3. The “Clutch” Index: better players win tight matches

“It’s going to be a very close match. I think there’s not a clear favourite,” Novak Djokovic ahead of his semi-final against Stanislas Wawrinka at the US Open 2013.

“You know, often what happens is matches change over a couple of points here and there,” Andy Murray after the Wimbledon 2012 final.

 “The tie-break was decided by one mistake that he made with a forehand. It was a very close match and could have gone either way,” Djokovic after his quarter final match with Tomas Berdych, Wimbledon 2013

It was never that close. Better players win “close” matches. Better players find a way to win matches when they appear to be at their closest. Not occasionally; overwhelmingly. Luck may occasionally play a part, but don’t confuse close with lucky.

When dominating Formula One, Michael Schumacher was 0.1 seconds quicker per lap than his rivals. It doesn’t sound like a lot; it may not be a lot. But it was never close.

Neither is tennis. Matches containing tie breaks, tights sets, or tight finishes have the aura of upset but are, in fact, anchored in predictability. Players who are stronger mentally come through these moments and reach higher rankings as a result.

So I’ve created The Clutch Index: evidence of better players playing “clutch” tennis at tight moments.

Methodology for The Clutch Index

I have taken all ATP Tour matches and men’s Grand Slam matches played between 2008 and the US Open 2013 (all the matches have to have been completed). Something around 16,500 matches. Points have been awarded to players as follows:

  • +1pt       – win a set 7-6 or 7-5
  • -1pt        – lose a set 7-6 or 7-5
  • +2pts     – win the final set of a match (3 set or 5 set) 7-6, 7-5 or 8-6, 9-7 etc
  • -2pts      – lose the final set of a match (3 set or 5 set) 7-6, 7-5 or 8-6, 9-7 etc

Example: in R16 (round 4) of the US Open 2013, Gasquet beat Raonic 6-7 7-6 2-6 7-6 7-5. In this match, Gasquet scores 3 points (-1 for losing the first set TB, +1 for each of the second and fourth set TBs, and +2 for winning the final set 7-5). Raonic scores -3 points (+1 for the first set, -1 for each of sets 2 and 4, and -2 for losing the last set 7-5). 

Guide for the table below:

  • Clutch matches – a match involving at least one set with a scoreline of 7-6 (or 6-7) 7-5 (or 5-7), 8-6, 9-7 etc. Players for the table below were eligible if they had played in 50 such matches since 2008.
  • Clutch score – the total of a player’s score totalling up his “negative” sets (eg sets lost 7-6 7-5) and his “positive” sets (sets won 7-6 or 7-5)
  • Clutch ratio – the key measurement. This is the Clutch score divided by the number of Clutch matches. It is important to put a player’s Clutch score in the appropriate context.

Results

The Clutch Index 2008-2013

Clutch   Index rank

Player

Clutch   matches

Clutch   score

Clutch   ratio

ATP   Ranking after US Open 2013

1

Nadal

177

117

0.66

2

2

Del Potro

153

80

0.52

7

3

Cuevas

58

29

0.50

456

4

Federer

207

87

0.42

6

5

Nalbandian

81

34

0.42

224

6

Monfils

141

59

0.42

37

7

Djokovic

196

81

0.41

1

8

Isner

230

95

0.41

15

9

Murray

171

68

0.40

3

10=

Nishikori

83

30

0.36

12

10=

Tomic

70

25

0.36

51

Analysis

  • Overwhelmingly, better players win tight matches.
  • The Top 11 includes 7 of the world’s top 15 ranked players (absent are Ferrer, Berdych, Gasquet, Wawrinka, Raonic, Haas and Janowicz), as well as a former Top 3 player now retired (Nalbandian), and 2 players who have been ranked in the top 10 (Isner and Monfils).
  • This index illustrates and underscores the importance of the mental side of professional sport. The ATP rankings are dominated by players who can win close matches: to do that you can’t be lucky.
  • In this regard, perhaps one of the surprises is the presence of Bernie Tomic (and certainly Pablo Cuevas). For those frustrated by his play, Tomic’s presence may serve only to underline that at his best, he is a formidable competitor.
  • John Isner is no one trick pony. Compare his presence here to the absence of Raonic (Clutch ratio 0.26), Querrey (0.10), Anderson (0.05) and Karlovic (-0.06).

The implications of The Clutch Index are more wide-ranging than the few notes above. That will be the subject of future posts: all discussion welcome. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: it was never that close.

Next on Cleaning The Lines:

The Clutch Index 2013 vs ATP Top 50 – and why Marcos and Dmitry might as well have shaken hands at 6-6 this week in St Petersburg.

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