Beyond the headlines: 1/2014

An occasional stats-based post on some of the week’s lesser reported stories on the ATP Tour. This week, instead of talking about Hewitt-Federer, Nadal-Monfils or Wawrinka, I want to talk about two things: playing conditions in Brisbane and the unlucky Vasek Pospisil.

1) ATP Brisbane

The 2014 ATP Brisbane tournament will be remembered by most for its time-capsule / sepia / League of Nations final between two 32 year olds, Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. However, on this blog, the tournament leaves its mark as having the quickest set of playing conditions for almost four years, quite possibly the reason the Swiss and the Australian played the title match.

This is important because many commentators/analysts/observers talk about the harmonisation of court speeds in recent years. But this is not always true. In one post-match interview at ATP Brisbane 2014, Marin Cilic described the courts as perhaps the fastest outdoor courts he can remember ever playing on tour (via @BenRothenberg).

How do we measure the speed of courts?

Let’s assume that on quicker surfaces it is easier to hold serve and that the scorelines of sets are accordingly tighter: more tie breaks, 7-5, 6-4 set scorelines. We can as a result measure the speed of court surfaces according to a calculation known as cross-courts, a betting market from Sporting Index and others. Under the cross-court markets (hereafter known as XC), the two game scores in each set are multiplied together. So a set that finishes 7-6 scores 42 XCs; 6-4 will score 24 XCs. A match that finishes 6-4 3-6 7-6 will score 84. The higher the XCs, the faster the court: not always, but typically.

Measuring XC is a more reliable indicator of court speed than the total number of games in matches. There are 23 games each in matches that finish 7-6 6-4 and 6-1 2-6 6-2. But experience tells us which one we expect from a grass court and which from a clay court. In the former score line XC will score 66; the latter 30.

 At ATP Brisbane in 2014, 27 main draw matches were played. The average XCs for the 27 matches was 65. If you look at the draw you can see the high proportion of tie break, 7-5 or 6-4 sets.

So what’s this in context?

  • Compared to the average XC of previous Brisbane tournaments (starting in 2009), this year’s court speed was about 25 per cent quicker than average.

Average ATP Brisbane XCs by year15 Brisbane table

 

  • Compared to other regular ATP tour tournaments (ie not grand slams which have best of 5 set matches), Brisbane 2014 had the quickest playing conditions of any tournament since, well, I should have a quiz, but anyway, since Montpellier in 2010 – an indoor tournament.

Average XC by tournament since 2008: Top 10 tournaments

15 Tournaments XC table

 

Although at least 3 factors combine to make-up the speed of playing conditions: court surface and speed, weather, and ball type, the most significant of these is the court surface.

A lot of noise surrounds the alleged harmonisation of different court surfaces in the last xx years (insert-number-of-choice). I would make 3 points:

  • Research on this blog shows that there remain measurable differences between the speeds of clay, outdoor hard, indoor, and grass surfaces. See here.
  • The speed of conditions at quick tournaments such as Brisbane in 2014 should be underlined in the media to correct the assumption that ATP and WTA tournaments are played on courts with the same speed.
  • To those who suggest that big servers like Raonic and Isner are the reason that some tournaments have higher XCs than others, research on this blog also shows that when a tournament has high XC the reason for this is typically shared about equally between the types of players (eg big servers) and the speed of playing conditions. See here.

 

 2) Vasek Pospisil

The young Canadian is only 23 years old, but at 6’4” (193 cm) and 185 lbs (84 kg), and with a fine break out year in 2013, he is without question one of the brighter young prospects on tour. Ranked 128 at the start of 2013, his run to the Montreal semi final included a win over Tomas Berdych and victory over another top 20 player. No fluke, another top 10 win (Gasquet) would follow in Shanghai. In his two defeats to top 10 players in 2013 (not including Davis Cup), he would take both Federer and Ferrer the distance. Cue 2014 and high hopes.

So it was unfortunate that Vasek’s 2014 season-opening tournament in Chennai would end with his retirement from a back injury against another top 10 player, Stan Wawrinka. However, in this semi final match that ended with the second set in the balance at 6-4 5-5, Vasek put the Wawrinka serve under the most pressure all week, creating 10 break opportunities. Unfortunately, he would only break the Swiss serve once.  For all that, Vasek finished the tournament with a career-high ranking of 30.

Claiming to like playing in warm conditions, Vasek’s back appears to be on the mend and he hopes to be fit for next week’s Australian Open in Melbourne, where temperatures of 42C (108F) are forecast. His first round match is against local big server Samuel Groth with a potential rematch with Wawrinka waiting in round 3. #AnythingisPospisil, we are told. Too soon to know for sure, but Vasek has certainly joined the ranks of those to follow closely.

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