Australian Open Abstract Part 1: Player Previews – The Old Guards (Class of 1996-2000)

December 27, 2012 · Print This Article

by: Jack Han

Is there such a thing as statistically rigorous tennis commentary? If such a thing can exist, then this is what we setting out to achieve with this multi-part series.  In tennis, until very recently, fans and journalists tend to measure a player’s talent with subjective criteria such as the fluidity of his one-handed backhand or with relatively one-dimensional numbers such as the speed of his first serve.  A case can be made that there’s much more to tennis than that.


Today is the first of four installments discussing the results of the top thirty-two players in the world.  By virtue of their 2012 year-end rankings, the players covered here will be seeded at the Australian Open, giving them the best chance to advance beyond the initial rounds.

Chances are, one of the thirty-two players we will be discussing in the next four days will be the person lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in Melbourne.  Indeed, the only unseeded player ever to win at the Australian Open was Mark Edmondson back in 1976.

Instead of arranging players by their current ranking, we have decided to present them in the order in which they turned pro, not unlike the way NHL and NFL players are often statistically compared to players in their draft year.  Not only does this provide another perspective from which to make sense of the numbers, but it will hopefully uncover some truths about the longevity and consistency of these players relative to those in their age range.

Class of 1996-2000 (7 Players)

Overall 2012 ATP Record: 275-126 (68.6%)

Titles: 15

Overall 2011 ATP Record: 258-140 (64.8%)

Titles: 8

Overall 2010 ATP Record: 280-115 (70.9%)

Titles: 12

The increase in the title haul by the pre-Y2Kers this season can be exclusively attributed to the slight upturn in Roger Federer’s fortunes (6 titles) and to the success of David Ferrer (7 titles).

Tiebreak Winning Percentage, 2012: 57.9% (+2.6% compared to top-32 average)

Avg. Tiebreak Winning Percentage, 2010-2012: 58.9% (+3.1%)

In 2012, the top 32 has won 55.2% of tie-breaks contested, and 55.8% over the past three seasons. The Old Guards outperforms the average by a significant amount.  Haas, Federer and Fish have all won over 60% of their tie breaks contested in the past three seasons.

Percentage of Service Games Won, 2012: 82.4% (-0.8%)

Average Percentage of Service Games Won, 2010-2012: 82.2% (+0.5%)

While the percentage of service games won by the oldest members of the top 32 has remained stable over the last three seasons, the elder statesmen have lost some ground on their immediate competitors at the top of the game.  As a whole, the top 32 won 81.7% of their service games between 2010 and 2012.  However, that number goes up to 83.2% if we only take the 2012 season into consideration due to the success of Milos Raonic and John Isner, among others.

Percentage of Return Games Won, 2012: 24.6% (=0%)

Average Percentage of Return Games Won, 2010-2012: 25.0% (+1.3%)

It seems like getting old does not have too much of an adverse effect on a player’s serving and returning statistics.  However, we can also see that the returning ability of the top player have gotten better in recent years.

Individual Player Profiles – Class of 1996-2000

Radek Stepanek (’96)

Ranked #31 in world at the end of 2012, Stepanek has not had a banner year by any means.  However, his epic five-set win over Almagro to clinch the Davis Cup for the Czech Republic can surely be considered a career highlight.  Outside of team competitions, Radek made the third round of Wimbledon, but lost in the first round at the other three Slams, including at the Australian Open.  There, he fell to world #81 Nicolas Mahut in straight sets.

In 2012, Stepanek’s tour record was an unremarkable 23-26.  He ranked 25 out of 32 in service games won (79%), which is surprisingly low considering his favorite shot is the serve (he once hit 8 aces in a row in an ATP match, a tour record at the time) and a massive drop-off compared to 2008, when he won 86% of his service games.  If Stepanek can get that stat back in low to mid 80% range, he will have a good season.  If not, then we won’t be seeing much of him in the later rounds of big tournaments, which would be a shame considering how much fun he is to watch.

Tommy Haas (’96)

Relatively injury-free for the first time in ages, Tommy Haas made the most of his opportunities in 2012.  After playing only seven ATP matches in 2010 and 22 in 2011, Haas upset Roger Federer to win Halle and made two other finals during the year.  Despite not holding an ATP ranking as recently as May 2011, Haas now sits at #21 in the world thanks to a solid 2012 campaign (31-16) and can be considered a dark horse in the upcoming Australian Open.

The main concern for Haas going forward will be to maintain a good winning percentage in tie-breaks.  In 2012, he won a remarkable 69% of them.  That’s better than everyone else in the top-32 except Rafael Nadal (73%) and John Isner (also 69%).  A small drop-off in that statistic can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of Haas’ 2013 season.

Roger Federer (’98)

2012 started on a worrisome note for Federer, as he dropped yet another Grand Slam encounter against Nadal in the semis of the Australian Open before suffering a shock upset loss against John Isner in Davis Cup (on clay, no less).  However, The Swiss had hit his stride by summertime, winning his 17th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon and regaining the world #1 ranking long enough to break Sampras’ all time record for weeks at the top of the ATP rankings.  Even though Federer is the third oldest player in the top-32, he was ultra-consistent in 2012, finishing the year with six titles to his name and a 71-12 record.  Tellingly, he made ten finals during the year (6-4) and lost before the semi-finals on only two occasions the entire 2012 season.

The key statistic anchoring Federer’s return to the very summit of the game has been his service games won percentage.  His 91% success rate in 2012 is third only to Isner and Raonic, the two biggest servers in the game.  In addition, he aced his opponents on 10.7% of his first serves this year, which is higher than what he achieved during his triple Slam-winning years of 2004, 2006 and 2007 (10.1%, 8.8% and 10.4% respectively).  Pretty impressive stuff for a player supposedly past his prime.

Jurgen Melzer (’99)

As early as in 2004, Melzer was hailed as a highly talented player and a future top-10 candidate, the only thing holding him back being his sometimes-questionable shot selection (i.e. the jumping two-handed backhand drop shot) and a lack of week-to-week consistency.  The Austrian finally fulfilled that promise by going on a tear in 2011 and topping off at #8 in the world.  However, 2012 has been more difficult.  While Federer only lost before the semis once the entire year, Melzer was a first-round casualty a whopping 12 times, including at the Australian Open.  With an unremarkable 20-25 record in 2012, Melzer heads into 2013 as the 29th best in the world, with lots of questions to answer but few points to defend.

Twelve is an important number for Melzer for another reason: it also happens to be the number of times in 2012 he has lost to lower-ranked players (out of 20 total losses on the season).  Matches that he probably wishes to have back include a 6-7 5-7 3-6 first round loss in Melbourne to Karlovic (#57), a 3-6 3-6 first round loss at Indian Wells to Bellucci (#50) and a 7-6 6-4 2-6 2-6 3-6 loss at Roland Garros to Michael Berrer (#114).  In addition, the lowest-ranked player Melzer lost to last year was #287 Tim Smyczek in the first round of Delray Beach.  With his experience and ball-striking ability, Melzer can do better.  On the other hand, this means that, as long as he buckles down and comes out on the winning end of similar matches in 2013, he could find himself back in the top 20 without doing anything spectacular or making wholesale changes to his game.

Mikhail Youzhny (’99)

Known to most of the internet as “the guy who bashed his own head in with a tennis racquet,” the thirty year-old Youzhny has quietly racked up eight career ATP titles and reached #8 in the world back in 2008 (coincidence?).  One of the few Russians in recent memory to hit with a one-handed backhand, Youzhny is a solid all-court player with good variety, if not too much raw power.  He also happens to be one of the more sought-after practice partners on the tour.  Despite losing in the first round of the Australian Open in 2012 (a tough five-setter against Andrey Golubev), Youzhny recovered to win Zagreb just two weeks later, ending the year with a solid 33-21 record and a #25 ATP ranking.

With a 45% success rate, Youzhny was one of the worst-performing top-32 players in tie breaks during the past season.  In comparison, his cohorts in the Class of 1996-2000 averaged 58% during the same time span.  This is not entirely surprising considering Youzhny never had the biggest serve around (in fact, his motion makes him susceptible to foot-faulting due to the little step he takes with his left foot before hitting the ball).

Mardy Fish (’00)

As of right now, Fish has already pulled out of the Australian Open.  It remains to be seen whether he will play much, if at all, the rest of 2013.  The state of American tennis on the ATP is currently in limbo with the retirement of Andy Roddick, so Fish’s absent will surely be felt.

Fish only played about half the 2012 season, finishing the year with a ranking of 27 and a commendable 21-11 record.  Whenever his health has allowed him to play tennis, he has played well.  Fish was actually on a nice run during the US Open hard court season before shutting down completely for the year due to recurring heart ailments.  He made the semis of Washington (loss to Haas), the quarter-finals of Toronto (loss to Gasquet), the quarter-finals of Cincinnati (loss to Federer) and the fourth round of the Open before declaring forfeit due to health concerns.  If we combine his 85% service games won with his 24% return games won statistics, the resulting number would be higher than all but ten players on the tour.  This tells us that, despite never having a game-breaking forehand like most of his peers, Fish still has the ability to regain a top-ten ranking if his illnesses can be sorted out.

David Ferrer (’00)

Ferrer grinded his way to a tour-leading seven titles in 2012.  That’s one more than Federer and Djokovic.  Despite racking up a whopping 76 wins (also one more than Novak), the Spaniard made seemingly no progress as far as his ranking is concerned, finishing at #5 for the second year in a row.  That can be attributed to Ferrer not being able to defeat any players ranked above him in the whole of 2012.  Ferrer won almost all the matches he was supposed to win, but was unable to put together an upset against the Big 4.  He had his chances in the US Open semifinals, where Djokovic came out playing uninspired tennis in windy conditions.  Ferrer was leading 5-2 in the first set before play was stopped due to a hurricane warning and managed to close the set out 6-2 when play resumed the next day, but he had missed his window of opportunity and was blown away by the world #1 in four sets.

While Ferrer’s ranking seems to have stagnated, one aspect that has steadily improved over the past three years is his service game.  While he is not hitting any more aces than usual (4.5% of first serves in), Ferrer has gotten better at backing up his serve, winning 73% of first serve points in 2012 (compared to his career average of 68%) and holding serve 85% of the time (as opposed to 81% in 2010).  That makes the 2012 version of David Ferrer a more effective server than 6’3” Andy Murray (84%), 6’2” Jeremy Chardy (82%) and 6’6” Marin Cilic (81%).


Part 2 (Dec. 28th): Seeded Player Profiles – Tour Veterans

Florian Mayer (’01)

Fernando Verdasco (’01)

Phillipp Kohlschreiber (’01)

Rafael Nadal (’01)

Janko Tipsarevic (’02)

Stanislas Wawrinka (’02)

Tomas Berdych (’02)

Gilles Simon (’02)

Richard Gasquet (’02)

Andreas Seppi (’02)

Juan Monaco (’02)

Part 3 (Dec. 29th): Seeded Player Profiles – In their Primes

Novak Djokovic (’03)

Nicolas Almagro (’03)

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (’04)

Andy Murray (’05)

Marin Cilic (’05)

Juan Martin Del Potro (’05)

Jeremy Chardy (’05)

Part 4 (Dec. 30th): Seeded Player Profiles – Rising Stars

Sam Querrey (’06)

Alexandr Dolgopolov (’07)

John Isner (’07)

Kei Nishikori (’07)

Jerzy Janowicz (’07)

Martin Klizan (’07)

Milos Raonic (’08)

Part 5 (Dec. 31st): Previewing the Best – The Big Four, Revisited

Djokovic’s Achille’s Heel

Federer’s (Supposed) Decline

What Murray Needs to Be Number One

Nadal, Better Than Ever?

Part 6 (Jan. 1st): Previewing the Rest – Bracket Breakers

Part 7 (Jan 2nd): Conclusion & AO 2013 Predictions

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