennis history, or because by historical standards, the rest of the pack just isn’t very good?

As we’ll see, the level of play in women’s tennis has remained relatively steady over the last several decades. While there is no top player on tour these days who consistently challenges Serena as Justine Henin or peak Venus did, the overall quality of the pack is not much different than it has been at any point in the last 35 years.

Quantifying eras

Every year, a few new players break in, and a few players fade away. If the players who arrive are better than those who leave, the level of competition gets a bit harder for the players who were on tour for both seasons. That basic principle is enough to give us a rough estimate of “era strength.”

With this method, we can compare only adjacent years. But if we know that this year’s field is 1% stronger than last year’s, and last year’s field was 1% stronger than the year before that, we can calculate a comparison between this year’s field and that of two years ago.

Since 1978, the level of play has fluctuated within a range of about 10%. The 50th-best player from a strong year–1995, 1997, and 2006 stand out–would win 7% or 8% more points than the 50th-best player from a weak year, like 1982, 1991, and 2005. That’s not a huge difference. One or two key players retiring, breaking on to the scene, or missing substantial time due to injury can affect the overall level of play by a few percentage points.

The key here is that a dominant season in the mid-1980s isn’t much better or worse than a dominant season now. Perhaps Martina Navratilova faced a stiffer challenge from Chris Evert than Serena does from Maria Sharapova or Simona Halep, but that difference is at least partially balanced by a stronger pack beyond the top few players. Serena probably has to work harder to get through the early rounds of a Grand Slam than Martina did.

Direct comparisons

So, Serena’s great, and her greatness isn’t a mirage built on a weak era. Using this approach, how does she compare with the greats of the past?

Given an estimate of each season’s “pack strength,” we can rate every player-season back to 1978. For instance, if we approximate Serena’s points won in 2015 (based on games won and lost), we get a Dominance Ratio (the ratio of return points won to serve points lost) of 2.15. In layman’s terms, that means that she’s beating the 50th-ranked player in the world by a score of 6-1 6-1 or 6-1 6-2. The 2.15 number means she’s winning 115% more return points than that mid-pack opponent. If the pack were particularly strong this season, we’d adjust that number upwards to account for the level of competition.

Repeat the process for every top player, and we find some interesting things.

Serena’s 2.15–the second-best of her career, behind 2.19 in 2012–is extremely good, but only the 21st-ranked season since 1978. By this metric, the best season ever was Steffi Graf‘s 1995 campaign, at 2.42, with Navratilova’s 1986 and Evert’s 1981 close behind at 2.38.

Graf has seven of the top 20 seasons since 1978, Navratilova has four, and Evert has three. Venus’s 2000 ranks sixth, while Henin’s 2007 ranks tenth.

It seems to have become harder to post these extremely high single-season numbers. In the last ten years, only Serena, Henin, Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, and Lindsay Davenport have posted a season above 2.0. Serena has done so four times, making her the only player in that group to accomplish the feat more than once.

Best ever?

As we’ve seen in comparing Serena’s best seasons to those of the other greatest players in WTA history, it’s far from clear that Serena is the greatest of all time. Graf and Navratilova set an incredibly high standard, and since the greats all excelled in slightly different ways, against different peer groups, picking a GOAT may always be a matter of personal taste.

Assigning a rating to the current era, however, isn’t something we need to leave up to personal taste. I’m confident in the conclusion that Serena is not simply padding her career totals against a weak era. If anything, her own dominance–during an era when dominating the women’s game seems to be getting harder–is making her peers look weaker than they are.

Ivo Karlovic and His Remarkable 10,466* Aces

Here’s the official story: This week, Ivo Karlovic crossed the much-heralded 10,000-ace milestone. Next up is the all-time record of 10,183 aces, held by Goran Ivanisevic.

Karlovic is one of the greatest servers in the game’s history, and he has in fact hit more than 10,000 aces. Ivanisevic was really good at serving, too, and he might even hold the all-time record. But when it comes down to the details in this week’s ATP press releases, all the numbers are wrong.

Last year, Carl Bialik laid out the two main problems with ATP ace records:

  • The ATP doesn’t have any stats from before 1991. (Ivanisevic started playing tour-level matches in 1988.)
  • ATP totals don’t include aces from Davis Cup matches, even though Davis Cup results are counted toward won-loss records and rankings.

I’ll add one more: There are plenty of other matches since 1991 with no recorded ace counts, too. By my count, we don’t have stats for 14 of Ivanisevic’s post-1991 matches. (They’re not on the official ATP site, anyway.) That doesn’t count Davis Cup, the Olympics (also no stats), and the now-defunct Grand Slam Cup.

If you like tracking records and comparing the best players from different eras, tennis might not be your sport. All of these problems exist for players who retired only recently, and some of the issues persist to the present day. And if you want to compare Federer or Ivanisevic with, say, Boris Becker or–it’s tough to write this without laughing–Pancho Gonzalez, you’re completely out of luck.

We’ll probably never find ace totals from all of the missing matches. But it seems silly to pretend we can identify the true record-holder and celebrate when these “records” are broken when we so obviously cannot.

Approximate* career* totals*

What we can do is estimate the number of missing aces for each of the top contenders. In Ivanisevic’s case, his 1988-90 seasons, combined with Davis Cup and other gaps in the record, total nearly 200 matches. Even if we can’t pinpoint the exact number of uncounted aces, we can come up with a number that demonstrates just how far ahead of Karlovic he currently stands.

To fill in the gaps, I calculated each player’s rate of aces per game for each surface for every season he played. For 1988-90, I used 1991 rates. (This post at First Ball In, which I discovered after writing mine, suggests that players improve their ace rates the first few seasons of their careers, so we should adjust a bit downward. That may be right. A 5% penalty for Goran’s 1988-90 knocks off about 60 aces from his total below.)

Once we crunch the numbers, we get an estimated 2,368 aces in Ivanisevic’s 195 “missing” matches. That gives him a career total of 12,551–a mark Karlovic couldn’t achieve until the end of 2017, if then.

But wait–Ivo has some missing matches, too! The gaps in his record only amount to 21 matches, mostly Davis Cup. The same approximation method adds 466 aces to his record, meaning he hit that 10,000th ace back in June, in his second-rounder against Alexander Zverev. Even with those nearly 500 “extra” aces, Ivanisevic’s record is almost surely out of reach.

What about Pete Sampras? Officially, Pete is fifth on the all-time list, with 8,858 aces. But like Goran, he played a lot of matches before record-keeping began in 1991. His ace record is missing nearly 200 matches, as well.

In Sampras’s case, we can estimate that he hit 1,815 aces that aren’t reflected in his official total. (In line with the caveat regarding Goran’s total above, we might want to knock that total down by 50 to reflect the possibility that he hit more aces in 1991 than in 1988-90.)

Making similar minor adjustments to the other members of the top five, Federer and Andy Roddick, here’s what the all-time list should look like, at least in general terms:

Player      Official  Est Missing  Est Total  
Ivanisevic     10183         2368      12551
Sampras         8858         1815      10673  
Karlovic       10022          466      10488  
Federer         9279          524       9803  
Roddick         9074          694       9768  

Coincidentally, Karlovic is officially within 200 aces of  Ivanisevic’s all-time record, and while he really isn’t anywhere near the record, he is that close our estimate of Sampras’s second-place total.

We can be confident that Ivo is a great server. But if we can’t be sure of his own ace total, mostly amassed in the last decade, it seems foolish to pretend that we’ll know when–or even if–he breaks the all-time record.