Category Archives: Tennis

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.

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


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)

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.

Lleyton Hewitt and the Triple-Hundred Club

Fascinating & obscure tennis factoids.


Lleyton Hewitt and the Elusive Triple-Hundred
Heavy Topspin blog

Lleyton Hewitt is within a whisker of qualifying for a very elite club–players who have won 100 matches on each of the three major tennis surfaces, hard, clay, and grass. He has 367 on hard, 120 on grass, and 98 on clay. If he manages to reach this milestone, he’ll be the last player to do so for a long time.

Roger Federer, of course, is already a member. Hewitt would become only the seventh, joining Fed, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, John Alexander, and Stan Smith. Arthur Ashe and Stefan Edberg are close: both retired with 99 grass-court wins.

Typically, the grass-court threshold is the most difficult to reach, but that’s not the issue for Hewitt. In fact, the Aussie is one of only 16 players in ATP history to win 100 or more matches on grass courts.

Federer has 123 career wins on grass, good for second of all time, behind Connors. Hewitt, at 120, is the only other active player even close. Next on the active list is Andy Murray at 74, followed by Novak Djokovic, Mikhail Youzhny, and Tommy Haas, all tied at 53. Of the 80 players in ATP history who have won at least 50 matches on grass, 73 are retired.

Of the active players with 50 or more grass-court wins, only Hewitt and Murray have won more matches on grass than on clay. That’s all a long-winded way of saying, if someone’s going to reach the 100-win milestone on three surfaces, you wouldn’t expect them to need a few more wins on clay.

No other active players are anywhere near striking distance of the 3×100 mark. While Murray could reach 100 wins on grass with a few more good seasons, his clay win total lags far behind–on that surface, he only recently got to 50. And as we’ve seen, no other active player has more than 53 career wins on grass. The extended grass-court season, starting next year, will help players like Djokovic, but it’s safe to say that Haas’s window has closed.

In an era that barely rewards grass-court specialists, Hewitt has put himself in position to join this elite group by performing at a very high level on the surface. It’s ironic, then, that he’ll cross into such rarefied territory with a win on red clay.

Nadal vs Gasquet – aged 13

They were already a lot better than I am…

Rod Laver vs. Jimmy Connors

Found a fascinating challenge match, in which Jimmy Connors beat Rod Laver, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, February 2 1975. The footage is a video camera pointing at the TV – but you can see the shots surprisingly well.

As the (excellent) comment thread points out, Laver was well over the hill at this point (whereas Connors was Wimbledon champion), but you get a sense for why many regard Laver as the greatest ever. Even here his movement (especially at the net) is phenomenal, and for all that his technique sometimes looks odd to modern eyes (where is his front arm on the forehand groundstroke?), the power and placement is there, even with those crappy old rackets.

Tennis’s one-handed backhand – a dying art?

Tennis’s one-handed backhand – a dying art, (briefly) revived
Jan 28th 2014

The rise and fall of the one-handed backhand

The rise and fall of the one-handed backhand

To general surprise, Stanislas Wawrinka won the men’s Australian Open tennis championship on Sunday. In doing so, the Swiss player captured his first grand-slam singles title and beat Rafael Nadal, the world number one. It was a strange match, rendered less competitive by an injury to Mr Nadal. The suspicion is that Mr Wawrinka, for all his fine play, would not have won against a fit opponent—not only because of his previous 0-12 record against the Spaniard, but because Mr Wawrinka attacks with a one-handed backhand, a stroke some consider a liability in the modern game.

The one-handed backhand drive—hit with topspin, rather than sliced defensively—is perhaps the most elegant shot in tennis. Mr Wawrinka’s is a model of the genre: a flowing, full-blooded sweep of the racquet that marries power and timing. Yet despite its appeal to purists, the one-hander is unpopular with professional players. It is more difficult, with a much smaller margin for error, than its two-fisted counterpart. Most prefer the more compact and clinical two-hander. Of the 50 top-ranked men players, only 12 use one-handed backhands. In the women’s game, only three players in the top 50 hit one-handed.

That the one-hander is effective, given a talented-enough ball-striker, is beyond dispute. Roger Federer, also of Switzerland, has used his to win more grand-slam titles than any other man. It is only in recent years, as the game has become even more physical, and as new strings have allowed players to impart more spin on their shots, that the two-hander has gained ascendancy. (Indeed, as our chart shows, part of the fascination of tennis from the 1970s all the way through to the 2000s was the unresolved duel between languid one-handers, like Pete Sampras, and two-handed sluggers like Andre Agassi.) Yet as Mr Federer’s powers fade—he has won only two majors since 2010—there are mutterings that inherent limitations in his classic style of play, previously masked by exceptional talent, may be causing grief. Did he win 17 majors despite, rather than because of, his pretty backhand? Nick Bollettieri, a famous American coach, thinks Mr Federer could have had even more success two-handed.

The implications for mere mortals are ominous. Pundits gave Mr Wawrinka little chance of winning the Australian final precisely because the high-bouncing, viciously topspun shots in which Mr Nadal specialises are difficult for players with single-handed backhands to return with interest. No matter how good the one-handed backhand, the errors will creep in. (Most believe this is why Mr Federer’s head-to-head record against Mr Nadal is poor.)

Yet critics of the one-hander should remember that Mr Wawrinka thoroughly outplayed his opponent for much of the match. He did this by making a virtue of his weakness. Instead of trying to outlast his rival, he played aggressively and looked to take the initiative early in the point. It helps that the one-handed backhand demands early ball contact; if executed well, this hurries one’s opponent. Mr Wawrinka was equally aggressive with the rest of his game. He served 19 aces (versus just one for Mr Nadal), and hit 53 winners (versus 19), even surviving a mid-match dip in form as he struggled to finish off his stricken opponent.

Sadly, none of this makes continued glory for many of tennis’s one-handers likely. The shot’s mechanical complexity means its exponents must perform at their best for longer than their opponents. A strategy dependent on being in the elusive state sportsmen call “the zone” is hardly a recipe for success. (In winning the Australian final, Mr Wawrinka also hit 49 unforced errors, compared with 32 by his opponent.) Mr Federer recently switched to a larger racquet in search of more consistency. Little surprise, then, that most coaches will keep playing the averages. With youngsters now routinely learning the two-hander—in part because most children lack the strength to play any other way—the pool of one-handers will remain small. Mr Wawrinka has given brief joy to connoisseurs of tennis’s most delightful shot, but one title does not a trend make.

Nadal – tennis GOAT?

The guy makes a strong case for Nadal as tennis GOAT.


Rafael Nadal Might Just Be the Best Ever
Bryan Tarmen Graham

Monday’s [2013 US Open] final [where Nadal beat Djokovic] was the 37th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, surpassing John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl as the Open era’s most prolific—if not romantic—rivalry. Unlike McEnroe and Lendl, however, their familiarity has bred not disdain but a mutual respect. Both employ similar pugilistic, power-baseline styles, stripping their matches of the stylistic and poetic contrasts that made the Nadal’s meetings with Federer such attractive (and accessible) theater. Both have forced each other to improve and innovate, each one retooling his game in an effort to best the other. They have spent most of the past few years dragging each other into deep waters at the end of tennis’s biggest tournaments, Djokovic winning seven straight meetings in 2011 and 2012, Nadal taking six of the past seven. The struggle was no different Monday, even if this one didn’t extend five sets. “Between Novak and me, every point is fighting, every point is long rally, every point is more strategy,” Nadal said last night. “This is very tough.”

All the strongest arguments for Nadal as the best to ever do it were on full display throughout Monday’s final.

It started with his superior physicality. One hundred eighty-eight pounds of fast-twitch muscles and bravado, Nadal generates enough spin on his groundstrokes to cheat space-time, like the Euclid-defying overhead he struck from 10 feet behind the baseline in his first-round win over Ryan Harrison. He broke Djokovic twice in the opening set as the shadows grew long over Ashe, curling shots drizzled with topspin into the corners while making just four unforced errors.

It continued with his mental and tactical agility, his refined gift for making adjustments on the fly—sometimes in the middle of a point. Consider the run of play near the end of the second set, when Djokovic had warmed to the moment and was striking his forehand with loose, fluid abandon. When he broke Nadal to take the set and broke at love to open the third, Djokovic began dictating the baseline points and pushing his opponent around. One hundred forty points had been played midway through the third set. Nadal had won 70. Djokovic had won 70. But just as the Serb had wrested the momentum, it was Nadal who began mixing in the slice brilliantly, changing pace and keeping Djokovic off balance. No small feat for a player once derided for smashing the ball pell-mell at every opportunity with little taste for variety.

And then, of course, there was ample evidence of Nadal’s legendary between-the-ears fortitude. Late in the third, Djokovic had triple-break point to serve for a two-sets-to-one lead. Nadal saved all three break points, held serve, and broke the Serb for the set. He never looked back.

Nadal was once a bit of a curiosity: a clay-court specialist known as much for his innumerable tics and quirky rituals as his terre battue mastery. Even Monday, he was a slave to his routines, touching his crotch and shirt then fingering his hair before every serve—while obsessively making sure everything remained feng shui around his chair during changeovers. (And then making sure again.)

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer as tennis’s greatest ever. Yet many have wondered how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Yet these days he’s evolved into nothing less than an all-court phenomenon. This season, he’s 22-0 on hard courts, traditionally his weakest surface. He’s just the second man to win multiple titles on three different surfaces. His lifetime winning percentage, currently an absurd 83.7 percent, is better than anyone in the sport today. Incredibly, he entered the U.S. Open with a winning record against each of the other 127 players in the field.

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer—a man whose game has been described as porn for aesthetes—as tennis’s greatest, certainly as long as the Swiss maestro remains atop the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard with 17 trophies. Yet consider that Nadal has beaten Federer in 21 of their 31 meetings—and eight of their 10 matches at Grand Slams. Or that Nadal has won Olympic gold in singles and Federer hasn’t. Or that Nadal has won four more Davis Cups than Federer’s zero. Many have wondered aloud how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Great Britain’s Andy Murray together account for 34 of the past 35 Grand Slam championships. Such hegemony is unprecedented. (Consider that, over the same span, 24 different golfers have won majors.) The Big Four have turned the sport into their own crash test laboratory, challenging one another and raising the bar to heights previously thought impossible.

Could Nadal’s progression from raw athletic specimen to adaptable, intelligent all-around player be the finest product of his era? Barring injury, he should win at least a few more French Opens, where he’s lost exactly once in 60 career matches. (He’s already the odds-on favorite for next year’s tourney.) Five more majors overall is a tall order, but you’d be mad to bet against him.

“I’m gonna keep working hard, I’m gonna keep doing my things to have more chances in the future to be competitive and win tournaments,” he said, with a wry grin, after last night’s match. “But let me enjoy today.”