Let’s start with two scenes.
Scene one. Following his Davis Cup Final victory over Tomas Berdych, Novak Djokovic used a version of one of my favourite phrases in tennis:
It was so close …especially in the second set where one point decided the winner, could have easily gone the other way and then one set all, who knows?
Djokovic was magnaminously referring to the second set tie break, which he won 7-5, in a match that he won 6-4 7-6 6-2.
Scene two. Two weeks earlier, Mark Petchey, commentating on the Masters 1000 event in Paris, went through his analysis of a sequence of five Federer-Del Potro matches from 2011 in Cincinnati through to Indian Wells in 2012. Federer won all five matches without losing a set but in this sequence, said Petchey, had saved 16 out of 17 break points. Petchey used this to note the small margins between winning and losing in tennis, and how Federer may not be far away from his best form, certainly “better” results.
In the two scenes above, we are talking about small margins. But these margins are not incidental; they do not reflect luck: they are, literally, the ballgame. As I noted in a previous post: it was never that close. And better players do win close matches.
What I’ve updated and broadened below is something I’ve called the Clutch Index, an index that rewards players for winning tight sets (7-5, 7-6, perhaps 8-6 at a grand slam) and penalises them for losing tight sets. Only these measurements, nothing more. A full methodology is set out at the bottom of this post.
What comes out is a strong correlation among the top 50 between a player’s ranking and their position on the Clutch Index. [The coefficient is -0.6 for those interested.]
Think of it this way: this index is a proxy for playing well under pressure – clutch tennis. It is arguably a simple proxy for mental strength. If a player gets to 5-5 or 6-6 in a set, why do some players win more than 50 per cent of these sets, and some fewer than 50 per cent? At the top of the game (i.e the top 50), where players may arguably have similar skills and talents, it is those that are strong mentally that win tight matches and achieve higher rankings.
The chart below plots the top 50 ATP ranked players (after the Davis Cup Final; x axis) against their Clutch Index for 2013 (y axis). Accordingly, by ATP ranking, Nadal is the blue marker furthest left, Djokovic next to him, then Ferrer and so on. The marker furthest right is Nicolas Mahut, ranked 50th.
Clutch Index 2013 vs ATP Ranking (post-Davis Cup Final)
In the table below, you can see explicitly that Dmitry Tursunov sits atop the Clutch Index 2013. Among other achievements, he went 25-7 in sets that finished 7-6 or 7-5 : a good man in a tight spot. As anticipated above, the rest of the top 10 of the Clutch Index 2013 is made up of players from the top 20 ATP-ranked players including 5 from the top 6.
Top 50 ATP players sorted by Clutch Index ranking
Interestingly, Berdych and Nicolas Almagro have the lowest Clutch ratios in the ATP top 20, both scoring negatively. Perhaps not incidentally, Berdych was the only player in the top 10 not to win a title. Almagro, you may remember, served for the match three times against David Ferrer at the Australian Open and lost. And perhaps appropriately, when Almagro beat Berdych in Shanghai, Almagro won the final set tie break, but only after being broken serving for the match.
A second set tie break in the Djokovic-Berdych Davis Cup Final match. Was it “so close”? Perhaps not.
Clutch Index for Top 50 ATP players sorted by ATP ranking
Annex 1 – Methodology for The Clutch Index
I have taken all ATP Tour matches and men’s Grand Slam matches in 2013 (all the matches have to have been completed). 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).
* 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.
** 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 not to over- or underweight Clutch scores based solely on the number of Clutch matches.