Reflections on the Australasian swing: Old-school success and new faces mean tennis as unpredictable as ever - UBITENNIS
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Reflections on the Australasian swing: Old-school success and new faces mean tennis as unpredictable as ever

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Alex De Minaur was one of the young players to really impress at the start of the 2017 season (Zimbio.com)

With the conclusion of the Launceston Challenger overnight, it officially brings to an end the main Australasian ATP circuit for 2017. The Tour for now moves to the Americas and Europe, with events in Memphis, Buenos Aires, and Rotterdam signalling a move West for most.

 

So what has the first section of the season revealed in 2017?

Match-fixing rears its ugly head again. In 2016 a Buzzfeed/BBC investigative report claimed that corruption was rife in tennis, with allegations of match-fixing at high levels of the game surfacing just as the 2016 Australian Open got underway. The tennis world spent much of the next twelve months trying to repair the integrity image of the game. Thus, when Australian Open Junior Champion Oliver Anderson was charged with match-fixing in relation to a Traralgon Challenger event, it brought back awkward questions about how effective the efforts of the Tennis Integrity Unit have been in the last year. Anderson has been officially suspended from tennis activity, but the TIU has said as things stand this neither a confirmation of his guilt or innocence of the charge as of yet.

Australian juniors break the big time. Fortunately for the Aussies, there was much promising news to deflect attention from the Anderson story. Nick Kyrgios may have suffered a disappointing early exit, but Alex De Minaur and Omar Jasika both gave the home nation of the year’s first Grand Slam yet more promise for the future. De Minaur qualified for an ATP event for the first time at the Brisbane International, defeating Mikhail Kukushkin and Frances Tiafoe. He then defeated Gerald Melzer in a classic five-set thriller in the Australian Open first round, coming back from Melzer serving for the match in the fourth set to race through the fifth. Jasika didn’t excel at the same Grand Slam, having been dealt an unlucky draw with David Ferrer. However, he made a Challenger final in Happy Valley, and then won in Burnie to suggest he is worth as much attention as De Minaur. Other notable mentions go to Max Purcell, Marc Polmans, and Andrew Whittington, who all showcased the depth of tennis in Australia.

American Juniors rival the Aussies. Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe, Noah Rubin, Ernesto Escobedo. These Americans are all under twenty-one and each distinguished themselves well at the Australian Open. With the exception of Rubin, they featured in their first Australian Open, all qualifying and three of the four making the second round, Opelka only narrowly lost a five-set thriller in the first round to David Goffin. Tiafoe, Rubin, and Escobedo all had hard second round draws with Alexander Zverev, Roger Federer, and David Ferrer respectively, and they bowed out at that stage. Yet it is the first real time that these players have qualified for a Grand Slam in their own right away from the familiar confines of Flushing Meadows. Rubin also followed up his run with the Launceston Challenger title.

Familiar, but unlikely names dominate as shocks reign in Melbourne. If you had said a decade ago that a Nadal-Federer final would seem distinctly improbable, you would have been laughed off. Yet the two stars have struggled with injury and form over the last two years and neither was expected to reach the finals. Yet shock defeats for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic to Mischa Zverev and Denis Istomin respectively opened the draw up. Roger Federer ultimately took full advantage, winning a classic final against his old nemesis for a nostalgic tournament, also aided by an all-Williams clash on the Women’s side that saw Serena Williams move above Steffi Graf on the Open era titles list.

Fed can still last the distance. At thirty-five, many had begun to assume that Roger Federer could no longer cope with the demands of five-set tennis against quality opposition consistently. He lost at Wimbledon in 2016 to Milos Raonic in a five-set thriller and some had thought that his last chance had passed. Yet the Swiss maestro took down both Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, and Rafael Nadal in three of the last four rounds, with only a quick demolition of Mischa Zverev in the quarters a reprieve. Given the notorious heat of Australia, the quality of the opponents faced, and his ability to find a way to win in fifth sets, we have to assume that Federer is fit and able to compete with the best in five sets again. He didn’t have to face Murray or Djokovic, but that was their fault not his, and he beat all three of Top Ten opponents he faced in the draw. Injury and form may be a barrier to success, for Federer, mere age certainly isn’t.

New potential contenders emerge, questions arise about others. Grigor Dimitrov once reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2013, but the Bulgarian never really cemented his place as a genuine contender. After a enthralling semi-final with Rafael Nadal though, Dimitrov’s credentials must be re-examined. He took the Brisbane title, defeating Nishikori in the final there. Working with Andy Murray’s former coach Dani Vallverdu appears to have reignited the fire in Dimitrov and we will have to see how he does over the next six months to confirm if he has developed into a true contender, though the signs are promising. Alexander Zverev fought hard with Nadal, but cramped up in the fifth set. A struggle with Robin Haase in round one shows that the German still lacks the consistency to compete for the highest honours just yet.

The Australian Open must be considered a disappointment for Dominic Thiem, as the Austrian went down rather meekly to David Goffin in the fourth round. Clay is still considered his best surface, but he has a lot of points to defend, starting with Buenos Aires, and extending to a Roland Garros semi-final. He will be under pressure just to maintain his Top Ten ranking.

Player of the swing: Grigor Dimitrov

Disappointing for: Andy Murray/Novak Djokovic

 

 

 

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Statistical Profiles: Alexander Zverev

What is keeping the Tokyo 2020 gold medalist from winning a Grand Slam title?

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At twenty-four, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is clearly among the best five players in the world, having achieved in 2017 his best ranking of world N.3 and having recently won the gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo. This would be enough, perhaps, to highlight the talent of the young German of Russian origins, but there is much more to it: he can attack from the baseline with great ease both from the forehand and the backhand sides, and combines these skills with one of the most powerful serves on tour. After his first appearance in an ATP tournament (he won his first match in Hamburg in 2014 as a wild card), many foresaw a bright future for him.

 

Instead, in spite of 17 career titles, Zverev has not yet been able to win a Major, the Litmus test for every great champion. Even in the last edition of Wimbledon, Zverev succumbed to underdog Félix Auger-Aliassime in a five-setter.

Let’s look for an explanation within the data, particularly those that refer to the 79 singles matches he has played so far in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, in order to try to better understand the causes of this discordant note in what is already a great career nonetheless.

RESUMÉ

Before focusing on Grand Slam matches, it is worth mentioning that the German number one has already won five Masters 1000 titles: the first on clay in Rome in 2017, defeating Djokovic in the final in straight sets; the same year, he won the tournament in Montrèal (on hardcourts), this time beating Federer. Then he won in Madrid twice, in 2018 and 2021 on clay, beating Thiem in 2018 and Berrettini in 2021, before recently winning in Cincinnati against Rublev. Not to be forgotten are the most precious jewels of Zverev’s collection, namely the triumph of the ATP Finals 2018 – once again defeating Djokovic after having eliminated Federer in the semis – plus the aforementioned Olympic gold medal, beating Djokovic once more before dispatching Khachanov in the final.

It was precisely the win at the O2 Arena three years ago that seemed to have definitively propelled Sascha to the pinnacle of world tennis, not only because of the wins per se, but also for the extraordinary quality of play he expressed in all areas of the court. Instead, something seemed to stop working.

In 2019, Zverev reached “only” three finals: in Geneva, in Acapulco, and at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. However, only in Switzerland he could get to the title (in a third-set tiebreaker against Nicolás Jarry), while he was soundly defeated by Kyrgios in Acapulco and by Medvedev – in steamroller mode – in Shanghai.

In 2020, a season marked by the pandemic, Zverev seemed close to a big break. He first reached the semifinals at the Australian Open (his first at a Major) and then reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first (and currently, only) time at the US Open. In both circumstances, he faced his good friend (and rival) Dominic Thiem. The fast surface should have, on paper, given an edge to Zverev, who in fact won the opening two sets in Flushing Meadows with a score of 6-2 6-4. At that point, once again, the tune changed: Thiem found new energies, while Zverev struggled. After tying the score, it was the Austrian who won the decisive tiebreaker, denying Zverev the trophy.

The 2021 season seems to fit into the same pattern: Zverev has already won four finals including two at Masters 1000 events, he is fourth in the Race and won gold in Tokyo, and yet he couldn’t go past the quarter finals in Australia, the semifinals in Paris (defeated by Tsitsipas in five sets), and the aforementioned 4th round at Wimbledon. So, a great regularity at high levels but with no real peak (compared to the level of play that he is able to express). Let’s now take a closer look at the data to try to better understand this dynamic.

OVERVIEW

Before delving into the analysis in search of winning and losing patterns, an overview will be presented, framing Zverev’s style of play with a series of statistics, the average values of which are shown in Figure 1, separately by surface.

FIGURE 1 – Average match statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

It can be observed how both the average number of aces (in particular on fast courts) and that of double faults is quite high, proving that the serve is, in a way, both a blessing and a curse for the German player. He gets many points from it but, at the same time, it is that very stroke which sometimes puts him in danger, especially in clutch moments. 

Comparing different surfaces, a good balance can be observed: of course the number of winners is bigger on hard and grass, due to the specificities of these surfaces, and the difference in the number of net points is also easy to understand (albeit quite marked): almost absent on clay, definitely more frequent on hard, and even more on grass. A second set of statistics, shown in Figure 2, can help us get an even more precise idea:

FIGURE 2 – Second set of statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

We note, in particular, a significant decrease in the percentage of points won with the second serve, compared to the percentage of points won with the first serve. On all surfaces, Zverev wins more than 70% of points with the first serve, while only on grass he exceeds 60% with the second, falling under 50% on clay.

It is only natural to attribute this difference to psychological factors too, given that in his first 1000 final, on the Rome clay in 2017, in a best-of-three tournament against the best returner on tour (and probably the greatest returner of all-time, Novak Djokovic), Zverev managed to win 69.2% of points on his second serve. The underdog role he played that day perhaps allowed him to play with less pressure and to showcase his qualities.

To be noted is a good effectiveness for Zverev at the net, particularly on hardcourts, where he wins over 70% of such points. Let’s now try to deepen the analysis, looking for patterns related to a Zverev win or defeat in a best-of-five match.

MOST SIGNIFICANT PATTERNS, THE KEY ELEMENTS OF ZVEREV’S GAME

So far, we have focused on Zverev’s game one aspect at a time. In this section, with the help of technology, we will consider more aspects simultaneously in order to develop a multivariate analysis. In particular, we will try to find out which of the various match statistics (which represent our input variables) are decisive, and how so, with respect to victory or defeat (which represent our output variables).

For greater clarity, we will ensure that the classification algorithm used will automatically return – based on the available variables – a model consisting of a set of rules which represent the statistically most significant patterns that lead the German to winning or to losing. Below, we illustrate the three most significant rules calculated as follows:

1 – “If Zverev wins at least 4.7% more points than his opponent with his first serve and hits fewer than 15 double faults, then he wins the match.” This pattern is quite general but extremely precise: it occurs in more than half of the matches won by Zverev in Grand Slam tournaments (to be precise, in 56%, corresponding to 38 matches) and in none of his 22 losses.

2 – “If Zverev hits at least 3.2 more winners than his opponent per set, then he wins the match.” This pattern is extremely precise: it occurred in 18 cases and Zverev won every time.

3 – “If Zverev does not win at least 2.1% more points than his opponent with his first serve, if he hits fewer than 43 winners, and if he amasses more than 27 unforced errors, then he loses the match.” This pattern is even more specific but, once more, there are no exceptions: it occurred six times and Zverev lost in all circumstances.

The more a stat appears as a relevant condition within these patterns, the more we can define it as a key element of Zverev’s game. We will therefore be able, on the basis of the data, to draw up a feature ranking of the various aspects of his game, distinguishing those that, to a greater extent, alone or in combination with others, prove to be decisive.

FIGURE 3 – Feature ranking of Zverev’s Grand Slam matches. The length of the bar represents the relevance of the feature, the direction represents the direction of the correlation (direct correlation bars extend to the right, reverse correlation bars to the left)

As can be seen in Figure 3, the most important element for Zverev turns out to be the difference in performance compared to the opponent in terms of the points won with his first serve. Of course, as this difference increases, the probability of victory also increases, and that is why the corresponding bar of the graph (the top one) points to the right, indicating a direct correlation. On the contrary, the second bar indicates an inverse correlation with respect to the average number of shots per rally: in other words, the shorter the rallies, the likelier Zverev is to win the match. Examining the other three bars which constitute the feature ranking, we can identify, as other items of interest, the difference with the opponent in terms of the number of winners (direct correlation) and unforced errors (inverse correlation) and, albeit more weakly, in terms of the number of net points played by the opponent (inverse correlation).

Trying to interpret these results, we are led to deduce that, from a more general perspective, the key element for Zverev may be his level of initiative. In other words, if the German looks to win many quick points, shortening the rally and not offering to his opponent the opportunity to get to the net too often, as the data also tells us, he has a very good chance of winning the match. Of course, unforced errors also have a weight: this attitude must not become too wasteful in terms of points gifted to the opponent.

Trying to summarize further and to move from data analysis to tactical choices, one could perhaps venture a piece of advice to Zverev, actually often reiterated by many experts: he should try to play as close as possible to the baseline. In fact, it is from that position that he manages to be aggressive without forcing too much and without letting himself be trapped in a thick web of long rallies. Who knows whether Sascha, mindful of his loss against Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, will decide to give this tactic a try, perhaps as early as the upcoming US Open.

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa

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It’s Possible That Roger Federer May Never Again Be The Player He Once Was

Further surgery is set to sideline the Swiss Maestro from the Tour for ‘many months’ as he faces a very uncertain future.

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Roger Federer (SUI) waves to the crowd as he leaves the court after being defeated by Hubert Hurkacz (POL) in the quarter-final of the Gentlemen's Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 9 Wednesday 07/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Ben Solomon

As the weeks passed since Wimbledon, the news about Roger Federer became increasingly worrisome to his wide legion of admirers all over the globe. He had reached the quarterfinals at the All England’s Club, and that was no mean feat. About one month shy of his 40th birthday, Federer established himself as the oldest man to reach the last eight at Wimbledon in the Open Era, and the oldest at any major since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open in December of 1977.

 

But I digress. Despite his remarkable showing at Wimbledon, the fact remained that the Swiss Maestro performed abysmally toward the end of his straight set skirmish against Hubert Hurkacz, dropping the third and last set 6-0. Federer would say not long after that disconcerting day that he had aggravated his knee during the grass court season, but some insiders are suggesting that the injury occurred during his defeat against Hurkacz. 

Whether that was the case or not, Federer’s comeback after enduring two knee surgeries across 2020 had been halted. Soon he would pull out of Toronto and Cincinnati on the ATP Tour, and it was apparent that he would either come to the U.S. Open badly prepared, or not go to New York at all.

Now we know that Federer will not be among the 128 players in the men’s draw at the Open because he will be soon undergoing  yet another knee surgery in the hopes that he might improbably return to the ATP Tour next year. As he addressed his multitude  of followers on social media a few days ago, Federer sounded realistic about his aspirations. He simply wanted to let his fans know what was going on in Federer World and give them the benefit of seeing him on camera and hearing how he felt about his current predicament.

Federer did not let his admirers down. He spoke to the public graciously on social media without looking through rose-tinted lenses. He said, “I’ve been doing a lot of checks with the doctors, as well, on my knee, getting all the information as I hurt myself during the grass court season and Wimbledon. Unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term, to feel better I will need surgery, so I decided to do it. I will be on crutches for many weeks and then also out of the game for many months.”

He spoke about his desire to be physically healthy, and then added, “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope, also, to return to the tour in some shape or form. I am realistic, don’t get me wrong. I know how difficult it is at this age right now to do another surgery and try it [making a comeback].”

https://twitter.com/TennisChannel/status/1426995174501019648

Those were poignant words from a champion who knows what he is confronting, realizes that returning to big time tennis and living up to his lofty standards will be arduous, and understands the immense size of the challenge ahead. Listening to the Swiss conveying his thoughts, I had the distinct feeling that Federer is bracing himself for the likelihood that he will never again be even remotely what he once was.

Beyond that, Federer was simply dealing with a harsh reality he could not have imagined when he left Wimbledon after a reasonably good run. To be sure, he knew that he was ailing, but he hoped having another surgery would not be part of the equation. And yet, here he is now, facing the future with cautious optimism, trying to figure out a path to lead him back toward where he wants to be, hoping he can reinvent himself convincingly, and determined to recover from another surgery and perform at least selectively on his own majestic terms.

Keep in mind that Federer has been through this routine too many times over the years. In 2016, he was playing with his children a day after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, and he felt something strange in his knee. That led to a February 3 surgery for a torn meniscus. He returned in the spring but had to close that season down after a semifinal defeat at the hands of Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.

Federer took an awkward fall during that loss to the Canadian and had to do rehabilitation on the knee. He did not play again in 2016 but remarkably returned in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open and improbably pulled off no fewer than three five set victories in his spectacularly triumphant run, toppling Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in those memorable contests. His rescue mission from 1-3 down in the fifth against Nadal when he captured five games in a row for his fifth Australian Open crown was a career defining moment.

The resurgent Federer secured an eighth Wimbledon title later that year and then defended his Australian Open title with a five set triumph over Marin Cilic at the start of 2018. He very nearly achieved a career groundbreaking honor at Wimbledon in 2019 when he reached his twelfth final on the Centre Court by ousting Nadal in a sterling semifinal performance. In the final, he served for the match at 8-7 in the fifth set, reaching 40-15 and double match point on his serve against Novak Djokovic in the sixteenth game, only to lose that stirring encounter with the Serbian. Federer had never stopped Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, and so his historic bid fell narrowly and agonizingly short.

Be that as it may, his body was holding up surprisingly well in that stretch from 2017-2019. But then he suffered a setback at the start of 2020 after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and was out for the remainder of that season. In that period he had two more knee surgeries. Federer was not ready to play at the Australian Open this year. He made his comeback in Doha this year on the hard courts, losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the quarter finals. His knee was still burdensome so Federer waited until Geneva on the clay to appear again, dropping his first match there in the round of 16 to Pablo Andujar.

Then Federer managed to record three match triumphs at Roland Garros on his way to the round of 16, but, concerned that he could hurt himself again, he defaulted against Matteo Berrettini in the round of 16. On to Halle he went, but Federer won only one match there before bowing out against Felix Auger-Aliassime. He did manage to move on to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon which was no mean feat under the circumstances, but his knee was acting up again. And so now he is where he is after all of the stopping and starting. Even for someone of Federer’s stature and stability, these are daunting times. For more than a year-and-a-half, he has been thrown into a world of uncertainty.

Roger Federer (SUI) Credit: AELTC/Jed Leicester

And so he will take it step by step in the months ahead, recognizing that things might not turn out quite the way he wants. But Federer surely knows that, even if he had stayed healthy, collecting more major titles was going to be awfully tough at his age. If he has the good fortune to emerge from his upcoming knee surgery with a clean bill of health for most of 2022, Federer may need to accept a standard that he would have scoffed at in days gone by. After every match victory at Wimbledon this year, Federer seemed to savor the moment more thoroughly than ever before, perhaps feeling internally that this was as much as he could ask of himself.

The feeling grows that Federer will not play on much longer. It is entirely possible that one way or another he won’t play much in 2022. Even in a best case scenario, it is hard to imagine him playing beyond next year. If that is the case, he should have few regrets.

He might be somewhat dismayed that Djokovic and probably Nadal will surpass him at the majors in the next year and beyond. All three superstars have secured 20 career majors, but this three-way tie could well be broken by Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Yet there are so many achievements Federer can celebrate— and console himself with— if his career is indeed almost over now.

He has won 103 tournaments across the years, and that is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. He holds the record for most Wimbledon singles titles taken by a man with eight. He has had winning streaks of five titles in a row at both Wimbledon (2003- 2007) and the U.S. Open (2004-2008), a feat unmatched by anyone in the history of the game. 

There is more. Federer’s consistency across his prime at the majors was unparalleled. He set an astonishing record by reaching 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events (2004-2010) and he also advanced to at least the quarterfinals of 36 straight majors (2004-2013). His consistency from his early twenties through his thirties was astounding. His longevity is beyond reproach; Federer established himself as the oldest man ever to reside at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings at the age of 36 in 2018.

On the flip side of the coin, Federer will almost certainly finish behind both Nadal and Djokovic in his career head to head meetings against his two foremost rivals. Nadal currently leads Federer 24-16 in their rivalry, including triumphs in six of their nine finals at the Grand Slam tournaments. Federer also trails Djokovic in their career series—the Serbian is ahead 27-23. Moreover, Djokovic has the edge over Federer 4-1 in final round duels at the majors.

Be that as it may, Federer should feel awfully proud of what he has done, and not the least bit regretful if he is unable to ever compete again on the premier stages—or anywhere else for that matter. Roger Federer has been a singularly popular player for the bulk of his career, cheered on vociferously by audiences everywhere he goes, buoyed by his vast appeal as the sport’s most elegant stylist, inspired above all else by knowing that his artistry has never been taken for granted by learned tennis observers.

If Federer is able to play on for another year, he should consider himself one fortunate fellow. If not, he must meet that moment of departure with equanimity, and remind himself that playing such a transcendent role in the game’s evolution as the most revered tennis figure of modern times is perhaps Federer’s largest contribution to a game that he loves unabashedly.

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Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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How Difficult Is It to Win against Novak Djokovic after Dropping a Set?

Alexander Zverev just won the Olympics semifinal match by coming back from a set and a break down against the world number one. How many have achieved the same feat against the Serbian?

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857 – the days since Djokovic was last defeated after leading by a set and a break: it happened again during the Olympic semifinal that he lost last week against Alexander Zverev in Tokyo.

 

The last time Nole had lost by wasting such an advantage may be traced back to March 26, 2019: on that date, the Serbian faced Roberto Bautista Agut in Miami – a round of 16 bout – and started big by leading 6-1 1-0 and serve, before falling into a spiral that allowed the Spaniard to win the match.

Before losing to Zverev at the Olympic Games, Djokovic was coming off a winning streak of 22 matches (during which he dropped only nine sets) and a 6-2 head-to-head record against the German. After the defeat suffered in the final last May in Rome against Nadal, the Serbian secured three titles: the ATP 250 in Belgrade and, above all, both the French Open and Wimbledon, the latter two being huge wins that allowed him to equal Federer and Nadal at 20 Slam titles.

When Djokovic broke Zverev’s serve during the fifth game of the second set during the Tokyo Olympics semifinal, moving up to 6-1 3-2 and serve, the match appeared essentially to be going his way, a feeling also validated by the statistics that saw Nole winning the last 40 matches in which he had won the first set (66 when considering best-of-five encounters) – this streak began after the round robin match of the ATP Finals 2019 lost against Thiem in the decider’s tiebreaker.

Perhaps this is enough to understand the magnitude of the feat achieved by Zverev, who was good at not breaking down once he went at a clear disadvantage against the winner of the first three Grand Slams played in 2021 and then to be relentless when it came to exploiting the decline of his opponent. In doing so, Sascha earned the Olympic final with merit and then the gold medal, thanks to his emphatic win over Khachanov.

To contextualise further the comeback win of the new champion of the Olympic Games, we decided to further investigate how statistically the victory was unlikely for him when he went to the change of court at a 1-6 2-3 disadvantage. We went back in time trying to figure out how many times it has happened to Djokovic to lose matches in which he was ahead not only by a set, but at least by a set and a break. We have thus discovered that since the second round of the Masters 1000 played at Bercy in Paris at the beginning of November 2012, Djokovic – at that time already sure to end the year at number 1 in the ranking and focusing on the ATP Finals – lost against Querrey after leading 6-0 2-0, it had only happened in three other circumstances that the Serbian lost after taking a set and a break lead:

  • Rome 2013, against Berdych (the only one of the four comebacks suffered in the last eight and a half years in which Nole has actually been two games ahead in the second set; in the other three he got broken immediately after breaking his opponent’s serve)
  • Doha 2019, against Bautista Agut
  • Miami 2019, against Bautista Agut

Starting with the 2012 ATP Finals (which the Serbian would later win for the second of five times) to the Olympic semifinal, Djokovic has won the first set in best-of-three matches 284 times, actually winning the whole thing 273 times (or 96.1%). An impressive record that could have been even better, as can be seen by the unfolding of the 11 matches in which he led by a set, which are listed in the following table:

TOURNAMENTOPPONENTFINAL SCORENOTES
ATP Finals 2019Thiem6-7 6-3 7-6Two points away from victory
Shanghai 2019Tsitsipas3-6 7-5 6-3 
Cincinnati 2019Medvedev3-6 6-3 6-3Wasted a break point in the second set
Miami 2019Bautista Agut1-6 7-5 6-3Leading by a break in the second set
Doha 2019Bautista Agut3-6 7-6 6-4Leading by a break in the second set; two points away from victory
Queen’s 2018Cilic5-7 7-6 6-3Had a championship point
Monte Carlo 2018Thiem6-7 6-2 6-3 
Doha 2015Karlovic6-7 7-6 6-4Two points away from victory
Dubai 2014Federer3-6 6-3 6-2 
Rome 2013Berdych2-6 7-5 6-4Leading by a break in the second set; two points away from victory
Indian Wells 2013Del Potro4-6 6-4 6-4 

Against Cilic in the 2018 Queen’s final, Nole wasted a match point, while against Berdych in Rome eight years ago, against Karlovic in Qatar in 2015, facing Bautista Agut in Doha and Thiem at the ATP Finals in 2019, he was only two points away from claiming victory.

We then continued the analysis to try to have even more precise data by deliberately not considering the matches that Nole won by breaking the opponent’s serve in the tenth or twelfth game, or those won after winning the tie-break of the second set in the event that the Serbian had not previously broken the serve of the opponent – if Djokovic had never broken serve in the second set except in the final game of the match, technically he had not been ahead of a set and a break in the whole match.

After his defeat at Bercy in 2012, the Serbian actually found himself in the lead of a set and a break in 241 occasions, losing three times (as mentioned, with Berdych in Rome 2013, and Bautista Agut at Doha and Miami 2019). So, considering the last eight and a half years of the Serbian’s career, from a purely statistical point of view, in the middle of that second set at the Olympics’ semifinal in Tokyo, Zverev had a 0.012% chance of winning the game. An interesting point of view, but to be taken with a grain of salt: it is necessarily an incomplete analysis because – among the numerous variables that this number is unable to represent – it does not capture important factors such as the different value of the opponents faced and the current athletic shape or prowess of the contenders.

The numbers relating to the difficulty of coming back against Djokovic once the Serbian claims the first set become even more impressive when considering five-set matches in which the Serbian won the first set. Djokovic won 295 out of 301, or 98%. The only six losses are summarized in this table:

TOURNAMENTOPPONENTFINAL SCORE
2016 US OpenWawrinka6-7 6-4 7-5 6-3
2015 French OpenWawrinka4-6 6-4 6-3 6-4
2014 French OpenNadal3-6 7-5 6-2 6-4
2014 Australian OpenWawrinka2-6 6-4 6-2 3-6 9-7
2010 French OpenMelzer3-6 2-6 6-2 7-6 6-4
2005 Davis CupRochus1-6 7-5 6-7 6-1 6-3

An interesting detail is that in the four defeats suffered after winning the first set in the last eight and a half years, he has never – in addition to the set advantage – been ahead of a break in the second. Three times out of six (!) the opponent who managed to turn the match around was the uber-version of Wawrinka (Nadal did it once, when he came back against Nole during the 2014 Roland Garros final). It is also impressive that Djokovic has only suffered one comeback out of 249 games in which he has found himself leading two sets to love, against Melzer at Roland Garros in 2010.

The defeat suffered against Zverev may be due to a great psychological and physical fatigue following the great efforts made in recent months (perhaps exacerbated by having also played the mixed doubles in the key days of the Olympic tournament). Djokovic confirmed this in the final for the bronze medal he lost against Carreno Busta and, above all, during the ensuing press conference after the Japanese defeats.

In the mixed zone, the number 1 in the world has also casted some doubts on his participation in the North American swing, which is particularly important for him this year; the Grand Slam, which would be achieved by winning the US Open, is at stake.

Article by Ferruccio Roberti; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa

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