Was it just a speed bump, or truly the beginning of the end?
In 2013, Roger Federer had his worst season in a decade. In the stretch from Wimbledon to the U.S. Open, he had an unprecedented three losses to sub-50 players and consecutive pre-quarterfinal Slam exits. There were plenty of explanations for his rough patch -- a back injury, switching to a new racket, permanent loss of confidence -- all of them attempts to answer whether or not whether or not this is the new normal for the former No. 1.
Age catches up to everyone eventually, despite their best efforts. Predicting exactly how and when it will isn't all that easy, but it will become increasingly relevant in men's tennis. Federer is the canary in the mine; the Big Four are arriving at the downward side of their peaks, and the cupboard for their replacements is pretty bare. Advanced Baseline has incorporated a couple of age-related components during the offseason, and the 2014 Australian Open is its first test in answering what to expect in Grand Slams when the superstars begin to decline.
Year in Review: Tracking the Big Four
Below is a 52-week tracking graph of the hard court-adjusted Advanced Baseline ranks of the Big Four from last year's Australian Open until now. It is a quick way to see what's changed at the top of the ladder, and how it might cause things to be different this year.
If you haven't paid attention since the U.S. Open, you'd probably think Rafael Nadal is set up to keep steamrolling, but he had a speed bump on the Asian swing of the ATP Tour, dropping off a little. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic is approaching his inhuman 2011 run, not having lost since the U.S. Open. Even though Nadal and Djokovic are improving at the same rate, Djokovic had a pretty big head start.
Meanwhile, Murray is showing signs of struggle since returning from back surgery, losing early in Doha this month. Federer got a lot of attention for losing to Lleyton Hewitt in his warmup tournament, but that's overshadowed the fact that he played pretty well in his other matches. His age-based decline is pretty visible, but he's showing just enough signs of life before the Australian Open that he's relevant enough to stay in the Big Four conversation.
Below is a scatter plot comparing the seeded players' ATP ranks to their Advanced Baseline hard-court rank. Players above the black line are overseeded relative to their actual performance level, and players below the black line are underseeded. Red circles indicate a preference for clay courts and blue circles indicate a preference for hard courts. Click on each circle for details.
All of those red dots above the black line show just how far a one-size-fits-all ranking system can distort Grand Slam seeding. The only one that really screws things up is David Ferrer getting a top-four seed; to make matters worse, he got a great draw, giving him a decent chance to defend his semifinal points and stay inflated. Gael Monfils would be a pretty good bet to be the underseeded player to watch in any other tournament, but a third-round match with Nadal doesn't do him any favors.
Also, if you're wondering why Jerzy Janowicz shows up on this graph as a) massively overseeded and b) getting labeled as a clay specialist, take a second and look at his actual hard-court results. If you're going by a purely performance-based system, it hasn't seen Janowicz do all that well on hard, so it's understandable. Based on the eyeball test and his overperformance on all other surfaces, I think it's more bad luck with injuries and timing than anything else, so I expect some regression to the mean this year.
Forecast and Draw Analysis
Generated from simulating the tournament 100,000 times using Advanced Baseline win probabilities. Below is a color-coded map showing the probability of the finishing place of each player, along with their expected points and change in expected points from the draw. Full explanation of the methodology can be found here.
This has to be an all-time awful draw for Nadal. Before he even gets to the quarterfinals, he's slated to face three players in the AB hardcourt top 20 (Bernard Tomic, Gael Monfils, Lleyton Hewitt). His draw loss is pretty much Djokovic's zero-sum gain, which explains Djokovic's win odds approaching Nadal-on-clay territory.
Florian Mayer: Drawing Mikhail Youzhny and Jerzy Janowicz as your 2 seeds is about as good a draw as you can hope for. The biggest reason he didn't make any noise at the U.S. open this year was an early round exit to Murray, but now that the draw's cooperated, he stands a good chance of meeting Ferrer in the fourth.
Yen-Hsun Lu: Speaking of Ferrer... Lu just beat him in his warmup tournament, vaulting into the AB hard-court top 20 just in time. Lu is actually no stranger to making deep runs... albeit in Challenger tournaments, finally losing the title this past week of highest ranked player to never make an ATP final or semifinal.
Before today, Lu was the highest-ranked player yet to reach an ATP semifinal. That honor now goes to Matthew Ebden: http://t.co/Yeja1y0c8E— Jeff Sackmann (@tennisabstract) January 10, 2014
Qualifier to watch: Peter Gojowczyk. He had a great run as a qualifier in Doha, beating John Isner's new nemesis Philipp Kohlschreiber and taking Nadal to 3 sets. A second-rounded with Milos Raonic isn't exactly a great path, but it's still the best one any of the qualifiers got this year.
Federer's relatively low place on the totem pole this year is a reminder that we shouldn't expect these periods of dominance from Djokovic/Nadal to continue forever. Losing sight of how much role luck of the draw plays can give the illusion that these runs can last forever, but age catches up to everyone eventually.
As the Big Four begin to age, draw luck will take an even bigger role in shaping Grand Slam outcomes, which is bad business for crafting consistent narratives but great for analysis. Either the ATP will have to figure out how to market their sport when anyone can win a Grand Slam, or even better, the coming changes will force them to evaluate what needs to be fixed (**cough-RANKINGS-cough**).