Playing conditions at this year’s Australian Open were the quickest for at least a decade. But the media focus on playing conditions pre-tournament appears to be disproportionate to the effect that playing conditions have on the outcome of a match. The straw man of tennis? And hiding what?
You can debate the biggest story to come out of the Australian Open: the heat, Rafa’s injury, Li Na, Stanislas Wawinka, absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett etc.
But you cannot debate the biggest story the weekend before the tournament started. Ah jeez it was the speed of court conditions. Cue Babel:
“Faster conditions that I ever played here in Australia.”
“A little bit faster than last year but not a whole lot.”
“Same as last year. Same balls. Same speed. Laver is a little bit faster than Hisense.”
“Whether the court is faster, the balls are definitely different. The balls go through the air a lot faster.”
“I was feeling like [courts] 15, 16, 17 were much faster than the show court.”
These are the comments of five players interviewed before the tournament started. If you’re interested, you can guess who of Stosur, Li Na, Murray, Nadal and Federer said what. If you’re really interested, you can match their comments to the following adjectives: detail heavy, detail lite, melodramatic, precise, bored.
But what is immediately clear is that, although not short of an opinion, the players did not really agree. Steve Tignor, who best summarised and then developed the players’ comments here, wrote: “The trouble is, they all knew different things.”
So how quick were Australian Open playing conditions?
None of the ATP Tour, WTA Tour or grand slam tournaments measure the speed of courts or playing conditions, so there’s no help there. In addition, court conditions as a whole are dictated by a number of factors including the speed of court, temperature, humidity, wind, and the type of ball used.
However, there is a relatively simple way of determining a rule of thumb for the speed of playing conditions as a whole. According to this methodology:
- The playing conditions at the 2014 Australian Open were the quickest at the tournament for at least a decade;
- And on average about 10 per cent quicker than every year since 2005 with the exception of 2013.
It’s easier to hold serve on a faster court than a slower court. Intuition tells you it’s true, so do stats. This from heavytopspin.com: “in 2012, service breaks accounted for 22.0% of games on clay, against 20.5% of games on hard”. Accordingly, on quicker surfaces the score lines of sets are tighter: more tie breaks, 7-5, 6-4 set score lines. We can as a result measure the pace of courts 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 games of matches. There are 23 games each in matches that finish 7-6 6-4 and 6-1 2-6 6-2. But data tells us which one typically comes from a grass court and which from a clay court. In the former score line XC will score 66; the latter 30. Note that in this analysis, I have used the results only from the men’s Australian Open tournament.
Australian Open 2005-2014
Accordingly, I have measured the average cross-courts for each men’s Australian Open tournament since 2005. I have also marked where the tournament was held on a surface called Rebound Ace (up to and including 2007’s tournament) and since 2008 on plexicushion: the change in surface made to lessen player injury and the energy-sapping nature of the surface.
As you can see, playing conditions were at their quickest this year than at any time in the past decade. And given the abrupt uptick in the graph, there appears to have been a conscious choice on the part of the tournament’s organisers to unblock a relatively stable set of playing conditions at least a year ago. A different ball may also have had an effect this year.
Average XC at the Australian Open 2005-2014
But to what end?
For all the focus on the quicker playing conditions, research using the same methodology shows that this year’s Australian Open playing conditions were no quicker than those typically experienced at the US Open or Wimbledon (the subject of future posts). And for all the uplifting prose about Wawrinka’s unanticipated win, nevertheless, it was 7 of the top 8 seeds who made the men’s quarter finals: ie the best players remained the best players, with a large majority of bookmakers’ “favourites” winning during the second week.
So, it’s probably worth questioning the effect that the speed of playing conditions has on the outcome of matches. No question, it is a part of the jigsaw. Take our hero: Stan was probably able to hit through Novak and Rafa a little bit more easily because the conditions were a bit quicker. But equally no question, other factors must have played a bigger part, namely: 1) Stan’s form over the last 12 months which included 2 five-set toe-to-toe matches with Novak, 2 tournament wins and a Masters 1000 final appearance and 2) the extra belief that as a result of his form he took into his matches with both Novak and Rafa this year. Witness also the dominating influence of the mental side in Stan’s temporary checkout in the third set of the final.
Let’s also take Federer’s match-up against Rafa: as Rafa wins more of their matches, there are fewer reasons than ever to think that quicker playing conditions are going to weigh more heavily in Roger’s favour as opposed to the mental baggage and technical exploitation that weighs against him.
The significance of tennis’s variables, like all sports, occurs right at the margins: that extra bit of belief, slightly better form, the ability to win tight sets. However, the speed of court conditions, at least at the top of the sport, does not appear to be a major variable.
Accordingly, the focus on the speed of court conditions may be of more academic interest than strict relevance. Court conditions are also of financial interest to the betting community. And so unless the tennis media is hooked on the over-under on total games in a match, the relentless media focus on court conditions may well be a straw man – and rather may speak to a desire for a reversal, maintenance or apotheosis of a particular narrative. Again as Steve Tignor says: “’More variety’ [in playing conditions], to these fans, is synonymous with ‘more Federer.’” Wise words.
Not that that is easy to escape. While mine is a dispassionate statistical blog, I suspect there are a large number of similarly inclined people whose tennis watching in the next few months will be synonymous with “more Wawrinka”.