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.