Category Archives: Bagels and breadsticks

Number One Bagels and Clutch Break Points

The big story from yesterday’s action at the US Open was the dominance of the world #1s.  Both Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams dished out two 6-0 sets, making one wonder if we’d been transported back in time to the first Tuesday, when top players are more likely to face opponents who don’t challenge them.

Djokovic’s drubbing of Marcel Granollers was only the 146th men’s Grand Slam match of the Open era in which one player won two bagel sets.  That’s a little less than once per Slam for that time period.

Only 15 of those double-bagels have come in the fourth round or later, and such final-16 drubbings have gotten more rare over time–only 5 of the 15 have taken place since 1983.  The most recent was Rafael Nadal‘s defeat of Juan Monaco at last year’s French Open, 6-2 6-0 6-0.  Roger Federer shows up on the list as well, twice: His quarterfinal win over Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 Australian, 6-3 6-0 6-0, and the final in his 2004 US Open title over Lleyton Hewitt, 6-0 7-6 6-0.

Double bagels are a bit more common in the women’s game, though not as frequent for Serena at Slams as you might expect.  While there have been over 180 in the Open era, yesterday’s defeat of Carla Suarez Navarro was only her fourth.  Several of the game’s greats tallied more than that, notably Chris Evert with 13, Margaret Court with 8, and Steffi Graf with 7.

Where Serena stacks up more impressively is in her record of 6-0 sets this year.  She has now served a bagel in ten different Grand Slam matches in 2013, including two double bagels.  Only Court in 1969 and Graf in 1988 won a 6-0 set in more Slam matches in a single year, and only Graf won more 6-0 sets at Slams in a single year.

Of course, Serena isn’t done yet.  However, in nine career matches against her semifinal opponent, Na Li, she has only won a single set 6-0.  She might not want to do it again: After serving a bagel set to open their 2008 in Stuttgart, Serena lost the next two sets for her only career loss against Li.

As we all mulled over Roger Federer’s future yesterday, Carl Bialik outlined a useful way of thinking about break point conversions.  As I noted yesterday, while Federer has played horribly on such key points in his last several slam losses, it’s not clear how much we should read into those numbers.  Yes, he probably would’ve won the match had he converted more break points, but does a dreadful 2-for-16 showing (or several) mean he is a fundamentally different player than he used to be?

Carl’s algorithm involves comparing performance on break points to performance on all other points.  If tennis players were robots, we would expect them to perform exactly as well at 30-40 as they do at 30-0.  The only slight difference is that most break points take place in the ad court, and lefties have an advantage there.  For now, let’s ignore that.

Thus, a player who wins 44% of break point opportunities against only 40% of other return points is playing 10% better in those pressure situations.  We might even say he is performing well in the clutch.

I ran these numbers for every member of the top 50 in 2013.  As is so often the case, the results don’t offer a lot of confidence in the connection between break point results and clutch skills.

The four players who have performed the best this year on break points, relative to other points in the same matches, are Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (+14%), Martin Klizan (+12%), Nicolas Almagro (+10%), and Ernests Gulbis (+10%).  Of the big four (or five, or seven), tops is Rafael Nadal, at +5%.

At the other end of the spectrum are Tommy Robredo (-5%), Sam Querrey (-6%), Kei Nishikori (-6%), Michael Llodra (-7%), and David Ferrer (-7%).

(These numbers don’t include the US Open.  If they did, presumably Robredo would move up a few spots.)

Federer ranks 38th among the top 50, winning 2.6% fewer break points than non-break points.  That’s certainly nothing to be proud of, but it’s only two spots behind Novak Djokovic, at -1.7%.

Another approach that matches our intuition a little better is to look only at break point opportunities–that is, clutch return points.  Here, Federer is -7.8%, worse than 40 members of the top 50.  Djokovic and Andy Murray are still in the bottom half, but a full 10 spots ahead of Roger, at -3.2% and -3.7%, respectively.  Nadal is +2.1%.

If nothing else, these numbers show us how thin the margins are in top-level men’s tennis.  A few percentage points differentiate the very best from a fading player having a disappointing season.

The presence of Djokovic so far down these lists serves as another reminder.  Converting break points is a numbers game.  Look through Novak’s season and you’ll find a couple 3-for-11s, a 2-for-12, and a 4-for-18 (against Bobby Reynolds!).  You only need to convert a few to win a match, and the best way to convert a few is to earn as many as possible.

In other words, break point conversion rates represent only a small part of a player’s performance on any given day.  Earning those break opportunities can be every bit as important, and that’s one category in which Federer remains strong.

If you missed it last night, check out my recap and detailed stats for Murray vs. Istomin.

Here’s another interesting graph from Betting Market Analytics, showing win probability throughout yesterday’s Ivanovic-Azarenka match.  Because Vika was so heavily favored yesterday, she retained a better than 50/50 chance of winning the match even after Ana took the first set.

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Guaranteed Five-Setters, Exhausting Routes to R4, and Master Bakers

With so many of the world’s top players in action yesterday, it’s only fitting to lead with Denis Istomin and Andreas Seppi.

Istomin and Seppi have now met four times in the last 15 months, all at Grand Slams.  And thanks to yesterday’s effort, they’ve now gone five sets in all four of those matches.

Cue the chorus: “That’s got to be some kind of record, right?”

Yep, it is.  While their US Open third-rounder was Seppi and Istomin’s seventh meeting overall, it was only their fourth at a major, meaning that each time they’ve met in the best-of-five format, they’ve gone the distance.  Two pairs of players (Thomas Muster and Albert Costa, and Guillermo Canas and Gaston Gaudio) have met three times in a best-of-five and reached a decider each time, but no two players had ever gone four-for-four.

In fact, Seppi and Istomin are only the eighth pairing in the Open era to record four or more five-setters.  Petr Korda and Pete Sampras played four five-setters in five matchups, but their first such meeting, a 1992 Davis Cup match, only went four sets.  Radek Stepanek and David Ferrer are also close, having played four five-setters in five best-of-five meetings.

Most of the pairs that have played so many five-setters required many more meetings to do so.  You might be familiar with some of the guys who make up the three head-to-heads that have played five five-setters: Jimmy ConnorsJohn McEnroe, Stefan EdbergIvan Lendl, and Roger FedererRafael Nadal.  But all of those pairs met more than 10 times in best-of-five situations.  In this context, all those three- and four-setters seem rather weak.

When the Australian Open draw comes out, while everyone else figures out whose quarter Federer landed in, I’ll be checking Seppi’s proximity to Istomin.

When Marcel Granollers edged by Tim Smyczek in five sets yesterday, the big story was the futility of American men’s tennis.  (Thankfully, for the depressed patriots among us, Sloane Stephens was putting up a spirited challenge against Serena Williams on another court.)

However, the Spaniard was making a bit of history of his own.  In beating Jurgen Zopp, Rajeev Ram, and Smyczek, he’s won three five-setters in his first three rounds, becoming only the 15th man to do so in the Open era, the first since Janko Tipsarevic did so at Wimbledon in 2007.  It’s only the third time someone has done it at the US Open.  The last man to do so in New York was Wayne Ferreira, in 1993.

Amazingly, three players have gone five sets in each of their first four matches in a slam.  The last such occurrence was when Dominik Hrbaty reached the fourth round at the Australian, in 2006.  He fell to Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth round.

This is one bit of history that Granollers surely won’t be making.  As remarkable as it is to reach the fourth round of the back of all those five-setters, it isn’t a good sign when you lose two sets apiece to three players ranked outside the top 100.

It certainly doesn’t bode well when your next opponent is Novak Djokovic.

As Federer, Nadal and Djokovic plow their way through the early rounds this year, none is wasting any time.  All three players have posted a 6-0 set in their second- or third-round matches, exclamation points amidst broader displays of dominance.

A quick check of the database reveals yet another category in which Federer is charging toward the top.  The Open era record for bagel sets won at Grand Slams is held by Andre Agassi, who retired with 49.  Fed’s bagel of Adrian Mannarino on Saturday was the 43rd of his career.

Here is the all-time list:

Player           Slam bagels  
Andre Agassi              49  
Roger Federer             43  
Ivan Lendl                42  
Jimmy Connors             41  
Bjorn Borg                35  
Guillermo Vilas           29  
John Mcenroe              29  
Stefan Edberg             25  
Boris Becker              23  
Rafael Nadal              22  
Novak Djokovic            21

Andy Murray is tied for 19th, with 16.

This is one category which highlights the extreme dominance of some of the greatest female players in history.  Chris Evert puts Agassi, Federer, and everyone else to shame, with a record 104 Grand Slam bagels.  Serena Williams’s first-round defeat of Francesca Schiavone moved her past Arantxa Sanchez Vicario into fifth place on the all-time list:

Player                   Slam bagels  
Chris Evert                      104  
Steffi Graf                       74  
Martina Navratilova               70  
Monica Seles                      51 
Serena Williams                   49 
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario           47  
Margaret Court                    44  
Gabriela Sabatini                 44  
Lindsay Davenport                 43  
Maria Sharapova                   41

With a quarterfinal matchup against Carla Suarez Navarro, it’s possible Serena isn’t done for the year.  Each of the two previous times the two women have played, Williams has won a 6-0 set.

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Bouncing Back From a Bagel

Yesterday, Sam Querrey posted an unusual achievement and did so in an unusual way.  He beat soon-to-be-#1 Novak Djokovic–a career milestone no matter how it happened.  And he did it after losing the first set 6-0.

This was only the fifth time in his ATP-level career that Querrey lost a set 6-0 (though it was the second time in two weeks), and it was the first time he was bageled in the first set.  Big servers like Sam aren’t generally found on either end of a bagel, since their style of play tends to ensure that both players win a service game or two.  Querrey has only bageled other players five times on tour.  Oddly enough, three of those have been in Los Angeles.

However rare 6-0 sets are, the shocking thing here is that he bounced back.  Not just in the sense that he recovered from the mental blow  of winning a mere 10 of 35 first-set points, but that he won two sets from a player who seemed to be so vastly superior to him on court.

As you might imagine, that doesn’t happen very often.  Of about 2100 best-of-three matches this year through the end of last week, 58 began with a bagel.  The first-set loser only came back to win three of those 58 times.  And of course, the losers in those three-setters were hardly of Djokovic’s caliber: Peter Polansky, Maximo Gonzalez, and Jarkko Nieminen.  (It wasn’t the first time for the Finn–he lost a match 6-0, 6-7, 6-7 in 2009.)

A bit of context

2012 has been a tough year for the victims of first-set bagels.  When we expand our focus to the entire 21st century, it turns out that first-set bagels have been occurring at a typical rate this year–about 2.5%, or 1 in 40 matches–but that players are finding it tougher to bounce back.

In best-of-three matches over the last thirteen seasons, there have been 753 first-set bagels.  The winner closed it out in straight sets 568, or 75.3%, of those times.  The rate this year has been almost identical, with straight-set wins finishing off 43 of the 58 matches with first-set bagels.

In the remaining matches, the underdogs have historically found easier going.  Over the last thirteen years, the player who lost the first set 0-6 managed to come back and win the match 75 times–about once every ten matches.  This year, Querrey was only the fourth (of 59, now) to do so.

What’s most interesting about the historical total of 75 is that is not much less than the number of matches that the first-set winner wins in three sets.

Let me put that another way.  Since 2000, the player who was bageled in the first set has come back to win the second set 185 times.  Since the vast majority of those second set scores are 7-6, 7-5, and 6-4, the first-set winner almost always had a more dominant run than the second set winner.    But that once-dominant first-set win only wins three-setters 40% of the time.

As we’ve seen, Querrey was only the fourth player to complete the comeback this year, though he was the 13th to reach a third set.  Based on the previous rate, we should have seen another couple of recoveries from an 0-6 start.

Winning the second set, as Querrey did today, doesn’t exactly put the comebacker on equal footing, but recent history shows that we can’t put too much weight on that outlier of a first set.  Perhaps 6-0s are simply too extreme to carry much weight.  Or perhaps winning the second set–even if it’s a much tighter margin than the first–provides a boost that carries over into the third set.

In any event, players should take heart in the knowledge that after dropping the first set 6-0, all is not lost.  But Querrey, who has now been bageled more in the last two weeks than he had been in the previous four years combined, probably shouldn’t hinge his hopes on many more fights like the one he posted yesterday.

After the jump, find the complete list of tour-level 0-6 comebacks since 2000.

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