17. Quick conditions at Melbourne Park. But to what end?

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?

Introduction

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.

Methodology

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

17 Australian Open

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”.

 

2 thoughts on “17. Quick conditions at Melbourne Park. But to what end?

  1. Hey,
    one question about the XC Score. Isn’t it possible that ther might also be an effect of the differences between players in your score? I mean maybe we have a development that the lower ranked players improved relative and therefore the scores become closer?

    Btw I like the combination of Tennis and stats! Where do you take the data from? Is it possible to do this for someone like me too? I am just curious!

    • Hi Sebastian,

      It’s a nice question. One conclusion of an increase in XC is that matches are tighter.
      However, I don’t believe that is the case here. Firstly the increase in XC from 2012 through 2013 and 2014 is a 5-10 pt rise across each year 127 matches (although I discount the matches where there is a retirement or walkover). That is a significant rise of about 10 per cent. If greater competitiveness lay behind that I would expect that we would see a larger proportion of “new” grand slam quarter finalists or those in the round of 16. As I note above, though, 7 of the top seeds made the final 8 in Melbourne. In two previous posts on my blog (numbers 13 and 14), the evidence is that the ATP top 50 is older and less liekly to change than ever before, and the top 5 have become more dominant over the last decade. Again, not signs (for me at least) of greater competitiveness.

      Where the cross over between XC and playing conditions becomes telling is in comparing XC across different surfaces or at different slams. This will be the subject of a future post but essentially there is a marked difference between XC for Roland Garros (average 79) and Wimbledon (average 91), with the Australian Open and US Open sitting in the middle. This has been remarkably consistent over the last 10 years, even accounting for small variations year-to-year. So a large change in XC is either the result (as you suggest) of some sort of sea change in tennis or some difference in the surface speed. Some of the early posts on this blog also look at the high XC tournaments on the general tour and you will see that the high XC scores are for indoor hard courts such as Memphis or perhaps those at high altitude such as Gstaad. Where some smaller tournaments may score higher than others is in the type iof players that play there. With Raonic, Isner and Karlovic in the draw you will expect higher XC but in a grand lsam everyone plays and so the effect is evened out.

      As for tennis and stats, I’m trying to create a blog that creates some meaningful statistical conclusions. Tennis generally has few stats or stats that have questionable relevance. I download the raw tournament data (ie the results of matches) from different sites and then put it into excel and start number-crunching. Easy as that and then try to pull out what’s interesting.

      Thanks for reading.

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