The Proud Tradition of Americans Skipping Monte Carlo

The Monte Carlo Masters is unique among the ATP’s 1,000 series events. The stakes are high, but attendance isn’t mandatory, so while most of the game’s top players show up, a few take the week off. No group has so consistently skipped Monte Carlo than players from the U.S.A.

This year, six U.S. players had rankings that would’ve gotten them into the Monte Carlo main draw, where winning a single match earns you 45 ranking points and just over €28,000 in prize money. Five of those players–including John Isner, who reached the third round two years ago and won a pair of tough Davis Cup matches at the same venue–opted out. All five played the 250-level Houston tournament last week instead. Only Ryan Harrison made the trip to Europe–losing in the opening round, as Carl Bialik and I safely predicted on this week’s podcast.

Choosing the low-stakes event on home soil isn’t the wise choice, but it’s nothing new. Since 2006, only seven Americans have appeared in a Monte Carlo main draw: Isner twice, Harrison, Sam Querrey, Donald Young, Steve Johnson, and Denis Kudla, who qualified in 2015. From 2006 to 2016, 7 of the 11 Monte Carlo draws were entirely USA-free. In the same time span, Houston draws have featured 35 Americans ranked in the top 60–all players who probably would have earned direct entry in the higher-stakes clay event, as well.

For a player like Isner or Jack Sock, an April schedule can handle both tournaments. Four of the seven Americans who went to Monte Carlo played Houston as well, including Querrey in 2008, when he lost in the first round in Houston but reached the final eight in Monte Carlo.

Most U.S. players, including just about everyone I’ve mentioned so far, would much rather play on hard courts than on clay.  (The Houston surface is more conducive to aggressive, first-strike tennis than is the Monte Carlo dirt, one of the slowest surfaces on the calendar.) However, as Isner and Querrey have shown, a one-dimensional power game can succeed on a slow court, even if it looks nothing like the strategy of a traditional clay specialist.

Isner, in particular, has racked up plenty of points on the surface. While he’d much rather play on home soil, he has twice reached the fourth round at the French Open and pushed none other Rafael Nadal to a deciding set in both Paris and Monte Carlo. Sock is also a threat on the surface, having won nearly two-thirds of his tour-level matches on clay. Many of those wins came in Houston, but like Isner, he took a set from Nadal in Europe on the surface the Spaniard typically dominates.

Even if the top Americans had little chance of going deep in Monte Carlo, one wonders what the additional time on the surface would do for the rest of their clay season. Most will show up for Madrid and Rome, and all of them will play Roland Garros. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question–do Americans avoid the dirt because they suck on clay, or do they suck because they avoid it?–but it couldn’t hurt to play on the more traditional European surface against elite-level opponents.

The difference in rewards between a 250 like Houston and a Masters 1000 like Monte Carlo make it likely that the risk of playing in unfamiliar territory would pay off, as it did for Querrey in his one trip and for Isner two years ago. And I suspect that the rewards would stretch beyond the immediate shot at a bigger payday: If someone like Sock invested more time in developing his clay-court game now, he could become a legitimate threat at a faster clay tournament (such as the Madrid Masters) in a few years. It’s probably too late for the likes of Querrey, but the next generation of U.S. men’s stars would do well to break with tradition and give themselves more chances to excel on the dirt.

Cool Down Tennis

This is a guest post by Carl Bialik.

Imagine you’re named boss of tennis. Right after being sworn in by Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova, you’re handed an empty wall calendar. You make the schedule for 2018. What’s your first move?

Mine would be to move Indian Wells and Miami earlier in the calendar, and the Australian Open later, after the two U.S. Masters tournaments.

I never wanted this more than while sweating my way around the Indian Wells grounds in search of shade last month. I wasn’t alone. The only full sections of the main stadium during day sessions were the ones protected from the sun. Around the fan-friendly venue, there are plenty of seats in the shade — under tents, or in Adirondack chairs that shade-seeking people push ever closer to the screen as the sun shifts. The players can only wait for shade to slowly descend on the court. Jack Sock needed a towel holding 50 ice cubes to cool down.

Sweating in the grass

 

Sure, it was unusually hot at this year’s Indian Wells tournament. But the climatological averages are clear: It’s hot in the California desert and in the Florida sunshine in March, and in the antipodean summer in January. It’d be cooler in Indian Wells, Miami and Melbourne if the two Masters events moved two months earlier and led up to the year’s first Grand Slam in March. Each of the two-week events would be, on average, 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler each year. (The precipitation would be about the same, so Miami men’s finalist Rafael Nadal might continue to bemoan humidity, request sawdust and show more than he’d planned beneath his shorts; while women’s champ Johanna Konta might keep having to change clothes midmatch because they’ve accumulated approximately five kilograms of sweat.)

I’m using the averages because I don’t want to make too much of an unseasonably hot Indian Wells, or too little of an unusually cold March in Miami. But the averages might understate the problem because it’s precisely the outliers we’re worried about. A nudge downward of a few degrees, on average, could translate into a big drop in the probability of an unbearably hot fortnight — say, from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Changing the tennis calendar would also mean less daylight. That wouldn’t be so good for the nickname Sunshine Double, but it’d be good for tennis. Until more tennis stadiums adopt overhanging partial roofs — but for sun, not for rain — shorter days means less sun for fans to contend with and more reason to fill the seats. Plus, night tennis is exciting. The venues already have plenty of lights and evening sessions.

Scrambling the schedule would do more than cool down tennis. The three midyear majors’ proximity to each other helps the sport carry some momentum and mainstream buzz from one to the next. The Australian Open squanders all that in the four-month gap between its end and the start of the French Open. There’s even a month between the Aussie Open and the next big event.

The other three majors also get opening acts, to help players build up familiarity with the surface and for fans to build anticipation. The Australian Open gets two weeks at the start of the season — without so much as a 500 event on the men’s side.

The lack of buffer between the offseason and Melbourne also means it loses some players still recovering from the end of the previous season. That was the case this year with Juan Martin del Potro, who skipped this year’s first major after winning the Davis Cup with Argentina in November.

Imagine instead starting the season with Indian Wells and Miami — or Miami, then Indian Wells, while we’re scrambling things, for the convenience of travel from the sport’s power center of Europe — using the same courts and balls as Melbourne. Follow that month — or less, if one or both of the U.S. early-year Masters succumbs to the reality that they could be just a week — by Doha and Dubai, then Brisbane, Sydney and the like, before the main event in Melbourne at the start of March. We’d start the season with a real hard-court swing, ending with the first major.

From Australia, the tour could stay in the southern hemisphere. The swing through South America has a long history and a terrible spot on the current calendar. It was traditionally played on clay but some of its biggest events are moving to hard courts — first (North American) Acapulco, now, maybe, Rio, in search of Masters status — to the chagrin of Nadal and others. Too many players simply don’t think it’s worth it to compete on clay for a few weeks if that’s followed by a month of hard-court events. But move Indian Wells and Miami, and South American clay could move a month later in the calendar — while slightly tempering what Nadal bemoans as “too extreme” weather conditions by an average of 1 degree. The swing would give way seamlessly to Houston, Charleston and the European clay spell — which, by the way, would absorb Bucharest, Hamburg, Umag, Bastad and Gstaad from their awkward post-Wimbledon calendar slots. And no one would suggest Miami move to green clay.

We’d be left with a coherent calendar with five seasons of roughly equal length and importance, four with a major and one with the year-end finals: (1) Outdoor hard courts in the U.S., the Middle East and Oceania, followed by (2) clay in the Americas and Europe, (3) English and German grass (with Newport for those who want to visit the sport’s hall of fame), (4) North American and Asian outdoor hard courts, and (5) European indoor hard courts (absorbing the current winter events such as St. Petersburg and Rotterdam) culminating in wherever the tours’ multiplying year-end finals are calling home that year. And let’s play Davis Cup and Fed Cup at the same time — the tours acting in sync; what a concept! — on weekends at the edge of the five new seasons, giving hosts a wider range of sensible surfaces to choose from, and creating the option for combined venues if men and women from the same country are hosting the same round. (Prague in 2012 would’ve been tennis nirvana.) Or, hell, consider merging the events.

Could all this happen? Sure — if tennis power were centralized in a person or people who prioritize the overall good of the global game. Without a radical transformation of tennis, though, it’ll be slow going: It took years for the idea of lengthening the grass-court season by a week to become reality.

Carl Bialik has written about tennis for fivethirtyeight.com and The Wall Street Journal. He lives and plays tennis in New York City and has a Tennis Abstract page.

Is Grand Slam Qualifying Worth Tanking For?

Earlier today in Hobart, Naomi Osaka lost her second-round match to Mona Barthel. Coming into the match, she was in a tricky position: If she won, she wouldn’t be able to play Australian Open qualifying. For a young player outside the top 100, a tour-level quarterfinal would be nice, but presumably Melbourne was intended to be the centerpiece of her trip to Australia.

Since she lost the match, she’ll be able to play qualifying. But what if she hadn’t? Is this a situation in which a player would benefit from losing a match?

Put another way: In a position like Osaka’s, what are the incentives? If she could choose between the International-level quarterfinal and the Slam qualifying berth, which should she pick? Or, put more crassly, should a player in this position tank?

Let’s review the scenarios. In scenario A, Osaka wins the Hobart second-rounder, reaches the quarterfinal, and has a chance to go even further. She can’t play the Australian Open in any form. In scenario B, she loses the second-rounder, enters Melbourne qualifying and has a chance to reach the main draw.

Before we go through the numbers, take a guess: Which scenario is likely to give Osaka more ranking points? What about prize money?

Scenario A is more straightforward. By reaching the quarterfinals, she earns 30 additional ranking points and US$2,590 beyond what a second-round loser makes. Beyond that, we need to calculate “expected” points and prize money, using the amounts on offer for each round and combining them with her odds of getting there.

Let’s estimate that Osaka would have about a 25% chance of winning her quarterfinal match and earning an additional 50 points and $5400. In expected terms, that’s 12.5 points and $1,350. If she progresses, we’ll give her a 25% chance of reaching the final, then in the final, a 15% chance of winning the title.

Adding up these various possibilities, from her guaranteed QF points to her 0.94% chance (25%*25%*15*) of winning the Hobart title, we see that her expected rewards in scenario A are roughly 48 ranking points and just under $4,800.

Scenario B starts in a very different place. Thanks to the recent increases in Grand Slam prize money, every player in the qualifying takes home at least US$3,150. That’s already close to Osaka’s expected financial reward from advancing in Hobart. The points are a different story, though: First-round qualifying losers only get 2 WTA ranking points.

I’ll spare you all the calculations for scenario B, but I’ve assumed that Osaka would have a 70% chance of winning qualifying round 1, a 60% chance of winning QR2, and a 50% chance of winning QR3 and qualifying. Those might be a little bit high, but if they are, consider it compensation for the possibility that she’ll reach the main draw as a lucky loser. (Also, if we knock her chances all the way down to 50%, 45%, and 40%, the conclusions are the same, even if the points and prize money in scenario B are quite a bit lower.)

Those estimated probabilities translate into an expectation of about 23 ranking points and US$11,100. Osaka isn’t guaranteed any money beyond the initial $3,150, but the rewards for qualifying are enormous, especially compared to the prize money in Hobart. A first-round main draw loser in Melbourne takes home more money than the losing finalist does in Hobart.

And, of course, if she does qualify, there’s a chance she’ll go further. Since 2000, female Slam qualifiers have reached the second round 41% of the time, the third round 9% of the time, the fourth round 1.8% of the time, and the quarterfinals 0.3% of the time. Those odds, combined with her 21% chance of reaching the main draw in the first place,  translate into an additional 7 expected ranking points and $2,600 in prize money.

All told, scenario B gives us 30 expected ranking points and US$13,600 in expected prize money.

The Slam option results in far more cash, while the International route is worth more ranking points. In the long term, those ranking points would have some financial value, possible earning Osaka entry into a few higher-level events than she would otherwise qualify for. But that value probably doesn’t overcome the nearly $9,000 gap in immediate prize money.

I hope that no player ever tanks a match at a tour-level event so they can make it in time for Slam qualifying. But if one does, we’ll at least understand the logic behind it.

Should Andy Murray Skip the Tour Finals to Prepare for Davis Cup?

After advancing to the Davis Cup final, Andy Murray floated the idea that he might skip the World Tour Finals to prepare. The Belgian hosts are likely to choose clay for November’s Davis Cup tie (in part to make Murray less comfortable), and if Murray reached the final round in London the week before, he would have only four days off to recover and adjust to the different surface.

A lot of factors will go into Murray’s ultimate decision: how much importance he gives each event, how much he thinks fatigue will affect him, and how likely it is that the ATP would sanction him for skipping a required event. For today, I’ll have to ignore all of those and focus on the one most amenable to analysis: The effect of switching surfaces right before a Davis Cup tie.

Shifting from one surface to another immediately before Davis Cup is common. From 2009 to the present, there have been just over 2,000 World Group, Group 1, and Group 2 Davis Cup singles rubbers, and almost 450 of those involved at least one player who had played the previous week [1] on a different surface. It’s very rare that both players switched surfaces, so we have a sample of 432 matches in which one player changed surfaces from the previous week, and the other player either played or (presumably) prepared on the same surface.

At the simplest level of analysis, the switchers have been surprisingly effective. In those 432 matches between switchers and non-switchers, the switchers won 275, or 63.6% of the time. When we narrow the sample to the 130 times the switcher reached at least the round of 16 the week before Davis Cup (and, thus, had even less time to adjust), the results are surprisingly similar: 82 wins, or 63.1% in favor of the switchers.

Of course, there are all sorts of biases that could be working in favor of the switchers. The better the player, the less likely he can change his schedule to better prepare for Davis Cup, leaving him stuck on the “wrong” surface the week before a tie. And the better the player, the more likely he was a switcher in the smaller sample, one of those who reached the round of 16 the week before.

To evaluate the effect of switching, then, we must proceed with more subtlety. If switchers are more likely to be the favorites, we need to consider each player’s skill level and estimate how often switchers should have won. To do that, we can use JRank, my player rating system with surface-specific estimates for each competitor.

Immediately, we lose about 15% of our sample due to matches involving at least one player who didn’t have a rating at the time [2]. These are almost all Group 2 matches, so its doubtful that we lose very much. In the slightly smaller pool of 361 matches, the switcher won 62.0%, and when the switcher reached the round of 16 the previous week, he won 60.0%.

JRank confirms that the sample is strongly biased toward switchers. The player changing surfaces was favored in 69.8% of these contests. To take an extreme example, Murray went from hard courts at the 2013 US Open to clay courts in the World Group playoff against Croatia. Against Borna Coric, who hadn’t played the week before, Murray was a 99.1% favorite, and of course he won the match.

Once we calculate the probability that the switcher won each of the 361 matches, it turns out that the switchers “should have” won 227, or 62.8% of the time. That’s almost indistinguishable from the historical record, when the switchers won 224 matches. In the smaller sample of 120 matches when the switcher reached the round of 16 the previous week, switchers “should have” won 72 matches. As it happened, they won exactly 72.

In other words, it doesn’t appear to be a disadvantage to play Davis Cup matches on an unfamiliar surface. JRank-based predictions are primarily based on “regular” matches, so if switchers are performing at the level that JRank forecasts for them, they’re playing as well as they would at, say, the third round of a Slam, when the surface is familiar.

This isn’t a clear answer to Murray’s dilemma, of course. If he plays, say, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in back-to-back three-setters on Saturday and Sunday, then travels to a different venue, handles tons of press, and practices with a different set of coaches and fellow players before a big match the following Friday, he faces more of a challenge than your typical surface-switcher in our dataset.

However, there’s little evidence that surface-switching alone is a good reason to skip the Tour Finals. If history is any guide, Murray will play very well on the Belgian clay–just as well as he would at the same venue in the middle of the clay season.

Continue reading Should Andy Murray Skip the Tour Finals to Prepare for Davis Cup?