EXCLUSIVE: Fabrice Sbarro Explains The Tiny Percentage That Separates The Big Three From Everybody Else - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Fabrice Sbarro Explains The Tiny Percentage That Separates The Big Three From Everybody Else

According to Daniil Mevdev’s former data analyst the success of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic is incredibly no more than 2% greater than their rivals when it comes to one specific area of their tennis careers.

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Written by Federico Bertelli

 


The second and final instalment of our interview with Fabrice Sbarro, who was part of Daniil Medvedev’s team as data analyst, during his successful summer season of 2019. After telling UbiTennis how Sbarro managed to convince coach Cervara (Medvedev’s coach), we broaden the field of analysis to the whole world of tennis. How important is that famous ‘1%’ difference, which at most becomes 2%? Considering such a slim margin can mark the difference between multiple Grand Slam winners and the rest field, maybe it’s something worth investigating…

CHAPTER 3 – SMALL TALKS AND FUTURE PERSPECTIVES

We were talking about that 1% of extra-success; considering the level of competition in man’s tennis, that makes sometimes winning or losing a match a little more than a toin coss, everything that can give an edge is surely interesting. The conversation continued on this topic.

Q: Maybe it is still not that clear the difference it makes that 1%. What do you think Fabrice?

A: 1% is not a tiny difference. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in their careers scored a percentage of points won around 54%. Maybe people think that these great champions, because of their successes, have simply wiped out their opponents. But the reality is different and even for them the margins are narrow, they won around 54% of points played in their career. I’ll tell you more: Gasquet in his career won around 52% of the points. On one hand, the Big Three has won dozens of Slam titles, while the Frenchman has only reached the semi-finals in a Major. In short, my idea is to help athletes to reach that 1%, to provide a competitive advantage that can allow them to step up a gear and reach new heights. Daniil was at the same level as Gasquet at the beginning of 2019, standing at 52% of points won. During the period from Montreal to Shanghai, in which we collaborated, this figure jumped to 54% (on the levels of the big 3).

Q: Can you tell us how your collaboration with Gilles and Daniil developed?

A: In the period from Montreal to Shanghai 2019, I helped Gilles in the preparation of the matches and we were completely on the same page, sharing thoughts at all level. And it was incredible, because usually the coaches hardly trust 100% and tend to discard most of the proposals. But with Cervara it was different, he was really believing in what we were doing. He liked the concept. And I could check it first hand, because in that period Daniil actually translated our indications on the field at a rate of 70-80%; obviously there is also the opponent on the field and obviously a lot of factors are involved in a success story, also luck. For example, at the Us Open Daniil was clearly injured and was lucky to get away with it. But after Shanghai another very important aspect emerged: psychology.

Q: What does it mean?

A: After Shanghai, a tournament in which Medvedev had beaten Zverev in the final, Daniil’s status had changed, he had now become a superstar, no longer just a good player, but one who rivalled the best and could compete at a Slam level. And arguably, from an emotional point of view it was not easy to manage. After all, Daniil was coming from an exhaustive ride, both mentally and physically. Maybe, the fact of having ascended to a completely different status was also carrying more pressure: maybe this kind of pressure plus all the physical and mental toll was an excessive burden to manage. After Shanghai he felt the need to play in a certain sense alone, without the aid of statistics, despite the fact that coach Cervara was fully supportive of the new approach. Basically, Daniil wanted to test himself and do his own thing. Despite this turnaround, the relationship of trust with Gilles was not harmed, he continued to pay me in order to have my analysis: my work after Shanghai had a different perspective, aimed at developing the game of Daniil in a broader sense and not just focus on tactical pre match advice. In other words, even if we no longer did the statistical preparation of the matches and therefore no longer took care of the tactical aspects, we worked in terms of post-match analysis, in order to understand what was working and what not. It does not mean that Daniil’s refusal to rely on the statistical approach is definitive, simply for now we are exploring other ways, even if it is  arguably a shame.

Let’s consider the rematch with Wawrinka at the Australian Open. I had studied the game of Wawrinka and I realized that although for most of 2019 the backhand of Stan was going wild, in the last few weeks before the happy Slam, things had changed: already in Doha, I noticed that the shot had returned solid. I knew that Vallverdu (Stan’s coach) had focused on that shot; so even if the backhand is a shot that Daniil plays very well, me and Gilles had suggested that going to much crosscourt on the backhand would not be a good idea; instead, would have been better to go down the line earlier in the rally. Unfortunately, it did not go that way. Since numbers don’t lie, at the end of the match I reviewed the match and noticed that Daniil had played 85% of his backhand crosscourt. Obviously, we will never know what could have happened with a different tactic. But certainly, it was a hard-fought game that could have gone either way. And when the matches are so contested small details make the difference.

From an outside perspective, it seemed that after Shanghai Medvedev had lost the magic that had led him to sniff victory against Nadal, in one of the most dramatic Grand Slam victories of the Spaniard. And quickly Daniil was going back to the level he had at the beginning of 2019. Once again tennis proved to be a sport in which climbing to the top is a process made of steps that costs time and effort; progress that can be reverted very quickly. In such a competitive world, where statistics are not yet handled by most of the players and coaches themselves, mastering data can give an even more significant competitive advantage. And speaking of tennis players who have made a great leap forward, one cannot avoid talking about Matteo Berrettini, named “Most improved player” in 2019.

Q: Talking about Matteo Berrettini, what are your thoughts Fabrice?

A: I think that all the players who worked with data experts got results and Berrettini is a good example: he started 2019 around number 50 and managed to close the season in the top 8 and go to the Finals. And he worked with Craig O’Shannessy. With all due respect it was not expected to end at number 8! Being a top ten means more or less winning 52% of the points, a performance that was not the standard for Berrettini. Berrettini: top 30 / top 50, won about 51% of the points. Once again: we are talking about a difference of one percentage in terms of point won, but precisely, this is the difference between a good player and the absolute elite. I am absolutely convinced that Craig O’Shannessy was crucial in Berrettini’s quantum leap. In the end, it’s about small details, like serving strategies, being a little more aggressive and looking a little bit more for the net, or using the slice a little more. In the end, this is what we are talking about and this is the role of a statistics expert who interprets the data in order to suggest tactical adjustments. In short, data is coming!

Q: Do you think many players are already benefiting from these small adjustments?

A: Definitely, and a good example is surely Murray: I know for sure he has benefited from this type of support. Andy was certainly a top player but probably not at the level of the other three, and the fact that he managed to say a word in that contest is amazing. Maybe what I say is completely wrong, but in my opinion, he was an excellent top ten, like Berdych for example, who really was only one step away from being a Grand Slam champion, also reaching the final in Wimbledon. Murray instead won Slams, the Olympics and had a completely different career. While the other three were sitting above 54% of points won, Murray remained slightly above 53%, but still better than 52% which is the top ten mark.

Q: A part from Medvedev, did you have other important collaborations in 2019?

A: Yes, I collaborated with Nicolas Mahut, who told me that he was interested in my job and wanted to have a try. And the occasion when we started to get serious was the 2019 London Masters. During that tournament we made preparations for each match. It was a great effort because I had never dealt before with doubles and so I built a database of matches in order to chart the style of all the competing couples of Mahut and Herbert at the ATP doubles finals in London. But in the end, they didn’t lose a single set in the whole event and considering the quality of the opponents it was a great result. Of course, this is not to say that statistics was the reason of the success. But maybe, it was not only a matter of Herbert and Mahut being unbeatable in their good days, as some sceptics say. Anyway, building from that result, I decided to start following even the double, but only the best 20 couples in the world in order to provide my services only to the best in class.

Interviews

Maria Sakkari Powers Past Swiatek, Badosa Stuns Sabalenka At WTA Finals

There was a lot of emotion displayed during the second day of the season-ending event.

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Maria Sakkari (image via https://twitter.com/WTA_insider)

Maria Sakkari registered her first win at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico by beating the Pole Iga Swiatek 6-2, 6-4 in one hour and 26 minutes.

 

Sakkari, who is the first player from her country to participate in the event, fired 15 winners while the world number nine hit 29 unforced errors in the loss during their latest clash. It is the third time this season the 26-year-old has beaten Swiatek in straight sets after the French Open and Ostrava.

“I think it was a very solid match from my side,” wtatennis.com quoted Sakkari as saying during her press conference. “Obviously my serve really helped my game. I felt quite good with the altitude. I could control my shots pretty well. I think every day I’ll feel even better.
“I actually have a good game to play against [Swiatek]. All three times I played her, I played one of the best matches of the season. Like even today, I think I was very solid in these conditions.”

The first set stayed on serve for the first two games and then it was the world number six who started to put the pressure and managed to get the first break of serve to take an early 2-1 lead. The set continued on serve with the Greek able to consolidate the break and at 4-2 managed to go up a double break and that was enough for her to serve it out.

During the second frame the match stayed on serve until 3-3 when again it was the Athens native who had two chances to break. On the the second time of asking she managed once again to get the crucial break and serve out the match. Towards the end a frustrated Swiatek started to cry on court.

“I’m very proud that I can be the first woman, Greek woman, to actually represent my country into the Top 10 and of course in this tournament. It feels amazing to be able to travel around the world playing these tournaments, being one of the best players, and being from my country. I’m very, very proud of that.” Sakkari commented.

Badosa Smokes Sabalenka

image via twitter.com/WTA_insider

In the other group match of the day, Spain’s Paula Badosa pulled off a shock win by upsetting top seed two Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 6-0 in one hour and 16 minutes. She was initially down 2-4 in the first set before going on to win 10 straight games to claim the victory.

“I think I played pretty good,” Badosa said. “The conditions are tough here to play, but I think I played an amazing match. She’s an amazing player. I knew I had to play like this. I’m really happy with my match.”

The world number 10 hit 14 winners and served five aces in the win while Belorussian looked rusty hitting 31 unforced errors in the loss.

Badosa now goes to the top her group as she has lost the fewest games so far in the tournament. As for Sabalenka, she admits that a breakdown in her mental game hampered her latest performance.

“After I lost the serve, I was really disappointed in myself and emotionally I was, like, really crazy,” Sabalenka said after the match. “I couldn’t just stop myself and kind of put myself back in the match.”

Badosa will next play Sakkari in the round-robin competition with the winner likely to secure their place in the last four of the tournament. It will be the first Tour meeting between the two players.

“I think she played a very good match today,” Badosa said. “I think the conditions were OK for her, as well. She felt quite good on court. I expect a tough match.”

Sabalenka will next play Swiatek.

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Interviews

“We Hope to Convince Federer to Play”: the Presentation of the 2022 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters

Director Zeljko Franulovic talked about next year’s tournament, scheduled from April 9-17

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Stefanos Tsitsipas - ATP Montecarlo 2021 (ph. Agence Carte Blanche / Réalis)

The 2022 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters will take place from April 9-17, so it’s difficult to guess what the pandemic situation will be in six months. At the moment, however, the prevalent hypothesis is that all spectators will need a Covid Pass or to bring proof of a negative test before being allowed in the Montecarlo Country Club at Roquebrune, France. If some players will refuse the vaccine, then they will need to be tested regularly in accordance to the rules devised by the French government.

 

Other than that, there will be no surprises when it comes to the event’s logistics, since the Country Club has already added a new players lounge and a new press room in the past few years. In 2020 the tournament was cancelled, while in 2021 it took place behind closed doors (while still being televised in 113 countries); the last edition staged with a crowd, in 2019, sold 130,000 tickets, constituting 30% of the total revenue – another 30% came from the sponsors, 30% from media rights (a number that tournament director Zeljko Franulovic hopes to see increase) and 10% from merchandising.

While it’s early days to know whether the tournament will operate at full capacity, Franulovic has made it clear that the organisers are already planning to provide a better covering for the No.2 Court, whose roof has not been at all effective in the past in the event of rain.

The tournament’s tickets can be bought on the official website of the event, but Franulovic has already vowed to reimburse immediately every ticket “if the government and the health authorities should decide to reduce the tournament’s capacity.”

Ticket prices have increased by 2 to 3 percent as compared to 2019, ranging from £25-50 for the qualifiers weekend, £32-75 for the opening rounds, £…-130 for the quarterfinals and semifinals, £65-150 for the final, £360-1250 for a nine-day tickets. Franulovic claims that the prices are in line with those of the other Masters 1000 tournaments.

Finally, Franulovic supports Andrea Gaudenzi’s decision to create a fixed prize money for the next decade. While tournaments like Madrid and Rome are trying to increase their duration from 8 to 12 days, the Monte-Carlo director has claimed that he prefers to remain a week-long event, especially because his is not a combined tournament. As for the players who will feature, Franulovic hopes to convince Roger Federer to participate: “I’m certain that he will give everything he has to be able to stage another comeback on the tour, ma no one knows where he’ll play. However, I think that on the clay he should opt for best-of-three events like Monte-Carlo and Rome rather than the French Open.”

For this and more information, you can watch the video above.

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Editorial

EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players

The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.

 

The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.

“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.

“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”

In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.  

The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.

“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.

“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”

Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.  

“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.

“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”

The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready. 

Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.

There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”

The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013. 

“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue.  I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis. 

The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.

Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.

More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.

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