Thursday, August 21, 2014

Draw puts Murray and Djokovic in same quarter

The 2014 US Open draw was released today with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray drawn in the same quarter and Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov in the bottom quarter

Here's a quick overview of the draw:

Toughest Path: Andy Murray

It has been a tough 13 months for the Scot. Since becoming the first British man since Fred Perry to win Wimbledon, Murray hasn't reached a final at any tournament. It will be tough for Murray to end that drought in the next two weeks at Flushing Meadows or even reach the semifinals.

Murray opens against Robin Haase, who beat Murray in 2008 and took the No. 8 seed to five sets in 2011 at the US Open. Murray's second round opponent will be either a qualifier or Radek Stepanek. This is the fourth consecutive big tournament where Stepanek has been drawn to face a member of the Big Four in the second round. Stepanek has already beaten Murray this year at Queen's club and has won three of the last six sets he has played against Murray on hard courts.

Murray will likely face Fernando Verdasco in the third round. In 2009, Verdasco beat Murray in five sets at the Australian Open. Also, en route to Murray's title at Wimbledon, Verdasco won the first two sets in their quarterfinal match. As tough as those first week matches are for Murray, things step up a level quickly in the second week.

Murray should face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round. Tsonga defeated Murray just a few weeks ago in Canada on his way to a second career Masters 1000 title. After a short visit to Cincinnati, Tsonga has had plenty of time to prepare for the US Open and before the draw was among the favorites outside of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to take the title.

If Murrray survives those first four tests, he will be rewarded with Djokovic, the No. 1 seed. Murray defeated Djokovic for that Wimbledon title. If Murray does pull off this upset, it would be the perfect way to end this slump in his career. Murray's probably opponents in the semifinals and final are the pair of Swiss men, Stan Wawrinka then Federer.

Easiest Path: David Ferrer
Ferrer opens play against Damir Dzumhur, who is playing in just his third main draw of a grand slam in his career. Dzumhur has only played one other top 10 match, which he lost in straight sets with only eight games won. Next Ferrer will face the winner of Bernard Tomic and Dustin Brown. Ferrer has won nine of the 10 sets he has played against those two players.

Ferrer will likely play Simon in the third round. Simon beat Ferrer on hard courts in 2011 at Cincinnati, but has lost seven consecutive sets to Ferrer since then including two break sticks and a bagel. Add to that this is Simon's worst season in recent memory, and Ferrer should get through this in three quick sets. Things get tougher for Ferrer in the second week with either Kevin Anderson or Marin Cilic in the fourth round.

Anderson beat an injured Ferrer earlier this year, but other than that match, Ferrer has won three of their four meetings. Cilic, who is Ferrer's more likely opponent, hasn't beaten the Spaniard since 2009.

Ferrer's quarterfinal opponent could be several different players. Berdych is the highest seeded opponent he could face. Ferrer leads the head-to-head record against Berdych 7-5. In the semifinals, Ferrer could face Federer and then potentially Djokovic in the final.

Most exciting potential match ups per round
1st Round: Lleyton Hewitt vs. Tomas Berdych
2nd Round: Dominic Thiem vs. Ernests Gulbis
3rd Round: Roger Federer vs. Ivo Karlovic
4th Round: Andy Murray vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Quarterfinals: Roger Federer vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Semifinals: Novak Djokovic vs. Stan Wawrinka
Final: Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer

The most open Open in the Open Era: Since Novak Djokovic's loss to Tommy Robredo in Cincinnati, this event has been named the most open US Open ever and the draw certainly helped that argument. After Roland Garros, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were the clear favorites for the US Open. But then Nadal had a right wrist injury, leaving Djokovic as a clear favorite. However, "clear" is nothing anymore.

Djokovic was upset in his second match in both Canada and Cincinnati and was not convincing in either of his wins. On top of that, Djokovic has a tough draw with potential match ups with Gilles Muller, John Isner, and Milos Raonic, who all have the kind of serves that Djokovic struggles with. He also has potential match ups with Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka before the final.

Roger Federer now considered the favorite by some based on his form in Wimbledon, Canada, and Cincinnati along with a very beneficial draw. Still, Federer has won just one slam in the last 55 months and none since July 2012. At 33-years old, it would be one of the biggest shocks of the year if Federer won the US Open after not reaching a final on a hard court at a slam since Australian Open 2010.

Wawrinka would be the next guy to look to since he is the last man to win a major on a hard court. However, Wawrinka, who has always been a streaky player, is in another slump, going 9-7 since the start of May. Wawrinka has always had slumps like this in his career, but now that he has won a major, his slumps get a lot more attention. Reaching the quarterfinals would be a solid result for the Swiss No. 2.

Determining a favorite after those three is extremely difficult. Murray, Milos Raonic, and Tsonga all have incredibly difficult draws. Berdych and Ferrer have each only reached one major final and haven't been a real threat to win a slam in a long time, if ever. Grigor Dimitrov has never even reached the final of a masters 1000 and just reached his first semifinal of a major at Wimbledon.

This is a rare situation where, the US Open Title is going to fall into someone's lap and knowing who's lap that will be is anyone's guess. Opportunity abounds.

Let the hype begin! Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov are drawn to meet in the quarterfinals. The two players have only met once before, which was in the early rounds of a 500, so it didn't get the attention it deserved. No other pair of top 8 players have played less often than three times, so this match up is long overdue.

Dimitrov's game has been compared to Federer's since he was just a teenager. Both players have similar one-handed backhands, Nike gear, and did have the same Wilson wand. That doesn't explain just how similar these two are. If you aren't looking carefully, it is easy to think that you are watching Federer, when Dimitrov is playing (I've done that more than once).
Watch this video to see just how similar they are. Their match in Basel looked like something out of a video game. In their cross-court rallies both players were hitting the ball the same way. Both players were trying to do to the other what was being done to them.

Aside from the similarities of the two games, this is clearly one of those moments in tennis where the future of the sport is taking on the champion. In 2002, Federer had to beat Pete Sampras, which was the start of Federer's dominance of the sport. If Dimitrov beats Federer, the win would have the same level of significance.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Cilic still has plenty left in the tank

Marin Cilic is ranked No. 19 in the world
It has been four and a half years since Marin Cilic broke into the top 10 on the ATP, and his run in the top 10 lasted just nine weeks only to never return. So it is easy to forget that the Croat is only 25-years old - two years younger than the average player in the top 100. Even four and a half years removed from his career-high ranking, Cilic still hasn't reached his peak yet. 

Last year, Cilic was suspended for nine months from tennis after testing positive nikethamide. His suspension was eventually reduced to four months after an appeal, allowing Cilic to return to the tour at the start of 2014.

The Croat rejoined the tour with a ranking of 37 and a new coach. Goran Ivanisevic, a fellow Croat and former world No. 2, joined Cilic's team, looking to help him return to the top 10 after four years. Ivanisevic, who is the only player in tennis history to have struck over 10,000 aces, made an immediate impact on Cilic's game - Cilic was serving like his coach.

After years of tossing the ball behind his head and bending his back to reach the toss for a simple kick serve, Cilic began tossing the ball out in front of him and hitting it much flatter. And the difference showed up in the stats immediately.

Cilic averaged six aces per 10 service games in his career going into the 2014 season, but in 2014, that number is up from six to nine. He has seen similar increases in percentage of first serves made and won, allowing him to hold serve 85% of the time. In March, Cilic faced world No. 2 Novak Djokovic, who is known for his ability to get serves back in play, but Cilic still fired 13 aces in 12 service games.

His serve has improved so much that even though he has been breaking serve at his lowest rate since 2008, he is still seeing some of his best results in tournaments.

Cilic reached the final in Delray Beach without 
dropping a set and then beat
Kevin Anderson 7-6(6), 6-7(7), 6-4 in the final.
In February, Cilic won a pair of hard court titles and reached the final of Rotterdam. The final in Rotterdam was just the third time in his career that he reached the final of a 500-point event. That, to go along with two titles in one month, something he had only done three times in an entire season.

Cilic has continued to post solid results in 2014, reaching the round of 16 at consecutive North American hard court Masters events in the past two weeks. He also reached the semifinals in Umag and quarterfinals in Barcelona.

The one stumbling block for Cilic in 2014 has been Djokovic. Despite winning the first set against the Serb 6-1 in Indian Wells, Djokovic came roaring back to claim the match. The pair were drawn to meet again in the round of 32 at Roland Garros, where again Cilic took a set, but Djokovic took the match.

Cilic defeated world No. 6 Tomas Berdych en route to his
first career quarterfinal at Wimbledon this year.
At Wimbledon, Cilic reached his first grand slam quarterfinal since the 2012 US Open. And once again, it was Djokovic on the other side of the net. After splitting the first two sets, Cilic won the tightly contested third set in a tiebreaker, 7-4. However, Cilic's serve wilted away in the final two sets, getting broken four times, ending his run at Wimbledon and his chance to reach just a second major semifinal.

Cilic is now ranked No. 19 in the world, but has zero points left to defend in 2014 with some of his favorite events left on the calendar. The rest of the year is nothing but hard courts, where Cilic has won 77% of his matches this season. And many of those hard court events are indoors, where the Croat has won 86% of his matches in 2014.

Cilic is currently No. 13 in the Race Rankings, trailing No. 8 Andy Murray by less than 800 points. With his favorite part of the season left, Cilic could make a run for the top eight in the Race Rankings and a spot in the year-end finals.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Myth vs. Math: Most Important Set

This is the final 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 four statements in this series were "big servers have a notable advantage in tiebreakers," "Novak Djokovic has the best defensive return in the game right now," "Rafael Nadal tends to get tougher draws than Djokovic since making his return from injury," and "The top players play the big points better than their opponents." The final statement being put to the test is "The first set is the most important set in a best-of-5 match."
The Myth

It's inevitable. In almost every single televised tennis match, the commentators will mention some stat about first sets near or after the conclusion of the first set. They say something along the lines of "In 42 meetings between Nadal and Djokovic, the winner of the first set has gone on to win 35 times," or "Roger
Federer wins 93% of his matches when he wins the first set." Then they go on to talk about how important winning the first set is, claiming that it is somehow more important than any other set in a tennis match.

Commentators and their viewers aren't the only ones guilty of thinking this way. Howard Bryant, one of ESPN's best tennis writers, wrote an article called 'Don't lose the first set.' Even the ATP World Tour website fell into the trap, including in each players' match record tab their record both after winning and losing the first set.

The line of thinking makes sense at first glance, and the numbers seem to back up the claim. Winning the first set gives a player the lead and a mental edge through the rest of the match. At worst, the player is going into the third set tied at one set apiece.

Not everyone believes the first set is the most important. Some would argue that the fifth is the most important set, because it is the deciding set. Others argue in favor of the third set, because barring retirement, a third set is guaranteed to be played and it is closer to the end of the match than the first or second set. Before doing the research, I believed that the second set would be the most important, because the player is either ahead 2-0 or tied at 1-1 with the momentum.

On paper, all five sets are of equal value. It takes three sets to win a best-of-5 match and all five sets are an opportunity to win one of those three.

The Math

In my research I looked at all 508 men's singles matches played at each of the last four majors. Then I looked at the winning percentage of players who won the first set, players who won the second set, and so on. Results varied depending on the round that the match was played in and which of the majors the match was played at.

For example, the winner of the first set went on to win the match at the US Open almost six percent more than at the Australian Open and over seven percent more at Wimbledon. Meanwhile, at Roland Garros, the second and third sets were more important than at any other tournament.

Here are the total results for the four majors:

The winner of the first set went 402-100 (80.08%)
The winner of the second set went 406-91 (81.70%)
The winner of the third set went 389-103 (79.07%)
The winner of the fourth set went 198-36 (84.62%)
The winner of the fifth set went 87-0 (100%)

Even though the winner of the fourth set and fifth set had higher winning percentages, only 86 of the 508 matches even went to a fifth set and 234 lasted at least four sets. In over half of the matches, the fourth set had no impact on the outcome and that's the case more so in fifth sets.

The gap in importance for the first three sets isn't that big in the first set of data. That's because so many matches are won in straight sets, and in all of those matches, the winning percentage for each of the first three sets is 100%.

So to see how big the difference in importance of the first three sets is, I'm going to look only at matches that went the distance. Those are the closest matches where every set matters, but also, even the loser of the match won two sets.

Here are the records from the four majors in five-set matches

*The winner of a five-set match wins 50% of the first two sets, so anything above 50% implies greater importance

The winner of the first set went 47-40(54.02%)
The winner of the second set went 48-39(55.17%)
The winner of the third set went 35-52(40.23%)
The winner of the fourth set went 51-36 (58.62%)
The winner of the fifth set went 87-0 (100%)

Obviously, in a five-set match, the fifth set is going to be the most important because it is the deciding set. After that, on paper, the first four sets should all be of equal importance. However, the fourth set is clearly more important, followed in order by the second set and the first set. Then, the third set is by far less important than any other set.


Based on the math, I would say that the order of importance of sets goes 2nd, 1st, 4th, 3rd, 5th. Of course, another reasonable person could look at the same numbers and come up with a different order.

There will be disagreement on where in the order the fourth and fifth sets go, because not all best-of-5 matches go all five sets. However, we are able to judge the first three sets on equal ground. The math clearly shows that the second set is slightly more important than the first set and the third set is much less important than the previous two.

So the claim that the first set is the most important set in best-of-5 matches is not true. Obviously, every set is important, even in best-of-5. So when stats suggest that the first set is important, it doesn't mean it is any more important than the rest.

Fun Facts

In my research I found some other interesting facts, so I thought I would share them:

-While slightly more than half of all matches at majors are played in the first round, 76% of the retirements in the last four majors came in the first round with none coming in the second week.

-The Australian Open, which was absurdly hot this year, produced twice as many retirements and withdrawals as any of the other three slams

-Roland Garros had the most two-set comebacks at six, while Wimbledon had the least at two.

-In matches where the same player won the first two sets, 33 matches went five sets. The player who won the first two sets went 17-16 in the deciding set.

-The least common way to win a five-set match was by dropping the second and fourth sets, while winning the first, third, and fifth, occurring half as often as a two-set comeback.

-Roland Garros had the most straight-set matches at 76, while the US Open had the least at 56.

-At the US Open, the winner of the first set went on to win 83.46% of the time, while the winner of the second set only won the match 75.4% of the time (impact of the crowd?). In every other tournament the second set winner won more often than the first set winner.

-At Roland Garros, each set is more important, with the average win percentage of the winners of each of the first four sets at 84.42%. US Open was the lowest at 79.48%, while the other two were slightly above 80%. This is likely because less matches at Roland Garros go five sets than the other three tournaments.

-The round of 16 produced the highest percentage of straight set victories (59.38%) other than the semifinals. Mostly because of the dominance of the top tier of the game.

-Each of the first three round have the exact same percentage of five-set matches, and the quarterfinals is the only round with a higher percentage.

-Nobody has come back from two sets down in the second week of a major in the last 12 months. Tsonga did it to Federer in Wimbledon and Djokovic also did it to Federer at the US Open in 2011. Has anyone done it since?

-At three of the last four major finals, the winner of the first set did not win the match.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tennis Stocks

After every couple of big tournaments, I have a post on this blog that ranks how tennis players are doing based on the country they are from. (This is my most recent set of rankings). I rank the top 40 or so countries in tennis based on a simple formula to track which countries are having the best season.

I came up with the formula in 2011 and check in periodically to see where each country ranks and decided to start posting the results this year. Over the past three years, the rankings have stayed pretty similar with Spain dominating, followed by France, Switzerland, and Serbia. Then USA, Germany, Argentina, and Czech Republic round out the top eight usually.

Since it has stayed this way for the last three years, I've started to wonder how long it would stay like this. More specifically, I want to see what the rankings will look like in five years. I thought I would come up with a new formula that would look at the ages of players from each country in the top 400 and project where each country would be ranked in five years. As I started working on the formula, I realized that with how many variables there are, it would take me several months to develop a somewhat accurate formula and then even longer to actually do the calculations for 50+ countries represented in the rankings.

I've decided to use a basic formula and then try to make up for the errors in the formula with my own research and then make a general prediction. So here is how we're going to do this: We will treat it like the stock market. I can buy, sell, or hold on each country for how I think each country will be doing the week before the Western & Southern Open in 2019 compared to now. Feel free to comment which countries you would buy, sell, or hold on for five years from now.

*Countries are in order of their 52-week ranking as of August 11, 2014

1. Spain - SELL - Spain doesn't have a single teenager in the top 500, meaning that in five years, clay-court specialist Pablo Carreno Busta could be the highest ranked Spaniard. Nadal is now 28-years old and has been affected by several injuries for most of the last three years, so a Federer-like longevity doesn't seem likely for the King of Clay. Aside from Carreno Busta, every Spaniard that is currently in the top 100 will be at least 31-years old this time 2019. Meanwhile, Garcia-Lopez, Ferrer, Robredo, and Lopez, who are all a big reason Spain has been No. 1 for the last three years, have already reached the 31-year mark. Spain isn't going to just drop in the rankings; in five years Spain will be mostly irrelevant.

2. France - SELL - France's drop in the rankings over the next five years won't be as big as Spain's, but the near future of French tennis isn't too bright. The reason France is No. 2 in the rankings isn't because they have a single dominant player like a Nadal or Djokovic, but because they have 12 different players in the top 100. However, the youngest of those is 25-year old Benoit Paire, who just barely cracks the top 100 at No. 97. Mannarino, Monfils, and Paire may still be in the game in 2019, but none of them will be near their peak form. Most of French hopes for the near future rest on three players: Herbert, Lokoli, and Pouille. It is still hard to see those three replacing the quartet of Gasquet, Monfils, Tsonga, and Simon over the course of just five years.

3. Serbia - BUY - This might seem a little surprising since their current ranking is almost entirely based on a player, who is already 27-years old. Still, I think Djokovic can stay in the mix of top five or top 10 until he turns 32. I don't think he will remain a slam threat long into his 30s. So much of his success is based on his movement, durability, and flexibility, which are difficult to maintain with age. Troicki also should still be a factor even after he turns 33. Since he took a year off the tour, that could add on a couple more years of playing at his peak onto the tail end of his career. The real reason to buy on Serbia, though, is the youth. There are already four teenage Serbs that are having success on the challenger level and well inside the top 500. Plus, Krajinovic and Lajovic will both be hitting their peaks right around five years from now. With so much young talent, Serbia's future will be fine even if there are a few busts.

4. Switzerland - SELL - This is an easy sell. In five years, Federer and Wawrinka won't be nearly as dominant as they are now if they are even still playing. No matter how good the next generation is, they can't replace what Federer and Wawrinka have done over the last 10 years in tennis.

5. Argentina - BUY - It has been a rough 2014 for Argentina so far, which is a big reason why I am picking them to do better in 2019. It is hard to say where exactly the injury-prone Del Potro will be five years from now, but the former world No. 4 will only be 30-years old, so it seems safe to say that he will be more useful to his country than his current ranking of No. 101 in the Race Rankings. Then, with so many players from Argentina trying to break through it seems unlikely that they could have another year like 2014 any time soon. Delbonis, Bagnis, Schwartzman, Arguello, Londero, and Cachin just to name a few seem like strong candidates to be members of the top 100 five years from now if not much sooner.

6. Germany - SELL - Germany's fall over the next five years probably won't be significant, but a lot of things would have to go right for Germany to go up any higher in the rankings. Germany has essentially put all of its eggs in one basket for the future, which is Alex Zverev. The German is only 17, so in five years, he still will have not reached his peak physically yet. But a lot can happen in five years, which makes predicting the success of an entire country based on just one teenager very difficult. Jan-Lennard Struff is the only other player from Germany, who is a likely pick for top 100 in 2019. He could help Zverev keep the country in the top 10, but that is still a drop from where they are now.

7. United States - BUY - Similar to Argentina, this is a buy because things can't get much worse. Americans are always looking for who will be the next grand slam champion, and since there isn't a clear answer to that question, most fans think men's tennis has a dim future in America. However, even though there are no teens reaching the second week slams right now, there is a wave of young American talent that can make a splash on the ATP tour. Former college players like Johnson, Klahn, and Williams still won't hit their peak for a few more years. Then there is another group of guys like Sock, Kudla, Harrison, and Young that probably won't ever do what was expected of them as teenagers, but can still do a lot to boost the USA ranking. Then there are the current teenagers like Tiafoe, Donaldson, Rubin, and Kozlov that have plenty of potential. There are currently six Americans in the top 100. I'll predict that in 2019, that number will get to at least 10.

8. Czech Republic - SELL - I could end up being completely wrong on this if Vesely becomes a contender at majors like some expect. However, the near future of Czech tennis is in the hands of just a couple players, so it would be risky to buy here. The Czech Republic currently has three players in the top 40 including Berdych in the top five, and none of those three will still be near their current level in five years time.

9. Canada - BUY - This is the easiest buy on the list. Raonic, Pospisil, and Peliwo will all be hitting their peaks in about five years. The only worry here is an injury to one of the three. Otherwise, it wouldn't be surprising to see all three of these Canadians in the top 20 in the world.

10. Russia - BUY - It's only going to take a couple years before the look of Russian tennis is very different on the ATP. Youzhny, Davydenko, and Tursunov have led Russia for several years now, but all three are well into their 30s now. Meanwhile, there is a whole generation of new faces ready to break into the top 100. Andrey Kuznetsov and Donskoy are the closest right now with 20-year old Karatsev, 18-year old Khachanov, and 16-year old Rublev not far behind.

11. Australia - BUY - This is arguably the country with the most exciting future. With guys like Kyrgios, Tomic, Duckworth, Saville, Kokkinakis, and several other players in their early 20s doing well on the challenger tour, it seems like a safe bet that a grand slam champion will emerge from this group at some point. Since former champions like Hewitt and Rafter are doing a lot to mentor this young group, Australian tennis fans have a lot to be excited about.

12. Japan - BUY - Nishikori, at 24-years old, has already reached No. 12 in the world this year despite being plagued by injuries. Much of the Japanese No. 1's career has been affected by injuries, so there really isn't much reason to think it won't still be an issue in five years. Still, Japan has a wave of juniors that could be breaking onto the tour level over the next five years. Even if Nishikori does slip in the rankings, Japan will be much more well represented in the top 100 five years from now.

13. Italy - Hold - Italy produces so many tennis professionals that it will always have players in the top 100. There are four Italians in the top 100 right now, and with so many Italians trying to break through, it is hard to imagine there not being at least four that will break into the top 100 in five years. Quinzi is one of the names that stands out among the many Italians, who could be a presence on the ATP World Tour.  He is 18 and is currently ranked No. 307 in the world.

14. Croatia - BUY - Marin Cilic is currently 25-years old and ranked No. 19 in the world. However, Cilic is set to climb several spots in the rankings over the next few months. The Croatian No. 1 has the kind of game that could work for a 30-year old with a big serve a short points from the baseline. He could easily be in the top 20 at 30-years old. Also Borna Coric is already in the top 200 at just 17-years old. He will be even higher in 2019.

15. Bulgaria - BUY - Dimitrov is the only real factor in this pick. Essentially, I'm picking Dimitrov to be ranked higher than No. 8 in the world in five years.

16. Great Britain - BUY - Murray has always been one of the fittest players on tour, so it's not hard to imagine him still being in the top 10 well into his 30s. Meanwhile, some of the British teenagers, Edmund especially, will continue to develop and move up in the rankings.

17. Austria - BUY
18. Latvia - SELL
19. Colombia - HOLD
20. Ukraine - BUY
21. Kazakhstan - SELL
22. Netherlands - SELL
23. Slovakia - HOLD
24. South Africa - SELL
25. Slovenia - SELL
26. Poland -BUY
27. Uzbekistan - HOLD
28. Brazil - SELL
29. Portugal - SELL
30. Belgium - BUY 
31. Finland - SELL
32. Cyprus - SELL
33. Israel - SELL
34. Lithuania - BUY
35. Romania - BUY
36. Chinese Taipei - SELL
37. India - BUY
38. Chile - BUY
39. Korea - BUY
40. Sweden - BUY