Monday, April 28, 2014

Wimbledon Seeds Projections

Roland Garros hasn't even started yet, but it is never too soon to start looking forward to Wimbledon. One of the interesting aspects of Wimbledon is that it is the one tournament that still does its own seeding. With the battle for No. 1 getting very close right now, it will be interesting to see who the No. 1 seed at Wimbledon will be, especially if Novak Djokovic is the No. 2 going into the tournament.

Race to Wimbledon
There are still several tournaments between now and Wimbledon, so for this first set of seedings, I took away all of the points each player has to defend in the upcoming tournaments before Wimbledon and added the grass-adjustment component of the Wimbledon seedings to see where each player stands right now. In other words, instead of the Race to London rankings this is the "Race to Wimbledon" seedings.

1. Novak Djokovic
2. Rafael Nadal
3. Andy Murray
4. Roger Federer
5. Stanislas Wawrinka
6. Juan Martin del Potro
7. Tomas Berdych
8. David Ferrer
9. John Isner
10. Milos Raonic
11. Richard Gasquet
12. Kei Nishikori
13. Jerzy Janowicz
14. Fabio Fognini
15. Grigor Dimitrov
16. Mikhail Youzhny
17. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
18. Ernests Gulbis
19. Fernando Verdasco
20. Alexandr Dolgopolov
21. Tommy Haas
22. Nicolas Almagro
23. Tommy Robredo
24. Kevin Anderson
25. Gael Monfils
26. Florian Mayer
27. Philipp Kohlschreiber
28. Ivan Dodig
29. Vasek Pospisil
30. Dmitry Tursunov
31. Marin Cilic
32. Feliciano Lopez

Murray and Janowicz were the players that benefited the most from the grass-adjustment since they both had incredible runs at Wimbledon each of the last two years. Also noteworthy, is that Andreas Seppi and Gilles Simon are unseeded. However, it is likely that Del Potro and maybe a few others like Monfils won't play in Wimbledon, so those near misses will get in.

If Wimbledon Were Today
For this next set of rankings, I added the points each player has to defend back onto their rankings, since the players who typically do well at those big clay tournaments and grass tune-ups will continue to do well there. This is essentially what the Wimbledon seeds would be if the seedings were done today.

1. Rafael Nadal
2. Novak Djokovic
3. Roger Federer
4. Andy Murray
5. Stanislas Wawrinka
6. David Ferrer
7. Juan Martin del Potro
8. Tomas Berdych
9. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
10. John Isner
11. Richard Gasquet
12. Milos Raonic
13. Kei Nishikori
14. Jerzy Janowicz
15. Mikhail Youzhny
16. Tommy Haas
17. Grigor Dimitrov
18. Fabio Fognini
19. Tommy Robredo
20. Fernando Verdasco
21. Kevin Anderson
22. Ernests Gulbis
23. Nicolas Almagro
24. Alexandr Dolgopolov
25. Gael Monfils
26. Philipp Kohlschreiber
27. Marin Cilic
28. Feliciano Lopez
29. Florian Mayer
30. Andreas Seppi
31. Gilles Simon
32. Nicolas Mahut

The big change in this one is that Nadal is now the No. 1 seed instead of Djokovic, but by less than 200 points. Also Tsonga jumped up eight spots putting himself on the edge of being a top eight seed instead of outside the top 16. Haas also jumped up into the top 16, but the rest remained in their tiers (top 2, top 4, top 8, top 16, seeded). The new seeded players are Seppi, Mahut, and Simon, who all have a significant amount of points to defend before Wimbledon.

My Picks
What the real seeds will be will be somewhere in between these two rankings, so I decided to come up with a logical guess at how well each player will do in the upcoming weeks and see what the seedings are for that. So these are my predictions for the 2014 Wimbledon Men's Singles seeds.

1. Novak Djokovic - The only worry is his wrist
2. Rafael Nadal - At best, he does as well as last year in the next events
3. Roger Federer - It's a tight battle for No. 3, but Federer looked good in MC
4. Andy Murray - He can avoid the top three until semis if he gets top four seed
5. Stanislas Wawrinka - Has a lot to defend in Madrid
6. David Ferrer - No chance he will defend his points at RG, but he is still David
7. Tomas Berdych - He needs to end the losing streak at RG
8. John Isner - Could swipe the coveted No. 8 seed with del Potro out
9. Fabio Fognini - Isn't this high from grass adjustment; chance for top 10
10. Richard Gasquet - Was 11 on each of the other two, but has little to defend
11. Milos Raonic - Clay just isn't his thing; hard for him to move up in spring
12. Kei Nishikori - Big title in Barcaleno could lead to more success
13. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - He has a lot to defend, but top 16 shouldn't be an issue
14. Grigor Dimitrov - It's been almost a year since he beat Djokovic already
15. Jerzy Janowicz - His ranking will come crashing down after Wimbledon
16. Ernests Gulbis - Will the real Ernests Gulbis please stand up? #Gulbised
17. Nicolas Almagro - Is playing well and in the hunt for a top 16 seed
18. Mikhail Youzhny - He's in a slump
19. Fernando Verdasco - Got a big boost from the grass-adjustment component
20. Tommy Robredo - Would love to see some more magic from Tommy at RG
21. Alexandr Dolgopolov - Been great on the hard stuff; will that continue on clay?
22. Gael Monfils - Only played Wimbledon twice in six years; will he play in 2014?
23. Kevin Anderson - In a little bit of a slump and has a lot to defend
24. Tommy Haas - Will be seeded based his 2013, because 2014 has been rough
25. Marin Cilic - He was 31 in the first list, but getting a seed won't be a problem
26. Andreas Seppi - the most reliable clay-courter that has never been in the top 10
27. Philipp Kohlschreiber - Watch out for him to come out of his slump in Munich
28. Feliciano Lopez - He's the kind of guy that the top players want to get a top seed
29. Ivan Dodig - Is unseeded if the seedings were today, but has little to defend
30. Florian Mayer - He was a quarterfinalist two years ago; still dangerous
31. Vasek Pospisil - Ranking is built on one result; thankfully it was in August
32. Dmitry Tursunov - Granollers, Simon, and Mahut; if just one of them catches fire suddenly, Tursunov can forget about getting a top seed; Otherwise, he's in

The difference between Murray and Federer is very small right now, so there is a lot up for grabs between those two. Either way it would be great to see the Big Four as the top four seeds at the most prestigious event in tennis. If they are the top four seeds, this will likely be the last time that all four are the top four at any grand slam event. Perhaps all four can play Basel or Dubai in 2016, so that they can all be top four seeds one last time at a tournament. For now though, it looks like Wimbledon will be the last event in this incredible era.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Myth vs. Math: Rafa, Nole, and Draws

This is the third installment in a five-part series called Myth vs. Math. In this series, I am taking a look at five widely-accepted statements that tennis writers, analysts, fans, and commentators frequently make. I'm checking to see if these statements hold up against the numbers. The first two statements in this series were "big servers have a notable advantage in tiebreakers" and "Novak Djokovic has the best defensive return in the game right now." The third statement that is being put to the test is "Rafael Nadal tends to get tougher draws than Djokovic since making his return from injury."

The Myth
It's the worst excuse in the book, but it's still the most common complaint amongst tennis fans of every player. Since the dawn of draws tennis fans have complained that their player always gets the hardest draws and that all of their rivals always get the easy draw.
Draws are a fascinating thing in tennis. The randomness of draws can make the ceremony almost as exciting as a real tennis match, and the anticipation for when the draw is released can be as great as the anticipation of the slam itself. After the draw is released, tennis fans have one or two days to analyze and predict what is in store for the days ahead. And regardless of what the draw says, there is a 100% chance that someone will claim their favorite player has a harder draw than someone else.
It happens at every major tournament in tennis history, but since the 2014 Australian Open men's singles draw was released, the Rafael Nadal fans have made an inordinate amount of griping about the difficulty of Novak Djokovic's draw. However they took it as far as to exaggerate that Djokovic always gets easier draws.
It has gotten to the point where Nadal fans have said it so much that even Djokovic fans have begun to believe it. On the ATP website, a Nadal fan accused Djokovic of cheating to which a Djokovic fan replied "He does typically get the easier draws, but that is out of his control." So does Djokovic really tend to get significantly easier draws? Are Djokovic's opponents easier than Nadal's? Are the matchups created by the draw really better for Djokovic?
The Math
I'm going to do the math on tournaments since the start of the 2013 season, since that is when the complaints have really picked up from Nadal fans (there wasn't much to complain about when Djokovic and Roger Federer were on the same side of the draw at 13-of-15 slams). When looking at specifically the slams, I will focus on just the last four since Nadal didn't play in the 2014 Australian Open.
There is special attention paid to the draws at the slams, and rightfully so, since that's where the most is at stake. However, I first want to look at strength of schedule overall. Since the start of 2013, Nadal, who has played four more matches, has had to play against top 10 opponents three less times and top 20 opponents five less times.
Overall, Nadal's average opponent had a ranking of 45.1, while Djokovic's average opponent had a ranking of 35.8. However, Nadal did have a match against a player ranked 570, and a player ranked 570 isn't much easier than anyone else outside the top 100 for Djokovic and Nadal. If we change the ranking of every player outside the top 100 to exactly 100, Djokovic still has had to face tougher opponents with a new mean rank of 32.5 compared to 37.7 for Nadal, which is still higher than Djokovic's original rank.

Now, if we created a bar graph for the ranking of their opponents faced, both players would have a graph that skews towards the higher ranking, with the mode at the low ranking. For graphs like that, the median is a much more telling summary statistic than the mean. However, Djokovic has a tougher median-ranked opponent as well. The median rank of his opponents is 23, while Nadal's is 29.

If rankings in tennis were done like they are in college football or college basketball in the United States, there could be a case to be made that Djokovic is the rightful world No. 1 right now, because his strength of schedule is clearly superior to Nadal's over the last 15 months. However, what about the majors? Is Nadal's strength of schedule week only because he plays a lot more tune-up events than Djokovic or does the same hold true at the biggest tournaments in the game?
To find the toughness of draws, I looked at the 20 seeded players that Nadal and Djokovic each would have played if seeds held at each of the last four majors. However, instead of looking at how high those players were ranked, I want to look at how tough of a matchup each player is based on previous head-to-head records.

Nadal held a 69.2 win percentage against his scheduled opponents, compared to Djokovic, who had the tougher path with 61.5 win percentage against his opponents. However, Nadal does have a higher win percentage against his opponents, partially because he does well against everyone. So if we compare each players' win percentage against an average opponent to their win percentage against their should-be opponents, we can see how tough the matchups that their draw created really were.
Rafael Nadal's path at last four majors Novak Djokovic's path at last four majors
Head-to-Head Head-to-Head
Slam Seed Opponent Wins Losses Win% Seed Opponent Wins Losses Win%
AO 25 Gael Monfils 10 2 0.833 30 Tursunov 1 0 1
16 Kei Nishikori 6 0 1 15 Fognini 7 0 1
5 Juan Martin Del Potro 8 4 0.667 8 Wawrinka 15 3 0.833
4 Andy Murray 13 5 0.722 3 Ferrer 11 5 0.688
2 Novak Djokovic 22 18 0.55 1 Nadal 18 22 0.45
USO 27 Fernando Verdasco 13 1 0.929 25 Dimitrov 3 1 0.75
13 John Isner 4 0 1 16 Fognini 7 0 1
7 Roger Federer 23 10 0.697 6 Del Potro 11 3 0.786
4 David Ferrer 21 5 0.808 3 Murray 12 8 0.6
1 Novak Djokovic 22 18 0.55 2 Nadal 18 22 0.45
W 25 Benoit Paire 2 0 1 28 Chardy 8 0 1
11 Stanislas Wawrinka 12 1 0.923 13 Haas 6 3 0.667
3 Roger Federer 23 10 0.697 7 Berdych 15 2 0.882
2 Andy Murray 13 5 0.722 4 Ferrer 11 5 0.688
1 Novak Djokovic 22 18 0.55 2 Murray 12 8 0.6
RG 27 Fabio Fognini 4 0 1 26 Dimitrov 3 1 0.75
13 Kei Nishikori 6 0 1 16 Kohslschreiber 3 1 0.75
7 Richard Gasquet 12 0 1 8 Tipsarevic 5 2 0.714
1 Novak Djokovic 22 18 0.55 3 Nadal 18 22 0.45
2 Roger Federer 23 10 0.697 2 Federer 16 17 0.485
Average Opponents 679 132 0.837 Average Opponents 559 134 0.807
Opponents in Path 281 125 0.692 Opponents in Path 200 125 0.615
Bolded Opponents 105 61 0.633 Bolded Opponents 123 84 0.594
* Opponents in bold are ones that reached the round in which they would've met
The opponents Nadal would have faced if the seeds held at each of the last four majors were 14.5% harder than average opponents for him. For Djokovic though, his opponents were 19.2% tougher than his average opponents. So if both players played against who they should have according to the draw, Djokovic had the much tougher draws overall.

Even with Nadal's easy draws, things got even easier for him. Of those 20 opponents that he should have faced, only eight of them actually got far enough in the tournament to have to play against Nadal. And those eight that got far enough were only 16.4% tougher matchups than average opponents. Djokovic, on the other hand, had 11 opponents, who got far enough to play against Djokovic. Those 11 opponents were 21.3% tougher than average opponents.
So since Nadal's return, he has gotten to face lower-ranked opponents than Djokovic, gotten more favorable potential matchups in the majors, and seen more of his opponents bow out before he even had to play against them.

Flaws in the Math

The flaws in the math  is that the math doesn't take into consideration how hard each player's draw should  have been. The way the draws work is that there is no difference in who the No. 1 seed and who the No. 2 seed could play against in each round. Both of the top two seeds are guaranteed to be on opposite sides of the draw and any other player can wind up on either  half of the draw. Players who are seeded three or lower start seeing more difficult draws, and even more so for the players outside the top four.
Since Nadal's return, Djokovic has always been ranked in the top two, meaning he should be getting the easiest draws possible at every tournament he plays in. Nadal, though,  was ranked no higher than three for the first seven months of his comeback and even dropped as low as five for several 1000 events and Wimbledon. So Nadal really deserved to have the tougher draws, but instead wound up with even easier opponents than his higher-seeded rival.

Nadal fans that complain that Djokovic tends to get the easier draws are wrong. Even though Djokovic deserved to get easier draws, he was the one who had to face tougher opponents and was set up to have tougher matchups.
Nadal fans will remember how stacked Nadal's top half of the draw was at Australian Open and how Nadal had a potential meeting set up in the Wimbledon quarterfinals with Federer. However, in both cases, Nadal's expected opponents were victims of major upsets and Nadal's draw opened up. Meanwhile, Djokovic had the tougher matchups at each of the other two slams, and actually had to go against them.

Also, when Nadal was ranked outside of the top two, there was the possibility that both players could wind up on the same half of the draw. Since Nadal was chasing Djokovic for the world No. 1 ranking, opportunities to play Djokovic earlier in tournaments was good for Nadal. Instead of having to wait until the final to play Djokovic, playing him earlier meant he had the chance to prevent him from earning ranking points.

So even though having to face the world No. 1 before a final made Nadal's strength of schedule seem better, it was actually a benefit for him in the race for No. 1. It's normal for fans to think that their player always gets the toughest draws, but Nadal couldn't have asked for it to be much easier as he overtook Djokovic in the rankings.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

4/21/14 YTD 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 - Spain still holds onto the No. 1 ranking comfortably despite an early exit from Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo. Nadal still reached the final in Miami and David Ferrer reached the semifinals at Monte Carlo. With Barcelona, going on this week, Spain's lead should only grow.

2. Switzerland - Despite having only two players in the top 150 in the world of the year-to-date rankings compared to 16 and 17 for the two other countries in the top three, Switzerland still finds itself ranked No. 2. Those two players for Switzerland are both ranked in the top three for the YTD rankings and played each other in the Monte Carlo final for big points for the country. However, it is going to be difficult for Switzerland to keep holding off France.

3. France - France sits comfortably at No. 3, but with 17 players in the top 150 in the YTD rankings, the French should be doing better. Gilles Simon and Benoit Paire, who have been a reliable source of ranking points for France in the past, have combined for nine wins all year. As Spain's only real contender for the year-end No. 1 ranking as a country, France has not put up much of a fight. The combined amount of points for France's top four players does not even match how many Nadal has collected for Spain. Meanwhile, the top 10 for France have less than Nadal and Ferrer combined.

4. Serbia - With a title in Miami and a semifinal in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic led Serbia to the most significant jump in the rankings from last month as the Serbs hop from No. 7 to No. 4. A right wrist injury to Djokovic looked like it would send Serbia right back down to where it came from, but Djokovic announced today that he will play in Madrid as scheduled. Still, Serbia does not hold a huge lead over the No. 5 & 6 countries, so Djokovic has his work cut out for him.

5. United States - The United States were one of the three countries surpassed by the Serbs this week. I said in the past that No. 4 is the highest the Americans could possibly finish, but even that seems unlikely now with the way Djokovic has played in the 1000's. The new American No. 2 Bradley Klahn has cooled off, losing in the first round of Indian Wells and Miami. His number of challenger titles is still greater than his number of tour-level victories in 2014.

6. Czech Republic - Berdych reached the semifinals in Miami and is ranked fifth in the year-to-date rankings, putting the Czechs right behind the United States, going into the worst time of year for the Americans. Lukas Rosol is looking to defend his title in Bucharest this week.

7. Germany - The Germans had been neck-and-neck with the Americans for most of the season, but the last couple weeks have not been good for them. Of the top 15 Germans in the YTD rankings, 14 saw their ranking drop last week. The only German that went up in the rankings was Philipp Kohlschreiber, who went up a total of one spot.

8. Italy - The clay season is here and the Italians are already taking advantage, moving up two spots since the last rankings. The Italians have a long way to go to catch up to the Germans or Czechs, but this is the time of year to do it with the 1000 in Rome just around the corner and then the French Open.

9. Argentina - It could be worse for Argentina, but Frederico Delbonis saved the day. The top-ranked Argentine in the YTD rankings reached the semifinals in Casablanca and is keeping the South American country in the top 10 by the skin of their teeth.

10. Croatia - Croatia is one of five countries in the top 10 with four or less players in the top 150 of the YTD rankings, meaning just a few players a carrying their ranking, and that has been Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic so far. Cilic is ranked 11th in the YTD rankings. The Croat has cooled off of late failing to reach the round of 16 in both Monte Carlo and Miami. Karlovic is currently on a three-match losing streak, but Croatia is still holding onto a top 10 spot, sliding just one place in the rankings.

11. Japan - The Japanese are up one spot from a month ago and all of the top Japanese are in action this week. Kei Nishikori, who reached the semifinals in Miami before suffering an injury, is playing in Barcelona. Meanwhile, Go Soeda, Tatsuma Ito, Hiroki Moriya, Yasutaka Uchiyama, and Yuichi Sugita are all playing in the 90 Challenger in Shenzhen, China.

12. Ukraine - Every single tennis player from Ukraine with a YTD ranking except one, saw that ranking drop last week, and the one player that didn't drop simply didn't move at all. So the Ukraine should be pleased it is only one spot lower than a month ago. Dolgopolov reached the quarterfinals in Miami, but was upset early by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Monte Carlo.

13. Russia - Right now Teymuraz Gabashvili is the Russian No. 1 in the YTD rankings with Mikhail Youzhny, Alex Bogomolov Jr. and Nikolay Davydenko both outside of the top 100. That means there is a good opportunity for Russia to get much higher in the rankings, but there is no guarantee that those three will each rise in the rankings. They have a combined age of 94.

14. Great Britain - Despite an impressive two-set win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Miami, Andy Murray's struggles have continued. He suffered a two-set loss to Djokovic the following round and then lost to Fognini on clay in Davis Cup. Now Murray has skipped Monte Carlo and Barcelona. If he doesn't repeat at SW19, his 52-week ranking is going to take a big hit.

15. Australia - Out of the countries that have had a disappointing start to 2014, Australia might be the worst, dropping another spot in the rankings. In my first rankings, Australia was No. 8 and the further away we get from January, the further down under Australia goes. If we took away Australia's fantastic January, the country would be ranked down in the 30s.

16. Bulgaria - Like Murray's ranking, Bulgaria's is standing on one leg. However, that's the No. 9 leg to stand on in 2014. Grigor Dimitrov didn't play poorly since the last rankings, losing to David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori. However, it wasn't enough to move Bulgaria up in the rankings. Bulgaria does remain the highest ranked country with just one player in the top 150 of the YTD rankings.

17. Colombia - Los Tres Amigos, Alejandro Falla, Alejandro Gonzalez, and Santiago Giraldo are the three men holding up Colombia's ranking with no clear No. 1. Even Giraldo, who is the lowest of the three in the YTD rankings just upset Tommy Robredo and then beat his compadre Gonzalez to reach the Houston semifinals.

18. South Africa - Kevin Anderson is on a three-match losing streak right now and the clay season hasn't normally been a source of many ranking points, so it will be a battle for him to keep South Africa in the top 20 single-handedly.

19. Canada - Canada moved up one entire spot. This is a country that was No. 11 at the end of 2013 in my rankings, so barely making the top 20 is certainly disappointing. The one bright spot has been Milos Raonic, who returned to the top 10, but is still only ranked No. 18 in the YTD rankings.

20. Latvia - Ernests Gulbis suffered his third consecutive loss last week, falling to Dolgopolov. Gulbis started the year 15-4, but hasn't won a match since the last rankings came out, resulting in dropping two spots. The good news is that there is a big gap between 20 and 21, so he can only go up.

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rafole: Battle for World No. 1

With the clay court season beginning this week, Novak Djokovic's race to catch Rafael Nadal in the ranking points in the battle for world No. 1 is heating up. The Serb has won each of the last four masters series events and has a small opportunity to be the No. 1 seed at Roland Garros in 2014.

In the all-time rankings, Nadal has the sixth most weeks spent as the top ranked player in the world at 130 and counting. Meanwhile, Djokovic sits in a tie for eighth with Andre Agassi at 101 weeks.

Last October, Djokovic was one week away from tying his rival on the all-time list. However, Tomas Berdych retired in the first set against Nadal in the Beijing semifinals to give Nadal the No. 1 ranking, taking it from Djokovic. Now in the next eight weeks, the world No. 2 has a chance to regain the top ranking and make up the lost ground.

During the clay season, Nadal has 5,100 points to defend, while Djokovic only has to defend 2,390. Meanwhile, Nadal's lead in the rankings is only 2050, meaning that Nadal has to be at least 661 points better than Djokovic during the clay swing. However, Nadal will play in Barcelona, which Djokovic usually skips, resulting in essentially 500 free points for Nadal if he wins.

If Nadal does hold on to the No. 1 ranking after Roland Garros, there is still a chance Djokovic will be the top seed at Wimbledon, since the tournament organizers adjust the seedings based on previous grass court results. However, if Djokovic fails to regain the No. 1 rankings, his next real chance won't come until the summer US Open Series goes to Canada. Also, even if Djokovic does take the No. 1 ranking at Roland Garros, Nadal will have a chance to take it right back at Wimbledon with only 10 points to defend at SW19.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Myth vs. Math: Djokovic Return

This is the second installment in a five-part series called Myth vs. Math. In this series, I am going to take a look at five widely-accepted statements that tennis writers, analysts, fans, and commentators frequently make. I'm going to take these statements and see how they hold up against the numbers. The first statement in this series was "big servers have a notable advantage in tiebreakers." Now I am going to look at the statement that "Novak Djokovic has the best defensive return in the game right now."

The Myth

Over the past three and a half years, Serbian Novak Djokovic has been arguably the best player on tour. Since the start of 2011, Djokovic has won 25 titles, including five grand slams, and has been ranked No. 1 in the world for over 100 weeks of that time.  Djokovic has also gone 21-10 against his main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in that span.

Along with his backhand and movement, the part of Djokovic's game that gets credited for his success has been his return game. In his career, Djokovic has won 32% of his return games, which reached a peak in 2011, when he was winning 39% of his return games. This has led to Djokovic drawing comparisons to the greatest of all time.

While many tennis experts won't claim that Djokovic is the greatest returner of all time, they will say things like "Djokovic has the greatest defensive return in the history of the sport, but Andre Agassi had a better aggressive return." The claim that Djokovic has the best defensive return in the history of the sport is widely accepted.

I narrowed the myth to just the greatest defensive returner among active players, so that the data will have a more conclusive result.  I define defensive returner to mean that the player is able to get into a rally after the return on any serve. So is Djokovic really the best player in the game at the defensive return?

The Math

The first stat I looked at is aces against. Djokovic is often compared to a goalie in hockey with the way he returns, because he is able to get his racket on any serve. So I looked at how much he has been aced in his 18 matches so far this season and how tough his opponents serves were.

In the Serb's 216 return games so far in 2014, he was aced 83 times, which comes out to .384 aces per return game. However, I also want to look at how tough his opponents were, so I calculated the aces per service game of each of the servers in 2014. Based on those numbers, I figured out how often they would have hit an ace, if those 216 games were played against an average returner. If Djokovic were an average returner, he would have been aced 124.6 times in those 216 games.

Therefore, Djokovic defended over 40 aces that an average returner would have been aced on. He allowed .384 aces per game in his matches compared to .577 aces by the average returner.

 This graph compares how many aces a player would hit in 1000 games against any opponent (orange) in 2014 and how many aces they would hit in 1000 games against Djokovic (purple). Against most players, Djokovic was much harder to ace than their average opponent, especially for Julien Benneteau and John Isner. However, for Stanislas Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, Djokovic was actually easier to ace than their average opponents. So can Djokovic really be the best defensive returner in the game if he is easier than average to ace for two of the opponents in his 18 matches?

The second stat looks at the more complete picture of defensive returning, but is not as directly associated to the return. I wanted to look at how many points Djokovic wins on his first serve return compared to his second serve return. This stat has a lot of other variables besides just the return, but it could give some insight into how well Djokovic returns the first serve.

The defensive return is more important on the first serve return than the second serve return. The goal of a first serve return is normally to get to a neutral point in the rally. However, when returning the second serve, the returner is usually already at neutral in the rally. So someone with a good defensive return would be able to get to neutral in the rallies quickly off the first serve, resulting in a nearly equal win percentage on both first and second serve returns.

This year, the world No. 2 has won 34% of points on his opponents first serve, which ranks seventh in the ATP. On his second serve return, Djokovic has won 55% of points, which ranks ninth, so the difference is 21%. Here's how that ranks among other return leaders on tour.

Name1st Serve Return2nd Serve ReturnDifference
Bautista Agut30%55%25%

Djokovic ranks seventh in difference between 1st serve return points won and second serve. While there are some surprises with Ramos, Young, and Sela all appearing near the top of the list, the majority of the list seems to make sense. It isn't surprising to think of Gael Monfils as a great defensive returner or Richard Gasquet as a particularly bad defensive returner.

Flaws in the Math
Neither stat looks at the whole picture. For the aces against stat, not being aced does not necessarily mean that the returns are any good or even going in at all. So not getting aced frequently does not necessarily make him a great defensive returner. With the second stat, a high difference could indicate that the player is very good at being aggressive on the second serve as well. A large difference does not guarantee that the returner is bad at getting returns in play.

However, when putting the two stats together, they each cover up the flaws of the other to give a more complete picture of the returners ability. The stats combine the ability of the player to make contact with the serve and the ability to get into the point off that return.

While Djokovic is by far an above average defensive returner, there are better defensive returners on tour who don't get the same attention as a six-time grand slam champion. Shots like the return Djokovic hit against Federer are replayed frequently on tennis broadcasts, which helps support the idea that Djokovic has the best defensive return. However, in reality, Djokovic has struggled against big servers like Isner. Even Andy Murray beat Djokovic with mostly just a good serve in the 2012 Dubai semifinals. Murray hit five aces and won 85% of points on his first serve, while winning just 25% on his second serve.

Meanwhile, Federer and Monfils have enjoyed great success in their careers against big servers. Even though Djokovic may make some acrobatic returns off the first serve, Monfils has had much more success doing it consistently. Federer, on the other hand, lacks the athletic returns that Monfils and Djokovic possess, but does an excellent job reading the serves of his opponents and being ready for them, resulting in a lot of balls put in play.

So even though Djokovic is one of the top defensive returners among active players, he isn't the best in the game right now.