Is Jelena Ostapenko More Than the Next Iva Majoli?

Winning a Grand Slam as a teenager–or, in the case of this year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, a just-barely 20-year-old–is an impressive feat. But it isn’t always a guarantee of future greatness. Plenty of all-time greats launched their careers with Slam titles at age 20 or later, but three of the players who won their debut major at ages closest to Ostapenko’s serve as cautionary tales in the opposite direction: Iva Majoli, Mary Pierce, and Gabriela Sabatini. Each of these women was within three months of her 20th birthday when she won her first title, and of the three, only Pierce ever won another.

However, simply comparing her age to that of previous champions understates the Latvian’s achievement. Women’s tennis has gotten older over the last two decades: The average age of a women’s singles entrant in Paris this year was 25.6, a few days short of the record established at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year. That’s two years older than the average player 15 years ago, and four years older than the typical entrant three decades ago. Headed into the French Open this year, there were only five teenagers ranked in the top 100; at the end of 2004, the year of Maria Sharapova’s and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s first major victories, there were nearly three times as many.

Thus, it doesn’t seem quite right to group Ostapenko with previous 19- and 20-year-old first-time winners. Instead, we might consider the Latvian’s “relative age”—the difference between her and the average player in the draw—of 5.68 years younger than the field. When I introduced the concept of relative age last week, it was in the context of Slam semifinalists, and in every era, there have been some very young players reaching the final four who burned out just as quickly. The same isn’t true of women who went on to win major titles.

In the last thirty years, only two players have won a major with a greater relative age than Ostapenko: Sharapova, who was 6.66 years younger than the 2004 US Open field, and Martina Hingis, who won three-quarters of the Grand Slam in 1997 at age 16, between 6.3 and 6.6 years younger than each tournament’s average entrant. The rest of the top five emphasizes Ostapenko’s elite company, including Monica Seles (5.29, at the 1990 French Open) and Serena Williams (5.26, at the 1999 US Open).

Each of those four women went on to reach the No. 1 ranking and win at least five majors–an outrageously optimistic forecast for Ostapenko, who, even after winning Roland Garros, is ranked outside the top ten. By relative age, Majoli, Pierce, and Sabatini are poor comparisons for Saturday’s champion–Majoli and Pierce were only three years younger than the fields they overcame, and Sabatini was only two years younger than the average entrant. By comparison, Garbine Muguruza, who won last year’s French Open at age 22, was two and a half years younger than the field.

Which is it, then? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to that, and we probably won’t have a better idea for several more years. For most of the Open Era, until about ten years ago, the average age on the women’s tour fluctuated between 21 and 23. Thus, for the overall population of first-time major champions, actual age and relative age are very highly correlated. It’s only with the last decade’s worth of debut winners that the numbers meaningfully diverge. For Ostapenko and Muguruza–and perhaps Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova–we have yet to see what their entire career trajectory will look like. To build a bigger sample to test the hypothesis, we’ll need a few more young first-time Slam winners, something we may finally see with Sharapova and Williams out of the way.

For more post-French Open analysis, here’s my Economist piece on Ostapenko and projecting major winners in the long term. Also at the Game Theory blog, I wrote about Rafael Nadal and his abssurd dominance on clay in a fast-court-friendly era.

Finally, check out Carl Bialik’s and my extra-long podcast, recorded Monday, with tons of thoughts and the winners and the fields in general.

First Meetings in Grand Slam Finals

The 2017 Roland Garros final is crammed with firsts for 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko. Playing in only her eighth major, she had never before reached the round of 16, let alone the final two. Her opponent, Simona Halep, has been here before–she lost the 2014 French Open final to Maria Sharapova–but the two women have one first in common: Halep and Ostapenko have never played each other.

Slam finals are usually reserved for an elite group, and that select few tends to play each other quite a bit. Since 1980, women’s major finalists have had an average of 12 previous meetings. The veteran Australian Open finalists this year, Serena Williams and Venus Williams, had faced off 27 times before their clash in Melbourne.

That makes the Halep-Ostapenko debut meeting an unusual one, but the situation is not unheard of. The 2012 Roland Garros final was the first match between Sharapova and Sara Errani (they’ve since played five more). Overall, there have been five first meetings in women’s major finals in the last 35 years:

Slam     Winner           Finalist               
2012 RG  Maria Sharapova  Sara Errani         
2009 US  Kim Clijsters    Caroline Wozniacki  
2007 W   Venus Williams   Marion Bartoli      
1988 RG  Steffi Graf      Natalia Zvereva

(There were probably a few more before that, but my database is missing a lot of matches from the mid-1970s, so I don’t know for sure.)

In all of these cases, the established star defeated the upstart, which bodes well for Halep. On the other hand, the Romanian doesn’t quite measure up to the previous four winners, all of whom had won a Grand Slam title before their final on this list.

First meetings in Grand Slam finals are a bit more common in the men’s game, though it’s been nearly a decade since the last one. We’ll probably wait quite a bit longer, too. Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka will play for the 19th time on Sunday, and of the 45 possible pairings in the current top ten, only Kei Nishikori and Alexander Zverev have yet to face off. The next highest-ranked pair without a head-to-head is Andy Murray and Jack Sock which, come to think of it, would make for an interesting Wimbledon final next month.

The last debut clash on such a big stage was the 2008 Australian Open, between Novak Djokovic and Jo Wilfried Tsonga. It was the eighth in the last 35 years:

Slam     Winner            Finalist                
2008 AO  Novak Djokovic    Jo Wilfried Tsonga   
2003 US  Andy Roddick      Juan Carlos Ferrero  
1997 RG  Gustavo Kuerten   Sergi Bruguera       
1997 AO  Pete Sampras      Carlos Moya          
1996 W   Richard Krajicek  Malivai Washington   
1986 RG  Ivan Lendl        Mikael Pernfors      
1985 W   Boris Becker      Kevin Curren         
1984 AO  Mats Wilander     Kevin Curren

Before 1982, most first-meeting finals took place at the Australian Open, which at that time usually featured a weaker draw than the other Slams. For instance, the 1979 final was played by Guillermo Vilas and John Sadri. While Vilas is among the all-time greats, Sadri never advanced beyond the fourth round of any other major–where he might have encountered Vilas more often.

One thing seems certain: It won’t be the last meeting for Halep and Ostapenko. All of the pairs I’ve listed played at least once after their Slam final, and with the exception of Wilander-Curren, each one played at least twice more. Halep is only 25, so if she remains near the top of the game and Ostapenko continues climbing the ranks, the pair could aim to match Graf and Zvereva, who met 20 more times after the 1988 French Open final. The loser of today’s match will want to avoid Zvereva’s fate, though: In those 20 matches, the Belarussian won only once.

Simona Halep and Recoveries From Match Point Down

In yesterday’s French Open quarterfinals, Elina Svitolina held a commanding lead over Simona Halep, up a set and 5-1. Depending on what numbers you plug into the formula, Svitolina’s chance of winning the match at that stage was somewhere between 97% and 99%. Halep fought back to 5-5, and in the second-set tiebreak, Svitolina earned a match point at 6-5. Halep recovered again, won the breaker, and then cruised to a 6-0 victory in the third set.

It’s easy to fit a narrative to that sequence of events: After losing two leads, Svitolina was dispirited, and Halep was all but guaranteed a third-set victory. Maybe. It’s impossible to test that sort of thing on the evidence of a single match, but this is hardly the first time a player has failed to convert match point and needed to start fresh in a new set.

Even without a match point saved, the player who wins the second set has a small advantage going into the decider. In the last six-plus years of women’s Slam matches, the player who won the second set went on to win 51.3% of third sets. On the other hand, if the second set was a tiebreak, the winner of the second set won the decider only 43.7% of the time. Though it sounds contradictory at first, consider what we know about such sets. The second-set winner just barely claimed her set (in the tiebreak), while usually, her opponent took the first set more decisively. Momentum helps a little, but it can’t overcome much of a difference in skill level.

Let’s dig into the specific cases of second-set match points saved. Thanks to the data behind IBM’s Pointstream on Grand Slam websites, we have the point-by-point sequence for most Slam singles matches going back to 2011. (The missing matches are usually those on non-Hawkeye courts and a few small courts at Roland Garros.) That’s over 2,600 women’s singles matches. In just over 1,700 of them, one of the two players earned a match point in the second set. Over 97% of the time, that player converted–needing an average of 1.7 match points to do so–and avoiding playing a third set.

That leaves 45 matches in which one player held a match point in the second set, failed to finish the job, and was forced to play a third set. It’s a limited sample, and it doesn’t wholeheartedly support the third-set-collapse narrative suggested above. 60% of the time–27 of the 45 matches–the player who failed to convert match point in the second set, like Svitolina did, went on to lose the third set. The third set was often lopsided: 5 of the 27 were bagels (including yesterday’s match), and the average score was 6-2. None of the third sets went beyond 6-4.

The other 18 matches–the 40% of the time in which the player with the second-set match point bounced back to win the third set–featured rather one-way deciders, as well. In those, the third-set loser managed an average of only 2.3 games, also never doing better than 6-4.

This is a small sample, so it’s unwise to conclude that this 60/40 margin is anything close to an iron law of tennis. That said, it does provide some evidence that players don’t necessarily collapse after failing to convert a straight-sets win at match point. What happened to Svitolina yesterday is far from certain to happen next time.

Jelena Ostapenko and Teenage Slam Breakthroughs

Jelena Ostepenko is looking ahead to a big day on Thursday: She’ll celebrate her 20th birthday by playing her first Grand Slam semifinal.

A generation or two ago, a breakthrough accomplishment at age 20 would barely merit acknowledgement. In the late 1990s, women’s tennis was dominated by teens a recent teens: Serena Williams and Martina Hingis both won majors before their 20th birthday, and Venus Williams won her first Slam only a few days into her third decade. That youth brigade wasn’t just a couple of once-in-a-generation talents, either: 19-year-old Iva Majoli won a major, and Mirjana Lucic, Jelena Dokic, and Anna Kournikova all reached semifinals before their 18th birthdays.

Times have changed. The last teenage Slam champion was Maria Sharapova in 2006, and we haven’t had a teenager in a major final since Caroline Wozniacki in 2009. Since then, only four players–Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, and Madison Keys–have reached Grand Slam semifinals before their 20th birthdays. (To simplify matters, I’m defining tournament age as age at the beginning of the event, so Ostapenko is a 19-year-old for the purpose of this discussion.)

By just about any measure you can dream up, the sport is getting older. In 1990, the average age of the women in the French Open main draw was 21.8 years. In 2000, it was 23.5. This year, the average age at the start of the tournament was 25.6, just a tiny bit short of last year’s record–set at Roland Garros and Wimbledon–of 25.7. Veterans are sticking around longer, and it takes longer for young players to develop tour-ready games.

Accordingly, we need to revise our notion of what constitutes a big breakthrough. 20 years ago, the semifinal debut of a 19-year-old was a nice achievement for the player herself, but nothing earth-shaking. Today, it’s a once-in-two-years event, and immediately puts the debutante in elite company. While Stephens and Bouchard have stumbled since their own breakthroughs, they (along with Keys) are still among the most promising young players in the game.

To quantify Ostapenko’s achievement, let’s consider her age relative to the average of all main draw players–just the raw difference between those two numbers. Ostapenko is 5.68 years younger than the average woman at Roland Garros this year, making her the 7th youngest (relative to the field) semifinalist at a major since 2000:

Slam     Youngest SF         Age  Avg Age  Diff  
2004 W   Maria Sharapova   17.17    24.17  7.00  
2006 FO  Nicole Vaidisova  17.10    23.63  6.53  
2000 W   Jelena Dokic      17.21    23.69  6.48  
2005 W   Maria Sharapova   18.17    24.45  6.28  
2005 AO  Maria Sharapova   17.75    23.99  6.24  
2007 AO  Nicole Vaidisova  17.73    23.48  5.75  
2017 FO  Jelena Ostapenko  19.97    25.65  5.68  
2001 FO  Kim Clijsters     17.97    23.62  5.65  
2005 US  Maria Sharapova   18.36    23.78  5.42  
2015 AO  Madison Keys      19.92    25.33  5.41

Only three players–Sharapova, Dokic, and Nicole Vaidisova–have reached a Slam semifinal this century at such a young age compared to the rest of the draw.

Of course, names like Dokic and Vaidisova aren’t the most encouraging comparisons for an emerging star. Both players peaked in the top ten, but neither ever reached a major final. The WTA’s past is littered with teenage rising stars who ultimately fizzled.

Yet if we are to see one historically great player come from among today’s young players, she should start building her trophy collection now. It’s tough to put together a Hall of Fame-caliber career without winning some big titles by one’s early 20s. Madison Keys has put herself in that conversation, and this week, Ostapenko has done so as well.

Smaller Swings In Big Moments

Despite the name, unforced errors aren’t necessarily bad. Sometimes, the right tactic is to play more aggressively, and in order to hit more winners, most players will commit more errors as well. Against some opponents, increasing the unforced error count–as long as there is a parallel improvement in winners or other positive point-ending shots–might be the only way to win.

Last week, I showed that one of the causes of Angelique Kerber’s first-round loss was her disproportionate number of errors in big moments. But as my podcasting partner Carl Bialik pointed out, that isn’t the whole story. If Kerber played more aggressively on the most important points–one possible cause of more errors–it might be the case that her winner rate was higher, as well. Since the 6-2 6-2 scoreline was so heavily tilted against her, it was a safe bet that Kerber recorded more high-leverage errors than winners. Still, Carl makes a valid point, and one worth testing.

To do so, let’s revisit the data: 500 women’s singles matches from the last four majors and the first four rounds of this year’s French Open. By measuring the importance of each point, we can determine the average leverage (LEV) of every point in each match, along with the average leverage of points which ended with a player hitting an unforced error, or a winner. Last week, we found that Kerber’s UEs in her first-round loss had an average LEV of 5.5%, compared to a LEV of 3.8% on all other points. For today’s purposes, let’s use match averages as a reference point: Her average UE LEV of 5.5% also compares unfavorably to the overall match average LEV of 4.1%.

What about winners? Kerber’s 15 winners came on points with an average LEV of 3.9%, below the match average. Case closed: On more important points, Kerber was more likely to commit an error, and less likely to hit a winner.

Across the whole population, players hit more errors and fewer winners in crucial moments, but only slightly. Points ending in errors are about one percent more important than average (percent, not percentage point, so 4.14% instead of 4.1%), and points ending in winners are about two percent less important than average. In bigger moments, players increase their winner rate about 39% of the time, and they improve their W-UE ratio about 45% of the time. Point being, there are tour-wide effects on more important points, but they are quite small.

Of course, Kerber’s first-round upset isn’t indicative of how she has played at Slams in general. In my article last week, I mentioned the four players who did the best job of reducing errors at big moments: Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska, Timea Bacsinszky, and Kiki Bertens. Kerber and Radwanska both hit fewer winners on big points as well, but Bacsinszky and Bertens manage a perfect combination, hitting slightly more winners as the pressure cranks up. Among players with more than 10 Slam matches since last year’s French, Bacsinszky is the only one to hit winners on more important points than her unforced errors over 75% of the time.

Compared to her peers, Kerber’s big-moment tactics are remarkably passive. The following table shows the 21 women for whom I have data on at least 13 matches. “UE Rt.” (“UE Ratio”) is similar to the metric I used last week, comparing the average importance of points ending in errors to average points; “W Ratio” is the same, but for points ending in winners, and “W+UE Ratio” is–you guessed it–a (weighted) combination of the two. The combined measure serves as an rough approximation of aggression on big points, where ratios below 1 are more passive than the player’s typical tactics and ratios above 1 are more aggressive.

Player                     M  UE Rt.  W Rt.  W+UE Rt.  
Angelique Kerber          20    0.92   0.85      0.88  
Alize Cornet              13    0.92   0.87      0.94  
Agnieszka Radwanska       17    0.91   0.95      0.95  
Simona Halep              19    0.93   0.94      0.95  
Samantha Stosur           13    0.95   0.98      0.96  
Timea Bacsinszky          14    0.89   1.02      0.97  
Elina Svitolina           15    1.02   0.95      0.97  
Karolina Pliskova         18    0.97   0.98      0.97  
Caroline Wozniacki        14    0.93   1.00      0.97  
Johanna Konta             13    1.00   0.97      0.98  
Caroline Garcia           14    0.94   1.02      0.98  
Svetlana Kuznetsova       17    0.96   0.98      0.99  
Garbine Muguruza          20    1.02   0.94      0.99  
Venus Williams            25    1.00   0.97      0.99  
Elena Vesnina             13    0.96   1.03      0.99  
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova  15    1.03   0.99      0.99  
Coco Vandeweghe           13    1.08   0.95      1.01  
Madison Keys              13    1.01   1.02      1.01  
Serena Williams           27    0.99   1.05      1.02  
Carla Suarez Navarro      14    1.00   1.14      1.05  
Dominika Cibulkova        14    1.11   1.03      1.07

Kerber’s combined measure stands out from the pack. Her point-ending shots–both winners and errors, but especially winners–occur disproportionately on less important points, and the overall effect is double that of the next most passive big-moment player, Alize Cornet. Every other player is close enough to neutral that I would hesitate before making any conclusions about their pressure-point tactics.

Even when Kerber wins, she does so with effective defense at key points. In only two of her last 20 matches at majors did her winners occur on particularly important points. (Incidentally, one of those two was last year’s US Open final.) In general, her brand of passivity works–she won 16 of those matches. But defensive play doesn’t leave very much room for error–figuratively or literally. The tactics were familiar and proven, but against Makarova, they were poorly executed.

Angelique Kerber’s Unclutch Unforced Errors

It’s been a rough year for Angelique Kerber. Despite her No. 1 WTA ranking and place at the top of the French Open draw, she lost her opening match on Sunday against the unseeded Ekaterina Makarova. Adding insult to injury, the loss goes down in the record books as a lopsided-looking 6-2 6-2.

Andrea Petkovic chimed in with her diagnosis of Kerber’s woes:

She’s simply playing without confidence right now. It was tight, even though the scoreline was 2 and 2 but everyone who knows a thing about tennis knew that Angie made errors whenever it mattered because she’s playing without any confidence right now – errors she didn’t make last year.

This is one version of a common analysis: A player lost because she crumbled on the big points. While that probably doesn’t cover all of Kerber’s issues on Sunday–Makarova won 72 points to her 55–it is true that big points have a disproportionate effect on the end result. For every player who squanders a dozen break points yet still wins the match, there are others who falter at crucial moments and ultimately lose.

This family of theories–that a player over- or under-performed at big moments–is testable. For instance, I showed last summer that Roger Federer’s Wimbledon loss to Milos Raonic was due in part to his weaker performance on more important points. We can do the same with Kerber’s early exit.

Here’s how it works. Once we calculate each player’s probability of winning the match before each point, we can assign each point a measure of importance–I prefer to call it leverage, or LEV–that quantifies how much the single point could effect the outcome of the match. At 3-0, 40-0, it’s almost zero. At 3-3, 40-AD in the deciding set, it might be over 10%. Across an entire tournament’s worth of matches, the average LEV is around 5% to 6%.

If Petko is right, we’ll find that the average LEV of Kerber’s unforced errors was higher than on other points. (I’ve excluded points that ended with the serve, since neither player had a chance to commit an unforced error.) Sure enough, Kerber’s 13 groundstroke UEs (that is, excluding double faults) had an average LEV of 5.5%, compared to 3.8% on points that ended some other way. Her UE points were 45% more important than non-UE points.

Let’s put that number in perspective. Among the 86 women for whom I have point-by-point UE data for their first-round matches this week*, ten timed their errors even worse than Kerber did. Magdalena Rybarikova was the most extreme: Her eight UEs against Coco Vandeweghe were more than twice as important, on average, as the rest of the points in that match. Seven of the ten women with bad timing lost their matches, and two others–Agnieszka Radwanska and Marketa Vondrousova–committed so few errors (3 and 4, respectively), that it didn’t really matter. Only Dominika Cibulkova, whose 15 errors were about as badly timed as Kerber’s, suffered from unclutch UEs yet managed to advance.

* This data comes from the Roland Garros website. I aggregate it after each major and make it available here.

Another important reference point: Unforced errors are evenly distributed across all leverage levels. Our instincts might tell us otherwise–we might disproportionately recall UEs that came under pressure—-but the numbers don’t bear it out. Thus, Kerber’s badly timed errors are just as badly timed when we compare her to tour average.

They are also poorly timed when compared to her other recent performances at majors. Petkovic implied as much when she said her compatriot was making “errors she didn’t make last year.” Across her 19 matches at the previous four Slams, her UEs occurred on points that were 11% less important than non-UE points. Her errors caused her to lose relatively more important points in only 5 of the 19 matches, and even in those matches, the ratio of UE leverage to non-UE leverage never exceeded 31%, her ratio in Melbourne this year against Tsurenko. That’s still better than her performance on Sunday.

Across so many matches, a difference of 11% is substantial. Of the 30 players with point-by-point UE data for at least eight matches at the previous four majors, only three did a better job timing their unforced errors. Radwanska heads the list, at 16%, followed by Timea Bacsinszky at 14% and Kiki Bertens at 12%. The other 26 players committed their unforced errors at more important moments than Kerber did.

As is so often the case in tennis, it’s difficult to establish if a stat like this is indicative of a longer-trend trend, or if it is mostly noise. We don’t have point-by-point data for most of Kerber’s matches, so we can’t take the obvious next step of checking the rest of her 2017 matches for similarly unclutch performances. Instead, we’ll have to keep tabs on how well she limits UEs at big moments on those occasions where we have the data necessary to do so.

Bouncing Back From a Marathon Third Set

In this year’s edition of the French Open, we’ve already seen two women’s matches charge past the 6-6 mark in the third set. On Sunday, Madison Brengle outlasted Julia Goerges 13-11 in the decider, and yesterday, Kristina Mladenovic overcame Jennifer Brady 9-7 in the final set. Marathon three-setters aren’t as gut-busting as the five-set equivalent on the men’s tour, yet they still require players to go beyond the usual limit of a tour match.

Do marathon three-setters affect the fortunes of those players that move on to the next round? Back in 2012, I published a study showing that men who win marathon five-setters (that is, matches that go to 8-6 or longer) win fewer than 30% of their following matches, a rate far worse than what we would expect, given the quality of their next opponents. It seems likely that long three-setters wouldn’t have the same effect, especially since many top women are willing to play five-setters themselves.

The numbers bear out the intuition. From 2001 to the 2017 Australian Open, there have been 185 marathon three-setters in Grand Slam main draws, and the winners of those matches have gone on to win 42.2% of their next contests. That’s more than the equivalent number for men, and it’s even better than it sounds.

Players who need to go deep into a third set to vanquish an early-round opponent are, on average, weaker than those who win in straight sets, so many of the marathon women would already be considered underdogs in their next matches. Using sElo–surface-specific Elo, which I recently introduced–we see that these 185 marathon women would have been expected to win only 44.0% of their following matches. There may be a real effect here, but it is a minor one, especially compared to the fortunes of players who struggle through marathon five-setters.

I ran the same algorithm for women’s Slam matches that ended at 7-6, 7-5, and 6-4 or 6-3 in the final set. Since only the US Open uses the third-set tiebreak format, the available sample for that score is limited, which may explain a slightly wacky result. For the other scores, we see numbers that are roughly similar to the marathon findings. Winners tend to be underdogs against their next opponents, but there is little, if any, hangover effect:

3rd Set Score  Sample  Next W%  Next ExpW%  
Marathons         185    42.2%       44.0%  
7-6                56    48.2%       42.2%  
7-5               232    43.1%       42.7%  
6-4 / 6-3         421    41.6%       43.2%

In short: A long match often tells us something about the winner’s chances against her next foe, but it’s something that we already knew. The tight three-setter itself–marathon or otherwise–has little effect on her chances later on. That’s good news for Mladenovic, who will be back on court tomorrow against Sara Errani, an opponent likely to give her another grueling workout.