2018 Australian Open Preview: Revenge of the Tennis Nerds

I believe that each tennis tournament has a general constructed narrative, from the lowest junior levels at your local park to Grand Slam events. In a single elimination tournament, the most random of all structures, it’s impossible to understand anything without building a narrative or theme around what’s occurring. There’s no 82-game or 162-game regular season where established trends are tested and defined before the playoffs begin. We knew the narrative of the 2017 MLB Playoffs would be centered around home runs. We had no idea the narrative of the 2017 Australian Open would center around increased court speed that allowed Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Venus Williams to unleash vintage performances against the odds and time.

It may feel like a narrative is building around these hundreds of tennis matches that will be played in Melbourne, but that’s deceiving you. It turns out that Australian Open narrative of “fast courts, old players” may have been total bogus in the long run. Federer and Nadal were the dominant forces in the 2017 ATP season, on any surface, regardless of speed. Serena Williams missed the rest of the due to pregnancy, but given how parity-filled the WTA Tour was, she probably would’ve easily been the best player in the world in 2017. Venus made the Wimbledon Final, made a triumphant return to the top 5, and topped the prize money list for 2017. Maybe the “court speed” narrative actually meant nothing and those four were just better. Even Mirjana Lucic-Baroni1, the other “proof” of this concept, had a great year that had her as high as No. 21 at one point, with deep runs at a “slow” hard court in Miami and a clay court in Charleston. Did the fast courts help in Melbourne? Sure, maybe they did, but we really have no idea if that’s actually true. The sample size was one (1) two-week span. That’s it.

But there’s no fun in having a tennis tournament with no analytical framework to see recent events. There’s no fun in realizing that most tennis matches are won on the margins, by random anomalies in physics that push a ball millimeters wide of the target. A recent article by Jeff Sackmann showed that winning just one point per thousand could make the difference in the ATP Rankings. Tennis matches are chaotic and difficult to understand, living on a razor’s edge. That’s what makes the Big Four’s accomplishments so absurd.

But back to the construction of tennis narratives. There’s so little advanced data that making a narrative in such a short time is difficult anyway. What is “court speed”? Do we have a publicly available and consistent formula for that? No, we have a goddamn graphic that we occasionally see on the TV broadcast. Do we have an Statcast-style metric for how good Serena’s backhand is? No. We need to make it up. In fact, tennis journalism must make up narratives without any real statistical basis. And boy, it’s so fun to make up narratives with limited data. It’s like if Stephen A. Smith hot takes were the only real conclusions you can draw from a sport. What is one of Rafa Nadal’s top three most-mentioned talents, if you asked a tennis writer or player? Ah yes, his “will to win” and “competitive drive” that gets him through matches.

Take this 2017 Eurosport feature, which, before talking about anything, has these quotes in the first minutes of reading the “definitive story of the Spaniard at Roland Garros.”

Another Frenchman, Sébastien Grosjean, was the only player to take a set off Nadal in his first five matches, losing 6-4 3-6 6-0 6-3, but he saw enough to know he was in the presence of greatness. “With his left arm, his mental strength and his incredible determination, he was already difficult to pass and we were moving extremely well,” says Grosjean. “He was already so strong and confident in rallies. He loves fighting, he already loved it.”

Mats Wilander, the last debut champion before Nadal says: “His attitude was incredible, fighting like a lion for every ball. To be honest, at the start of the fortnight I didn’t think he would win. But as I saw him evolve I told myself he could do it. Not so much because of his game but because of his mentality. He was an animal. He wasn’t scared and he wasn’t shy. He was a different breed, and he already looked like a champion.”

You almost forget the fact he has preternatural movement skills, can hit from both sides of the ball with sizzling power, and almost never double faults, things that the vast majority of tennis players cannot do. Rafa Nadal with Nick Kyrgios’ temper would still be a top 10 player, most likely. And yet, the only narratives that end up sticking are so vague and ridiculous that we barely understand them. We only vaguely perceive them on the court, back it up with basic data like “first-serve percentage 2” and then move on. Tennis fans are completely oblivious. We love the mental angle. It’s the only one we can relate to our everyday lives. We don’t understand the toll of constant travel, the exact wind conditions necessary to rip a forehand, or the strategic ability to set up a perfect winner. We understand mental toughness, and that’s the first thing we like to examine. Just listen to how often tennis commentators on TV broadcasts for this tournament will talk about mentality and psychology. They are important, but are they quite as important as how ridiculously good Nadal’s point construction is? I’m not so sure. Maybe tennis players themselves are in denial.

Regardless, if you are a casual tennis fan, you probably don’t watch much of the Australian Open to begin with. The matches are usually on between 8 PM and 5 AM EST. There are NFL Playoffs and NBA games to distract you. Maybe you’ll watch Federer play on tape delay or DVR a big Maria Sharapova match to scroll through after work. Maybe you’ll watch a few hours of the early rounds when the times are somewhat reasonable in the background. You’ll get a constructed narrative force-fed to you by John McEnroe and Chris Fowler before Federer blasts another ace down the T and the crowd roars.

I deserve a constructed narrative of my own, right? If there really aren’t any good tennis stats to back anything I say, I can just invent what I want!

For my constructed narrative, I am going to go with “the revenge of the tennis nerds.” Throughout the Big Four Era, we have seen the arrival of a tennis monoculture. There are Nadal fans. There are Federer fans. There are Novak Djokovic fans. There are sadly misinformed but admirable Andy Murray fans3. There is no real depth of field to this fandom for tennis hipsters like me; Roger Federer is as important an institution as FC Barcelona. The true “deep-cut” tennis players have been almost completely eliminated from popular culture.

Take Michael Chang, for example. No one would ever say that Michael Chang was an “unknown” in his era4. Yet if you look at his ranking history and the fact he simply wasn’t as good as Agassi, Sampras and the like, he’d have a tough time gaining any popular traction in 2018. Today, Michael Chang would be a tennis nerd pick, someone who probably had to have picked up a racket in anger to know about, simply because he just wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same opportunities for exposure. A 17-year-old winning the French Open? That’s a joke in the Big Four Era. The top four players have been so consistent, and their superstardom so enormous (even Andy Murray, begrudgingly) that the idea of supporting another player has become something of an oddity.

And yet we all understand that time is rapidly running out for the old guard. You know the drill by now, even if you’ve only been reading the headlines. Andy Murray has gotten hip surgery. Serena Williams isn’t playing. Novak Djokovic has been out for six months and is just returning. Stan Wawrinka is supposedly making a comeback tomorrow despite having zero match experience since Wimbledon. Nadal has been truly awesome, but his knees are a question mark and he looked gassed to close 2017. Maria Sharapova has been disgraced and hasn’t really made a seismic impact in her return. And there is Federer, still shining there like the Statue of Liberty. We will never know when age will come for him, but it surely must, eventually.

So much focus has been put into what has happened, and what the future will be, that we already seem to be preparing ourselves for a “transitional” era. Heck, the ATP is certainly marketing the next couple years as a transition with the “Next Gen” campaign5. For the tennis nerds who have been squirreling through the woodwork of obscure tennis forums and the back of the Flashscore app, now is the time for them to shine. It’s also, frankly, time for the rest of the world to turn off unless the stars play or a young gun like Alexander Zverev or Madison Keys starts winning 90 percent of their matches.

For me, I think this is truly going to be the tournament for the tennis nerds. The WTA has been in a “transitional era” with parity and unknowns rising to the top for a full year already. Sloane Stephens won a Grand Slam and then hasn’t won a match since. We’ve seen the likes of Kerber, Bencic, Keys, Stephens, Mladenovic, Ostapenko, Sevastova and Konta make huge strides and then suddenly stop winning entirely. Meanwhile, most of the truly consistent WTA players right now: Caroline Wozniacki,Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Venus Williams (5 of the top 6) have won zero slams this decade. Now, just in the last two months alone there’s been another rising tide with 29-year-old Julia Görges, Caroline Garcia and Ashleigh Barty leading the charge. After the Australian Open, 2017 was full of fun moments for women’s tennis nerds. Elena Vesnina and Daria Gavrilova were winning big tournaments! Svitolina had arguably the best season out of anyone, but she’s far from a superstar.

There is really one true rising superstar in the women’s game, and her name is Garbiñe Muguruza. With two Slams, a big-time Adidas deal, and a winning off the court personality, Muguruza could become the next big tennis star. Perhaps it’s already destined to be. However, her tennis has been far from consistent. After winning the French Open in 2016, she was flat-out terrible for a month or so and then merely decent until July 2017. After falling to No. 15 in the world, she then dropped one set on her way to winning Wimbledon. Go figure. That being said, her hard court game has hardly been at the level of Serena, Justine Henin, Sharapova, or even Kim Clijsters. She needs to at least have some decent results on hard courts to cement her status as the next big thing (she’s never advanced past a QF Melbourne and the 4th in New York or the round robin stage at Tour Finals). Her preparation for Australia has been a complete nightmare with two retirements due to injury.  Thus, the women’s game is right back where it was last season. The “favorites” are Svitolina and Halep at 7:1. The tennis will be amazing, but we have no real bearing on who will be playing amazing tennis.

And then you have the men’s game. Where did we leave off? Oh right, Jack Sock beat Filip Krajinovic in a Masters 1000 Final and then Grigor Dimitrov played David Goffin for the year-end final6. No household names there. True, the entire season was dominated by the most common household names, and to be honest, this tournament will likely go the same way. But as 2017 wore on we started to see some multiple deep-cut guys making late runs into slams for the first time in a generation. Wimbledon had one Big Four member in the semifinals. Same for the US Open.

The Big Four have not only held a virtual stranglehold over Slam semis, but also Masters 1000 titles. 2017 saw three new Masters-level winners for the first time since 2003 (Coria, Mantilla, Roddick, Henman), a time when no-name guys winning Masters 1000s seemed relatively normal. The 92.5 percent Masters Finals win rate of the Big Four from 2012-2016 is probably gone forever. The odds that 92.5 percent of the Masters events in 2018-2022 even have the entire Big Four present are zero.

Whether you like it or not, there will be a transitional era for men’s tennis. Tennis fans aren’t going to be able to get away with knowing four players and maybe Wawrinka, Ferrer or Del Potro anymore. The great chaos of 2000-2003 appears to be beckoning. If you look back before Rafa came along, clay used to be one of the more unpredictable surfaces. Of the three clay Masters events between 1998-2004, there were 10 different players who lifted the trophy.

[That includes Albert Portas, who topped out at No. 19 and can claim Hamburg 2001 as his only ATP title ever. That would never happen in the Nadal Era. Imagine Albert Ramos-Viñolas winning a Masters title…

*checks results*

Holy shit Ramos-Vinolas was a Nadal matchup away from winning a Masters title in 2017. The transition is coming! SOUND THE ALARMS!]

Between 2005 and 2016, there were just 6 (Murray, Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka and Tommy Robredo…pour one out for Tommy Robredo!). That surface has no clear successor. You’d like to say it’s Dominic Thiem, but everyone likes to think Dominic Thiem is going to be a great player before actually watching him play tennis for long stretches of time. That surface is going to be blown completely open, just watch, once the Big Four are gone.

This is all to say that “the era of 3 of the 4 in the semifinals and one interloper that gets crushed in straights” is either dead or dying quickly. When you look at the draw, you can pencil in Federer and a healthy Nadal (and Nadal solely because his quarter is a joke) in the semis. The other two spots? Good luck. Some of these quarters are so bereft of top-line talent that they seem like particularly good Challenger draws. I mean, look at Section 2:

I just want to say that FOURTEEN OF SIXTEEN players in this quarter were ATP Challenger regulars at some point from October 2015 onward! If you are a casual tennis fan looking to get into the sport, this is a crazy jumble of random names. This is some serious deterioration, folks. This is the ice shelves melting in the North Pole from the inside-out. You can, with little imagination, see Joao Sousa, Ryan Harrison, Federico Delbonis and Marius Copil in the Third Round of the Australian Open. That is some next-level tennis knowledge shit.

The same thing goes for Section 4 and Section 5, which are just incredibly weak given the level we’ve come to expect. I mean, in the 2010 Australian Open you had the Big Four at the top of their game, of course. But you also had:

  • Nikolay Davydenko
  • Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
  • Andy Roddick
  • peak Fernando Verdasco, peak Del Potro, peak Monfils,
  • Tomas Berdych
  • Marin Cilic.
  • Ferrer, Haas and Wawrinka, who could not even make the top 16 seeds that year (also peak Gilles Simon, who was injured)

Now, this may be reverse recency bias kicking in, but you’d favor EVERY GODDAMN ONE OF THOSE PLAYERS (in 2010 form) against No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem on hard court. I’d favor all of them against No. 7 seed David Goffin and No. 8 Jack Sock as well. Have you seen highlights of Tommy Haas? That man was the only player to beat Federer on grass in 2017!!! He’s an unbelievable tennis player. If he were in his prime today, he’d be No. 4 in the world, probably. He couldn’t crack the top 16 players in 2010.

The era between 2006-2012 was probably the greatest collection of tennis talent that we have seen. And it would be one thing if I were just spouting hypotheticals, but let’s not forget these old guys are still routinely beating the up-and-comers from 2014-2018 well past their primes! Richard Gasquet beat Thiem in Paris two months ago. Monfils rolled Rublev in Doha last week and it wasn’t even close. Del Potro, without a real backhand, still crushed “Next Gen star” Karen Khachanov in Auckland last week. David Ferrer made the semis in Sydney last week. These guys are still hanging around, and while they don’t quite have the consistency, they can still show they have more than enough talent to defeat the up-and-comers.

The best measure for the turgid era we are going to enter is our good friend John Isner. As we’ve chronicled on this site before, it feels like John Isner’s game has not improved or regressed one bit since 2010. He’s the same guy, basically. He was the No. 32 seed in the stacked 2010 draw. He will be the No. 16 seed in this year’s draw, and it honestly feels like he should be higher7. Has half the talent in the ATP just dried up since 2010? Maybe, maybe not, but this field makes it feel this way.

We can do this with the women too. Here’s the 2010 Australian Open women’s singles seeds,

Even in women’s tennis, which is supposed to be less predictable or whatever, we see the same effect showing. It’s just really hard for me to imagine 2018 Simona Halep being anything higher than the No. 9 seed in the 2010 draw. Have you seen Elina Svitolina’s second serve recently? It’s not good. Have you watched world No. 7 Jelena Ostapenko recently? How about No. 11 Kristina Mladenovic, loser of 14 consecutive matches? These 2018 seeds are weak. Really weak. You have legit contenders like Petra Kvitova in the high 20s. Azarenka isn’t even here due to a nasty child custody dispute. Even the doubles fields have felt a little slim recently, with aging veterans just hanging around at the top of the game as no one even comes close to challenging them. The two best doubles players in the world last year, Lukasz Kubot and Martina Hingis (now sadly retired), are 35 and 37.

This year, Federer or a healthy Nadal will probably continue the everlasting march of the old guard, to rapturous applause. On the women’s side, we have no idea what’s going to happen, but the gradual dip away from the past superstars will likely march forward. But I truly think there will be surprises in this tournament, there will be moments when your friend who played tennis in high school says “ha, I knew who Ashleigh Barty was” or “you don’t need to tell me which country Diego Schwartzman is from.” That’s my narrative, an one-week discourse of tennis nerds saying “I told you so” only for their heroes to get completely demolished by Maria Sharapova or Rafael Nadal (maybe even Novak Djokovic).

So what the hell? Why can’t Roberto Bautista Agut, a tennis nobody for years, make the quarterfinals of this tournament. If Pablo Carreno Busta can make a Grand Slam semifinal, there’s no reason why Bautista, the extremely likable veteran with heart-achingly clean shots, won’t make his first Round of 16 or quarterfinal at age 29. Why can’t Kyle Edmund, Denis Shapovalov or Andrey Rublev sneak into a quarterfinal or a semi. Rublev made the quarters in the last Slam, after all. What about guys like Pablo Cuevas? Hyeon Chung? Matthew Ebden? Alex De Minaur? Lukas Lacko? David Goffin in the semis? Why not? Give me one good reason why I should’t dream of a Steve Johnson/Bautista Fourth Round match. Give me one good reason why my narrative shouldn’t be the arrival of total chaos. You can’t because that’s just how tennis works. You can’t really prove or disprove anything.

Best First-round matches:

Tsitsipas vs. Shapovalov

Kontaveit vs. Krunic

Safarova vs. Tomljanovic

Lorenzi vs. Dzumhur

Dimitrov vs. Novak

McDonald vs. Ymer

Anderson vs. Edmund

Bautista Agut vs. Verdasco

Chung vs. Mischa Zverev

Kwon vs. Struff

Querrey vs. Lopez

QF Predictions, Women: 

Halep

Pliskova

Sharapova

Sasnovich

Goerges

Siniakova

Vandeweghe

Wozniacki

QF Predictions, Men: Nadal

Simon

Kyrgios

Edmund

Bautista Agut

Djokovic

Federer

Del Potro

Nadal

Footnotes

  1. Birjana Mucic-Laroni, in my opinion
  2. (Footnote: How ridiculous of a stat is “percentage of first-serves mades?” That’s such an absurd stat to give any credence to. There are plenty of matches won by players who barely get 50 percent of their serves in. It doesn’t matter if Kei Nishikori gets every first serve in if it’s still a terrible shot. It’s blatantly obvious that the statistic that matters most is “percentage of first and second serve points won” because holding your own serve is still the most important thing you can do in tennis. There are lots of tennis statistics that are frustrating like this.)
  3. I am huge fan of everything Andy Murray does…besides playing tennis
  4. The test for this, of course, is that my extremely casual sportsviewing mother knew who Michael Chang was in the 1980s
  5. I often wonder how guys like Nishikori, Sock, Carreño Busta, Dimitrov, Raonic, and others feel about missing this huge marketing campaign to the “new” young players
  6. An event that huge implications for the Australian Open, by the way, was Del Potro’s shocking loss to John Isner in Paris-Bercy. Del Potro has already cracked the top 10 after one tournament in 2017. He could be as high as No. 8 if he’d freakin’ beaten Isner and won that Masters tournament. Then he wouldn’t be a No. 12 seed in Goffin and Federer’s side for this tournament. Meanwhile, Sock is protected at No. 8 although he probably shouldn’t be. And, of course, we now have World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov
  7. If Isner hadn’t lost to FILIP EFFING KRAJINOVIC in that someday infamous 2017 Paris Masters it would be.

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