Sunday, September 30, 2012

Who wins the Cliff-hanger sets?!

It’s a known fact that since Safin’s ceremonious Australian Open victory in 2005, the quartet of Roger, Rafa, Nole and Andy have won 30 of the 31 grand slams contested since 2005 (Though Djokovic comes into the picture only in 2008 and Murray only in 2012!). They are considered by many former players, legends like McEnroe included, to be part of the best top-4 in any era of Men’s tennis. One reason for such domination is the way they have been able to handle pressure in situations that were demanding.
Who wins the cliffhangers?!
 The ethereal beauty of the sport that tennis is, has been the fact that in tough contests, the player who wins the important points, more often than not, wins a match. More of this in the last paragraph of this article! A lot of such important points pop-up in what is known as the business end of sets. This piece takes a look at how these 4 players, when playing among themselves, have handled situations after set scores have read 5-5! Against other lower ranked opponents, all 4 have been mightily successful in finishing sets off when push comes to shove at a 5-5 or a 6-6. Here, we’ll see who has been the most dominant of the top-4 in the 7-5, 7-6 cliffhangers played among themselves!

Here’s a matrix showing the number of tie-break sets the 4 have played against one another.

Federer and Nadal have played 38 TB sets (a staggering 20 TB sets between themselves!), almost twice the number of TB sets Murray has played against the other three! Big guys like some thrill, eh? No wonder most of the Federer Nadal sagas turn out to be epics.

When it comes to the 7-5 sets, here’s the matrix showing the number of such sets these players have played among themselves.

Nadal (23) separates himself from Federer (32) here; If Nadal gets to 5-5, it is almost certain that the set is to go to a Tie Breaker. He doesn’t like them 7-5 sets!  Djokovic, meanwhile, has a special liking for 7-5 sets, it seems. He tops this list with 35 sets! Federer-Djokovic matches are bound to have a lot of 7-5 sets; The duo account for 15 of the 54 7-5 sets held within the 4! The Murray-Nadal duels, (they are less in number compared to the Federer-Djokovic encounters) account for only 2 of the 54 7-5 sets in question!

Now to a list of how the 7-6 and 7-5 sets have influenced the outcome of matches!
Unsurprisingly, the numbers are skewed in favour of the winners. Still, there are some interesting insights one could gather from this list. Look at the Federer vs Nadal row! Among the 20 TB sets they have played, 12 have been won by the winner and the loser comes close winning 8 of them! Mentally, the two are rock solid and do not get as bogged down as say, Djokovic, when they face off! The Federer-Djokovic row tells a nice little story that men who bet for a living would be interested in. 23 off 28 such sets have gone to the winner!

Now, a little more deep-diving. Let us see how each of them have performed against one another in terms of a ratio of sets won to sets played.
Tiebreakers first!

The men who have held tennis duopoly for about 7 years have never gone below 50% in any of their tie-break match-ups with the other 3 (Their numbers are all green – over 50% success rate). Djokovic’s record (all in Red) is dubious; That too for someone who is considered to be currently,the best returner in the sport! He doesn’t have even a 50% success in tie-breakers when he plays the others in the 3. So, for the other 3, one goal when they face off Djokovic would be to somehow hold serve and get the set to a tie-break from where they could seek history’s help! On the other hand, for all the criticism the Nadal serve has taken (supposedly the weakest part of his game), he has the best record of them all in Tiebreakers: a game which supposedly favours the big servers! ‘Nerves first, Serves next!’ seems to be the unsaid truth regarding tie-breakers from what we see in the table here.
7-5 sets now!

Here, Federer loses the stranglehold he otherwise held in the other stats so far. He has a below par record against Murray and Nadal and only slightly, edges past Djokovic, who again, is the worst of the lot! In all matches Murray has played against the other 3, never has the match loser won a set 7-5! Again, a stat for the betters and superstitious to watch out for. Rafa dominates the other 3 here as well, with winning %s of 7-5 sets won!

Now for the result!
If one needed to choose just one hero for the cliffhanger tale, just the one who handles pressure best in match-ups of top-4, all stats point to one name – Rafael Nadal! No wonder he has a winning record against the other 3! Another myth that this busts is that Djokovic, with a super serve and a super return and a will to save match points and win contests, is not at his best when it comes to tight sets against his beloved top-runners!
If you still feel the 7-5 7-6 sets are not any more important than other sets in deciding match outcomes, here’s something. Federer had won more points than Nadal in both the Rome final of 2006 and the Australian Open final of 2009. But Rafa pulled off 4 of the 5 ’7-5 7-6′ sets contested in these matches and won both the encounters!

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