Bouchard, Halep, and First-Time Quarterfinalists

Two of the final eight women in Melbourne, Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep, are playing in their first Grand Slam quarterfinals. Let’s take a look at how other women have done in their first appearances this late in a Slam.

In the Open era, 267 different women have reached the final eight of a Slam. At the time of their debut quarterfinal, their average age was roughly 21 years and four months. Their average WTA ranking was 42, not considering those who predated the ranking system or those who reached their first quarterfinal as an unranked player.

Of the 267, 197 (73.8%) progressed no further in their breakthrough slam. 52 (26.4%) won one more match, losing in the semifinals; 12 (6.1%) reached the final but lost; and the remaining six players won the title when the reached their first Open-era quarter.

However small 6 of 297 sounds, such an outcome is actually even rarer. Three of those six first-time quarterfinalists don’t really count–they reached their first QF in 1968, the first year of the Open era. Billie Jean King, winner of the Australian Open that year, isn’t that great a comp for Bouchard or Halep. The only other players to win a Grand Slam in their first quarterfinal appearance are Chris O’Neil (1978 Australian), Barbara Jordan (1980 Australian), and Serena Williams (1999 US Open).

While we can’t count on Bouchard or Halep winning the tournament this week, their appearances in Slam quarterfinals at relative young ages bodes well. The earlier a player reaches her first major QF, the more QFs she is likely to reach over the course of her career.  In fact, of the 22 women who have reached more than 10 Slam quarterfinals since 1984, only one of them–Jana Novotna–failed to reach her first one in her teens. She didn’t make it until the ripe old age of 20 years and 8 months.

Bouchard has just snuck in before her 20th birthday, which she’ll celebrate next month. Her most age-appropriate comp is Victoria Azarenka, who reached her first major quarterfinal–at the 2009 French Open–just a few weeks younger than Genie is now. Less than five years later, Vika will play her 12th Slam QF.

Less optimistic comparisons for Bouchard are Yanina Wickmayer and Anna Chakvetadze, both of whom reached their first major quarterfinal in the last two months of their teens. Chakvetadze made two more final eights; Wickmayer is still looking for her second.

If history is any guide, Halep’s prospects are bleaker. At 22 years and four months, she is much older than any of the players who have reached double-digit Slam quarterfinals except for Li Na, who is playing in her 10th QF this week. Li didn’t play in the final eight of a Grand Slam until she was 24 years old.

The 61 players who reached their first Slam QF at an older age than Halep did not, on average, achieve much more. They’ve totaled 81 additional QFs–well below two per person.

Of course, the age profile of the WTA is changing, so a 22-year-old debutante isn’t nearly the oddity it was a decade or two ago. It’s no coincidence that Halep’s most optimistic comp is Li, an active player. That’s the most positive outlook for the Romanian, anyway. To rack up an impressive career record, she’ll have to follow Li’s lead and overcome a late start.

The ATP final eight also features a newbie, Grigor Dimitrov. The changing age profile of the ATP is even more drastic, so age-based analysis is less meaningful. But we can take a quick look at the precedents for the Bulgarian’s first Slam quarterfinal.

There have been 329 ATP Slam quarterfinalists in the Open era, and first-timers stand a better chance in the men’s game. 32.5% of debut Slam quarterfinalists have advanced to the semis, and 13 of them (4.0%) went on to win the tournament. Then again, none of them had to beat Rafael Nadal in the quarters.

While Dimitrov is older than Halep–and as noted, 22-year-olds didn’t used to be considered so young on the ATP tour–there are some positive examples for Grigor to follow.

Michael Stich reached his first Slam QF at almost exactly the same age as Dimitrov is now, and he not only reached the semis at that event (the 1991 French Open), but qualified for the final eight in nine more majors. Jo Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, and Nikolay Davydenko all reached their first Slam QF later than Dimitrov, and each has played in the final eight at least ten times.

On average, those optimistic comps are outweighed by all the guys who made it to one or two Slam QFs later in their career. The 153 players who reached their first final eight later than Dimitrov’s current age have returned to a total of 362 additional quarterfinals–good for one or two more appearances per player.

Despite all the hype, Dimitrov’s performance this year isn’t a drastic breakthrough. It’s only a single step in the right direction–especially considering that he reached this milestone by beating the #73 player in the world. He could be the next Tsonga, or he could be the next Robby Ginepri.

Detailed Match Stats: Serena, Sloane, Halep, Vika, Berdych

I’ve charted several matches over the last two days, and there’s some new stuff to show you.

Follow these links, and you’ll see a new format for my detailed, chart-based match stats.  The same serve and return breakdowns you’ve seen earlier this week, but a little easier to navigate.

Best of all, there’s a new set of data: rally outcomes.  For each of these matches, you can see how each player performed in rallies of 1-3 shots, 4-6 shots, 7-9 shots, and 10+ shots, along with each of those categories on each player’s serve.

To get to the rally outcomes table, click on the link for the match you want to investigate, and then click the link for “Point outcomes by rally length.”

Enjoy!

Sunday: R16: Serena Williams vs Sloane Stephens: click here

Sunday: R32: Tomas Berdych vs Julien Benneteau: click here

Saturday: R32: Victoria Azarenka vs Alize Cornet: click here

Saturday: R32: Simona Halep vs Maria Kirilenko: click here

There will be more in the next few days, along with additional analysis, I hope as soon as tomorrow.

Halep’s Beatdown, Challenges by Gender, Djokovic Unthreatened

Thanks to the dominance of players like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, it’s not much of a surprise to see a scoreline like 6-1 6-0 in the first week of a Grand Slam.  But when an upset comes with scores like that, we should sit up and take notice.

That’s what Simona Halep did to Maria Kirilenko, and trust me, it wasn’t any closer than the score suggests.  Halep has a deceptively big game, content to counterpunch but always looking for an opening for what can be a monster backhand.  I charted her match yesterday (along with Vika’s third-rounder against Alize Cornet), so look for some detailed stats from those matches later today.

Even before the first matches were played, it was clear that the Romanian landed in the right part of the draw, in a quarter free of Serena, Vika, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Na Li.  With the early upsets of Sara Errani and Caroline Wozniacki, the two highest-ranked women in her quarter, Halep’s position looks even better.

Strangely enough, though, her next two opponents are women she might prefer not to face.  Flavia Pennetta, who will play her in the round of 16, was the last woman outside of the top 20 to beat Halep.  (Granted, Simona retired in the third set with a lower back injury.)  Her likely quarterfinal opponent, Roberta Vinci, is a more  interesting case.  The pair have already faced off three times this year, and on the first of those occasions, Vinci dished out Halep’s worst loss of the year, a 6-0 6-3 drubbing on the carpet in Paris.  Since then, Simona has won two equally lopsided matches, on both clay and grass.

The way Halep was playing yesterday, though, we can safely pencil her into the semifinals, regardless who she draws in the meantime.

Did you know that, at Grand Slams, men use the challenge system more that women do?

At the Open so far this year, men have made 7.52 challenges per match, while women have made 3.38.  The same pattern held at the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year.  In general, there are about twice as many challenges in a men’s Slam match than in a women’s slam match.

Of course, a big part of that discrepancy arises because men play best-of-5 matches while women play best-of-3.  The more sets, the more points, and the more points, the more potential reasons to challenge.

Still, the structural difference doesn’t entirely account for the gap.  For instance, there were roughly 90 men’s matches and 90 women’s matches played on Hawkeye courts in Melbourne this year, and the men’s matches averaged about 60% more points.  Men challenged calls once every 32 points, while women challenged once every 37 points.

That’s not quite as dramatic as the 2:1 ratio we started with, but it’s still notable, and it has remained consistent throughout multiple slams this year.

One possibility is that men challenge more because, on average, they hit the ball harder, particularly on the serve.  The harder the shot, the tougher it is for everyone to see exactly where it lands, and the greater likelihood of disagreement.  To corroborate, it would be interesting to know whether chair umpires are more or less likely to overrule in men’s matches.

Yesterday I noted that Djokovic had a remarkably easy path to the quarterfinals.  If Marcel Granollers beats Tim Smyczek, the Spaniard will be Novak’s highest-ranked opponent en route to the quarters.  (That’s assuming Djokovic beats 95th-ranked Joao Sousa today.)

If Granollers advances, Djokovic’s first four opponents will have the following rankings: 112, 87, 95, and 43.  In 24 previous Grand Slam quarterfinal runs, Novak has needed to beat someone in the top 40 20 of those times, and someone in the top 30 17 of those times.

If, as all patriotic Americans fervently hope, Smyczek wins today, we’ll venture into more extreme territory.  In that case, Djokovic’s highest-ranked opponent will have been 87th-ranked Benjamin Becker.  One suspects that a fair number of ATP players could advance to the quarterfinals given this draw.

In the Smyczek scenario, Djokovic will have faced an easier path than Roger Federer ever has in his 36 Slam quarterfinal showings.  As Carl Bialik reported during last year’s French Open, Roger’s first four rounds at Roland Garros were the easiest of his career–his highest-ranked opponent was #78 Tobias Kamke.

Federer’s experience leaves it unclear whether such a friendly draw is a good thing.  In the quarterfinals of that tournament, he lost his first two sets to Juan Martin del Potro before charging back for the five-set victory.  Perhaps we can expect such a thriller from Djokovic and Tommy Haas next week.

Want to know more about Tim Smyczek?  Here’s a good place to start.

Here’s another excellent win probability graph from Betting Market Analytics, this time covering the five-setter between Hewitt and del Potro.

Halep’s Draw, Serena’s H2Hs, American Advancement

When the US Open Women’s draw was released on Friday, things looked awfully bright for Caroline Wozniacki.  With Maria Sharapova‘s withdrawal, Sara Errani became the #4 seed, meaning that one spot in the semis belonged to Errani–or, more likely, someone who knocked her off along the way.

But Wozniacki is no lock herself.  11 of her last 12 losses have come to players outside the top 20.  She’ll have to do much better than that to take advantage of her position in the Errani quarter.

To find a dark horse for that semifinal spot, look no further than Wozniacki’s latest conqueror, Simona Halep.  Halep crushed Petra Kvitova yesterday in New Haven, marking her fourth title of the year on three (!) different surfaces.  In her last 38 matches, the only player to beat her in straight sets has been Serena Williams.

Halep’s path to the semifinal goes starts with Heather Watson and either Donna Vekic or Mariana Duque Marino, then a possible third-rounder with Maria Kirilenko, whom she has never played.  Errani would be her fourth-round opponent if she lives up to her seeding, though that section is completely up for grabs. Wozniacki–who Halep beat on Friday in straight sets–is the presumptive quarterfinalist.

Strangely enough, Halep is one of the few players in the draw with a reason to fear Errani on hard courts.  In Miami this year, the Italian routed her 6-1 6-0.

Yesterday, when Serena Williams was asked about her rivalry with Victoria Azarenka, she said, “I think the head-to-head is close.”  It’s not: Serena has won 12 of their 15 meetings.  While Vika has won two of the last three–including each of the last two on hard courts–the American won the ten before that.

Given Serena’s dominance over the rest of the WTA, one might reasonably ask whether an 80% winning percentage actually does constitute “close” for the world #1.  Sure enough, there are few players who have topped that.

In her career, Serena has faced 42 different opponents at least five times.  Only 13 of those have won one-quarter or more of their meetings, and only five of those remain active.  To go even further, three of those five–Venus Williams, Nadia Petrova, and Francesca Schiavone–no longer figure to threaten Serena at all.

The remaining two players are Jelena Jankovic (4 wins in 10 meetings) and Samantha Stosur (3 wins in 9 meetings).  Jankovic wouldn’t face Serena until the semifinals, and Stosur until the finals, even in the unlikely event either player made it that far.

Of course, there are good players who have met Serena fewer than five times, including her possible fourth-round opponent, Sloane Stephens.  Of the 108 active players who have ever faced Williams, Sloane is one of only five who have won at least half of their meetings with her.

The three US women who qualified for the main draw pushed the total number of Americans on the women’s side to 19, the highest number since 2006.  Between those qualifiers and a few long-shot wild cards, most of the 19 will be gone a week from now.  But even accounting for plenty of attrition, the American force could continue to shine brighter than they have for nearly a decade.

Based on my draw forecast (which is in turn based on WTA rankings), we should expect to see between eight and nine US women in the second round.  Eight wouldn’t be terribly impressive–that mark was reached in both 2009 and 2011, but nine would represent a step forward, however incremental.  The last time nine or more American women reached the second round was when ten did so in 2005–and that accomplishment required 23 US players in the main draw.

My forecasts predict about four American women in the third round–equal to last year’s mark, and one short of 2011’s.  But if the home favorites can score a couple of upsets and get six women into the round of 32, it would be the first time since 2004, when eight US women made it that far.

If the American women do make a strong showing, there’s an added bonus: It might help us ignore the plight of the American men.