Saturday, December 20, 2014

Best 14 of 2014

Best Rivalries of 2014
1. Djokovic/Federer
2. Raonic/Nishikori
3. Murray/Robredo
4. Monfils/Fognini
5. Chardy/Federer
6. Nadal/Djokovic
7. Dimitrov/Murray
8. Dimitrov/Anderson
9. Chardy/Dolgopolov
11. Anderson/Wawrinka
12. Raonic/Sock
13. Ferrer/Kohlscreiber
14. Dimitrov/Gulbis

Best Matches of 2014
1. Djokovic/Federer Wimbledon Final
2. Kyrgios/Gasquet Wimbledon Round of 64
3. Kyrgios/Nadal Wimbledon Round of 16
4. Wawrinka/Djokovic Australian Open Quarterfinal
5. Gojowczyk/Tsonga Davis Cup Quarterfinal
6. Raonic/Nishikori US Open Round of 16
7. Djokovic/Federer Indian Wells Final
9. Wawrinka/Federer World Tour Finals Semifinal
10. Lokoli/Johnson Roland Garros First Round
11. Gulbis/Federer Roland Garros Round of 16
13. Ward/Querrey Davis Cup First Round
12. Coric/Nadal Basel Quarterfinal
8. Paire/Kyrgio Australian Open Round of 64
14. Fognini/Monfils Roland Garros Round of 32

Honorable Mentions
Murray/Robredo Valencia Final and Shenzhen Final
Dimitrov/Anderson Acapulco Final and Toronto Quarterfinal
Thiem/Gulbis US Open Round of 64
Matosevic/Brown Roland Garros Round of 128 (Matosevic's first grand slam victory)
Clezar/Estrella Burgos ATP Challenger Tour Finals Semifinal (Challenger match of the year)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Case for Djokovic as the GOAT

I have a list of the 25 greatest tennis player of the Open Era, which I update every few months or so, and on that is list, Novak Djokovic is currently sitting at the No. 9 spot, ahead of Stefan Edberg and not far behind Andre Agassi. However, there is still a case to be made that Djokovic is the greatest tennis player of all time based entirely on the numbers.

Before determining who the GOAT is, it is crucial to first define what the GOAT is. Some people consider it the person that at his peak can beat any player in tennis history head-to-head and would do so if given the chance. The problem with this definition is that whoever that person is depends on what surface is being used and which type of racket is being used.

The evolution of rackets and use of different surfaces in tennis is always a problem in determining the GOAT, which is why I prefer the following definition for GOAT. It is the singles player that dominated their own era the most and did so for the longest amount of time. That gives us two ways to measure a players dominance: degree and duration, and Djokovic is the leader in both categories, which is what makes him the GOAT.


No mathematical tricks here. Determining that the degree of Djokovic's dominance at its peak is higher than anyone else in tennis history is very clear. Just look at the 2011 season. From the 2010 Davis Cup final to the 2011 US Open, Djokovic went 66-2 with a 43-match winning streak. That year, Djokovic accumulated 13,630 ranking points, which is the most ever in a calendar year.

Of course, the ranking system has changed over the years, so that final stat hardly tells the whole story, but Djokovic also went 11-1 against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who were each ranked ahead of him at the beginning of the year. On top of that, he beat Nadal, who is known as the "King of Clay," in straight sets in both of their matches on clay.

Although there are seasons, such as Rod Laver's in 1969, John McEnroe's in 1984, and Federer's in 2006 that compare to what Djokovic did in 2011, none of them had a stretch that was as dominant as Djokovic's 66-2 run.


This is where things get tricky, because two reasonable people could disagree on how to measure duration. It is certainly more complicated than length of career, because nobody dominates the tour in their first year, and few retire while at their peak. The duration also isn't as short as the number of weeks spent as the No. 1 player in the world, because that perspective treats the No. 2 as equally irrelevant as the No. 200 player in the world.

However, considering the No. 2 player in the world dominant would be wrong, because there is someone better than that player. That doesn't mean it is impossible to be a dominant No. 2 player in the world. The solution lies in playing around with the rankings.

The ATP World Tour does its rankings based on a 52-week system. That means that 52 weeks after a player earns his ranking points, he will lose those points, meaning the duration of ranking is always a 52-week period.

So to measure the duration of a player's dominance, we can play around with the duration of the ranking system. Here is what I did:

I changed the current rankings to 104 week rankings, which is simply the sum of year-end points from 2013 and year-end points from 2014. Since Djokovic got 2000 points from the Australian Open 2013 and 360 points in 2014, the Serb gets a total of 2360 points from that event in his 104-week rankings. That's how it works for all of a player's top 18 events.

Measuring Djokovic.

When I changed the rankings to 104 weeks, I found that Djokovic was still the world No. 1. I then checked the 156-week rankings by adding the 2012 year-end points and Djokovic was still the world No. 1. I kept adding 52 weeks to the ranking and every single time Djokovic was the world No. 1 all the way back to 2007. Then in 2006, Nadal surpassed Djokovic.

(I adjusted the points from pre-2009 year-end point totals so that they would be numerically comparable to the rankings numbers produced from 2009 to 2014.)

That means that Djokovic has been the best player in the world for the last eight years, and no player has been better than Djokovic in a time frame away from this season.

I decided to add one more requirement to the streak, which was that during the streak the player cannot end any season ranked lower than No. 4. The reason for that was that a player can't be the fifth best player for that year and still consider that part of his period of dominance.

That requirement also prevents a potential problem in the future. If Djokovic has just one or two more dominant years, it could drive his point total high enough that his streak of dominating the rankings would go back to 1973, when rankings began. Obviously, years where Djokovic didn't even play shouldn't be considered part of his era of dominance, so the final qualifier prevents that from happening.

Measuring the field.

For measuring another player, I started by finding the latest year that each player finished the year as the No. 1. Then, I started adding 52 weeks backwards in time to that ranking to measure how long their period of dominance had been.

The largest problem with this method of determining duration is simply that there were no points given out prior to 1990. Because of that, it is impossible to compare McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Jimmy Connors, who all would have done well in this category if there were a way to measure them.

Nadal and Federer each produced two different streaks, while every other player had just one.

This is the total number of years each player's dominance lasted.

1. Novak Djokovic 8 years (2007-2014)
2. Pete Sampras 7 years (1992-1998)
3. Roger Federer 6 years (2003-2007, 2009)
4. Rafael Nadal 5 years (2007-2010, 2013)
5. Jim Courier 2 years (1991-1992)
5. Lleyton Hewitt 2 years (2001-2002)
7. Stefan Edberg 1 year (1990)
7. Andre Agassi 1 year (1999)
7. Gustavo Kuerten 1 year (2000)
7. Andy Roddick 1 year (2003)

Realistically, Connors is likely the only one who would have been close to Djokovic in this list out of the guys who played before 1990. Connors one season that compares to Djokovic's 2011 is what he did in 1974. That year he went 93-6 with 15 titles, including three grand slam titles.

However, his longest winning streak that year was only 28 games and the other top players in the world that year were Laver, Borg, John Newcombe, Guillermo Vilas, Tom Okker, Stan Smith, Ken Rosewall, Ilie Nastase, and Arthur Ashe. He played all of those players just six times in his 99 total matches. Meanwhile, Djokovic played just Federer and Nadal 12 times in 68 matches. That doesn't even count all the other top 10 wins Djokovic had in that stretch.

I won't move Djokovic from No. 9 on my GOAT list, but that doesn't mean there can't be a statistical case to be made that Djokovic is the greatest tennis player of all time.

*I will post a more complete explanation of my dominance duration stat in a couple days, so that the math behind it can be seen and analyzed and maybe improved upon.

Monday, November 10, 2014

14 Reasons Tennis is the Best Sport

I grew up as a fan of many sports on several different levels. I grew up watching the local college sports at a small NAIA school, where I learned to be a sports fan. I quickly became a fan of the MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL, especially the MLB. I also loved the big college sports, cheering for USC and Michigan in basketball and football.

In high school, I became a big fan of local high school sports as my baseball career came to an anticlimactic end, so I now write high school sports for the local newspaper. I am currently a student at Azusa Pacific University, where I work in the Sports Information Department, writing about any of the 17 varsity sports offered by the school. I also grew up playing in baseball, basketball, soccer, and flag football leagues, while playing just about every other sport at the park on the other side of the block, in the driveway in my front yard, or on the grass in my backyard.

Every sport except tennis. I would use my parents' old wooden rackets like baseball bats, when I wanted to hit the wiffle balls or small rocks farther than normal. It wasn't until I wasn't good enough to play any other sport that I finally gave tennis a try, both as a fan and a player. And it didn't take me long to start to think "Why didn't someone tell me this sport is so amazing sooner?" Here's what makes the sport so amazing:

1. Brackets:
In America, it doesn't matter if you watch any college basketball. You still look forward to March. Why? Because that's when March Madness happens. Where 68 teams are put into a bracket and after a month, only one team stands. During this time, millions of Americans fill out a bracket predicting the results of every game. Imagine if college basketball were as exciting every month as it is in March... or check out tennis. Tennis has brackets every week. Every week is one loss and you're out, creating the possibility for shocking upsets and big runs and all the other things that puts the madness in March Madness.

2. Rankings:
If you are a fan of college football, Mondays are sometimes just as exciting as Saturdays, because even though nobody plays on Monday, that's the day the rankings come out. That's when you get to find out the significance of the results from Saturday. The anticipation of the new rankings on Monday can be just as exciting as the game itself. Tennis also has a ranking system, which posts results every Monday morning that tennis fans love to poor over and analyze as much as a college football fan. However, there are two distinct advantages to tennis rankings. First, the rankings don't stop after 25. In fact, they keep going all the way to a few thousand, so even if your favorite player is nowhere near the top 25, every win and loss's significance is reflected in the rankings. Second, tennis has a transparent ranking system. It's not a bunch of people taking secret ballots or in a room having secret discussions. The ranking explanation is posted online for each individual player, and it follows a consistent formula, so nobody is shocked when their player drops 10 spots despite winning multiple matches that week.

3. Challenges (Instant Replay): 
The MLB finally came around on challenges and everybody loves it. Nobody likes when Jim Joyce takes away a perfect game from Armando Galarage. But like football, baseball still has one problem with challenges: they take forever! Not the case with tennis. Everyone in the stadium gets to see the replay and a computer is responsible for overturning a call, so the results are immediate. Except this one time...

4. Tantrums
Hockey has fights and tennis simply cannot beat that. However, one thing tennis does have that hockey doesn't is microphones on the court. That means that unlike any other sport, when Juan Martin del Potro tells Andy Murray a 'Yo mama' joke and Murray whines about it, you get to hear it! Watch: 

 5. Cinderella Stories: 
When I say Cinderella story, I don't mean that fake stuff where a big network does a special on a team that you have never heard of and then you start cheering for that team like you know everyone on the roster personally. I mean stories where truly likeable teenagers  like Vicky Duval, CiCi Bellis, and Tayler Townsend take on the legends of their sport on huge stages. Or stories of guys like Brian Baker or Ricardas Berankis. Or great underdog stories like Nicolas Mahut, Marinka Matosevic, or Marin Cilic. Every sport has great stories and that's why we love sports, but the individuality of tennis makes its stories so much more compelling.

6. Calendar:
Tennis never ends. The offseason whomps in every other sport. It is way too long and is almost unbearable. In tennis, the official offseason is around five weeks, but even during those five weeks, tennis is still happening. You never have to wait for tennis to come back.

7. All-Star Week:
This is what tennis is missing, right? I mean, baseball has an incredible all-star weekend and tennis has none, right? Dead wrong. In tennis, not only is there an all-star weekend, there is an entire all-star week. When is it? Almost every week. The all-star game is just having the best players from your sport gather in one place to play half as hard as they normally do on the same field at once. Because tennis is a tour, the best players in the world are on the same court all the time. You rarely have Roger Federer in New York, while Novak Djokovic is in Los Angeles. Usually, all the best players are at the same places at the same time.
            Once in my life, has the all-star game been within driving distance of my house, and it was a can't-miss weekend. It was amazing to spend half a day at the ballpark to watch the players take batting practice. But what is even better than that is that every year all the top players in the world come to Indian Wells for two weeks, and I can pick a couple days during that time where I can spend the entire day watching all the best players in the world in one place. There are so many matches going on at once to choose from loaded with talent and I can even walk right up to the practice courts to watch my favorite player from 10 feet away at most. While I'm at Indian Wells, it's not unlikely that I will rub shoulders with someone ranked in the top 100 in the world. And just to give you an idea how good being top 100 in the world in your sport is, Ryan Howard isn't even in the top 100 position players in the MLB according to fantasy rankings, yet there is no chance you could get close to him without knowing someone important.

8. The Best Win:
In the title matches, there is going to be the names and faces of two players that you know regardless of how big of a tennis fan you are. Upsets do happen, but you don't hear people say "who is that?" when they look at the names of the players in the final. In the biggest tournaments, the ones competing in the final will be two of the greatest players of all time. In other sports, the championship is often between teams that didn't even win their own conference or division, but the ball bounced their way in the postseason.

9. 1-on-1:
Everyone loves boxing, because it is a 1-on-1 battle. However, even in boxing, you have men in your corner, who are essentially teammates or coaches. Not the case in tennis. With a few exceptions in special types of events, there are no teammates, no coaches, nothing. The players have to make adjustments on their own and figure things out on their own. Tennis is the closest thing to a true 1-on-1 sport.

10. Female Sport:
I was at a women's college basketball game this weekend, and it was just a scrimmage and nobody kept score, so there was nothing competitive about the game. It was simply a pure display of talent. During the game, a female friend of mine turned to me and said "I wish this were at least a men's game so it would actually be worth watching." The gender gap in basketball is massive. It is only bigger with football and basketball. Even NASCAR, hockey, and  boxing have a significant problem in this area. Not the case for tennis. At the grand slams, tennis players of both genders are paid equally based on their results and the women get a far more significant amount of TV time and media coverage than any other female sport.

11. Conditions:
 In baseball, every field is unique and baseball fans love that. Each MLB field ever built has its own characteristic that makes it different than any other. However, the impact those characteristics have on the game is noticeable and occasionally game-changing, but normally it isn't a major factor. Tennis, on the other hand, has three different types of surfaces and can be played indoors and outdoors, meaning there are six different basic types of conditions in which a match can be held. And these changes in conditions significantly change the way the game is played. That's why Rafael Nadal completely dominates the outdoor clay in Paris, while struggling in recent years on the lawns of Wimbledon.

12. Minor Leagues:
The ATP has three levels of tours and the lower two are sometimes called the minor leagues. However, the level of talent in the minor leagues of tennis is so much better than any team sport. In tennis, there will be several players ranked inside the top 150 in the world (which is equivalent to being the fifth best player on an MLB team) playing in the minor leagues. That's the kind of talent you get to watch when you go to a minor league tournament.

13. Olympics:
I'm personally not a big fan of the Olympics, but I know some people love it. My issue with the Olympics is that I don't care about swimming, track & field, synchronized diving, curling, or ice skating the other three years. Why should I become a fan of something for just two weeks every four years? And with basketball and other team sports that are actually in the Olympics, it is just boring. The players are more worried about getting injured before the "real season" instead of winning gold. If they don't care, I don't care. Tennis is one of the few sports that doesn't peak or tank at the Olympics. The players want to win at the Olympics just as much as normal. The only difference is that for this one event, they represent their country more than just themselves, which is what the Olympics is all about. That way I know about the players who are competing, and I'm actually watching players that care about winning. Is there a better sport at the Olympics than tennis? Yet, it is at the Olympics where you realize just how underappreciated the sport is, because it is finally compared side-by-side with other sports.

14. World Wide:
After soccer, tennis is one of the most international sports. Tennis has grand slams in Australia, North America, and Europe, while it is rapidly growing in South America and Asia. Many countries are represented by the players in tennis as well. In the top 150 of the ATP alone, there are usually over 40 different countries represented at any time of year. If the top 150 players in the world of any sport were selected, would that many different countries really be represented in even soccer?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Year-end No. 1 scenarios

Novak Djokovic claimed his second consecutive title in Paris with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Milos Raonic on Sunday. The win gave the Serb a 1310-point lead over Roger Federer in Emirates ATP Rankings with just two events left in the year.

Both players will be playing in London in a week's time, where up to 1500 points are up for grabs. Then, Federer will be representing Switzerland in the Davis Cup final for France, where he could get up to 225 more ranking points. That same week, Djokovic is guaranteed to lose 150 ranking points, which he earned in Serbia's loss in the Davis Cup final last year.

These are the scenarios for which of the two will finish the year as the world No. 1:

If Djokovic wins all three group stage matches or reaches the final in London, he will clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking.

If Djokovic wins just two group stage matches and doesn't reach the final...
-Federer must win all five matches in London and a live rubber in the Davis Cup final to be the world No. 1

If Djokovic wins jut one group stage match...
-Federer can clinch the year-end No. 1 with five wins in Paris.
-If Federer wins two group stage matches in London and the title, he must win one live rubber in the Davis Cup final to be the world No. 1.

If Djokovic doesn't win any match in London...
-Federer can clinch the year-end No. 1 by winning the title and at least two group stage matches.
-If Federer wins one group stage matches and the title, he must win one live rubber to be the world No. 1.
-If Federer wins three group stage matches and his semifinal, he must win two live rubbers in the Davis Cup final to be world No. 1.

Friday, October 31, 2014

London World No. 1 Scenarios

Milos Raonic claimed a 7-6(5), 7-5 win over Roger Federer yesterday, meaning that Novak Djokovic is guaranteed to be the No. 1 seed at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, which starts in a week.

Djokovic is playing Milos Raonic in the final in Paris. Djokovic now holds a 910-point lead over Federer in the Race to London Rankings. These are the scenarios for who between the two will be the world No. 1 after the year-end finals.

Note: Roger Federer can gain up to 225 additional points in the Davis Cup Final following the year-end finals and Djokovic will lose 150 points, so Djokovic could be the No. 1 after London, but Federer could still be the year-end No. 1.

If Djokovic loses to Raonic, Djokovic would hold a 910-point lead over Federer going into London...
-If Djokovic reaches the final or wins all three group stage matches, he will remain the world No. 1.
-If Djokovic only wins two group stage matches, Federer must win the title and all three group stage matches to be world No. 1.
-If Djokovic only wins one group stage match, Federer must win the title and at least two group stag matches or all three group stage matches and his semifinal to be the world No. 1.
-If Djokovic doesn't win any match, Federer must win the title or two group stage matches and his semifinal to be world No. 1.

If Djokovic wins Paris, Djokovic would hold a 1310-point lead over Federer going into London...
-If Djokovic wins one group stage match, he will remain world No. 1.
-If Djokovic doesn't win any group stage match, Federer must win all five matches to be the world No. 1.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Draw Fixing

There has always been a belief in the tennis world that when draws are made, it isn't as random as it is supposed to be. It is a big claim, but it appears to have some validity to it based on the statistics. However, the statisticians who are trying to prove that the draws aren't entirely random use an old mathematical trick to prove their point, which isn't false, but it is misleading.

One of the best examples of using this kind of mathematical persuasion about draw-fixing is in this article. It is a very well written article in which the writer clearly has a very good understanding of statistics. However, the writer also has an agenda, which can result in drawing the wrong conclusions.

It was written by Katarina Pijetlovic and the trick she used was simple, but well disguised. I'll explain it with an example: Consider the match between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut. There were 137 holds to start the fifth set. Based on the stats, there was an 85% chance of Mahut holding in each game and an 87% chance of Isner holding in each game. That means there was a 0.000000106% chance of there being 137 holds to start the fifth set.

Based on this, you could conclude that Mahut and Isner decided that they wanted to hold the record for longest match ever so neither of them tried to break serve. Then maybe even add a narrative to make the argument even stronger. Say Isner and Mahut were trying to get players to receive more prize money for first round exits, so they made the match last three days to strengthen their argument that they deserve it.

However, this conclusion certainly false. Nobody who watched the match thought this was happening on purpose. Although the statistical probability makes this argument seem undeniable, an honest look at the events that took place shows that the match wasn't fixed.

Pijetlovic has made the same argument in her article. She took an event that has already occurred. Then she went back and measured the statistical odds of it. After finding the odds very low, she drew a wrong conclusion that she supported with a narrative about tournament directors wanting Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in finals.

This can be done with almost anything.

There is one other stat that Pijetlovic uses that has nothing to do with odds that jumps out at readers. It's that Federer and Djokovic were on the same half of the draw in 12 consecutive grand slam events on hard and grass courts.

However, this stat is flawed too. Look at all the qualifiers that exist in this stat: Federer, Djokovic, slam event, hard, and grass court. That is five different qualifiers. If you have enough qualifiers, anything can be an impressive stat.

Consider Tobias Kamke - the No. 93 player in the world. He is a decent player but probably won't be remembered too long after he retires by most tennis fans. Yet, he is the best player that was born in Germany, plays a two-handed backhand, hasn't had a 29th birthday yet, and has a win over a top 10 opponent.

With just four qualifiers, I made Kamke the best player in the world. Pijetlovic uses five! With every qualifier added, her number loses statistical significance. After all five qualifiers, 12 seems almost expected - not a sign of fixing.

Pijetlovic did a great job using these tricks and I would do the same thing if I wanted to prove a theory like that. It's a very effective strategy, but it doesn't work this time because draw-fixing simply doesn't happen on the ATP or in the ITF.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

BabyFederer meets Roger Federer in Basel

BASEL, Switzerland >> Tomorrow evening, Roger Federer will play against Grigor Dimitrov for the second consecutive year at Swiss Indoors Basel quarterfinals in the most highly anticipated match of the tournament.

Dimitrov and Federer have been drawn close to each other in several tournaments in the past few months, but the two have managed to avoid having to play each other. In fact, no two players currently in the top 10 (Dimitrov dropped out of the top 10 on Monday) have played each other less often than Dimitrov and Federer.

The match has garnered such hype from the comparisons of Dimitrov to Federer, which began when the Bulgarian was just a junior. The similarities between the two were so obvious, that Dimitrov has eaned the nickname BabyFederer. Whether he likes it or not, the name has stuck with him even after he cracked the top 10 and had the rare accomplishment of winning titles on all three surfaces in just a five-month span.

The similarities extent beyond just the logos on their rackets, shoes, and shirts. Everything Dimitrov does from the way he hits the ball to his footwork to his habit of wiping his mouth with his wristband draws comparisons to Federer.

Many are quick to point out the differences between the tactically, which is an argument that has some validity. Federer tends to be more intelligent with his shot selection, more aggressive in court-positioning, and is more willing to approach the net. However, when the No. 5 seed does decide to take the ball early or approach the net, the similarities between the two are illuminated.

The two players also share a love for trick shots. Dimitrov has hit several amazing tweeners, facing the net and even gone behind the back against Viktor Troicki and Jack Sock more recently. Dimitrov also isn't afraid to hit winners while sliding into the splits. Federer's trick shots have a higher degree of difficulty hitting smashes and tweeners with his back to the net. He has also been known to pull out some genius head fakes like a point guard in the NBA.

The second match between Federer and BabyFederer will start not before 10 p.m. local time.The winner of their match will play either Ivo Karlovic or Benjamin Becker. Both players have dropped one set en route to the quarterfinals.

In their meeting last year, Federer needed just 92 minutes to defeat Dimitrov 6-3, 7-6(2). The No. 1 seed will try to repeat the performance as he battles for the year-end No. 1 title. Dimitrov, who is the No. 5 seed in Basel, is on the bubble for London qualification.
Their match last year produced some rallies that normally you could only find in a video game. If you want to know who would win if Federer played himself, just watch the highlights from their match last year. There's no better way to see just how amazingly similar they are than to see them both on the same court at once.

My prediction: Dimitrov in 3

Sunday, October 12, 2014

World No. 1 Scenarios: Djokovic vs. Federer

Roger Federer defeated Gilles Simon to win his 81st title and first in Shanghai
Roger Federer's impressive 6-4, 6-4 win over Novak Djokovic in Shanghai didn't just give him a the title eventually - it put him within reach of earning the sport's top ranking at the end of the regular season. Now, he has added the title in Basel, increasing his chances of being the top seed in London.

He currently trails Djokovic in the Race to London Rankings by 490 points, and after Bercy, the Race Rankings become the 52-week rankings, meaning Federer has a chance to become the world No. 1 by the end of the week.

Djokovic is the top seed in Paris with Federer as the No. 2 seed.

-If Djokovic reaches the final in Paris, he will clinch the top seed in London, but Federer controls the rankings if Djokovic does any worse.

-If Djokovic loses in the quarterfinals or semifinals, Federer can become the world No. 1 with what would be his second career title in Paris.

Race to London nearing dramatic finish

If you don't think qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London is a huge goal for professional tennis players, go check the entry lists for the three 250-level tournaments being played this week.

Sandwiched between a pair of Masters Series 1000 events along with two 500-events, the 250 events in Vienna, Moscow, and Stockholm this week are typically avoided by the top players without a second thought. However, as the race to London reaches its climax, it is as competitive as ever to earn one of the final three available slots.

With the exception of Kei Nishikori, who preventing a miracle will qualify for London, all five players that are on the bubble for qualification are in action this week along with Marin Cilic, who has clinched because of the grand slam rule. That means, Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, David Ferrer, and Andy Murray are all playing this week. Murray has never played in Vienna and needed a wildcard to get in, as did Ferrer, who hadn't played the event in a decade. Meanwhile, Raonic is playing Moscow for the first time in his career.

With four spots already locked up officially and Cilic qualified by the grand slam rule, three spots are up for grabs and Nishikori has almost claimed one of them, so the five players in action this week will be battling for the last two spots in the next three weeks. Right now, Berdych leads the group of five with Dimitrov at the bottom, but less than 500 points separate the two.

The race will get even thicker next week with all five again in action in 500 events with both Berdych and Murray accepting wildcards into Valencia along with Cilic, Ferrer, and Nishikori, while Dimitrov and Raonic will play in Basel.

Here is the break down of each of the six players that have not yet qualified or been eliminated that are competing for the final three available spots:

5. Kei Nishikori
Current Race Ranking Points: 4,265
Previous WTF Qualifications: None
Upcoming events: Valencia and Paris
Prediction: Will Qualify
After reaching the final at the US Open, Nishikori was almost a lock to be in the final showdown to end the season. He has only strengthened his credentials with titles in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, but missed out on a chance to clinch his spot with a first round loss in Shanghai. Still, Nishikori could lose in the first round of Valencia and Paris and still likely get into London.

7. Tomas Berdych
Current Race Ranking Points: 3,945
Previous WTF Qualifications: 4 times (2010-13)
Upcoming events: Valencia and Paris
Prediction: Will Qualify

His losses have been ugly since the US Open, but luckily losses have been a rarity for Berdych, who has won six of his last eight matches.  The Czech has a great draw in Stockholm and should have no problem at least reaching the final. In Valencia, he will be the No. 3 seed, so he will be on the opposite side of the draw as Murray. Based on records on hard courts, Berdych would much rather be on Ferrer's side of the draw with a 3-4 record against the Spaniard on hard courts including wins in the last two. Meanwhile, he is 0-3 against Nishikori, who will be the No. 2 seed, on hard courts. Whether or not he qualifies really depends on how he does in Paris, which is where he won his second career title back in 2005. However, since then, Berdych has been a pedestrian 14-8 in Bercy.

8. Milos Raonic 
Current Race Ranking Points: 3,735
Previous WTF Qualifications: None
Upcoming events: Moscow, Basel, and Paris
Prediction: Won't Qualify

Raonic will be in action for five consecutive weeks in order to try to reach the year-end finals. His retirement in his first match in Shanghai put his qualification in serious doubt. For him, more than any other player on this list, this next week is crucial. Raonic is the only one on the bubble in Moscow - with Cilic as the No. 2 seed, so anything less than an appearance in a final would be a huge missed opportunity. Also this will set the tone for the two following weeks since he is coming off of the retirement in Shanghai. In Basel, he will be the No. 4 seed, so he will be on the opposite side of Stan Wawrinka, meaning he will either be on Rafael Nadal's side of Roger Federer's. Given Nadal's physical condition in Basel, Raonic would much rather be on his side of the draw. Raonic wins about 10.8% more often when he plays indoors than outdoors in his career, so if he is healthy, he could be very dangerous this week.

9. David Ferrer
Current Race Ranking Points: 3,715
Previous WTF Qualifications: 5 times (2007, 10-13)
Upcoming events: Vienna, Valencia, and Paris
Prediction: Won't Qualify

It seems strange to think that Ferrer wouldn't be in the world tour finals since he is currently No. 5 in the world and has never spent a week outside of the top eight in four years. However, that is a likely reality after the Spanish No. 2 went out in his first match of Shenzhen and Tokyo. He kept himself in the hunt with an impressive win over Murray in Shanghai to reach the quarterfinals and surpass Murray in the race. He could face Murray again in both Vienna and Valencia before we even get to Paris. If the final spot in London is truly between Ferrer and Murray, this is the best kind of drama the ATP could ask for to end the year.

10. Andy Murray
Current Race Ranking Points: 3,655
Previous WTF Qualifications: 5 times (2008-12)
Upcoming events: Vienna, Valencia, and Paris
Prediction: Will Qualify

Murray is making the biggest push of any player to try to qualify for the world tour finals held in his home country. The Brit accepted wildcards to both Vienna and Valencia specifically to rack up enough points to qualify to play in the O2 arena. Murray had to pull out of the event after one match in 2011 and missed the event last year and has never reached the final. With titles at the London Olympics, Wimbledon, and Queen's Club, the year-end finals along with Eastbourne are the only events in Great Britain, which Murray hasn't won yet. Until the loss to Ferrer, Murray had been playing his best tennis of the year since the US Open.
11. Grigor Dimitrov
Current Race Ranking Points: 3,450
Previous WTF Qualifications: 4 times (2010-13)
Upcoming events: Valencia and Paris
Prediction: Won't Qualify

At the start of the season, Dimitrov wasn't on most people's radars as someone who would be in the year-end finals, but after reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne and winning the title in Acapulco, BabyFederer became a serious contender. The Bulgarian has not been impressive since reaching the semifinals in Canada, where he looked like a player that would be qualified by now. Instead he is at the bottom of this list, but he certainly isn't out of the race. Out of the five players in action this week, Dimitrov has the toughest draw and he will go into Basel as the No. 5 seed, meaning he will need to come up with some big wins just to reach the final. If Dimitrov gets into the year-end finals, he is going to have to earn it, but I think tennis would love to see him join Raonic as the first two players born in the 90s to reach the world tour finals.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Figuring out Wawrinka

On Tuesday, No. 1 seed Stan Wawrinka was eliminated from Tokyo by Tatsuma Ito 7-5, 6-2, who is ranked No. 103 in the world. It was Wawrinka's third first-round loss this season and first loss to a player ranked outside the top 100 (only other completed match against player ranked outside top 100 this year was a 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(7) win over No. 102 Dusan Lajovic).

The upset caused a big shock to the tennis world on twitter. Fans made claims that since winning a grand slam and becoming one of the top ranked players in the world, Wawrinka has lost the motivation to do well, while others even claimed that he has become too arrogant, which is stopping him from succeeding.

My perspective on the upset is completely different. To me Wawrinka in 2014 is still the same guy as Wawrinka in 2012.

Although he has made several appearances in the late rounds of majors in 2013 and 2014, Wawrinka is still just as susceptible to upsets as before. I've said since 2011 that Wawrinka is one of the most inexplicably inconsistent and completely unpredictable players on the men's tour. He can shock the world by winning the Australian Open or he can shock the world by losing in the first round of the very next major he plays.

The biggest thing that has changed between 2012 and 2014 is the expectations of the fans, who now look at Wawrinka as a grand slam champion and the No. 4 player in the world. They expect him to succeed with the same regularity as Andy Murray did in 2011, when he was the No. 4 player in the world.

While the Swiss No. 2 has posted many good results at tournaments in the last 21 months, he is not a different person than the guy that was the only player in the top 20 not to win a title in 2012. Thus, I'm no more surprised when Wawrinka loses to Ito than if any other top 20 player had lost to Ito.

For most players, this isn't the case though. Normally, as a player's ranking goes up, their number of losses to players ranked lower than a certain point go down. I picked top 20 as that certain point for Wawrinka, since almost any loss for Wawrinka in the last seven years to a player ranked outside the top 20 would be considered an upset mathematically.

The x-axis on this graph is Wawrinka's year-end ranking, while the y-axis is his number of losses Wawrinka has had to players ranked outside the top 20. What we would expect (and see with most players) is a strong positive correlation between being ranked lower and losing to players outside the top 20 more often.

However, what we see with Stan is that in the last seven years is that there is almost no correlation between ranking and losses to players outside the top 20, and the slight correlation that exists is actually negative!
In 2013, Wawrinka was ranked No. 8 in the world but lost just 10 matches to players outside the top 20 in 23 tournaments. However, in 2010, Wawrinka played in 20 tournaments and finished the year ranked No. 21, but only lost five matches to players outside the top 20.

So the math clearly shows that the frequency with which Wawrinka suffers shocking losses has almost no relation to what his ranking is. Yet people are expecting him to reach the quarterfinals or better of every tournament now simply because his ranking is higher. No wonder fans are frustrated with Wawrinka!

Now, there is Marin Cilic, who just won his first grand slam. We shouldn't expect his results in the next 12 months to look much different that the results he was recording in the first eight months of this season. Instead of thinking he will win every tournament now because he won a grand slam, realize that he is still the same person that was excited just to reach the final of a 500 event just seven months ago.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Serbian tennis is back on the rise

The last 12 months have not been great for tennis in Serbia as world No. 1 Novak Djokovic became the country's lone representative in the top 100 that was playing events for several months.

With Viktor Troicki banned from playing events on the ATP and Janko Tipsarevic injured, Serbia went from one of the few countries with three top 50 players last June to a country whose only face was Djokovic.

While many countries would have loved to be where Serbia was at eight or nine months ago, having the world No. 2, that wasn't enough for fans of Serbian tennis. Serbia didn't want to be another one of those small tennis countries that got lucky to produce just one star - it had gotten used to the idea of having multiple players reaching the second week at slams.

This spring, Serbia got back to that momentarily, when Dusan Lajovic joined Djokovic in the second week at Roland Garros, allowing the 24-year old to reach a career-high ranking of 58 just a month later.

Lajovic isn't the only rising star in Serbian tennis. There are a whole group of young stars from Serbia that are surging up the rankings that could make Serbia one of the most well-represented countries in the top 100 in a few years. Here's a list of the top Serbian players right now.

Novak Djokovic (1) - The current world No. 1 has been the country's most successful player ever. He's in a bit of a slump right now by his standards, but right now there are no major threats to his status as the world No. 1 until March.

Dusan Lajovic (69) - It has been a breakthrough year for the No. 2 Serb, who won five of his nine grand slam matches and has claimed impressive wins over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Carlos Berlocq, Jack Sock, Frederico Delbonis, and Jerzy Janowicz. He has a lot of points to defend in the coming months, so it may be a while before
he reaches the top 50, but he will get there eventually.

Filip Krajinovic (101) - Injuries have prevented the No. 3 Serb from climbing the rankings faster, but after a long stretch of health, Krajinovic came one spot away from cracking the top 100 this week after beating Taro Daniel in Kuala Lumpur. He is only 22 years old, so the results are going to continue to come. He has two challenger titles and two futures titles this year to go along with a win over Fabio Fognini in Hamburg.

Viktor Troicki (152) - Before the season, I said the former world No. 12 would get back into the top 100 this year using just the three and a half months of play left in the season after his ban. In just over two of those months, Troicki has already gotten himself up to No. 174 in the world using a packed schedule. The Serbian No. 4 has reached the quarterfinal of all seven events and won two in a ten-week span that included having two qualify at two challenger events (talk about a rough draw for his opponent). He is now making use of some wild cards to get into events with more ranking points at stake. Troicki has figured out how to make the year off into a positive. It's not hard to imagine him being back near his career-high ranking 12 months from now at 29-years old.

Ilija Bozoljac (201) - The Davis Cup hero isn't the focus of Serbia's future as a 29-year old that has never cracked the top 100, but he is certainly a central figure in tennis for the country.

Pedja Krstin (264) - Krstin just turned 20 years old earlier this month, which was around the same time that his rapid climb up the rankings stalled. Almost exactly two years ago, Krstin regained his ranking and has climbed from just inside the top 2000 to No. 234 in the world. In the last 12 months, Krstin has dominated the futures events, but those results haven't translated on the Challenger Tour yet. Krstin got his professional start late, so there is no reason to think he won't continue to develop his game to be able to compete with the next tier.

Nikola Cacic (291) - At 23-years old already, Cacic may never be a mainstay on the world tour, but he still has the game to be ranked even higher than he is now. The best is still to come from Cacic, but it's hard to know right now what that will be.

Nikola Milojevic (352) - This is where the hope for the future of Serbian tennis lies. The 19-year old was the junior No. 1 and he has the support of the senior No. 1 on his side. The expectations are high for Milojevic who has claimed impressive wins over some of the other top teenagers in futures events this year. Milojevic also got his first tour-level win this year. He is still far behind some of the other teenagers, six of whom cracked the top 200 for the first time this year. However, it's always harder for players from countries without big events to build their ranking, since they don't get as many wild cards. Milojevic is playing catch-up for now, but he will be in the top 200 himself soon enough.

Laslo Djere (363) - Another teenage star that had a lot of success on the junior tour, Djere has boosted over 100 spots this year. He has won three futures events this year, but hasn't played any challenger main draws yet. When he makes the switch to the Challenger Tour, we will have a better idea just how good he can be.

Miki Jankovic (426) - The Serbian No. 11 just turned 20 two days ago. He completes the quartet with Djere, Milojevic, and Krstin (all of whom were 19 years old last month) of guys who represent the future of Serbian tennis. After winning two futures titles, Jankovic has been more aggressive in trying to enter challenger events. He is currently trying to fight his way through the qualifying at those events, where there isn't many ranking points or much money. However, he has his eyes set on the top 100 some day and this is part of that process.

At this point, it wouldn't be hard to imagine six or seven of these guys in the top 100 a few years from now. Right now, only four countries have six players in the top 100, Spain, France, United States, and Argentina. To be in that kind of company in just a few years is exactly what Serbian tennis fans should be excited about.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

9/22/14 Country Power Rankings

These are the rankings of how each country has done since the end of the 2013 tennis season. Rankings are based mainly on the year-to-date ranking of the individuals from that country.

1. Spain - The country may have all sorts of Davis Cup issues right now, but on the ATP World Tour, things couldn't be better. Even if Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer were taken away, Spain would only be slightly beind France for second place.

2. France - Sometimes it's quantity over quality. France lacks a real star or any big results aside from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's title in Canada and a nice run by Gael Monfils at Flushing Meadows. However, there are 14 Frenchmen that have already collected over 400 ranking points this year. Only Spain has more with 15.

3. Switzerland - Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer are all Switzerland has in the top 150 in the Race rankings, but they are both in the top four, which is why Switzerland is No. 3.

4. Serbia - The Serbs may still be No. 4, but this has been a poor stretch of tennis from Novak Djokovic making it almost impossible for them to get into the top three and opening the door for someone else to sneak into top four. The good news is that Viktor Troicki is back, while Dusan Lajovic and Filip Krajinovic are having the best year of their careers.

5. Germany - The Germans are in a similar situation as the Frenchmen. Having a lot of players in the mix has proved to be just as effective as having a true No. 1 player for Germany. However, the country is certainly missing Tommy Haas. Germany is looking for its second consecutive top five finish.

6. Croatia - Going from No. 10 to No. 6 is the biggest jump in this set of rankings by any top 10 country and is certainly the most significant. Marin Cilic's US Open title will do a lot for the future of Croatian tennis. And don't look now but teenager Borna Coric just won a challenger title.

7. Czech Republic - It has been a quiet year for the Czechs. In the same way their star Tomas Berdych has quietly been a top ten player, the country has fallen into the No. 7 spot without having any shocking results.

8. United States - When the Americans were at No. 4 early in the season, I thought it would be great if they could stay that high. Now they are down to No. 8. Still, there isn't much separating Germany and the United States. As a fan of US tennis, my goal was for the country to finish ahead of Germany. That's still certainly within reach.

9. Argentina - It has not been a good year for Argentina, but there are 34 countries on this list that wouldn't mind being ranked No. 9.

10. Japan - Kei Nishikori has had an incredible season when he has been healthy. He could be a lot higher if he didn't have to retire or withdraw from so many matches, and so would the country on this list.

11. Canada - Milos Raonic has been the fourth best player in tennis this year since the start of Indian Wells. Let that sink in.

12. Italy - The clay season is over now and ever since Italy has been slowly dropping in the rankings. The Italians would be better off just playing challengers on clay than wasting their time trying to win on hard courts.

13. Australia - Lleyton Hewitt hasn't officially passed the torch to Nick Kyrgios just yet. He still has a 15-point edge in the ATP rankings on the man 14 years his junior.

14. Great Britain - I'm expecting a nice comeback in the rankings from Andy Murray any day now. I wouldn't be surprised if he still qualifies for London.

15. Bulgaria - Grigor Dimitrov has made Bulgaria the highest country on this list with only one player in the top 150.

16. Russia - Russia is the only country in the top 20, whose top ranked player hasn't gotten 800 points left. Shows the depth that it has.

17. Latvia - Early in the year, Latvia, South Africa, and Bulgaria were all right next to each other in the rankings and all had just one player in the top 150. Dimitrov is running away with it for Bulgaria, but Ernests Gulbis hasn't done poorly for Latvia.

18. Colombia - Los Tres Amigos - Alejandro Gonzalez, Alejandro Falla, and Santiago Giraldo - have kept their country in the top 20.

19. Ukraine - Alexandr Dolgopolov has missed portions of the season. Like Nishikori, he could be ranked much higher if injuries and other health issues weren't factors.

20. Austria - Can we officially say Dominic Thiem is the face of Austrian tennis now? Melzer has had a nice comeback season though.

21. South Africa
22. Slovakia
23. Slovenia
24. Netherlands
25. Chinese Taipei
26. Portugal
27. Belgium
28. Kazakhstan
29. Uzbekistan
30. Brazil
31. Uruguay
32. Poland
33. Luxembourg
34. Finland
35. Dominican Republic
36. Tunisia
37. Israel
38. Cyprus
39. Bosnia & Herzegovina
40. Lithuania
41. Turkey
42. Hungary
43. Romania

The strangest result of the weirdest article

Here's my story on how I as a tennis writer got my material on Middle Earth Times

Earlier this week I wrote the weirdest article of my life. I likened a scene from Lord of the Rings to what is going on with the ATP World Tour right now. It was a short post that wasn't close to my best work as a writer. I'm not even a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - I just watched the movies when I was 11 or 12 years old.

As I do with all of my posts on this blog, I shared even this crummy post on twitter.
After tweeting that, I was surprised to see that I had a few new followers. Their handles were: @The_Hobbit, @Aragorn_II_E, and @lotr_quots.

They were horribly mistaken. That was the first and hopefully last time I will ever tweet about Lord of the Rings, but they all thought I was a big fan somehow. Laughing at their mistake, I shared this tweet:

Maybe you spotted the typo in that last tweet. I accidentally tagged the Sydney Morning Herald, which resulted in me getting followed by @funkdafied (some kind of music entertainment business based in Sydney) and @wakeup_aus (a non-profit organization for young people also based in Sydney)

The fun is just beginning though. Today, I found this tweet in my mentions:

Somehow Kathryn got a hold of my post and put it in the sports section of her website called Middle Earth Times. Of all the websites my articles have been posted on, this one tops them all for most memorable. The real question right now isn't why Middle Earth Times would think my article is worth posting on their website. Instead, the real question is why does Middle Earth Times have a sports section?

Out of all this, I have gained some decent exposure for my blog, which gave me some ideas for future articles. Maybe I could use a Star Wars reference to describe how Darth Federer beat Grigor Skywalker and Darth Federer then said "Grigor, Grigor, I am your father." Then I'll read all the Harry Potter and Twilight books to find a way to reference those in future tennis posts.

Friday, September 26, 2014

If the ATP were the Lord of the Rings trilogy

If the Lord of the Rings trilogy was actually a movie about tennis, the ATP World Tour is currently at the scene of the ambush at the caravan by the warg riders of Isengard .

Here's how it breaks down:
Roger Federer is Legolas
Novak Djokovic is Gimli
Rafael Nadal is Aragorn
Andy Murray is Gandolf
Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, and Stan Wawrinka are the men on horses
The young players on tour are the warg riders

The scene opens with Legolas seeing the wargs coming over a hill from far away and charging too quickly for their group to simply run away. The teenagers have been doing the same thing this year, charging up the rankings and nobody has seen it coming better more than Roger Federer. In April this year, there wasn't a single teenager in the top 200, but now six of them have come over the hill to enter the top 200, which is the most since 2008. Every year Federer invites teenagers to practice with him, during the offseason, so he knew very well how talented this group of teenagers is.

Legolas shot down a few of wargs before realizing there were too many to take on by himself. Federer did the same beating Vasek Pospisil in Canada and Pablo Carreno Busta at Roland Garros, which significantly slowed their progress in the rankings.

The first warg to reach the men was Grigor Dimitrov, who took down Novak Djokovic for a while with a win in Madrid. A second warg fell on top of Gimli, but it was already dead (Tomic's win over Djokovic at Hopman Cup).

Like Gandolf, Andy Murray isn't even in the scene. Since winning Wimbledon, Murray has still yet to reach a final over a year later.

However, the crucial moment in the scene is when one of the warg riders throws Aragorn off the cliff. At Wimbledon this year, Nick Kyrgios, perhaps the leader of the teenagers, beat Nadal, who still hasn't played in an ATP event since.

At the end of the scene, Gimli walks around and kills a few more warg riders. This year Djokovic has claimed a few wins over Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Carreno Busta, but still hasn't quite been at the level of play he reached in 2011.

There are only a few men at the end of the scene, who came away mostly unscathed. Those are Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, and Kei Nishikori, who have all benefitted from the struggles of the Big Four this year.

The question now is: will the ATP World Tour continue like the rest of the trilogy? Will Nadal come back, bursting the doors open to claim his spot on the throne as world No. 1? Will Murray come back like Gandalf the White and get back to winning majors?

Tennis may be an individual sport, but the Big Four need to collectively send a convincing message to young guns on tour that they still own the big events. Federer announced today that he will be in Shanghai, Murray should finally reach the final of an event in Shenzhen, Djokovic always dominates in China, and Nadal was back on court yesterday. If those four can dominate the tournaments in Shanghai, Paris, and London (if Murray qualifies), that would go a long way in slowing down the rapid charge of the young players that are surging up the rankings.