Monthly Archives: August 2015

Is Serena Williams Taking Advantage of a Weak Era?

tl;dr: No.

Serena Williams is, without question, the best player in women’s tennis right now. She’s held that position off and on for over a decade, and it’s easy to make the case that she’s the best player in WTA history.

The longer one player dominates a sport, the tougher it is to distinguish between her ability level and the competitiveness of the field. Is Serena so successful right now because she is playing better than any woman in tennis history, or because by historical standards, the rest of the pack just isn’t very good?

As we’ll see, the level of play in women’s tennis has remained relatively steady over the last several decades. While there is no top player on tour these days who consistently challenges Serena as Justine Henin or peak Venus did, the overall quality of the pack is not much different than it has been at any point in the last 35 years.

Quantifying eras

Every year, a few new players break in, and a few players fade away. If the players who arrive are better than those who leave, the level of competition gets a bit harder for the players who were on tour for both seasons. That basic principle is enough to give us a rough estimate of “era strength.”

With this method, we can compare only adjacent years. But if we know that this year’s field is 1% stronger than last year’s, and last year’s field was 1% stronger than the year before that, we can calculate a comparison between this year’s field and that of two years ago.

Since 1978, the level of play has fluctuated within a range of about 10%. The 50th-best player from a strong year–1995, 1997, and 2006 stand out–would win 7% or 8% more points than the 50th-best player from a weak year, like 1982, 1991, and 2005. That’s not a huge difference. One or two key players retiring, breaking on to the scene, or missing substantial time due to injury can affect the overall level of play by a few percentage points.

The key here is that a dominant season in the mid-1980s isn’t much better or worse than a dominant season now. Perhaps Martina Navratilova faced a stiffer challenge from Chris Evert than Serena does from Maria Sharapova or Simona Halep, but that difference is at least partially balanced by a stronger pack beyond the top few players. Serena probably has to work harder to get through the early rounds of a Grand Slam than Martina did.

Direct comparisons

So, Serena’s great, and her greatness isn’t a mirage built on a weak era. Using this approach, how does she compare with the greats of the past?

Given an estimate of each season’s “pack strength,” we can rate every player-season back to 1978. For instance, if we approximate Serena’s points won in 2015 (based on games won and lost), we get a Dominance Ratio (the ratio of return points won to serve points lost) of 2.15. In layman’s terms, that means that she’s beating the 50th-ranked player in the world by a score of 6-1 6-1 or 6-1 6-2. The 2.15 number means she’s winning 115% more return points than that mid-pack opponent. If the pack were particularly strong this season, we’d adjust that number upwards to account for the level of competition.

Repeat the process for every top player, and we find some interesting things.

Serena’s 2.15–the second-best of her career, behind 2.19 in 2012–is extremely good, but only the 21st-ranked season since 1978. By this metric, the best season ever was Steffi Graf‘s 1995 campaign, at 2.42, with Navratilova’s 1986 and Evert’s 1981 close behind at 2.38.

Graf has seven of the top 20 seasons since 1978, Navratilova has four, and Evert has three. Venus’s 2000 ranks sixth, while Henin’s 2007 ranks tenth.

It seems to have become harder to post these extremely high single-season numbers. In the last ten years, only Serena, Henin, Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, and Lindsay Davenport have posted a season above 2.0. Serena has done so four times, making her the only player in that group to accomplish the feat more than once.

Best ever?

As we’ve seen in comparing Serena’s best seasons to those of the other greatest players in WTA history, it’s far from clear that Serena is the greatest of all time. Graf and Navratilova set an incredibly high standard, and since the greats all excelled in slightly different ways, against different peer groups, picking a GOAT may always be a matter of personal taste.

Assigning a rating to the current era, however, isn’t something we need to leave up to personal taste. I’m confident in the conclusion that Serena is not simply padding her career totals against a weak era. If anything, her own dominance–during an era when dominating the women’s game seems to be getting harder–is making her peers look weaker than they are.

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Ivo Karlovic and His Remarkable 10,466* Aces

Here’s the official story: This week, Ivo Karlovic crossed the much-heralded 10,000-ace milestone. Next up is the all-time record of 10,183 aces, held by Goran Ivanisevic.

Karlovic is one of the greatest servers in the game’s history, and he has in fact hit more than 10,000 aces. Ivanisevic was really good at serving, too, and he might even hold the all-time record. But when it comes down to the details in this week’s ATP press releases, all the numbers are wrong.

Last year, Carl Bialik laid out the two main problems with ATP ace records:

  • The ATP doesn’t have any stats from before 1991. (Ivanisevic started playing tour-level matches in 1988.)
  • ATP totals don’t include aces from Davis Cup matches, even though Davis Cup results are counted toward won-loss records and rankings.

I’ll add one more: There are plenty of other matches since 1991 with no recorded ace counts, too. By my count, we don’t have stats for 14 of Ivanisevic’s post-1991 matches. (They’re not on the official ATP site, anyway.) That doesn’t count Davis Cup, the Olympics (also no stats), and the now-defunct Grand Slam Cup.

If you like tracking records and comparing the best players from different eras, tennis might not be your sport. All of these problems exist for players who retired only recently, and some of the issues persist to the present day. And if you want to compare Federer or Ivanisevic with, say, Boris Becker or–it’s tough to write this without laughing–Pancho Gonzalez, you’re completely out of luck.

We’ll probably never find ace totals from all of the missing matches. But it seems silly to pretend we can identify the true record-holder and celebrate when these “records” are broken when we so obviously cannot.

Approximate* career* totals*

What we can do is estimate the number of missing aces for each of the top contenders. In Ivanisevic’s case, his 1988-90 seasons, combined with Davis Cup and other gaps in the record, total nearly 200 matches. Even if we can’t pinpoint the exact number of uncounted aces, we can come up with a number that demonstrates just how far ahead of Karlovic he currently stands.

To fill in the gaps, I calculated each player’s rate of aces per game for each surface for every season he played. For 1988-90, I used 1991 rates. (This post at First Ball In, which I discovered after writing mine, suggests that players improve their ace rates the first few seasons of their careers, so we should adjust a bit downward. That may be right. A 5% penalty for Goran’s 1988-90 knocks off about 60 aces from his total below.)

Once we crunch the numbers, we get an estimated 2,368 aces in Ivanisevic’s 195 “missing” matches. That gives him a career total of 12,551–a mark Karlovic couldn’t achieve until the end of 2017, if then.

But wait–Ivo has some missing matches, too! The gaps in his record only amount to 21 matches, mostly Davis Cup. The same approximation method adds 466 aces to his record, meaning he hit that 10,000th ace back in June, in his second-rounder against Alexander Zverev. Even with those nearly 500 “extra” aces, Ivanisevic’s record is almost surely out of reach.

What about Pete Sampras? Officially, Pete is fifth on the all-time list, with 8,858 aces. But like Goran, he played a lot of matches before record-keeping began in 1991. His ace record is missing nearly 200 matches, as well.

In Sampras’s case, we can estimate that he hit 1,815 aces that aren’t reflected in his official total. (In line with the caveat regarding Goran’s total above, we might want to knock that total down by 50 to reflect the possibility that he hit more aces in 1991 than in 1988-90.)

Making similar minor adjustments to the other members of the top five, Federer and Andy Roddick, here’s what the all-time list should look like, at least in general terms:

Player      Official  Est Missing  Est Total  
Ivanisevic     10183         2368      12551
Sampras         8858         1815      10673  
Karlovic       10022          466      10488  
Federer         9279          524       9803  
Roddick         9074          694       9768  

Coincidentally, Karlovic is officially within 200 aces of  Ivanisevic’s all-time record, and while he really isn’t anywhere near the record, he is that close our estimate of Sampras’s second-place total.

We can be confident that Ivo is a great server. But if we can’t be sure of his own ace total, mostly amassed in the last decade, it seems foolish to pretend that we’ll know when–or even if–he breaks the all-time record.

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