How do you look for a precedent in the unprecedented?
Rafael Nadal, the greatest clay player of all time, heads into the French Open looking the most vulnerable he's been in a decade. His winning percentage on clay is a lowly 86%, down from his historical average of 93%. Try to put that in the context of any other sport. Imagine hearing about the Patriots limping into the postseason with a 14-2 record or people doubting the Spurs because they only won 71 games. If that sounds crazy, it's not because it's an unfair criticism of Nadal's recent "slump," but rather a testament to how insanely good he's been on clay his entire career.
So how do you weigh three wobbly months against a decade of evidence to the contrary in a tournament forecast? The usual analytics trope is to caution against overreacting to recent results, but if there's ever a stress test for that statement, it's this year's French Open. Nadal's historical clay performance is so good, weighting it even a little too much could block out a legitimate decline.
It's a tough problem to solve, but there are good questions to ask that can help. Just how bad have Nadal's losses (and close wins) been based on margins of victory and quality of opposition? Is his slump consistent with the age-based decline of similar players? How does the best-of-five format change expectations?
Oh yeah, and there are those 127 other players in the field too. Novak Djokovic is back in peak form and seeded opposite from Nadal, looking for his first French Open title, The ATP's youth movement has had a mini-surge during this year's clay season, making for some interesting dark-horse picks for the quarterfinals. Some new clay specialists have emerged, looming as land mines for the top players.
Plus, 2014 was the first time in five years that someone outside the Big Four won a slam -- and clay is Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka's best surface. For the first time in what feels like forever, it's not just Nadal versus the field, and that means there are a lot more good reasons to pay attention elsewhere.
Year in Review: Tracking the Top Four
Below is a 52-week tracking graph of the clay-adjusted Advanced Baseline ranks of the top four seeds from last year's French Open until now. It's a quick way to see what's changed at the top of the ladder, and how and why it might be different this year.
Were you expecting more of a calamitous drop from Nadal, given the way it's been covered? On one hand, I'm sympathetic to AB possibly weighting his historical performance a little too heavily. As I described above, the problem with Nadal is it's basically asking "how much weight do you give to infinity, 10% or 20%." It essentially doesn't matter what weight you choose, your answer is skewed because you're dealing with infinity. On the other hand, I have a problem with the idea that anybody can beat Nadal on clay now. His losses weren't just to anybody, they were all close losses to top-10 clay players. If that's your floor for being beatable, you deserve to keep that high ranking on clay. I also think it's fair to say some of Nadal's slump is due to aging, but I don't expect it'll get this consistently bad for about another two years.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field hasn't exactly covered itself in glory trying to claim the throne. Djokovic only played two clay tournaments this year compared to Nadal's five, so his data-driven case for a late surge is a lot thinner than most people acknowledge. He may very well be at Nadal's level now, but from a strictly empirical standpoint, I'd want a little more data before making that claim.
Roger Federer has the same two-tournament profile, except it looks even worse with a bad loss to Jeremy Chardy last week. Wawrinka looked like he was ready to make a next-level push after Monte Carlo this year, but his losses to Tommy Haas and sub-30 Dominic Thiem were even worse.
Bottom line: even if you believe Nadal's slump is worse than it appears above, there has to be someone to catch him for it to matter. None of the other contenders have done quite enough to make it a definitive concern.
Below is a scatter plot comparing the seeded players’ ATP ranks to their Advanced Baseline clay-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.
The hard courters throwing off the balance aren't exactly tough to spot. John Isner at the French Open is about as big an imbalance as you'll find in the top 10 ever (yes, he really is that bad outside of U.S. hard courts).
In my opinion, the more egregious one is Vasek Pospisil getting a seed despite being #154 on clay, worse than over half the field. It's illustrative of a lot of the problems with the current ranking system. (I had to scale him down to 100 because his huge distance between seed and ranking was breaking the graph by itself. THANKS, CANADA.)
Pospisil owes 20% of his ATP rankings points to a semifinal run at the Masters 1000 last July, a run that was certainly helped by a timely retirement from Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals. Those points alone are basically good enough to get Pospisil two rounds of immunity from the best players in tennis at a Slam, despite a) their occurring 10 months ago, b) injury luck playing a huge part, and c) the points coming on a completely separate surface. Pospisil hasn't beaten anybody higher than 75th this year, nor has he won a single match since January. He's got early exit written all over him.
Is there no room for discretion from the tournament directors to say someone like this shouldn't really be seeded? A rigid seeding system like the status quo introduces a huge, avoidable luck component into the bracket. I would love to see the bottom seeds get the wild card treatment, where tournament directors would be able to rebalance the bracket for maintaining competitive balance. I understand they're loath to rearrange the official rankings, but if you don't view the rankings as being that good in the first place, that becomes less of a problem.
Forecast and Draw Analysis
Generated from simulating the tournament 100,000 times using Advanced Baseline win probabilities. The round probabilities for all players, along with their expected points and draw effects, are shown below. Full explanation of the methodology can be found here. Dashboarding provided by John Mathis.
To see each individual player's outlook, select their name from the drop-down list below.
This is the first time in about a decade where Nadal is not over 50% to win. It's not like anybody now has a chance -- in fact, it's pretty much just Djokovic -- but it's still a nice break from the monotony. Most of it comes from Nadal's draw, with rising Dominic Thiem in the second round and Nicolas Almagro (who beat Nadal on clay at Barcelona this year) in the fourth. Federer's draw was arguably the best of the top seeds; he won't see a top-75 clay player until the fourth round at the earliest, which should help his chances to make it to the second week.
On the flip side, Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori got hit by really bad first-round draws in Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and the criminally underrated Martin Klizan. Both have a decent odds of a first-round exit, which are particularly devastating to overall contending chances.
Unseeded Dark Horses
Martin Klizan: He drew Nadal in the second round last year (and took a set off of him) and drew Nishikori this year. That's not fair, considering how much better he is on clay, so his big chances to shine haven't been great. Still, I give him about a 1-in-4 chance of the first round upset. If he pulls it off, a potential third rounder with Alexandr Dolgopolov would be the toughest match en route to the quarterfinals.
Carlos Berlocq: He has had a great clay season, culminating with a title in Portugal and a win over Tomas Berdych. And despite the name recognition, Lleyton Hewitt is not a threat on clay in the first round. Quarterfinal runs for unseeded players are always a long shot, but a seed trio of Richard Gasquet, Fernando Verdasco, and Andy Murray is about as weak as you could hope for to get there.
Benoit Paire: He's benefitting from drawing an over-seeded Roberto Bautista-Agut in the second, with a potential Berdych matchup in the third. Home-court advantage is definitely helping him here, and hey, it worked pretty well last year against Berdych.
Outlook for Americans
Clay season is not our strongest suit. Nothing to see here, move along.
Bradley Klahn (+210) over Axel Michon
Dustin Brown (+150) over Marinko Matosevic
Marcel Granollers (+100) over Ivan Dodig
Fabio Fognini to win 2nd quarter, 14-1
Gael Monfils to win 2nd quarter, 33-1
The betting markets have Djokovic as a slight favorite to win this year. I disagree, although not by much. But even if it's not this year, Nadal will not be the favorite in the near future. How will we know when it really happens? How do you recalibrate your expectations properly from a decade of unparalleled dominance? It's easy enough to figure it out after the fact, but it's really tough to do as it's happening. This is what a good ranking system is supposed to do: put historical and recent information in proper context, evaluate accordingly, and project as best as it can.
Right now, Advanced Baseline says Nadal's case is still just strong enough to be the favorite at the French Open, but it probably won't be that way for much longer.