Andy Murray and the Longest Break-Per-Match Streaks

Among Andy Murray‘s many accomplishments in 2016, he achieved an impressive–though obscure–feat. In each one of his 87 matches, he broke serve at least once. He has broken at least once per match since failing to do so against Roger Federer in the 2015 Cincinnati semifinals, for an active streak of 107 matches.

Where does that place him among the greats of men’s tennis? Just how unusual is it to break serve in every match for an entire season? As is the case with too many tennis statistics, we don’t know. Someone finds an impressive-sounding stat, and that’s the end of the story. We can’t always fix that, but in this case, we can add some context to Murray’s accomplishment.

Full break-per-match seasons

I’ve collected break stats for matches back to 1991, though we need to keep in mind that there are some mistakes in the 1990s data. Further, Davis Cup presents a problem, as it is excluded entirely. Sometimes we can tell from the scoreline that a player broke serve–as with all of Murray’s Davis Cup matches this year–but often we cannot. I’ll have more to say about that in specific cases below.

Since 1991, there have been at least 14, and perhaps as many as 20 instances in which a player broke serve in every match of a season. (Minimum 40 tour-level matches, and I’ve excluded retirements when calculating both minimums and the streaks themselves.) I say “instances” because several players–Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, and Nikolay Davydenko–pulled it off more than once. Hewitt’s 2001 season had the most matches–95–of any of them, followed by Murray’s 2016 and Nadal’s 2005, at 87 each.

Here is the complete list:

Player                  Season  Matches  (Unsure)  
Andy Murray               2016       87         0  
Juan Monaco               2014       41         0  
Novak Djokovic            2013       83         0  
Rafael Nadal              2010       79         0  
Nikolay Davydenko         2008       73         0  
Nikolay Davydenko         2007       82         0  
Lleyton Hewitt            2006       46         0  
Rafael Nadal              2005       87         0  
David Nalbandian          2005       63         0  
Andre Agassi              2003       55         0  
Lleyton Hewitt            2001       95         0  
Lleyton Hewitt            2000       76         1  
Hernan Gumy               1997       53         1  
Alex Corretja             1997       67         0  
Andre Agassi              1995       81         0  
Magnus Gustafsson         1994       40         0  
Carlos Costa              1992       60         0  
Guillermo Perez Roldan    1991       40         2  
Ivan Lendl                1991       72         0  
Boris Becker              1991       61         2

(The “Unsure” column indicates how many matches are missing stats and may not have included a break of serve.)

Several more players came close. Federer broke serve in all but one match in three separate seasons. Agassi, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, and Thomas Muster all did so twice.

We shouldn’t be surprised that so many players–especially the greats–have broken so often. It’s very rare to win a match without breaking serve: Of the 2,570 ATP tour-level matches from this season for which I have match stats, the winner broke serve in all but 30 of them. Even losers break serve in more than two out of every three matches: In 2016, the loser broke serve in 1,843 of the 2,570 matches, 72% of the time.

Still, there are enough dominant servers on tour that it is difficult to last an entire season without being shut out of the break column. In 1995, Muster broke serve in 99 matches, but failed to do so when he drew the big-serving (and completely unheralded) qualifier TJ Middleton on the carpet in St. Petersburg. Murray’s current streak is all the more impressive because, in his 107 matches, he has faced Milos Raonic six times, John Isner four times, Kevin Anderson and Nick Kyrgios twice each, and Ivo Karlovic once. Given the chance, he probably would’ve broken TJ Middleton as well.

Break-per-match streaks

For Murray to surpass the longest streaks in this category, it will take several more months of high-quality returning. As we saw above, Davydenko and Hewitt may have gone two full years breaking serve in every match they played. In both cases, the lack of ITF data makes their records unclear, but regardless of those details, Davydenko has set an extremely high bar.

Here are all the break-per-match streaks of 100 or more matches since 2000:

Player             Start   End  Streak  Possible  
Nikolay Davydenko   2006  2009     159       182  
Rafael Nadal        2004  2006     156            
Rafael Nadal        2009  2011     146            
Andre Agassi        2002  2004     143            
Novak Djokovic      2012  2014     127            
Lleyton Hewitt      1999  2002     124       230  
Andy Murray         2015  2016     107         ∞  
David Nalbandian    2004  2006     104

This season, Murray didn’t play his 53rd match until August at the Olympics; he’ll need to break serve at least once in that many matches to reach the top of this list.

The exact length of Davydenko’s streak hinges on his 2008 Davis Cup semifinal match against Juan Martin del Potro, which he lost in straight sets. If he broke serve in that match, his streak stretched into early 2009, spanning 182 matches.

(Edit: Thanks to Andrew Moss, we now know that Davydenko did break serve in that match, according to this contemporaneous report.)

Hewitt’s best streak is even more unclear. I don’t have break stats for his 6-3 6-3 loss to Max Mirnyi at the 2000 Olympics. If he didn’t break Mirnyi–a definite possibility, given The Beast’s serving prowess–the streak is “only” 124 matches. If he did, the streak is at least 187, and the exact length depends on more unknowns, including both of his singles matches in the 1999 Davis Cup final against France.

(Edit #2! Thanks to Carl, we know that Hewitt broke Mirnyi, so his streak is at least 187 matches. The next issue is his last match of the 1999 season, a dead rubber against Sebastian Grosjean in that year’s Davis Cup final. Hewitt lost 6-4 6-3, but Grosjean was hardly an overpowering server. Hewitt lost his previous Davis Cup match in straight sets as well, a live rubber against Cedric Pioline, and a match report establishes that Hewitt broke serve. If he broke Grosjean, the streak stretches back to April 1999, and numbers the full 230 matches.)

In any case, Murray has already earned himself a place among the greatest returners in modern tennis. In 2017, we’ll see just how far he can climb this list.

Andrey Kuznetsov and Career Highs of ATP Non-Semifinalists

When following this week’s ATP 250 tournament in Winston-Salem and seeing Andrey Kuznetsov in the quarterfinals the following question arose: Will he finally make it into the first ATP semifinal of his career? As shown here Andrey – with a ranking of 42 – is currently (by far) the best-ranked player who has not reached an ATP SF. And it looks as if he will stay on top of this list for some time longer after losing to Pablo Carreno Busta 4-6 3-6 on Wednesday.

With stats of 0-10 in ATP quarterfinals, he is still pretty far away from Teymuraz Gabashvili‘s streak of 0-16. Despite having lost six more quarterfinals before winning his first QF this January against a retiring Bernard Tomic, Teymuraz climbed only to a ranking of 50. Still, we could argue that the QF losing-streak of Teymuraz is not really over after having won against a possibly injured player.

Running the numbers can answer questions such as “Who could climb up highest in the rankings without having won an ATP quarterfinal?” Doing so will put Andrey’s number 42 into perspective and will possibly reveal some other statistical trivia.

Player                Rank            Date   On
Andrei Chesnokov        30      1986.11.03    1
Yen Hsun Lu             33      2010.11.01    1
Nick Kyrgios            34      2015.04.06    1
Adrian Voinea           36      1996.04.15    1
Paul Haarhuis           36      1990.07.09    1
Jaime Yzaga             40      1986.03.03    1
Antonio Zugarelli       41      1973.08.23    1
Bernard Tomic           41      2011.11.07    1
Omar Camporese          41      1989.10.09    1
Wayne Ferreira          41      1991.12.02    1
Andrey Kuznetsov        42      2016.08.22    0
David Goffin            42      2012.10.29    1
Mischa Zverev           45      2009.06.08    1
Alexandr Dolgopolov     46      2010.06.07    1
Andrew Sznajder         46      1989.09.25    1
Lukas Rosol             46      2013.04.08    1
Ulf Stenlund            46      1986.07.07    1
Dominic Thiem           47      2014.07.21    1
Janko Tipsarevic        47      2007.07.16    1
Paul Annacone           47      1985.04.08    1
Renzo Furlan            47      1991.06.17    1
Mike Fishbach           47      1978.01.16    0
Oscar Hernandez         48      2007.10.08    1
Ronald Agenor           48      1985.11.25    1
Gary Donnelly           48      1986.11.10    0
Francisco Gonzalez      49      1978.07.12    1
Paolo Lorenzi           49      2013.03.04    1
Boris Becker            50      1985.05.06    1
Brett Steven            50      1993.02.15    1
Dominik Hrbaty          50      1997.05.19    1
Mike Leach              50      1985.02.18    1
Patrik Kuhnen           50      1988.08.01    1
Teymuraz Gabashvili     50      2015.07.20    1
Blaine Willenborg       50      1984.09.10    0

The table shows career highs (up until #50) for players before they won their first ATP QF. A 0 in the last column indicates that the player can still climb up in this table, because he did not win a QF, yet. There may also be retired players being denoted with a 0, because they never managed to get past a QF during their career.

I wonder, who had Andrei Chesnokov on the radar for this? Before winning his first ATP QF he pushed his ranking as far as 30. He later went on to have a career high of 9. Nick Kyrgios could also improve his ranking quickly without the need to go as deep as a SF. His Wimbledon 2014 QF, Roland Garros 2015 R32, and Australian Open 2015 QF runs helped him to get up until #34 without a single win at an ATP QF. Also, I particularly would like to highlight Alexandr Dolgopolov who reached #46 before having even played a single QF.

Looking only at players who are still active and able to up their ranking without an ATP SF we get the following picture:

Player                 Rank            Date
Andrey Kuznetsov         42      2016.08.22
Rui Machado              59      2011.10.03
Tatsuma Ito              60      2012.10.22
Matthew Ebden            61      2012.10.01
Kenny De Schepper        62      2014.04.07
Pere Riba                65      2011.05.16
Tim Smyczek              68      2015.04.06
Blaz Kavcic              68      2012.08.06
Alejandro Gonzalez       70      2014.06.09

Andrey seems to be relatively alone with Rui Machado being second in the list having reached his highest ranking already about five years ago. Skimming through the remainder of the table, we would be surprised if anyone soon would be able to come close to Andrey’s 42, which doesn’t mean that a sudden unexpected streak of an upcoming player would render this scenario impossible.

So what practical implications does this give us for analyzing tennis? Hardly any, I am afraid. Still, we can infer that it is possible to get well within the top-50 without winning more than two matches at a single tournament over a duration that can even range over a player’s whole career. Of course it would be interesting to see how long such players can stay in these ranking areas, guaranteeing direct acceptance into ATP tournaments and, hence, a more or less regular income from R32, R16, and QF prize money. Moreover, as the case of 2015-ish Nick Kyrgios shows, the question arises how one’s ranking points are composed: Performing well at the big stage of Masters or Grand Slams can be enough for a decent ranking while showing poor performance at ATP 250s. On the other hand, are there players whose ATP points breakdown reveals that they are willing to go for easier points at ATP 250s while never having deep runs at Masters or Grand Slams? These are questions which I would like to answer in a future post.

This is a guest article by me, Peter Wetz. I am a computer scientist interested in racket sports and data analytics based in Vienna, Austria. I would like to thank Jeff for being open-minded and allowing me to post these surface-scratching lines here.

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.