Australian Open Abstract Part 3: Player Previews – Muzza, Djoker and Co. (Class of 2003-2005)
December 30, 2012 · Print This Article
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.
Part 1 – Players: The Old Guard (‘96-’00): http://tennisconnected.com/home/2012/12/27/australian-open-abstract-part-1-player-previews-the-old-guards-class-of-1996-2000/
Part 2 – Players: Tour Veterans (‘01-’02): http://tennisconnected.com/home/2012/12/28/australian-open-abstract-part-2-player-previews-%e2%80%93-tour-veterans-class-of-2001-2002/
Class of 2003-2005 (7 Players)
Overall 2012 ATP Record: 372-134 (73.2%)
Overall 2011 ATP Record: 330-124 (72.7%)
Overall 2010 ATP Record: 251-132(65.5%)
Collectively, the 2003-05 group has the best record in tennis since 2011, locking down five of eight Slam held during that period (4 for Djokovic and 1 for Murray). Most of the sudden spike in winning percentage can be attributed to the return of Del Potro on tour following wrist surgery, the advent of Djokovic 2.0 (aka the dominant #1 player we saw in 2011) and the change in Andy Murray’s coaching situation.
Tie Break Winning Percentage, 2012: 55.0% (-0.2% compared to top-32 average)
Avg. Tie Break Winning Percentage, 2010-2012: 55.0% (-0.8%)
On average, players in the 2003-05 years are decent tiebreak performers, mirroring overall numbers from the top-32. Murray leads the pack with a solid 60% success rate in extra games since 2010, while Cilic is worst with 47%, which is a bit of a surprise.
Percentage of Service Games Won, 2012: 84.7% (+1.5%)
Average Percentage of Service Games Won, 2010-2012: 83.0% (+1.0%)
There are no overwhelmingly powerful servers in this group, but only Chardy has averaged less than 82% services games won since 2010, the benchmark number for the top-32 as a whole. In comparison, Djokovic, Tsonga and Del Potro all hover around the 86% mark, good enough to place in the ATP top 10 in terms of service games won.
Percentage of Return Games Won, 2012: 26.3% (+1.7%)
Average Percentage of Return Games Won, 2010-2012: 25.0% (+1.0%)
Murray was the most effective returner in 2012, breaking his opponent’s serve at an impressive 31% clip. Djokovic scored even better, though, with 35%. Interestingly, both players saw a drop-off of 5% compared to last year’s numbers in the same category.
Individual Player Profiles – Class of 2003-2005
Novak Djokovic (’03)
At the end of 2011, questions abounded on whether Djokovic could back up his remarkable triple-Slam-winning season with another good year. He started the year off on the right foot, winning the Australian Open in the longest-lasting final ever and getting to the final of the French Open. However, Federer did just well enough to win back the number 1 spot for the late-summer hard court season. Unlike in 2011, though, Djokovic finished the year strongly by winning the World Tour Finals in London to end the season at the pinnacle of the rankings for the second straight time.
One thing Novak has been doing better this year is being aggressive on his service games. His 74.9% first serve points won in 2012 is a career-high, and his 87% service games won percentage is slightly higher than last year’s. However, he still does not hit a huge number of aces (7.7% of first serves in, compared to 10.7% for Federer and 10.9% for the next player on our list).
Nicolas Almagro (’03)
Yes, Almagro is possibly the least likely ace machine on the tour. Standing a relatively modest six feet tall, the Spanish clay-courter has the best first serve out of anyone in the 2003-05 class. Instead of raw power (he tops off at around 132mph down the T), Almagro beats returners with unmatched variety this side of Roger Federer. Not only can he bring the heat down the middle, but he can also ace players out wide on both courts with short kick serves and a nasty slider on the deuce side. Shockingly, with all of his serving prowess, Almagro has yet to make the final of an ATP tournament not held on clay (16 finals, 10 titles overall). In 2012, he finished the year at #11 with a 58-24 record and two titles, both on clay. Obviously.
Despite his great first serve, Nico has never been the best at backing up his second serve, averaging 52.9% second serve points won since 2003. This year, he improved in that category with a career-best 55.1% output, slightly better than Murray (54.4%) but still trailing Djokovic (56.3%).
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (’04)
Injury-free for a second consecutive season, Tsonga cracked the top-5 this summer and ended the year #8 with two titles (55 wins, 25 losses). It is the most matches he has ever played on the tour since turning pro in 2004, and one more than he played in 2011 (55-24).
One interesting aspect of Tsonga’s year is how downright bad his record was against top-10 opponents. After receiving a walkover from Federer at Doha in January, Tsonga only beat one other top-10 player the rest of 2012 (Del Potro in Rome; 6-4 6-1), ending the year 2-15. And it’s not as if he was up against Djokovic or Federer at each occasion. He lost to Ferrer in Paris, to Isner at Winston-Salem and was 0-3 against Berdych. It might just be an anomaly, though. He was a more-than-respectable 10-13 against fellow top-tenners in 2011.
Andy Murray (’05)
A good case can be made for Andy Murray being named Most Improved Player of The Year, and indeed he was by most tennis publications. However, Murray’s career-best #3 year-end ranking was not a product of the Scot earning more wins (he went 56-16 in 2012 and 56-13 in 2011) or more titles (only three versus five in 2011). Of course, it matters a great deal that he won the US Open instead of Bangkok, to be sure. Tennis fans in the Commonwealth (and beyond) should have reasons to be optimistic about Murray’s chances in 2013, given that Rafael Nadal seems to be out of the picture for a while longer and that Roger Federer is not getting younger. However, whether Murray can become world number one in the next twelve months actually has very little to do with how he fares against the other members of the Big 4. More on that in Part 5 of our series…
Anyway, the Scot is 6’3” and hits the ball harder than he is perhaps given credit for. In 2012, he prioritized second serve effectiveness (54.4% won, career-best) and first serve percentage (59.9%, career-best) over pace (8.7% of aces on first serves, worst since 2008). The strategy worked well most of the time. Murray held serve 84% of the time in 2012, which is good enough especially considering he also broke serve on 31% of return games. Still, it’s a bit difficult to believe that his hold game was statistically inferior to that of Ferrer, Kohlschreiber and Querrey (all of them holding 85% of the time). If Murray can increase the quality of his first serve without missing any more of them, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in 2013.
Marin Cilic (’05)
Cilic just missed out on reaching the 40-win plateau this past season (39-19, 2 titles), ending the year 15th in the world. He’s flirted with this landmark for the past three seasons, playing consistently if not putting up any ground-breaking results. He is one of the only players in the top-32 to win an ATP Tour title every single year since 2008, an impressive streak.
One area where Cilic can really improve in is the quality of his first serve. For a guy who is 6’6”, Cilic’s serve is just not that big a weapon. Compared to someone like Tomas Berdych (who, at 6’5”, offers a good point of reference), Cilic hits fewer aces (7.9% vs. 10.8% of first serves), makes fewer first serves (55.4% vs. 58.7%) and gets broken more often (19% vs. 13%). The Croatian’s handicap carries over during tie breaks. He is the third-worst performing member of the current top-32 in the extra game since 2010 (47.3%, better only than Simon and Wawrinka). He did have a career-best year on his return games, so if he can hold just a little more often (let’s say 85% instead of 81% this past season), a spot in the top ten would not be out of the question in 2013.
Juan Martin Del Potro (’05)
Though Del Potro has yet to follow up his US Open win in 2009 with another major in 2012, he did have a career-best season in terms of match played (82) and won (65). Not only did he win 4 titles (tied for career-best), but he also brought home a bronze medal from the London games, beating Djokovic in the consolation match. His run in the Australian Open was halted in the quarters by Federer last time around, but there is no doubt Del Potro, with the right draw, can be a semifinalist, if not better, in 2013.
The problem happens to be his head-to-head against Federer, Djokovic and Murray. He is 4-13 against the Swiss, 2-7 against the Serb and 1-4 against the Scot. If Delpo gets lucky, he might find himself in the part of the draw vacated by Nadal and have a relatively easier trip to the semis. Either way, he will have to beat at least one, and probably two of the three candidates above to win in Melbourne. As an aside, he won the last two against Federer, lost the last three to Djokovic, and has not played Murray in over a year.
Jeremy Chardy (’05)
With a relatively modest 24-20 record in 2012, Chardy barely made it into our list, finishing the year at #32. He did go 10-2 at the Challenger level in the same span, however. The Frenchman has a pretty straightforward game (heavy first serve and a loopy, powerful forehand) compared to his compatriots. This lack of unpredictability is perhaps responsible for a predictably unremarkable 7-14 record against higher-ranked players in 2012. The biggest scalp Chardy claimed was world #3 Murray in the third round of Cincinnati this past summer.
As hard a time I gave Cilic about his serve earlier, Chardy has an even longer way to go if he is to venture anywhere closer to the top of the ranking. While the Croatian won slightly over 53% of his second serve points in each of the past three years, the Frenchman has never surpassed the 50% mark since 2010. If it is true that a player is only as good as his second serve, then Chardy may have his work cut out for him in 2013.
Part 4 (Jan. 1st): 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 (Jan. 3rd): 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. 5th): Previewing the Rest – Bracket Breakers
Part 7 (Jan. 7th): Conclusion & AO 2013 Predictions