For most of his career, Roger Federer has been one of the very few players to play better in tiebreaks than in standard deuce games. His career record, winning breakers at a 65% clip, illustrates his success at the business end of tight sets. But there’s more to the story. Even a player a good as Federer has been should not have won that many tiebreaks.
As I wrote in a pair of posts a year ago, there is very little evidence for any kind of tiebreak-specific skill. Some players do well in tiebreaks, of course, but their success is almost always due to being good in general–better players win more points, and that translates into tiebreaks. Plenty of big servers, such as Ivo Karlovic and Milos Raonic, don’t win any more tiebreaks that you would expect simply by looking at the rate at which they win points.
However, a tiny fraction of players defy this regression to the tiebreak mean. Playing a ton of tiebreaks seems to help a bit–John Isner always wins more than expected–and a few other cases might be explained by extreme confidence or intimidations. These include Pete Sampras and–you guessed it–King Roger.
In the eight seasons from 2004 to 2011, Federer won almost 10% more tiebreaks than his stats say he should have. In 2006, his outrageous 37-14 tiebreak record was a big part of his equally outrageous overall success. But even a player as good as Roger was that year “should” have only gone 31-20. That would still have been an impressive win rate, and let’s not forget, many of his tiebreaks were against excellent players who had already pushed him that far.
As with so much else, that tiebreak magic has eluded Fed in the past two seasons. Last year was the first season since 2003 when he failed to win more tiebreaks than expected. He has been neutral this year and last.
It’s tempting to wonder, then, how big a part the disappearance of Roger’s tiebreak magic has played in his overall decline. If he had won tiebreaks at the “extra” rate he did throughout his peak, he would have claimed two, or possibly three more than he actually did, flipping his pedestrian 13-10 tiebreak record to a more Fed-like 15-8 or even 16-7. (This post was written before Fed’s tiebreak win over Djokovic in London on Tuesday. In any event, improving his record to 14-10 doesn’t drastically change anything.)
How much of an impact would those bonus tiebreaks have had? With a bit of guesswork and a handful of counterfactuals, we can put a number on it. We’re looking at “flipping” two or three of Roger’s ten lost tiebreaks. Of those ten, three didn’t end up mattering, as he won the match anyway. The remaining seven occurred in five matches:
The final match in this list provides the simplest illustration of the math involved here. Flip the lost tiebreak in the Delpo match, and Federer wins the title, earning 200 additional ranking points. Since we’re only switching the outcome in two or three tiebreaks, that’s either a 20% or 30% chance of that particular tiebreak counting among those switched, for either 40 or 60 additional points.
It gets much more involved with something like the Stakhovsky loss. Not only do we need to consider the different outcomes of flipping both tiebreaks (and Roger winning) and flipping just one (and Roger maybe winning), we also need to estimate Fed’s chances of progressing through the draw. Despite the very early loss, Wimbledon was almost double the lost opportunity of any of the other matches, as his path to the semifinal would’ve gone through Jurgen Melzer, Jerzy Janowicz, and Lukasz Kubot. To quantify the effect of flipping the Wimbledon outcome, we must consider the probability of his reaching those later rounds and the number of points he would have collected had he gotten that far.
Crunch all the numbers, and if you flip two tiebreaks, Federer gains about 380 ranking points. Flip three, and it’s about 560. Either of those numbers would move him in front of Berdych in this week’s rankings and given him a lot more breathing room on the road to London. These bonus points would still have left a huge gap between him and the top five.
Perhaps more important than a few hundred ranking points, how different would the 2013 Federer storyline look if you flipped just a small number of those results? Give him the 4th set against Stakhovsky and the 2nd with Delbonis, watch him win the deciders, and there’s a different Fed narrative for the summer. Whether it’s bad luck, decreased confidence, less intimidation, or something else entirely, it’s crucial that we remember that tiebreaks are often decided by a single bad service point or great return point. If a narrative can’t hold up against a couple of points going the other way, it probably isn’t telling us very much about a player’s actual performance level.
Yet, if Federer has turned a corner this fall, it would be a mistake to expect improved results to come from a resurgence of his tiebreak mojo. Whatever mysterious factors cause a tiny minority of players to exceed tiebreak expectations, it seems less likely that fading 30-something Fed has them. He certainly hasn’t benefited from them for the last two years. But most of all, unless he gets back into more very high-profile matches–as he may this week–the few hundred points he could gain from tiebreak magic just won’t make much of a difference.
London forecast: Today, the results went as expected, with Nadal beating Ferrer and Novak defeating Federer. Nadal was such a heavy favorite that his win doesn’t affect his chances much, but Djokovic enjoys a bigger bump. The top two seeds are now almost equal, while Federer faces increasingly long odds.
Player 3-0 2-1 1-2 0-3 SF F W
Nadal 50% 42% 9% 0% 91.2% 52.5% 31.5%
Djokovic 43% 46% 11% 0% 88.5% 54.4% 31.0%
Ferrer 0% 29% 50% 21% 31.9% 12.2% 4.5%
Del Potro 22% 50% 28% 0% 71.3% 36.6% 16.7%
Federer 0% 30% 51% 20% 30.2% 14.1% 6.3%
Berdych 0% 14% 48% 38% 16.4% 5.7% 2.0%
Wawrinka 13% 48% 38% 0% 60.5% 21.2% 6.9%
Gasquet 0% 10% 44% 45% 10.0% 3.3% 1.1%
Click here for the pre-tournament forecast.