Category Archives: Head-to-Heads

Roger Federer’s Impressive but Not-Entirely-Relevant Dominance of the Istanbul Field

Roger Federer has faced 14 of the 27 other players in this week’s Istanbul field, and owns a career record of 59-1 against them. His one loss came to Jurgen Melzer, while more than half of his win total is thanks to his decade-long dominance of Mikhail Youzhny (16-0) and Jarkko Nieminen (14-0).

It’s rare that players of Federer’s stature contest such small events, so we don’t expect to see such lopsided head-to-heads very often. In fact, if we limit our view to events where a player faced at least 10 of the other entrants, it is only the 17th time since 1980 that someone has entered an event with a won-loss percentage of 95% or better against the field.

Federer himself represents two of the previous 16 times this has happened. The most notable of them is 2008 Estoril. He had previously faced 14 of the other players in the draw, and had never lost to any of them in 46 meetings. There are only four other instances of players undefeated against a field, all between 1980 and 1984 and in many fewer matches.

The most eye-grabbing of those early-80s accomplishments was Ivan Lendl‘s record entering the 1980 Taipei event. He had faced 15 of the men in the draw, posting a record of 24-0 up to that point. Lendl’s name is the most common on the list, having entered tournaments with a 95% won-loss record against the field on four different occasions, highlighted by a 79-4 mark against the other competitors at Stratton Mountain in 1988.

Federer won the 2008 title in Estoril and Lendl claimed the 1980 trophy in Taipei, but Lendl was ousted in the second round of the 1988 Stratton Mountain event. Federer has also demonstrated that a stratospheric record against the field is no guarantee of success.

After Estoril, Roger’s second-best record entering an event was in Gstaad in 2013. He held a 73-3 record against the field, with each of the three losses coming against different opponents. He lost his opening-round match in straight sets to Daniel Brands. His record against the field of the previous week’s Hamburg event was nearly perfect as well at 137-8, but Federico Delbonis stopped him in the semifinals there.

Rafael Nadal can tell a similar story. His best record against a field was in Santiago two years ago, coming back from injury. He had lost only 1 of 28 career matches against the other players in the draw. That week, Horacio Zeballos doubled Rafa’s loss count.

In fact, of the 16 times that a player went into an event with a 95% or better record against the field, the favorite won only six of them. Expanding the sample to records of 90% or better, the dominant player won 30 of 72 titles. Neither mark is as good as we’d expect if the historically great players continued to win matches at a 95% or 90% clip. In practice, head-to-head records just aren’t as predictive as they seem to be.

As is evident from some of the examples I’ve given, there are mitigating circumstances for many of these losses, and they aren’t entirely random. These days, when a player enters an event that seems below him, there’s a reason for it. Nadal rarely plays 250s; he was doing so to work his way back into match form. Federer rarely seeks out smaller events on clay; he was experimenting with a new racket.

This week, there’s no reason why Fed shouldn’t perform at his usual level–at least his usual level for clay–and win the four matches he needs to claim yet another title. But if he suffers his second loss against the players gathered in Istanbul this week, it won’t be quite as much of a shock as that 59-1 record implies.

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New “Head-to-Head View” at

I’m really excited to announce some new features on Tennis Abstract — I hope you like them as much as I do.

Let’s start with the Head-to-Head view, which you can access by clicking near the upper left corner of any ATP player’s page. Marin Cilic, for example:


Click on the “Head-to-Head beta” link, and you get this:



As you can tell, there is a huge amount of data available here. What you’re looking at is a statistical summary of every single one of this player’s H2H records at the professional level. (As you’ll see on the page itself, the screenshot doesn’t show it all–there are ten more statistical categories for each H2H, including things like service points won and break point conversion rate.)

By default, the H2H table is sorted by number of matches. But like the standard “Match Results” table on Tennis Abstract, you can sort by most other columns simply by clicking on the column header, like TB (“tiebreaks”) here:



Thanks to the power of Tennis Abstract’s filters, there’s a lot more you can do with this view. As you’ve seen, the H2H view defaults to a player’s career results. Let’s say, though, that you want to see Cilic’s H2H records only on clay. Use the filters in the left-hand column as you normally would, and select clay courts:



As usual, you can apply as many filters as you want, so you could look at a player’s head-to-heads in a single seasonat the Challenger level, in deciding sets, or even show a summary of a player’s head-to-heads against all opponents from a single country.

Specifically for head-to-head purposes, I added a new filter: “Minimum matches.” This way, if you’re comparing a player’s H2H stats against several opponents, you can filter out matchups that haven’t occurred very much. Here’s an example, which shows Cilic’s highest H2H winning percentages, minimum five matches:



I also added another new filter that will come in handy on the standard results tab as well: “Vs Current Rank.” (The separate “Vs Rank” filter, which has always been on the page, filters by opponent rank at the time of the match; the new filter uses the most current rankings.) For instance, here are Cilic’s H2Hs against the current top 10:



Another neat aspect of the “Vs Curr Rank” filter is the ability to select “Active” or “Inactive” players. (These are determined solely by whether a player is in this week’s ATP rankings.) You could display all H2Hs against active players, or in the traditional Match Results view, quickly identify matches against retired/inactive players.

All of this is available for every ATP player, past and present.

In the process of working on the new features, I made a few other improvements that I hope powerusers will recognize and enjoy. For many statistical columns in both the match results and head-to-head views, I customized the sorting behavior, so matches without stats would automatically go to the bottom. I also made a bit of progress toward making the browser back button work as expected. There’s still some work to do there, but it’s much better than it was a few days ago.



Filed under Head-to-Heads, Tennis Abstract

No One Beats Nicolas Almagro Eleven Times In a Row*

*except David Ferrer

No one seriously thought Nicolas Almagro had a chance to beat Rafael Nadal yesterday. Despite a loss last week, Rafa remains the best player in the world on clay, a fact Nico knows well, having lost to his fellow Spaniard every time they’ve played, including eight meetings on clay, most recently in last year’s Barcelona final.

As dominating as the Big Four have been, head-to-head records this lopsided remain quite rare. While Nadal and Novak Djokovic have butted heads 40 times and Djokovic has played Roger Federer 34 times, it’s unusual for any pair of players to cross paths so often. Any player might draw Rafa in the first or second round, but only a consistently good player reaches enough later rounds to face the top players so often. Seven of the 10 Nadal-Almagro matches, for example, have come in the quarterfinals or later.

An extremely lopsided head-to-head requires two players who win enough matches to repeatedly face each other, including one who is considerably better than the other. Nadal-Almagro fits that description quite well.

As I wrote a few months ago, head-to-head records don’t have the predictive power that many of us imagine they do, though extreme records like this one are a bit more predictive than ATP ranking. When a player faces an opponent that he has beaten ten times in a row, he wins “only” 86% of the time, or about six out of seven matches.

Still, there aren’t very many head-to-heads like this one, so it’s a rare event when a long-suffering underdog finally comes through. Almagro was only the 14th player in ATP history to win a match against someone who was undefeated against him in 10 or more meetings.

Thanks to the gradual fade of Federer and the sudden vincibility of Nadal, many of the previous 13 have occurred recently.  Almagro is the third player to reverse an 0-10 (or worse) against Nadal, following in the footsteps of Fernando Verdasco (2012 Madrid) and Stanislas Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open).

Federer has lost to four players against whom he amassed records of 10-0 or better: Tommy Robredo (2013 US Open), Robin Soderling (2010 Roland Garros), Nikolay Davydenko (2009 Tour Finals), and Fernando Gonzalez (2007 Masters Cup).

Jimmy Connors also did it twice. He won his first eleven matches against Sandy Mayer before falling,  and he won his first 15 against Eliot Teltscher before losing. In a bit of odd trivia, Arthur Ashe is the only man to be on both sides of this coin: He won his first ten Open-era meetings with Roy Emerson before losing, and he beat Rod Laver only after losing his first ten Open-era matches against the Rocket.

There isn’t much of a pattern to these streak-breaking matches. The players who finally lose to their longtime rival tend to be relatively old, but so do their opponents–with rare exceptions, it’s tough to tally ten or more meetings with a player unless both are very good, and when both players are so consistently reaching semifinals and finals, the head-to-head record tends not to be so one-sided.

Almagro’s triumph leaves us with exactly ten remaining undefeated tour-level head-to-heads of ten matches or more.  Federer and Nadal figure heavily here, as well. Roger owns five of the ten, against Mikhail Youzhny (15-0), Ferrer (14-0), Jarkko Nieminen (14-0), Feliciano Lopez (10-0), and Andreas Seppi (10-0). Rafa represents another two: Richard Gasquet (12-0) and Paul Henri Mathieu (10-0). Djokovic is 10-0 against Seppi, and Tomas Berdych is 10-0 against Kevin Anderson.

Almagro, however, remains at the top of this ignominious list, having lost all 15 of his matches with Ferrer. Had his countryman played up to seed this week, Nico might have had a chance to break another streak in the final, but Ferrer lost his opening match to Teymuraz Gabashvili, who wasn’t willing to wait to fall to 0-10. The Russian beat Ferrer in only his third try.


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The Limited Value of Head-to-Head Records

Yesterday at the Australian Open, Ana Ivanovic defeated Serena Williams, despite having failed to take a set in four previous meetings. Later in the day, Tomas Berdych beat Kevin Anderson for the tenth straight time.

Commentators and bettors love head-to-head records. You’ll often hear people say, “tennis is a game of matchups,” which, I suppose, is hardly disprovable.

But how much do head-to-head records really mean?  If Player A has a better record than Player B but Player B has won the majority of their career meetings, who do you pick? To what extent does head-to-head record trump everything (or anything) else?

It’s important to remember that, most of the time, head-to-head records don’t clash with any other measurement of relative skill. On the ATP tour, head-to-head record agrees with relative ranking 69% of the time–that is, the player who is leading the H2H is also the one with the better record. When a pair of players have faced each other five or more times, H2H agrees with relative ranking 75% of the time.

Usually, then, the head-to-head record is right. It’s less clear whether it adds anything to our understanding. Sure, Rafael Nadal owns Stanislas Wawrinka, but would we expect anything much different from the matchup of a dominant number one and a steady-but-unspectacular number eight?

H2H against the rankings

If head-to-head records have much value, we’d expect them–at least for some subset of matches–to outperform the ATP rankings. That’s a pretty low bar–the official rankings are riddled with limitations that keep them from being very predictive.

To see if H2Hs met that standard, I looked at ATP tour-level matches since 1996. For each match, I recorded whether the winner was ranked higher than his opponent and what his head-to-head record was against that opponent. (I didn’t consider matches outside of the ATP tour in calculating head-to-heads.)

Thus, for each head-to-head record (for instance, five wins in eight career meetings), we can determine how many the H2H-favored player won, how many the higher-ranked player won, and so on.

For instance, I found 1,040 matches in which one of the players had beaten his opponent in exactly four of their previous five meetings.  65.0% of those matches went the way of the player favored by the head-to-head record, while 68.8% went to the higher-ranked player. (54.5% of the matches fell in both categories.)

Things get more interesting in the 258 matches in which the two metrics did not agree.  When the player with the 4-1 record was lower in the rankings, he won only 109 (42.2%) of those matchups. In other words, at least in this group of matches, you’d be better off going with ATP rankings than with head-to-head results.

Broader view, similar conclusions

For almost every head-to-head record, the findings are the same. There were 26 head-to-head records–everything from 1-0 to 7-3–for which we have at least 100 matches worth of results, and in 20 of them, the player with the higher ranking did better than the player with the better head-to-head.  In 19 of the 26 groups, when the ranking disagreed with the head-to-head, ranking was a more accurate predictor of the outcome.

If we tally the results for head-to-heads with at least five meetings, we get an overall picture of how these two approaches perform. 68.5% of the time, the player with the higher ranking wins, while 66.0% of the time, the match goes to the man who leads in the head-to-head. When the head-to-head and the relative ranking don’t match, ranking proves to be the better indicator 56.5% of the time.

The most extreme head-to-heads–that is, undefeated pairings such as 7-0, 8-0, and so on, are the only groups in which H2H consistently tells us more than ATP ranking does.  80% of the time, these matches go to the higher-ranked player, while 81.9% of the time, the undefeated man prevails. In the 78 matches for which H2H and ranking don’t agree, H2H is a better predictor exactly two-thirds of the time.

Explanations against intuition

When you weigh a head-to-head record more heavily than a pair of ATP rankings, you’re relying on a very small sample instead of a very big one. Yes, that small sample may be much better targeted, but it is also very small.

Not only is the sample small, often it is not as applicable as you might think. When Roger Federer defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round of the 2004 Australian Open, he had beaten the Aussie only twice in nine career meetings. Yet at that point in their careers, the 22-year-old, #2-ranked Fed was clearly in the ascendancy while Hewitt was having difficulty keeping up. Even though most of their prior meetings had been on the same surface and Hewitt had won the three most recent encounters, that small subset of Roger’s performances did not account for his steady improvement.

The most recent Fed-Hewitt meeting is another good illustration. Entering the Brisbane final, Roger had won 15 of their previous 16 matches, but while Hewitt has maintained a middle-of-the-pack level for the last several years, Federer has declined. Despite having played 26 times in their careers before the Brisbane final, none of those contests had come in the last two years.

Whether it’s surface, recency, injury, weather conditions, or any one of dozens of other factors, head-to-heads are riddled with external factors. That’s the problem with any small sample size–the noise is much more likely to overwhelm the signal. If noise can win out in the extensive Fed-Hewitt head-to-head, most one-on-one records don’t stand a chance.

Any set of rankings, whether the ATP’s points system or my somewhat more sophisticated (and more predictive) jrank algorithm, takes into account every match both players have been involved in for a fairly long stretch of time. In most cases, having all that perspective on both players’ current levels is much more valuable than a noise-ridden handful of matches. If head-to-heads can’t beat ATP rankings, they would look even worse against a better algorithm.

Some players surely do have an edge on particular opponents or types of opponents, whether it’s Andy Murray with lefties or David Ferrer with Nicolas Almagro. But most of the time, those edges are reflected in the rankings–even if the rankings don’t explicitly set out to incorporate such things.

Next time Kevin Anderson draws Berdych, he should take heart. His odds of beating the Czech next time aren’t that much different from any other man ranked around #20 against someone in the bottom half of the top ten. Even accounting for the slight effect I’ve observed in undefeated head-to-heads, a lopsided one-on-one record isn’t fate.


Filed under Forecasting, Head-to-Heads, Research

The 2014 Coach Smackdown

On the heels of the announcement that Boris Becker will coach Novak Djokovic, today we learned that Stefan Edberg will be part of Roger Federer‘s team for the first ten weeks of the season.  There will be more men’s Grand Slam champions in Australian Open coaching boxes than in the singles draw.

We’ve probably wrenched all possible commentary out of the head-to-head matchups of today’s slate of top players, so why not turn to their coaches instead?  Steve Tignor got us started:

I put together a list of 15 coaches and advisors, including Becker, Edberg, and Ivan Lendl, along with such names as Juan Carlos Ferrero, Goran Ivanisevic, and Michael Chang.  Many of them never played each other, since not all of their careers overlapped, but many of them did.

Becker, Edberg, and Lendl figure most prominently in these matchups, while Chang, Ivanisevic, and Sergi Bruguera also played plenty of matches against their fellow coaches.

Novak’s new coach barely edges out Andy Murray‘s coach as the king of his generation of advisors.  His 66-38 record against these 14 colleagues is slightly better than Lendl’s 47-28.  In eight of ten head-to-heads, Becker came out even or better. But one of those, as Tignor pointed out, is the matchup against Lendl, which the Czech leads 11-10.  If coaches can possibly accomplish such a thing, this pair might make Djokovic-Murray matches a little more interesting.

The other unfavorable head-to-head of Becker’s is my favorite quirky stat of the lot.  Twice in April 1993, when Becker was ranked fourth in the world, Franco Davin defeated him.  That’s a little better record for Davin than Juan Martin del Potro‘s 3-11 record against Djokovic.

Here’s the whole set of head-to-heads.  Don’t worry–in a few days the regular season will be back in full swing.

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Federer, Nadal, and Semifinal-or-Later Streaks

The Indian Wells men’s draw has been released, and a big question has been answered.  Rafael Nadal, about as dangerous a floater as can be imagined with a #5 seed, landed in Roger Federer‘s quarter.  (Sorry Roger, it had to happen to someone, and David Ferrer has suffered enough lately.)

If Fed and Rafa both win three matches, they’ll face each other in a quarterfinal match.  That’s something that’s never happened before.  The pair has met 28 times, 26 of them in a semifinal or final.  The only exceptions are their first match in 2004, when Nadal was seeded 32nd in Miami, and a round-robin pairing at the 2011 tour finals.  Ignoring the round-robin, that’s 26 matches in a row in one of the last two rounds of an event.

That’s a historically great streak, but it’s not the record.  In fact, one player is a part of two streaks–the only two streaks–that are better.

Jimmy Connors is 1st, with 28 consecutive semis or finals against Ivan Lendl, and 2nd, with 27 consecutive semis or finals against (who else?) John McEnroe.  He’s also eighth (21 straight against Bjorn Borg) and 12th (14 with Ilie Nastase).

Until the threat of this week’s draw, Federer and Nadal were right on Connors’s tail.  If Roger and Rafa meet in the quarters, the heir presumptive pair will have to include Novak Djokovic.

Here’s the all-time top ten:

Streak  Player1          Player2           
28      Jimmy Connors    Ivan Lendl        
27      Jimmy Connors    John McEnroe      
26      Rafael Nadal     Roger Federer     
23      Rafael Nadal     Novak Djokovic    
22      Stefan Edberg    Boris Becker      
22      Roger Federer    Novak Djokovic    
22      John McEnroe     Ivan Lendl        
21      Bjorn Borg       Jimmy Connors     
19      Stefan Edberg    Ivan Lendl        
17      Ivan Lendl       Boris Becker

If Nadal stays #5 for long (unlikely as that seems), both the all-time #3 and #4 streaks could be halted.  But as long as Federer stays within the top four, the current #6 streak will climb the rankings.

Of course, there are a couple of other combinations with the potential to crack this list, even reach the top:

Streak  Player1         Player2        
11      Andy Murray     Roger Federer  
10      Novak Djokovic  Andy Murray

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.  It took five years for Fed and Nadal to get from 11 up to 26.  As the top of the list shows, it takes two consistently great players to put together a streak like this.

All is not lost, though.  If they play in the quarters, they’ll just have to shift their focus to a new record: consecutive meetings in quarterfinals or later.  27 straight would put them behind Connors-McEnroe (32), Connors-Lendl (29), and one pair they’re unlikely to chase down: Nadal-Djokovic (29).

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The Most Familiar Faces

In last week’s Basel final, Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro faced off for the seventh time this year, and the 16th time overall.  Seven times in one year is an awful lot, about 10% of Delpo’s matches.  It’s even more remarkable because only two of those contests have been finals — in order to meet so many times, the draws of several tournaments had to complement their consistently strong play.

Making matters even more extreme is that there is a better-than-50% chance that Federer and Del Potro will meet in London next week, bringing the total to 8.  And there’s a slim chance–if they are drawn in the same group, then play again in the final–that the sum will reach 9.

So, what’s the record?  Seven is already pretty good, right?

Single year head-to-heads

In fact, as with so many other records, Federer is #1 in the last 30 years.  He holds the record with Jo Wilfried Tsonga, against whom he played eight times last year.  (In the entire professional era, the mark belongs to Ilie Nastase and Tom Gorman, who played at least nine times in 1972.  I’ve excluded years before 1980 because a variety of factors caused the top players to meet much more frequently than they do these days.)

As long as Fed and Delpo are at seven, they will be tied with four other pairs: John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl in 1984, Jim Courier and Michael Chang in 1995, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in 2007, and Novak/Rafa again in 2009.  Another 11 pairs met six times in a single year, including Nadal and Djokovic in 2008 and 2011.  (Along with, weirdly, Rajeev Ram and Donald Young in 2007.  Must be the wild cards.)

All-time head-to-heads

Since Djokovic and Nadal show up at the top of the single-year list no more than four times, it stands to reason that they must be near the top of the all-time list, as well.  Indeed, they are.

In fact, assuming Nadal returns to health in anywhere near his historical form, this current pair of stars will almost undoubtedly take over the all-time lead next year.  They could hold it for a very long time.

Player 1       Player 2        H2Hs    W-L  
Ivan Lendl     John McEnroe      35  20-15  
Ivan Lendl     Jimmy Connors     34  22-12  
Pete Sampras   Andre Agassi      34  20-14  
John McEnroe   Jimmy Connors     34  20-14  
Rafael Nadal   Novak Djokovic    33  19-14  
Boris Becker   Stefan Edberg     32  22-10  
Roger Federer  Novak Djokovic    28  16-12  
Rafael Nadal   Roger Federer     28  18-10  
Stefan Edberg  Ivan Lendl        26  14-12  
Roger Federer  Lleyton Hewitt    26   18-8

This is one record that, for all of his dominance, Federer will probably never co-hold.  To find yourself on this list, you not only need to rank among the all-time greats, you need a very-near-contemporary who ranks just as high.

(If you’re interested in head-to-head records, I hope you’re already using the Head-to-Head Matrix on  It’s updated every week, and shows the career H2H records of every matchup within the current top 15.  Each H2H record is linked directly to a listing of the relevant matches.)


Filed under Head-to-Heads, Records