Australian Open Abstract Part 5: Novak Djokovic’s Achilles’ Heel
January 3, 2013 · Print This Article
AO Abstract Part 5: Djokovic’s Achilles’ Heel, Fed’s Decline and Murray’s Biggest Obstacle to Becoming #1
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.
5.1) Novak’s Achilles’ Heel
We begin Part Five of our series with a very simple question, “Does Novak Djokovic, the number one player in the world, have a weakness?”
Of course, we are talking about someone who has won a tour-best 206 matches since 2010 and four of the last eight Grand Slams, someone who comes into Melbourne as the defending champ and someone who is seemingly at ease trading ground strokes on either wing against anyone in the world. If we take a closer look at the numbers, however, we can see that players facing Novak can do one thing in order to swing the odds appreciably in their favor.
What if I told you that, as Djokovic’s opponent, all you need to do is to hold your serve six times in a row in order to drastically increase your chances of winning the match. There is no need to worry about your return games – feel free to walk up to the baseline without a racquet in your hands to conserve energy, if you must. Regardless, as long as you can win 24 points on your serve and get into a tie break against Djokovic, you would no longer be playing against the best tennis player in the world, but the 16th best. Heartening news if you are, let’s say, Milos Raonic or John Isner.
Let me explain: over the past three years, the top thirty-two players in the world have averaged a 55% winning percentage in tie breaks. It is a given that the average for all ATP-ranked players is exactly 50%, so we can see that top player are somewhat better in the clutch than lower-ranked pros, probably by the virtue of their superior talent, experience and mental strength. What about the best of the best, then? Do the Federers, Nadals and Djokovics of this world score better yet when it comes to tie break conversion rate? The answer is both yes and no.
Federer blows the competition out of the water with a brilliant 65% winning percentage in the first-to-seven-points shootout. In fact, despite finishing 2012 with a solid 58% tie break conversion rate, it was the first season since 2004 where he has won less than two-thirds of tie breaks played over a calendar year.
As good as Roger is, somehow Nadal is better still. Despite not having a pinpoint serve like the Swiss, Nadal has averaged an unreal 73% tie breaks won since 2010.
What of Djokovic, then? Well, in his case, the numbers aren’t good. During his 2011, the season where Djokovic dominated the field to the tune of a 70-6 record and three Grand Slams won, the Serb was a lowly 9-10 in tie breaks. Perhaps this means that he was good at closing out sets without the need for heroic gestures at 6-all, but consider that Federer (zero Slams) and Nadal (one Slam) both went 20-9 during the same year. Despite Novak’s improved fitness and ball striking, he was still vulnerable when push came to shove.
All that being said, holding serve against Djokovic is always a challenge. His 35% return games won since 2010 is #1 on tour during that span. Yet, focusing on your own service game and simply being content to hold serve is a surefire recipe for a more relaxed state of mind for anyone going up against the current world number one. Somewhere out there, a guy who’s about 6’9” is licking his chops. We’ll see when the season gets underway…
5.2) Federer’s Supposed Decline
Here is Federer’s ATP Tour records for the last six seasons, starting with 2008, the year in which, according to most tennis fans, marked the end of his absolute domination of the sport. Take a look, then think about what you see:
We can see that Roger has lost a step and is not winning as much as he used to, right? Well, there’s only one problem with that theory: he had 71 wins not in 2008, but in 2012 – I had switched the years around purposefully. Here is his actual record, in chronological order:
2008: 66-15 (Won US Open, finalist in Roland Garros and Wimbledon)
2009: 61-12 (Won Roland Garros and Wimbledon, finalist at Australian Open and US Open)
2010: 65-13 (Won Australian Open)
2011: 64-12 (Finalist at Roland Garros)
2012: 71-12 (Won Wimbledon)
Even during his ongoing (supposed) decline, Federer has been remarkably consistent and efficient. He actually won more points on his first serve and on his return games in 2011 as opposed to 2010, but was just a little bit less aggressive in the clutch, costing him two-set leads against Tsonga and Djokovic at the last two Grand Slams. All in all, however, the reports of Federer’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and while he may no longer be able to make mincemeat of everyone else in the game, you can never count out the possibility of an 18th major win for the Swiss.
5.3) What Murray Needs To Do To Be Number One
Let’s play one more little game: Here are the 2012 records of four players; try to guess which one is the outlier.
So, what’s your guess? Before we get to that, let me tell you that the numbers above represent the records of each of the Big 4 players against opponents ranked outside the top 20. Djokovic and Federer defeated underdog opponents with frightening ease, and Nadal would have joined them in that territory if not for his knees and an out-of-body experience by Lukas Rosol under the roof of Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Meanwhile, Murray is far from being a lock to win when he takes to the court against players outside the top-20. Especially frustrating is his habit of losing to underdogs at Masters 1000 events, the type of tournaments where he stands to make up lots of ground points-wise on Federer and Djokovic. This year, he lost against Janowicz in Paris (second round), Chardy in Cincinnati (second round), Raonic (via walkover, second round), Gasquet in Rome (second round) and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Indian Wells (first round). It is conceivable that, had Murray performed better in those five events, he would have enough ranking points to mount a serious challenge for the honor of being called the best tennis player in the world. As it stands, he’s about 3000 points behind Djokovic.
On the flipside, this is why I see Murray doing even better than #3 in the world this year. He can hardly do any worse in the Masters 1000 events, so he will be in control of his destiny week after week between the spring American hard court season and the lead-up to Roland Garros. There will be lots of opportunities for him to catch up to the only two guys ranked above him, at least.
Part 6 (Jan. 5th): Previewing the Rest – Bracket Breakers
Part 7 (Jan. 7th): Conclusion & AO 2013 Predictions