How Elo Rates US Open Finalists Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci

Among the many good things that have happened to Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci after reaching the final of this year’s US Open, both enjoyed huge leaps in Monday’s official WTA rankings. Pennetta rose from 26th to 8th, and Vinci jumped from 43rd to 19th.

Such large changes in rankings are always a little suspicious and expose the weakness of systems that award points based on round achieved. A lucky draw or one incredible outlier of a match doesn’t mean that a player is suddenly massively better than she was a couple of weeks ago.

To put it another way: As they are, the official rankings do a decent job of representing how a player has performed. What they don’t do so well is represent how well someone is playing, or the closely related issue of how well she will play.

For that, we can turn to Elo ratings, which Carl Bialik and Benjamin Morris used at the beginning of the US Open to compare Serena Williams to other all-time greats [1]. Elo awards points based on opponent quality, not the importance of the tournament or round. As such, the system provides a better estimate of the current skill level of each player than the official rankings do.

Sure enough, Elo agrees with my hypothesis, that Pennetta didn’t suddenly become the 8th best player in the world. Instead, she rose to 17th, just behind Garbine Muguruza (another Slam finalist overestimated by the rankings) and ahead of Elina Svitolina. Vinci didn’t really return to the top 20, either: Elo places her 34th, between Camila Giorgi and Barbora Strycova.

While her official ranking of 8th is Pennetta’s career high, Elo disagrees again. The system claims that Pennetta peaked during the US Open six years ago, after a strong summer that involved semifinal-or-better showings in four straight tournaments, plus a fourth-round win over Vera Zvonareva in New York. She’s more than 100 points below that career-high level, equivalent to the present gap between her and 7th-Elo-rated Angelique Kerber.

The current Elo rankings hold plenty of surprises like this, having little in common with the official rankings:

Rank  Player                 Elo  
1     Serena Williams       2460  
2     Maria Sharapova       2298  
3     Victoria Azarenka     2221  
4     Simona Halep          2204  
5     Petra Kvitova         2174  
6     Belinda Bencic        2144  
7     Angelique Kerber      2130  
8     Venus Williams        2126  
9     Caroline Wozniacki    2095  
10    Lucie Safarova        2084

Rank  Player                 Elo   
11    Ana Ivanovic          2078  
12    Carla Suarez Navarro  2062  
13    Agnieszka Radwanska   2054  
14    Timea Bacsinszky      2041  
15    Sloane Stephens       2031  
16    Garbine Muguruza      2031  
17    Flavia Pennetta       2030  
18    Elina Svitolina       2023  
19    Madison Keys          2019  
20    Jelena Jankovic       2016

While Victoria Azarenka is still nearly 200 points shy of her peak, Elo gives her credit for the extremely tough draws that have met her return from injury. Another player rated much higher here than in the WTA rankings is Belinda Bencic, whose defeat of Serena launched her into the top ten.

The oldest final

Pennetta and Vinci are both unusually old for Slam finalists, not to mention players who reached that milestone for the first time. Elo doesn’t consider them among the very best players active today, but next to other 32- and 33-year-olds in WTA history, they compare very well indeed.

Among players 33 or older, Pennetta’s current rating is sixth best in the last thirty-plus years [2]. As the all-time list shows, that puts her in extraordinarily good company:

Rank  Player                Age   Elo  
1     Martina Navratilova  33.4  2527  
2     Serena Williams      33.9  2480  
3     Chris Evert          33.4  2412  
4     Venus Williams       33.3  2175  
5     Nathalie Tauziat     33.9  2088  
6     Flavia Pennetta      33.5  2030  
7     Wendy Turnbull       33.1  2018  
8     Conchita Martinez    33.3  2014

In the 32-and-over category, Vinci stands out as well. Her lower rating, combined with the somewhat larger pool of players who remained competitive to that ago, means that she holds 24th place in this age group. For a player who has never cracked the top ten, 24th of all time is an impressive accomplishment.

Keep an eye out for more Elo-based analysis here. Soon, I’ll be able to post and update Elo ratings on Tennis Abstract and, once a few more kinks are worked out, use them to improve the WTA tournament forecasts on the site as well.

Continue reading How Elo Rates US Open Finalists Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci

Break Point Conversions and the Close Matches Federer Isn’t Winning

The career head-to-head between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic sits at 21-21, but the current era of this rivalry is hardly even. Since the beginning of 2011, Djokovic has won 15 of 23, including last night’s US Open final.

These matches tend to be close ones. In only 7 of the 23 matches has either player won more than 55% of points, and in more than half (12 of 23), neither player has won more than 53% of points, fitting my proposed definition of lottery matches.

In the 12 lottery matches between Fed and Novak since 2011, the player who won the most points always won the match. Yet Djokovic wins far more (9 of 12) of these close matches. Last night was a perfect example: Federer won more return points than his opponent, and it was the third time since the 2012 Tour Finals that the Novak beat Fed while winning 50.3% of points.

When a player wins 50.3% of points, he wins the match only 59% of the time. Even at 51.8%, Novak’s total points won in three other Federer matches, the player with more points wins only 91% of the time.

If many of the matches are close, and one player is winning so many of the matches, there must be more to the story.

Back to break points

Clearly, Novak is winning more big points than Roger is. Since Federer has won more than half of the tiebreaks between them, the next logical place to look is break points.

Federer’s perceived inability to convert break points has been a concern for years. Early last year, I wrote about his success rate on break points, and found that while he does, in fact, convert fewer break points than expected, it’s only a few percentage points. Further, it’s not a new problem: He was winning fewer break points than he should have been back when he was the unchallenged top player in the game.

Against Novak, though, it’s another story, and since they’ve faced each other so often, we can no longer write off a poor break-point performance as an outlier.

In these last 23 matches–including last night’s 4-for-23 on break points–Federer has converted 15% fewer break points than expected, twice as bad as his worst single-season mark. Djokovic, on the other hand, has converted break points at almost the same rate as other return points.

I’m often hesitant to use the c-words, but the evidence is piling up that in these particular clutch situations, Roger is choking. At the very least, we can eliminate a couple of alternative explanations, those based on break point opportunities and on performance in the ad court.

Let’s start with break point opportunities. 4-for-23 on break points is painful to look at, but there is a positive: You have to play very well to generate 23 break point chances against a top player. In fact, there’s a very clear, almost linear relationship between return points won and break point chances generated, and Federer beat expectations by 77% yesterday. Over 21 return games, a player who won 39% of return points, as Roger did, would be expected to create only 13 break point opportunities. A 4-for-13 mark would still be disappointing, but it wouldn’t induce nearly as many grimaces.

In these 23 matches, Federer has generated exactly as many break point chances as expected. Djokovic has done the same. The story here is clearly about performance at 30-40 or 40-AD, not on anything earlier in the game. On non-break points yesterday, Fed returned more effectively.

The other explanation would be that Roger’s poor break point record has to do with the ad court. Against Rafael Nadal, that might be true: Much of the Spaniard’s effectiveness saving break points has to do with the way he skillfully uses left-handed serving in that court.

But in the Novak-Fed head-to-head, we can rule this out as well.  According to Match Charting Project data, which includes more than 40 Djokovic matches and 90 Federer matches, neither player performs much better in either half of the court. Djokovic wins more service points in the deuce court–65% to 64% in general, 66% to 64% on hard courts, and Federer wins return points at the same rate in both courts.

Pundits like to say that tennis is a game of matchups, and in this rivalry, both players defy their typical patterns. Over the course of his career, Novak has saved break points more effectively than average, but not nearly as well as he does against Federer. Federer, for his part, has turned in some of his best return performances against Djokovic … except for these dismal efforts converting break points, when he is far worse than his already-weak averages.

Perhaps the only solution for Roger is to find even more ways to improve his world-class service games. In the previous match against Novak, he converted only one of eight break point chances–the sort of stat that would easily explain a loss. That day in Cincinnati, though, Federer’s one break of serve was better than Djokovic’s zero.

Fed won 56.4% of total points in that match, his third highest rate against Djokovic since 2011. If Novak is going to play better clutch tennis and win the close matches, that leaves Federer with an unenviable alternative. To win, he must decisively outplay the best player in the world.

Is Kevin Anderson Developing Into an Elite Player?

With his upset win over Andy Murray on Monday, Kevin Anderson reached his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal. At age 29, he’ll ascend to a new peak ranking, and with a bit of cooperation from the rest of the draw, one more win could put him in the top ten for the first time.

Anderson has been a stalwart in the top 20 for two years now, but this additional step comes as a bit of a surprise. Despite the overall aging of the ATP tour and the emergence of Stan Wawrinka as a multi-Slam champion, it’s still a bit difficult to imagine a player in his late twenties taking major steps forward in his career.

What’s more, Anderson’s game is very serve-dependent. With an excellent backhand, he isn’t as one-dimensional a player as John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, or perhaps even Milos Raonic, but it’s much easier to categorize him with those players than with more baseline-oriented peers.

In today’s game, it is very difficult to reach the very top ranks without a quality return game. Tiebreaks are too much of a lottery to depend on in the long-term; you have to consistently break serve to win matches. As I wrote in a post about Nick Kyrgios earlier this year, almost no players have finished a season in the top ten without winning at least 37% of return points. Anderson has achieved that mark only once, in 2010. Entering the US Open this year, he was winning only 34.2% of return points.

The only top-ten player this year with a lower rate of return points won is Raonic, at 30.2%. Raonic is a historical anomaly, and as his tiebreak winning percentage has tumbled, from a near-record 75% last year to a more typical 51% this year, his place in the top ten is in jeopardy as well. In other words, the only servebot in the top ten has to rely on plenty of luck–or outstanding, perhaps one-of-a-kind skills in the clutch–to remain among the game’s elite.

Anderson is a more well-rounded player than Raonic, and he wins more return points than that. But he still falls well short of the next-worst return game in the top ten, Wawrinka’s 36.7%. The 2.5 percentage points between Anderson and Wawrinka represent a big gap, almost one-fifth of the entire range between the game’s best and worst returners.

The less effective a player’s return game, the more he must rely on tiebreaks to win sets, and that’s one explanation for Anderson’s success this season. His 62%(26-16) tiebreak winning percentage in 2015 is the best of his career, and considerably higher than his career tiebreak winning percentage of 54%. Again, it sounds like a small difference, but take away three or four of the tiebreaks he’s won this year, and he no longer reached the final at Queen’s Club … or might not be preparing for a quarterfinal in New York.

Very few players have managed to spend meaningful time in the top ten while depending so heavily on winning tiebreaks. Another metric to help us see this is the percentage of sets won that are won in tiebreaks. Entering the US Open, just over 25% of Anderson’s sets won were won in tiebreaks. Only four times since 1991 has a player sustained a rate that high and ended the year in the top ten: Raonic last year, Andy Roddick in 2007 and 2009, and Greg Rusedski in 1998.

In fact, between 1991 and 2014, only 17 times did a player finish a season in the top ten with this rate above 20%. Roddick represents five of those times, and almost all, except for Roddick at his peak, were players who finished outside the top five. Wawrinka’s and Raonic’s 2014 seasons were the only occurrences in the last decade.

The one ray of light in Anderson’s statistical profile this season is a significantly improved first serve. His 2015 ace rate is over 18%, compared to the 2014 (and career average) rate of 14%. His percentage of first-serve points won is up to 78.8%, from last season’s 75.4% and a career average of 75.8%.

This is a major improvement, and is the reason why he is one of only five players on tour (along with Isner, Karlovic, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic) winning more than 69% of service points this year. In many ways, Anderson’s stats are similar to those of Feliciano Lopez, but the Spaniard–another player who has long stood on the fringes on the top ten–has never topped 68% of service points won for a full season.

If Anderson can sustain this new level of first-serve effectiveness, he will–at the very least–continue to see a bit more success in tiebreaks. A tiebreak winning percentage higher than his career average of 54% (though still probably below his 2015 rate of 62%) will help keep him in the top 15. However, even for the best servers, tiebreaks are often little more than coin flips, and players don’t join the game’s elite by relying on coin flips.

As his quarterfinal appearance at the Open shows, Anderson is moving in the right direction. It’s easy to see a path for him that involves ending the season in the top ten. But to move up to the level above that, following the path of someone like Wawrinka, he’ll need to start serving like peak Andy Roddick, or–perhaps just as difficult–significantly improve his return game.

The Myth of the Tricky First Meeting

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.

Will the US Open First-Round Bloodbath Benefit Serena Williams?

After only two days of play, the US Open women’s draw is a shell of its former self.

Ten seeds have been eliminated, only the fifth time in the 32-seed era that the number of first-round upsets has reached double digits. Four of the top ten seeds were among the victims, marking the first time since 1994 that so many top-tenners failed to reach the second round of a Grand Slam.

Things are particularly dramatic in the top half of the draw, where Serena Williams can now reach the final without playing a single top-ten opponent. In a single day of play, my (conservative) forecast of her chances of winning the tournament rose from 42% to 47%, only a small fraction of which owed to her defeat of Vitalia Diatchenko.

However, plenty of obstacles remain. Serena could face Agnieszka Radwanska or Madison Keys in the fourth round, and then Belinda Bencic–the last player to beat her–in the quarters. A possible semifinal opponent is Elina Svitolina, a rising star who took a set from Serena at this year’s Australian Open.

The first-round carnage didn’t include most of the players who have demonstrated they can challenge the top seed. Five of the last six players to beat Serena–Bencic, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Venus Williams, and Garbine Muguruza–are still alive. Only Alize Cornet, the 27th seed who holds an improbable .500 career record against Serena, is out of the picture.

What’s more, early-round bloodbaths haven’t, in the past, cleared the way for favorites. In the 59 majors since 2001, when the number of seeds increased to 32, the number of first-round upsets has had little to do with the likelihood that the top seed goes on to win the tournament.

In 18 of those 59 Slams, four or fewer seeds were upset in the first round. The top seed went on to win five times. In 22 of the 59, five or six seeds were upset in the first round, and the top seed won eight times.

In the remaining 19 Slams, in which seven or more seeds were upset in the first round, the top seed won only five times. Serena has “lost” four of those events, most recently last year’s Wimbledon, when nine seeds fell in their opening matches and Cornet defeated her in the third round.

This is necessarily a small sample, and even setting aside statistical qualms, it doesn’t tell the whole story. While Serena has failed to win four of these carnage-ridden majors, she has won three more of them when she wasn’t the top seed, including the 2012 US Open, when ten seeds lost in the first round and Williams went on to beat Victoria Azarenka in the final.

Taken together, the evidence is decidedly mixed. With the exception of Cornet, the ten defeated seeds aren’t the ones Serena would’ve chosen to remove from her path. While her odds have improved a bit on paper, the path through Keys, Bencic, Svitolina, and Halep or Kvitova in the final is as difficult as any she was likely to face.

The Unalarming Rate of Grand Slam Retirements

Yesterday, Vitalia Diatchenko proved to be even less of a match for Serena Williams than expected. She retired down 6-0, 2-0, winning only 5 of 37 points. She also sparked the usual array of questions about how Grand Slam prize money–$39,500 for first-round losers–incentivizes players to show up and collect a check even if they aren’t physically fit to play.

Diatchenko wasn’t the only player to exit yesterday without finishing a match. Of the 32 men’s matches, six ended in retirement. On the other hand, none of those were nearly as bad. All six injured men played at least two sets, and five of them won a set.

The prominence of Serena’s first-round match, combined with the sheer number of Monday retirements, is sure to keep pundits busy for a few days proposing rule changes. As we’ll see, however, there’s little evidence of a trend, and no need to change the rules.

Men’s slam retirements in context

Before yesterday’s bloodbath, there had been only five first-round retirements in the men’s halves of this year’s Grand Slams. The up-to-date total of 11 retirements is exactly equal to the annual average from 1997-2014 and the same as the number of first-round retirements in 1994.

The number of first-round Slam retirements has trended up slightly over the last 20 years. From 1995 to 2004, an average of ten men bowed out of their first-round matches each year. From 2005 to 2014, the average was 12.2–in large part thanks to the total of 19 first-round retirements last season.

That rise represents an increase in injuries and retirements in general, not a jump in unfit players showing up for Slams. From 1995 to 2004, an average of 8.5 players retired or withdrew from Slam matches after the first round, while in the following ten years, that number rose to 10.8.

Retirements at other tour-level events tell the same story. At non-Slams from 1995-2004, the retirement rate was about 1.3%, and in the following ten years, it rose to approximately 1.8%. (There isn’t much of a difference between first-round and later-round retirements at non-Slams.)

Injury rates in general have risen–exactly what we’d expect from a sport that has become increasingly physical. Based on recent results, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more retirements in best-of-five matches, as most of yesterday’s victims would’ve survived to the end of a best-of-three contest.

Women’s slam retirements

In most seasons, the rate of first-round retirements in women’s Grand Slam draws is barely half of the corresponding rate in other tour events.

In the last ten years, just over 1.2% of Slam entrants have quit their first-round match early. The equivalent rate in later Slam rounds is 1.1%, and the first-round rate at non-Slam tournaments is 2.26%. Diatchenko was the fifth woman to retire in a Slam first round this year, and if one more does so today, the total of six retirements will be exactly in line with the 1.2% average.

One painful anecdote isn’t a trend, and the spotlight of a high-profile match shouldn’t give any more weight to a single data point. Even with the giant checks on offer to first-round losers, players are not showing up unfit to play any more often than they do throughout the rest of the season.

US Open Point-by-Point Stats Recap

As regular readers know, I’m working on a system to track every shot in a tennis match and then generate meaningful data based on the results.  Once I hammer out a few final bugs, I’ll introduce that system publicly.  Then, with my interactive Excel doc–and at least a little bit of practice–you can chart matches as well.

In the meantime, I’ve added another set of tables to each one of the point-by-point recaps.  My system allows (but does not require) the tracking of each shot’s direction, which seems particularly valuable in the case of a tactical baseline matchup like Monday’s final.  Follow the link to the men’s final stats, and then click either of the “shot direction” links.  I’ve broken down each player’s shots into crosscourt, down the middle, down the line, inside-out, and inside-in, then broken down each specific shot type (e.g. “forehand inside-out”) and shown the results of that shot.

At this point, the numbers are little more than a basis for conversation and speculation.  Except for Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, I don’t have stats on more than two matches for any individual player.  In time, however, I expect to amass a fair amount of raw data on the top-ranked men and women, and from there, we might really be able to learn something.

In the meantime, here is a list of all the point-by-point stat summaries available from the US Open.