Tennis is back, and no one knows quite what to expect. Unpredictability is the new normal at both the macro level–will the US Open be a virus-ridden disaster?–and the micro level–which players will come back stronger or weaker? While I plead ignorance on the macro issues, estimating player abilities is more in my line.
Thanks to global shutdowns, every professional player has spent almost five months away from ATP, WTA, and ITF events–“official” tournaments. Some pros, such as those who didn’t play in the few weeks before the shutdowns began, or who are opting not to compete at the first possible opportunity, will have sat out seven or eight months by the time they return to court. Exhibition matches have filled some of the gap, but not for every player.
Half a year is a long time without any official matches. Or, from the analyst’s perspective: It’s tough to predict a player’s performance without any data from the last six months.
Let’s start with the obvious. All this time off means that we know less about each player’s current ability level than we did before the shutdown, back when most pros were competing every week or two. Back in March, my Elo ratings put Dominic Thiem in 5th place, with a rating of ~2050, and David Goffin in 15th, with a rating of ~1900. Those numbers gave Thiem a 70% chance of winning a head-to-head.
What about now? Both men have played in exhibitions, but can we be confident that their levels are the same as they were in March? Or that they’ve risen or fallen roughly the same amount? To me, it’s obvious that we can’t be as sure. Whenever our confidence drops, our predictions should move toward the “naive” prediction of a 50/50 coin flip. A six-month coronavirus layoff isn’t that severe, so it doesn’t mean that Thiem is no longer the favorite against Goffin, but it does mean our prediction should be closer to 50% than it was before.
So, 60%? Maybe 65%? Or 69%? I can’t answer that–yet, anyway.
The (injury) layoff penalty
My Elo ratings already incorporate a layoff penalty, which I introduced here. The idea is that if a player misses a substantial amount of time (usually due to injury, but possibly because of suspension, pregnancy, or other reasons), they usually play worse when they come back. But it’s tough to predict how much worse, and players regain their form at different rates.
Thus, the tweak to the rating formula has two components:
- A one-time penalty based on the amount of time missed (more time off = bigger penalty)
- A temporarily increased k-factor (the part of the formula that determines how much each match increases or decreases a player’s rating) to account for the initial uncertainty. After an injury, the k-factor increases by a bit more than 50%, and steadily declines back to the typical k-factor over the next 20 matches.
Not an injury
A six-month coronavirus layoff is not an injury. (At least, not for players who haven’t lost practice time due to contracting COVID-19 or picking up other maladies.) So the injury-penalty algorithm can’t be applied as-is. But we can take away two ideas from the injury penalty:
- If we generate those closer-to-50% forecasts by shifting certain players’ ratings downward, the penalty should be less than the injury penalty. (The minimum injury penalty is 100 Elo points for a non-offseason layoff of eight or nine weeks.)
- The temporarily increased k-factor is a useful tool to handle the type of uncertainty that surrounds a player’s ability level after a layoff.
The injury-penalty framework is useful because it has been validated by data. We can look at hundreds of injury (and other) layoffs in modern tennis history and see how players fared upon return. And the numbers I use in the Elo formula are based on exactly that. We don’t have the same luxury with the last six months, because it is so unprecedented.
Not an offseason, but…
The closest thing we have to a half-year shutdown in existing tennis data is the offseason. The sport’s winter break is much shorter, and it isn’t the same for every player. Yet some of the dynamics are the same: Many players fill their time with exhibitions, others sit on the beach, some let injuries recover, others work particularly hard to improve their games, and so on.
Here’s a theory, then: The first few weeks of each season should be less predictable than average.
Fact check: False! For the years 2010-19, I labeled each match according to how many previous matches the two players had contested that year. If it was both players’ first match, the label was 1. If it was one player’s 15th match and the other’s 21st, the label was the average, 18. Then, I calculated the Brier Score–a measure of prediction accuracy–of the Elo-generated predictions for the matches with each label.
The lower the Brier Score, the better. If my theory were right, we would see the highest Brier Scores for the first few matches of the season, followed by a decrease. Not exactly!
The jagged blue line shows the Brier Scores for each individual label (match 1, match 2, match 23, etc), while the orange line is a 5-match moving average that aims to represent the overall trend.
There’s not a huge difference throughout the season (which is reassuring), but the early-season trend is the opposite of what I predicted. Maybe the women, with their slightly longer offseason, will make me feel better?
No such luck. Again, the match-to-match variation in prediction accuracy is very small, and there’s no sign of early-season uncertainty.
I will not be denied
Despite disproving my own theory, I still expect to see an unpredictable couple of post-pandemic months. The regular offseason is something that players are accustomed to, and there is conventional wisdom in the game surrounding how to best use that time. And it’s two months, not five to seven. In addition, there are many other things that will make tour life more challenging–or different, at the very least–in 2020, such as limited crowds, social distancing protocols, and scheduling uncertainty. Some players will better handle those challenges than others, but it won’t necessarily be the strongest players who respond the best.
So my Elo ratings will, for the time being, incorporate a small penalty and a temporarily increased k-factor. (Something more like 69% for Thiem-Goffin, not 60%.) I haven’t finished the code yet, in large part because handling the two different types of layoffs–coronavirus and the usual injuries, etc–makes things very complicated. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see some minor tweaks to the numbers before the “Cincinnati” tournament in a few weeks.
There is a right answer
It’s clear from what I’ve written so far that any attempt to adjust Elo ratings for the COVID-19 layoff is a bit of a guessing game. But it won’t always be that way!
By the end of the year, we’ll know the right answer: just how unpredictable results turned out to be in the early going. Just as I’ve calculated penalties and k-factor adjustments for injury layoffs based on historical data, we will be able to do the same with match results from the second half of 2020. To be more precise, we’ll be able to work out a class of right answers, because one adjustment to the Elo formula will give us the best Brier Score, while another will best represent the gap between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, while others could target different goals.
The ultimate after-the-fact COVID-19 Elo-formula adjustment won’t help you win more money betting on tennis, but it will give us more insight into how the coronavirus layoff affected players after so much time off, and how quickly they returned to pre-layoff form. We’ll understand a little bit more about the game, even if we desperately hope never to have reason to apply the newly-won knowledge.