Today, both Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka will play opponents they’ve never faced before. In Federer’s case, the challenger is Steve Darcis, a 31-year-old serve-and-volleyer playing in his 22nd Grand Slam event. Wawrinka will face Hyeon Chung, a 19-year-old baseliner in only his second Slam draw.
For all those differences, both Federer and Wawrinka will need to contend with a new opponent–slightly different spins, angles, and playing styles than they’ve seen before. In the broadcast introduction to each match, we can expect to hear about this from the commentators. Something along the lines of, “No matter what the ranking, it’s never easy to play someone for the first time. He’s probably watched some video, but it’s different being out there on the court.”
All true, as even rec players can attest. But does it matter? After all, both players are facing a new opponent. While Darcis, for example, has surely watched a lot more video of Federer than Roger has of him, isn’t it just as different being out on the court facing Federer for the first time?
Attempting to apply common sense to the cliche will only get us so far. Let’s turn to the numbers.
Math is tricky; these matches aren’t
Usually, when we talk about “tricky first meetings,” we’re referring to these sorts of star-versus-newcomer or star-versus-journeyman battles. When two newcomers or two journeymen face off for the first time, it isn’t so notable. So, looking at data from the last fifteen years, I limited the view to matches between top-ten players and unseeded opponents.
This gives us a pretty hefty sample of nearly 7,000 matches. About 2,000 of those were first meetings. Even though the sample is limited to matches since 2000, I checked 1990s data–including Challengers–to ensure that these “first meetings” really were firsts.
Let’s start with the basics. Top-tenners have won 86.4% of these first meetings. The details of who they’re facing doesn’t matter too much. Their record when the new opponent is a wild card is almost identical, as is the success rate when the new opponent came through qualifying.
The first-meeting winning percentage is influenced a bit by age. When a top-tenner faces a player under the age of 24 for the first time, he wins 84.6% of matches. Against 24-year-olds and up, the equivalent rate is 88.0%. That jibes with what we’d expect: a newcomer like Chung or Borna Coric is more likely to cause problems for a top player than someone like Darcis or Joao Souza, Novak Djokovic‘s first-round victim.
The overall rate of 86.4% doesn’t do justice to guys like Federer. As a top-tenner, Roger has won 95% of his matches against first-time opponents, losing just 8 of 167 meetings. Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray are all close behind, each within rounding distance of 93%.
By every comparison I could devise, the first-time meeting is the easiest type of match for top players.
The most broad (though approximate) control group consists of matches between top-tenners and unseeded players they have faced before. Favorites won 76.9% of those matches. Federer and Djokovic win 91% of those matches, while Nadal wins 89% and Murray 86%. In all of these comparisons, first-time meetings are more favorable to the high-ranked player.
A more tailored control group involves first-time meetings that had at least one rematch. In those cases, we can look at the winning percentage in the first match and the corresponding rate in the second match, having removed much of the bias from the larger sample.
Against opponents they would face again, top-tenners won their first meetings 85.1% of the time. In their second meeting, that success rate fell to 80.2%. It’s tough to say exactly why that rate went down–in part, it can be explained by underdogs improving their games, or learning something in the first match–but to make a weak version of the argument, it certainly doesn’t provide any evidence that first matches are the tough ones.
It may be true that first matches–no matter the quality of the opponent–feel tricky. It’s possible it takes more time to get used to first-time opponents, and that those underdogs are more likely to take a first set, or at least push it to a tiebreak. That’s a natural thing to think when such a match turns out closer than expected.
Whether or not any of that is true, the end result is the same. Top players appear to be generally immune to whatever trickiness first meetings hold, and they win such contests at a rate higher than any comparable set of matches.
Certainly, Fed fans have little to worry about. Most of his first-meeting losses were against players who would go on to have excellent careers: Mario Ancic, Guillermo Canas, Gilles Simon, Tomas Berdych, and Richard Gasquet.
His last loss facing a new opponent was his three-tiebreak heartbreaker to Nick Kyrgios in Madrid, only his third first-meeting defeat in a decade. As a rising star, Kyrgios fits the pattern of Fed’s previous first-meeting conquerors. Darcis, however, looks like yet another opponent that Federer will find distinctly not tricky.