The career head-to-head between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic sits at 21-21, but the current era of this rivalry is hardly even. Since the beginning of 2011, Djokovic has won 15 of 23, including last night’s US Open final.
These matches tend to be close ones. In only 7 of the 23 matches has either player won more than 55% of points, and in more than half (12 of 23), neither player has won more than 53% of points, fitting my proposed definition of lottery matches.
In the 12 lottery matches between Fed and Novak since 2011, the player who won the most points always won the match. Yet Djokovic wins far more (9 of 12) of these close matches. Last night was a perfect example: Federer won more return points than his opponent, and it was the third time since the 2012 Tour Finals that the Novak beat Fed while winning 50.3% of points.
When a player wins 50.3% of points, he wins the match only 59% of the time. Even at 51.8%, Novak’s total points won in three other Federer matches, the player with more points wins only 91% of the time.
If many of the matches are close, and one player is winning so many of the matches, there must be more to the story.
Back to break points
Clearly, Novak is winning more big points than Roger is. Since Federer has won more than half of the tiebreaks between them, the next logical place to look is break points.
Federer’s perceived inability to convert break points has been a concern for years. Early last year, I wrote about his success rate on break points, and found that while he does, in fact, convert fewer break points than expected, it’s only a few percentage points. Further, it’s not a new problem: He was winning fewer break points than he should have been back when he was the unchallenged top player in the game.
Against Novak, though, it’s another story, and since they’ve faced each other so often, we can no longer write off a poor break-point performance as an outlier.
In these last 23 matches–including last night’s 4-for-23 on break points–Federer has converted 15% fewer break points than expected, twice as bad as his worst single-season mark. Djokovic, on the other hand, has converted break points at almost the same rate as other return points.
I’m often hesitant to use the c-words, but the evidence is piling up that in these particular clutch situations, Roger is choking. At the very least, we can eliminate a couple of alternative explanations, those based on break point opportunities and on performance in the ad court.
Let’s start with break point opportunities. 4-for-23 on break points is painful to look at, but there is a positive: You have to play very well to generate 23 break point chances against a top player. In fact, there’s a very clear, almost linear relationship between return points won and break point chances generated, and Federer beat expectations by 77% yesterday. Over 21 return games, a player who won 39% of return points, as Roger did, would be expected to create only 13 break point opportunities. A 4-for-13 mark would still be disappointing, but it wouldn’t induce nearly as many grimaces.
In these 23 matches, Federer has generated exactly as many break point chances as expected. Djokovic has done the same. The story here is clearly about performance at 30-40 or 40-AD, not on anything earlier in the game. On non-break points yesterday, Fed returned more effectively.
The other explanation would be that Roger’s poor break point record has to do with the ad court. Against Rafael Nadal, that might be true: Much of the Spaniard’s effectiveness saving break points has to do with the way he skillfully uses left-handed serving in that court.
But in the Novak-Fed head-to-head, we can rule this out as well. According to Match Charting Project data, which includes more than 40 Djokovic matches and 90 Federer matches, neither player performs much better in either half of the court. Djokovic wins more service points in the deuce court–65% to 64% in general, 66% to 64% on hard courts, and Federer wins return points at the same rate in both courts.
Pundits like to say that tennis is a game of matchups, and in this rivalry, both players defy their typical patterns. Over the course of his career, Novak has saved break points more effectively than average, but not nearly as well as he does against Federer. Federer, for his part, has turned in some of his best return performances against Djokovic … except for these dismal efforts converting break points, when he is far worse than his already-weak averages.
Perhaps the only solution for Roger is to find even more ways to improve his world-class service games. In the previous match against Novak, he converted only one of eight break point chances–the sort of stat that would easily explain a loss. That day in Cincinnati, though, Federer’s one break of serve was better than Djokovic’s zero.
Fed won 56.4% of total points in that match, his third highest rate against Djokovic since 2011. If Novak is going to play better clutch tennis and win the close matches, that leaves Federer with an unenviable alternative. To win, he must decisively outplay the best player in the world.