World tennis no.1 – Murray vs Djokovic – Elo ratings vs ATP ratings

As Andy Murray prepares to face Novak Djokovic this afternoon in the ATP World Tour Finals, the winner taking the end-of-year no.1 spot in the ATP Men’s Singles ratings, it’s interesting to compare an alternative set of ratings I’ve just come across, the Elo rating system from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, who were just about the only pundits to come out of the recent Trump election with head held (reasonably) high.

I’ve been on a bit of an internet journey reading about this. The journey started here:

Factchecking the History of the ATP Number One With Elo
Jeff Sackmann
Heavy Topspin Blog

…continued to here:

Why Novak Djokovic would still be favoured to beat Andy Murray
Jeff Sackmann
The Economist

…wandered by here:

The Case for Novak Djokovic … and Roger Federer … and Rafael Nadal
Jeff Sackmann
Heavy Topspin Blog

…and finished up here.

Current Elo ratings for the ATP tour

The best summary is from the Economist article:

But Mr Murray’s journey to the apex of the rankings has also exposed some of the flaws in the official system. The ATP awards points exclusively on the basis of the importance of a tournament and the round each player reaches. Grand Slams count for twice as much as the next tier of events, the Masters series, and winning a competition is worth two-thirds more than losing in the final. This method suffers (at least) one major weakness: it fails to account for the strength of a player’s opponents, which can vary widely over short time periods. And Mr Murray’s hot streak has coincided with a stretch of very soft competition: he has not faced a single rival from the official top five since June, when he lost the final of the French Open to Mr Djokovic. In total, the Serb has won three of their four meetings this year.

Fortunately, there is an alternative rating system available, which does factor in quality of opposition. It’s called Elo, in honour of its inventor, the Hungarian physicist Arpad Elo. Originally designed to measure the ability of chess players, it requires nothing more than a record of each competitor’s wins and losses to calculate, and has become a standard method for assessing the strength of teams or players in various sports.

Elo works by exchanging points between opponents after a contest. If you beat a much stronger rival, you take a large number of his ranking points, causing him to move down the rankings as you climb them; if you win against a weaker player, you take only a small portion of his points. As an example, Mr Djokovic gained just 0.3 Elo points for beating the low-ranked Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in the second round at Wimbledon this year—but lost 16 points to Sam Querrey when the American 28th seed beat him in the third round. The number of points swapped depends both on contestants’ Elo ratings before a match and on a parameter, derived from historical data, that measures how fast the model should adjust its estimate of a player’s strength based on new information. In tennis, this figure is fairly low, suggesting that abrupt changes in a player’s ability are rare (excluding the effect of injuries). As a result, it takes a large number of disappointing match results for Elo to conclude that a once-outstanding champion has become an underdog.

Elo ratings have proven to be better forecasters than the ATP’s. During the past 15 years, it has correctly picked the winner in 68.2% of matches, compared with 66.4% for the official rankings. And when the two systems have disagreed on who the favourite should be, Elo’s picks have prevailed 55% of the time.

Compared with the ATP rankings, Elo is both far less impressed with Mr Murray’s string of victories—he did not face a single player from inside the ATP’s top ten during his run to the title last week in Paris—and far less concerned by Mr Djokovic’s slump. Since his victory at the French Open, Mr Djokovic has triumphed in just one of six tournaments, a miserable run for a player of his ilk, and has suffered a number of upset losses. Meanwhile, Mr Murray has done his part to chip away at Mr Djokovic’s lead. But a five-month barren patch for a player who has won 12 grand slams, coinciding with a hot streak for one who has collected three, has not convinced the Elo algorithm that the two have traded places. In that time, each man has lost to Juan Martín del Potro, a hard-hitting Argentine, and to Marin Cilic, a Croat with a booming serve. Mr Djokovic was also on the receiving end of an inspired performance by Swiss slugger Stanislas Wawrinka in the final of the US Open in September.

As a result, the current Elo ratings still consider Mr Djokovic to be the world’s best player, and by a decent margin: they have him beating Mr Murray 63% of the time. That is a far cry from his advantage in March, when Mr Djokovic reached the highest score of anybody in the modern era, and would have been an 81% favourite against Mr Murray. But the magnitude of his edge even after such a decline simply confirms how stratospheric the heights that Mr Djokovic reached were when he was playing his absolute best. Despite the rough patch for Mr Djokovic, Elo still believes that the chasm between him and Mr Murray is larger than the gap between the Scot and the ageing Roger Federer, in third place. It pegs Mr Murray as a modest 60-40 favourite over the Swiss champion.

A snapshot of historical high-ELO-scores puts Djokovic as the GOAT, no less. But bear in mind that this snapshot was taken in September 2015, and both of today’s finalists have gone better since. Murray recently hit 2412, and Novak pushed his highest ever score – with his French Open win in 2016 – to no less than 2570, a big advantage over Federer in second place:


Personally I love Novak. I’ll be patriotically rooting for Andy this afternoon, but if Novak wins (as past history between them suggests he will), there can be no more deserving holder of the trophy and the No.1 spot.


Federer and Me, by William Skidelsky

So I’ve just ordered the book “Federer and Me” by William Skidelsky. Here’s an extract from a Guardian article:

In the summer of 2006, at a family gathering of my girlfriend’s, I remember meeting an aspiring tennis pro, a young British player on the fringes of the tour. I asked him who, of today’s top players, he particularly admired. He told me he’d recently been on some practice courts near Federer and he couldn’t believe how good he was. As he spoke, awe entered his voice and his eyes acquired a faraway look. Increasingly, I realised, this was how Federer was being viewed. He was becoming a figure of legend, almost a god.

Not long after this, I happened to stumble across an essay on Federer by David Foster Wallace. I was already a fan of Wallace’s writing – his fiction in particular – and the piece made a big impression on me. Here was a palpably clever writer – something of a genius himself – talking in candidly reverential terms about the wonder, the beauty, of Federer’s tennis. I was struck not only by Wallace’s concept of the “Federer moment” – the instances when his play appears to defy the laws of physics – but also by the way he sought to locate his subject within the game’s overall trajectory. And his sense of the sport’s development very much chimed with my own.

Wallace’s basic contention was that men’s tennis had, for the previous few decades, been moving in a linear direction. Thanks to a combination of composite rackets, related changes in technique and advances in athleticism, a single style had come to dominate the sport. This style – the “power baseline” game – was, as its name suggested, based on hitting the ball with tremendous power (and copious topspin) from the back of the court. According to Wallace, it was Lendl who had pioneered the style in the 80s, in the 90s players like Agassi and Courier had raised it to new heights and, more recently, Rafa Nadal had taken it “just as far as it goes”. The problem with the power baseline style, Wallace suggested, wasn’t that it was inherently boring but it was “somewhat static and limited” and, if it were to prove the “evolutionary end-point of tennis”, that would be a problem for the game.

Federer, however, had shown another way forward. He had introduced – or rather, reintroduced – elements such as subtlety and variety, an “ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and surprise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision”. Yet the point about Federer – and here was Wallace’s kicker – was that he could do all those things while also being a “first-rate, kickass power-baseliner”. He had demonstrated a new way of playing tennis that was as attractive as it was effective, and had done so from within the modern game. “He is Mozart and Metallica and the combination is somehow wonderful.”

Wallace ended his essay on a note of optimism. At that year’s Wimbledon, which he’d attended, the junior event had been a “variegated ballet”, with players deploying “drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead – all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls”. The clear implication was that Federer’s approach was starting to influence tennis more widely, expanding the sport’s very possibilities.

Garry Sobers – the man who could do everything

Some lovely Garry Sobers anecdotes at this Cricket Monthly article, written for his upcoming 80th birthday. I put just a few of them below.

Ian Chappell, former Australia captain
A lot of people thought of Sobers as a natural who just played the game and did not think a hell of a lot about what he did. But he was very thoughtful. In fact, once, Mosman, the club in Sydney, was looking for a coach and the president had dinner with him and said, “Garry, we would love to have you as a coach, but you haven’t got the qualifications.” Garry said to him: “What did you think I got my knighthood for?”

Geoff Boycott, England batsman
There is another great story. They were playing in England and Geoff Boycott came to him one day and said, “Garry, you seem to get me out lbw a lot. I don’t understand it.” Garry was quite good psychologically as well. He said to Boycott, “Unlike a lot of people, Geoffrey, I don’t think your technique is that good.” That would have cut Boycott to the quick because he prided himself on his technique. “Your front foot is too far across. You can’t get your bat around your pad and my inswinger gets you lbw. That’s what is happening.”

They go out on the field next day. Boycott is batting. Sobers runs up, bowls the first ball, angles it across, Boycott edges, gets caught at slip. As he is walking off, Sobey says to him, “Geoffrey, you didn’t ask me about the other one.”

Alan Davidson, former Australia allrounder
The bloke could do just about anything on a cricket field except umpire. He was a complete cricketer, magnificent fielder, bowled all types of bowling, and when in form, he absolutely decimated great bowling attacks. You could not set a field to him because he just had that innate ability to be able to score runs whenever he wanted to.

In the tied Test in Brisbane he scored a century where he just bisected the field and it was absolutely one of the greatest innings I have ever seen in my life. He didn’t just beat the field. He split the field. His placement was just incredible. In the second dig I just thought I would try something a little bit different. I eventually got him with a yorker. In the previous overs I’d bowled slow at him, varying my pace before I delivered the fast yorker, and it got through him. My emotions got the better of me; I was over-elated, because he was such a dominant batsman. When he was in form, a lot of bowlers used to give up on him. If he is hitting your best ball for a four then you know he is going to massacre you.

Mark Nicholas, commentator and former Hampshire captain
He turned up at Nottingham for the first time – 1968. The players hardly saw him till practice the day before the first Gillette Cup match [against Lancashire]. He was captain. It was cold and he came down the steps of the pavilion, wandered over to the nets wrapped tight in a sheepskin coat. He shook hands with everyone, watched for ten minutes, then left. Next morning he arrived an hour before the game. Changed, put on a couple of jumpers, stretched and went out to toss. “We’re bowling, fellas,” he said. He took three for not many. Then they got into trouble chasing a low score, about 50 for 3 chasing 170-odd. He strolled out against the best seam attack in the country – Higgs, Statham, Shuttleworth, Lever and Wood – and made 75 not out. Notts won with ten overs to spare. After he received the Man-of-the-Match award, he came into the dressing room and said, “Well played all you fellas, now who we got in de next round?” Mike Taylor says they all just gawped at him in awe.

The Percentages That Separate Djokovic And The Top 10

Fascinating tennis stats article from Craig O’Shannessy. Turns out the second-best returner amongst the top players is not Murray, as I always thought (he is third), but Nadal:

The Percentages That Separate Djokovic And The Top 10

Novak Djokovic has won 92 per cent (46-4) of his matches this season, but when broken down to the simplest level of points won, his winning percentage is just 56 per cent. It’s amazing that someone as dominant as Djokovic is taking a 50-50 battle and shifting it just six percentage points in his favour to create the superiority that we have grown accustomed to.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis shows that the current players in the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings have won, on average, just 53.2 per cent of their points this season.

Tennis point win-loss percentages


Ted Ligety’s skiing technique

Interesting short video on the great Giant Slalom skier Ted Ligety‘s technique:

Why tennis players don’t take more risks on second serve

So turns out tennis players basically have the maths right.


Why Tennis Players Don’t Take More Risks On Second Serves
Five Thirty Eight
Carl Bialik

If you’ve ever watched a tennis player dominate with the first serve but saw the second serve obliterated by the returner, you might have wondered: Why don’t more players go for it on their second serve? Wouldn’t they be better off treating their second opportunity to serve like their first one?

The answer almost always is no.

Most servers win a much higher percentage of points on their first serve than their second serve. For example, in his five-set marathon loss to Kei Nishikori as Monday night turned to Tuesday morning at the U.S. Open, Milos Raonic won 87 percent of his first-serve points but just 47 percent of his second-serve points.

During that match, Min Han, a biologist at the University of Colorado, emailed me. “I wonder whether some of the big servers in men’s tennis should serve the fast ‘first’ serve all the time,” Han wrote. “For some of these guys, the difference between the winning percentage on their first serve and that on the second serve seems huge.”

It’s a good suggestion. But the season-long numbers suggest nearly every player would be hurt, not helped, by treating the second serve like a first serve. Except in a couple of cases, the higher probability that the second serve lands in the court more than compensates for the higher effectiveness of first serves.

Let’s start with the average Top 50 men’s player. This year heading into the U.S. Open, he wins 73.6 percent of service points when the first serve lands in, compared to 57.5 percent when the second serve lands in. But his first serve lands in just 61.9 percent of the time, compared to 91.1 percent of second serves. So if he went for his first serve on both points, he’d win 73.6 percent of second-serve points when the ball lands in, but double fault on 38.1 percent of them. His second-serve winning percentage would be just 45.6 percent, compared to 52.4 percent now. Bad move.

This is just an average. It varies widely by player. Mikhail Youzhny has a relatively weak first serve without landing in the court all that often, so he’d be especially unwise to go for his first serve again given a second opportunity. His second-serve winning percentage would drop by 12.7 percentage points.

By contrast, Ivo Karlovic, who is 6 feet 10, has a relatively weak second serve and usually lands his excellent first serve in, so he’d gain 2 percentage points on his second-serve winning percentage if he went for his first serve twice. That’s a modest gain, and Karlovic is the only player in the Top 50 who’d get a high enough reward to justify the high-risk tactic. (Raonic would be nearly even, but slightly worse off — as he would have been if he’d gone for second-serve bombs against Nishikori, since he missed so often on first serves in that match.)

Read the rest of the article (including the graphs)

Authors and actors revive cricket rivalry

Lovely article about a team of famous actors taking on a team of famous authors, as happened long ago in the days of Wodehouse & Conan Doyle.

Authors and actors revive cricket rivalry
26 July 2014
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

  • “I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God created on Earth” – Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter
  • “Cricket is a game played by 11 fools and watched by 11,000 fools” – Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw
  • “Hail Cricket! Glorious, manly, British game! First of all Sports! Be first alike in Fame!” – British poet and playwright James Love in 1744’s Cricket: An Heroic Poem
  • “Cricket remains for me the game of games, the sanspareil, the great metaphor, the best marriage ever devised of mind and body” – British novelist John Robert Fowles
  • “I understand cricket – what’s going on, the scoring – but I can’t understand why” – American author Bill Bryson
  • “Like the British constitution, cricket was not made: it has ‘grown'” – Sir Neville Cardus, writer and critic

Tennis player Gulbis says abolish what now?

Go on, vamp it up a bit
Evening Standard Wimbledon Diary

Ernests Gulbis got himself into a tangle this week by mistaking an interview question about abolishing umpires for a question about abolishing vampires. Gulbis said he is against vampires, although the diary has no idea why.

An interview with Dean Headley

Many excellent quotes from this article, some of which I copy below.

An interview with Dean Headley
‘It burnt to be told I didn’t have the heart to play as a bowler’. Former fast bowler Dean Headley recalls good and bad days with England, his heritage, and the time he bounced Allan Donald and lived to tell the tale
Interview by Scott Oliver
March 18, 2014

  • I got woken up in the West Indies after a night where I’d commiserated myself with a bit of Jack Daniel’s. The media officer said, “Dean, the press guys want to do an interview with you.” “What about?” “Well, Bumble’s come out and said the reason why we lost the Test match was because of you and Caddick.” I said, “Oh, that’s good. And we haven’t even had a team meeting yet…” So John Etheridge [of the Sun] was sat in a chair by the pool at the hotel, leading the questions. He’s got a bit of a stutter, and I knew that every time he had to say something controversial he was going to stutter. He’s gone, “So, h-h-have you got any comments?” “About what?” He said, “Well, erm, ob-obviously you lost the Test match.” “Yeah, I know that.” “And, erm, with Bumble…” “John, get to the point.” “Well, Bumble’s come out and said that you and Caddick were the reason England lost.” I said, “Why do you think he came out and said that?” “Well,” he said, “when we asked him he said you didn’t bowl very well.” And I went: “He’s right. I didn’t.” “Have you got any m-more comments?” “Well, no. You’ve just told me the coach has said we lost the Test match because Headley and Caddick didn’t bowl well. I can’t answer for Caddick but I can certainly answer for me. I didn’t play very well.” End of interview. Caddick, on the other hand, said, “Well, I disagree with him. I think I only bowled four bad balls in the whole Test match.”
  • Goughie and I played in five Test matches together and got 53 wickets between us. He epitomised, to me, what you need to do as a bowler. Yes, things might not go your way, but you never, ever give up on anything.
  • I kept an eye on the speed gun a little bit, mainly as a barometer to see whether I had to put in more effort. Goughie wouldn’t bowl a slower ball in Australia because it’d bring down his average speed.
  • Lara was the best I’ve seen.
  • Michael Vaughan said that if we’d have got a draw against that Aussie team in 1998-99 – which, barring that Slater run-out in Sydney, we would have done – then he believes that would have been bigger than 2005.
  • Angus Fraser said: “Look, most people take a wicket every 60 balls. So if you go at four and a half an over, you’ll average 45. If you go at 2 an over, you’ll average 20. Your career won’t depend on your good days. It will depend on whether you can make your shit day a little bit less than shit, your average day a little bit better than average, and your quite good day a little bit better than quite good.”
  • People talk about whether we competed with Australia in the ’90s. I think we did. Steve Waugh said it: “England are a far better side than what they believe.” I can go through every Test I played against Australia and dropped catches will be massive. But we never, ever talked about it.
  • Hicky and Ramps were probably the best two English batsmen I bowled at.
  • Carl Hooper was an underachiever at international level, but if you said to me that there’s a game of cricket on tomorrow and Carl Hooper’s going to get 80, I’d pay money to see that. I remember us playing against Saqlain Mushtaq at The Oval – the Surrey boys still talk about it. Everyone was mesmerised. Hooper played him as though he was a schoolboy offspinner. He got 200 against Wasim Akram, who was bowling ridiculously quick at the time, swinging it both ways, and everybody else was struggling. Three overs after going in, he calls to the pavilion. He always batted in a jumper and we just thought, “Oh, he’s going to take his jumper off”. He took his thigh pad off. He batted against Wasim Akram without a thigh pad, because he had really massive thighs and his gloves were catching and he didn’t like it. He got hit all right. Just didn’t flinch. If Wasim hit me, I wouldn’t walk for a month.

Steve Davis – women will never be the best at snooker

Excellent, and not actually sexist at all.

Davis thinks women lack “that single minded determination in something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick. “Men are ideally suited to doing something as absolutely irrelevant in life as that,” he said. “They’re the ones who have train sets in the loft. They have stamp collections to die for. Right? These are stupid things to do with your life. As is trying to practise eight hours a day to get to World Championship level.

World Snooker: Steve Davis says women will never match top men
BBC Sport

By Caroline Rigby

Steve Davis does not expect to ever see a woman compete in the final stages of the World Snooker Championship. The six-time world champion, 56, believes the “obsessive” nature of men for an “absolutely irrelevant” activity gives them an advantage. “The male of the species has got a single-minded, obsessional type of brain that I don’t think so many females have,” he told BBC World Service’s Sports Hour.

Leading women’s player Reanne Evans agreed that focusing solely on the game, given other priorities and a lack of financial support, is hard. “I think women find it difficult just to concentrate on snooker,” said the 28-year-old, who has a seven-year-old daughter. “I’ve got my little girl and you’re always thinking about them.

“I just think maybe men find it easier to focus on one thing at one time. Maybe that’s a slight advantage there. “The men’s game has the backing behind them that they can afford to have a part-time job, or no job, and just practise and work at the snooker, whereas there’s no money in the women’s game whatsoever.”

There are currently no professional women snooker players, despite top-tier competitions being open to both genders.

Evans, who has won the Ladies World Championship for 10 successive years since 2005, was handed a wildcard to the World Snooker Tour for the 2010-11 season, but failed to win a match.

She did, however, become the first female to reach the main stages of a ranking event last June by beating Thai player Thepchaiyah Un-Nooh in qualifying for the Wuxi Classic.

While Evans dominates the women’s game with an average break of around 40, she admits her level is still some way off the top male players.

World number one Neil Robertson became the first player to record 100 centuries in the same season during his quarter-final victory over Judd Trump at the Crucible on Wednesday.

Davis thinks women lack “that single minded determination in something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick.

“Men are ideally suited to doing something as absolutely irrelevant in life as that,” he said. “They’re the ones who have train sets in the loft. They have stamp collections to die for. Right? These are stupid things to do with your life. As is trying to practise eight hours a day to get to World Championship level.

“So therefore I think we are also the idiots of the species as well. The male of the species has got a single-minded, obsessional type of brain that I don’t think so many females have.” Asked if he thought a woman would ever compete in the latter stages of the World Championship, the BBC commentator replied: “No.”

Evans was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with her daughter, Lauren, when she won the ladies world title in 2006. “The trophy just about fitted on my bump,” she recalled. “I could only just about break off. It was very weird playing with a bump.”

Later this month, the mother-of-one from Dudley in the West Midlands will take part in World Snooker’s Q School in an attempt to qualify as a professional.

She believes mental strength rather than physical power is the key factor which sets men apart from the women. “It can be an advantage if you have cue power but there are a lot of men out there who haven’t got a lot of cue power, like [Hong Kong’s world ranked number seven] Marco Fu compared to [world number five] Shaun Murphy,” she added.

“But it’s not a physical sport like football, rugby or boxing. So that’s why I think one day we could see women playing at the Crucible.”

The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the sport’s governing body, says there are no barriers for women. “It’s not a strength sport, there are no restrictions at all” says chairman Jason Ferguson. “Perhaps in the past ladies didn’t want to go down the snooker club. Perhaps they felt a bit out of place. These days we’re a fast moving sport. The opportunity is there for girls to play.

“It’s a very young, fashionable sport in China and the women’s game is booming in Eastern Europe. We think this is a pattern that’s going to continue all over the world.”

Despite a drive to improve equality and encourage more females into the game, Evans believes snooker is still “a bit of a boys’ club”

“Even in league matches, the other team had to send in letters to see if it was OK for me to play there,” she added. “It still happens to this day. It is frustrating but I just hope that my achievements are proving everybody wrong and that women will be allowed to play in those clubs now. “We’re just trying to get women out there to play, to pick up a cue and then hopefully we can prove everybody wrong – that women can compete against the men.”