Monday, December 29, 2008

VOX POPULI, VOX DEI?

The ATP came out with a new look and feel to their website (http://www.atpworldtour.com/1/en/home/default.asp), and one of standard features, a link to head to head player comparisons, defaulted to one between Nadal and Federer. In the last incarnation of the old site a poll asked fans who would finish 2009 as #1 - guess who won?

Apparently, a few Nadal fans took umbrage at the poll itself, but more likely with the result: a majority of fans who answered the poll expect Federer to return to #1. This is an amazing conclusion given a few facts – in their 18 meetings, Nadal has won twice as often as he has lost, he's younger than Federer, his game appears to be continuing to improve and his 2008 season was one of the best in the history of the game.

So where’s the love?

A quick look at some statistics of their rivalry reveal something that may (sub-collective-consciously) contribute to why so many feel so confident that Federer will overturn last year’s results. First, of their 18 meetings, 10 have been on clay, of which Federer has won only one. To be fair, that’s about the same winning percentage on clay against Nadal as the rest of the tour combined, but nevertheless it shows one thing – those who would suggest their head to head is lobsided, without considering that more than half their encounters occurred on clay are ignoring the obvious question – what would the head-to-head look like if the encounters were evenly dispersed on multiple surfaces?

If we remove the clay court encounters between the two, we are left with 8 matches, and in these matches, Federer is up 5-3. On grass he’s 2-1 and on hard courts he’s 3-2. So if we extrapolate this out to have their encounters split evenly between 3 surfaces (clay, grass and hard courts) the record might look something like 1-5 on clay, 4-2 on hard courts and 5-1 on grass, in which case the overall head-to-head would be 10-8 in favor of Federer.

Fair enough, the number of grass encounters would, in reality, be minimal, but even if we give Federer the same results on grass as hard courts they're an even 9-9. But given Fed's dominance on grass, the 10-8 record probably represents what most feel is the relative difference in quality between the two.  So it seems the collective wisdom of ATP fans favors Federer, and the (adjusted) record seems to support it.

Of course tennis doesn’t work that way – it’s about results, and Nadal’s against Federer are better, but let’s compare another pair of titans and see how their results may have differed had their results been skewed towards one clearly favorable surface.

Borg and McEnroe played 14 times in 4 years, and split their results. Grass 1-1, Carpet 5-3 in favor of Borg, leaving their hard court results at 3-1 in favor of McEnroe – but fascinatingly conspicuous in its absence are results on clay. 15 years BN (that’s Before Nadal) Borg was universally considered the greatest clay court tennis player in the history of the game. In 9 years he lost twice at the French Open (to the same player) and skipped the tournament entirely in 1977. His career record on clay was 245 to 39: he lost as many on that surface as any of the others (except grass) but also played on it more than any other – in fact he won twice as many matches on clay as any other surface.

So, does anyone really think McEnroe would have split their encounters on clay?

Fair enough, McEnroe is underrated on clay because he never won the French, and it wasn’t his best surface, but not so underrated that he’d split his encounters with Borg.  In fact I’d say that if they’d played half their matches on clay (as have Federer and Nadal), and the rest on others, nobody would be comparing the Borg/McEnroe rivalry with any of the other historically great ones – the results would be too heavily in favor of Borg.

At the end of the day, it turns out that even head to head rivalries are a weak comparison of players because an anomaly like the number of times played (or not played) on one players’ obviously favorite surface, can skew the results.

Taken in a broader context, aside from his victory at Wimbledon and the Olympics this year – comparable to another hard court MS shield – Nadal’s results this year are comparable to his results in the previous 4. Federer, on the other hand has had a very unusual season – he failed to win a Masters Series shield for the first time since 2001 and failed to win more than one major for the first time since 2003.  Even so, he still reached 3 out of 4 grand slam finals, and remains, albeit precariously, #2 in the rankings. (I say "precariously" because I haven’t included Djokovic in this analysis.  No disrespect is intended - this column was inspired by the head-to-head between Federer and Nadal - but on a side-bar, The Djoker would have to repeat his victory in Australia to stay on Federer’s heels for #2, whereas Federer would need only reach the semi-finals in Melbourne to “defend his points”.)

Nadal on the other hand, has won just 3 of his career 12 Masters Series events on anything other than clay, with one each in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and would have to come up with a second Wimbledon and an additional non-clay MS victory (to match is Olympics victory) to defend his points in 2009 – a tall order for any man, including the best player in the world.

Perhaps in comparing the likelihood of each man repeating his performance of 2008 in 2009 the collective wisdom of ATP fans have concluded that Nadal has a harder road, whereas Federer would need to win at least 1 MS series tournament and reclaim an additional GS in 2009. Apparently, the fans believe the former is less likely than the latter.

Vox populi, Vox dei?

We shall see…
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