Roger Federer is statistically rubbish at tennis… because he tries too hardhttp://metro.co.uk/2014/01/17/roger-federer-is-rubbish-at-tennis-because-he-tries-too-hard-4264338/
It’s a question that tennis players have been battling for years: How do you beat Roger Federer? Well, thanks to a new piece of research, we have the answer. And the answer is… complicated.
However, it can be summed up like this: to beat Federer, you must first let him win loads and loads of points. And then… hope for the best. As strategies go, it’s not exactly rocket science, but remarkably, it has a small chance of coming off. And now we have the data to prove it.
It’s not often you hear the Swiss player – who has won 17 Grand Slam titles – described as having a ‘lousy record’, but that is the phrase used by Dr Ryan Rodenberg, an assistant professor of sport law at Florida State University, to sum up one specific aspect of Federer’s game.
Federer’s weakness, if it can be described as such, relates to matches he has played in which the overall victor actually wins less points than his opponent.
Up to 2011, Federer had played 28 matches of this type – and his record in them is pretty abysmal. Of those matches, Federer has only won four, losing 24 times. So those are 24 contests in which the seven-time Wimbledon champion has scored more points in the course of a match than his opponent, yet still been defeated.
The striking thing about the research – carried out by Dr Rodenberg alongside tennis blogger and statistics analyst Jeff Sackmann and Ben Wright, a PhD student at Indiana University – is that Federer is so far behind everyone else.
After analysing more than 61,000 matches from 1991 to 2011, it emerged that his rivals fared much better in this type of match. Where the victor actually scored less points, Federer has a win rate of just 14 per cent. Another multiple Grand Slam winner, Andrei Agassi, has a 60 per cent success rate. Croatian Goran Ivanišević, another former Wimbledon champion, has a rate of 58 per cent. Even British players Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski outscore Federer, with win ratios of 43 and 50 per cent, respectively.
Of Federer’s contemporaries, Rafael Nadal has an impressive 70 per cent record, while Novak Djokovic did not qualify for the data, as he had not played enough of these matches.
The matches are examples of Simpson’s Paradox, named after British statistician Edward Hugh Simpson, which throws up seemingly bizarre statistical quirks when groups of data are combined.
The study, published in the International Journal of Performance Analysis of Sport, puts forward a few potential explanations as to why Federer is, somewhat remarkably, the worst at something relating to tennis.
‘The examples of players who actually win matches while winning less than 50 per cent of the points came up a fair amount – almost five per cent of all men’s matches since 1990 had this,’ said Dr Rodenberg. ‘It lent itself to an interesting player specific analysis. I really had no idea if I’d find anything at all.
‘I was really scratching my head when it was Federer – that arguably one of the greatest players in the history of the sport had that poor a record in these type of matches.’
The reasons for Federer’s record are two-fold, according to Dr Rodenberg. On one hand, he fights to win every point. The other factor is his opponent, who typically adopts a high-risk strategy in an attempt to beat Federer, often dropping a few cheap points along the way if needs be. If that gamble pays off, Federer will end up winning more points, but not the match.
‘There is a possibility that other players, especially during his heyday from 2003 to 2007, just knew that he was so good that if they were just to play their normal tennis game, they would lose,’ said Dr Rodenberg.
‘So they adopted a high-risk, high-reward strategy. So they might be more aggressive on their serves, they might go for broke on returns or if they get down in certain games, they might say, “Okay, I need a rest now to get ready for the next game”, and take a few games off. Federer would still be winning more than half the points, but they would be winning the key games.’
The practice of ‘tanking’, whereby a player might ease off in a game or two to save himself or herself for a more crucial stage of the match, has long been a controversial feature of tennis.
More recently, Australian Bernard Tomic admitted he uses the strategy ‘as a weapon’, adding: ‘I sort of zone out for a few games, try to use it to my advantage to come back in’.
In the new research, the most successful players at securing victory when winning less than 50 per cent of the points were Spaniard Félix Mantilla and American John Isner.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated last year, Isner, who relies heavily on his big serve, said: ‘I need to have as much energy as possible in my service games. If I’m up a break in a set, I can just ride out my serve. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m tanking the return games, but it gives me the opportunity to conserve energy for the service game.’
Dr Rodenberg said: ‘He [Isner] plays a ton of tie breakers. He’s winning his service games 40-30 or deuce but he’s losing the return games 40-0 or 40-15 every time and then he wins the tie breaker 7-4. Well, his opponent would have won more points during that set than he did, but they lost the set.’
Occasionally, however, players are accused of not trying hard enough. Although this new data indicates Federer seeks to win every point, back in 1998, when he was 17, he was fined $100 for violating the ‘best effort’ rule at a satellite event in Switzerland.
In 2007, Russia’s Nikolai Davydenko was fined for not exerting himself in a match in St Petersburg, although the decision was later overturned on appeal. In his autobiography, Agassi admitted tanking an entire match, losing to Michael Chang in a Grand Slam semi-final.
Conserving energy on the tennis court is a hot topic of conversation this week among players in the locker room at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where temperatures have reached more than 40C, causing one player and a ball boy to collapse.