In Wimbledon quarters, intangibles reveal more than concrete data
Deep in the catacombs under the Wimbledon broadcast center, the various stats crews cluster here. For unholy hours, they gather, mine and analyze data. Tennis still doesn’t lend itself to analytics the way that, say, baseball, does. But the sport is making big leaps -- Kyrgios-ian leaps, you might say -- in this department.
The team from Hawk-eye, for instance, will tell you that, Milos Raonic has not only won 88 percent of his first serve points here, but 70.2 percent of his first offerings haven’t even been put back in play. They’ll tell you when opponents faces Roger Federer’s topspin backhand on grass, they hit it 55 inches off the ground, but they hit his slice backhand only 16 inches off the ground. They’ll tell you that Eugenie Bouchard has hit 328 of 334 service returns all tournament from inside the baseline, a signifier for his aggression. For some of us data geeks, spending time in the labyrinths staring at monitors can be as fun and entertaining and enlightening as watching the actual tennis.
Yet, today the immeasurables beat the data in straight sets. Today was a day of abstractions and ineffable qualities. Today was a day for the Oakland A’s scouts. Or for Angelique Kerber who, asked today about the wealth of IBM analytics, responded dismissively, “I’m actually not watching that.”
The day began with the women. Sabine Lisicki, a finalist in 2012, needed 14 minutes to take a 4-1 lead over Simona Halep, the highest remaining seed. Halep then woke up and ran off 11 straight games, winning 6-4, 6-0 in 57 minutes. How to account for Lisicki’s lapse? Or Halep’s meticulously organized tennis? Or that point when Lisicki hit a drop shot that looked to be a winner -- Halep anticipated beautifully, held off a second and batted a down-the-line forehand? Or the demoralizing effect of losing a point like that?
Meanwhile on No. 1 Court, Bouchard -- whose name now runs tandem with the phrase “ascendant Canadian” -- took on the aforementioned Kerber. Bouchard gave Kerber no time to hit, which made Kerber visibly crabby. How to put that in a spreadsheet? By winning 6-3, 6-4, Bouchard has now reached the semifinals of each of the three Grand Slams in 2014. Can you put a number on soaring ambition, the kind of attitude that says, I don’t want to be the best tomorrow; I wanted it yesterday and will settle for it today only grudgingly? (Here’s what Bouchard said: “You know, as I started playing more and more, I really had concrete dreams of winning a Grand Slam.”)
Then came Grigor Dimtrov, who has transformed himself from “talented prospect” to “Grand Slam threat” this tournament. As he put it, “I knew [a breakthrough] was around the corner. I didn’t know it was THAT around the corner.” A statement as eloquent as it was emphatic, Dimitrov pounded Andy Murray, the defending champ, to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal. Where on the stat can we note Dimitrov’s rhythm or steadiness or his changes of his pace or his comfort with the big stage. And what about Murray, who played without surprising passivity and flatness? If only there were a way to rate negative body language (and the galvanizing effect it has on the opponent)...
Novak Djokovic reached still another semifinal, as his he tends to do at these events. Today, he trailed 2-1 sets to Marin Cilic. Then Djokovic settled down and rolled to a five-set victory. Djokovic lost only seven points on serve in the final two sets; and he hammered Cilic’s second serve, winning 19 of those 23 points. But that was more or less important than his superior fitness and flexibility? And how to assess the impact of Djokovic 9-0 career record against? It’s now 10-0.
As Djokovic was wrapping up, Roger Federer was just starting to sink his teeth into Stan Wawrinka, a metaphorical Luis Suarez. Apart from beating Wawrinka every time they have played off of clay, surely Federer benefits from his mentor relationship with his opponent. And how much is mystique worth? Or familiarity and comfort on Centre Court? Whatever, Federer won in four sets.
In the equivalent of a walkaway bout, Milos Raonic reached his first Grand Slam semifinal, beating the Australian Nadal slayer, Nick Kyrgios, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6. Raonic served brilliantly yet again, belting 38 aces and blasting 74 winners. But there was Kyrgios running out of gas after his eventful event, perhaps feeling overcome with all the Aussie legends watching courtside. And after Raonic scored a break in the second set and settled in, he seized momentum.
How do you account for momentum? Actually, check that. According to the Hawk-eye analytics guys: ”We’re working on an algorithm for quantifying momentum.”
What's the deal with Wimbledon showing so little respect for seven-time champion, Federer, when it comes to court assignments? Through four rounds, Federer's been on No. 1 Court twice, while Nadal and Djokovic have yet to play anywhere other than Centre Court, and likely never will at this stage. It certainly can't be because either Nadal or Djokovic are bigger Centre Court fan draws than Federer!
-- Dennis Wheeler
How to put this nicely… little gets done without the King’s signoff, especially at Wimbledon. Especially having missed play yesterday he wanted to get his match in early. If Court One was all that was available, so be it.
I would like to request some coverage on Lucie Safarova at Wimbledon; in what could be seen as another exciting tournament for the women's tour, Safarova's mini-breakthrough is being overshadowed by pretty much every other player.
-- Andrew Miller, Chevy Chase, Md.
Absolutely. First I can’t think of a player who triggers this phrase more often: “What a nice girl.” Safarova is having a terrific event, but why shouldn’t she? She moves well, hit a low, flat ball, and goes for broke on her shots. And she’s lefthanded.
Nice column per usual. Might it be that Djokovic's luck in not suffering a serious injury when he fell is related to the fact that he spends practically every idle moment stretching? Thanks.
-- Ian Katz, Miami
Good point. Which is not a stretch.
So, using the Wimbledon formula on the women's seeds would NOT have prevented the Serena-Sharapova clash in the quarters (although Alize Cornet did…). Sharapova would have moved DOWN a spot to number six. And ironically, Venus Williams would have been DEPRIVED of a seeding. Here they are:
1. Serena Williams
2. Li Na
3. Agnieszka Radwanska
4. Simona Halep
5. Petra Kvitova
6. Maria Sharapova
7. Angelique Kerber
8. Victoria Azarenka
9. Ana Ivanovic
10. Sabine Lisicki
11. Jelena Jankovic
12. Dominika Cibulkova
13. Flavia Pennetta
14. Eugenie Bouchard
15. Carla Suarez Navarro
16. Sloane Stephens
17. Sara Errani
18. Kirsten Flipkens
19. Caroline Wozniacki
20. Sam Stosur
21. Roberta Vinci
22. Ekaterina Makarova
23. Andrea Petkovic
24. Alize Cornet
25. Lucie Safarova
26. Elena Vesnina
27. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
28. Klara Koukalova
29. Garbine Muguruza
30. Sorana Cirstea
31. Tsvetana Pironkova
32. Shuai Zhang
-- Jerry Williams
First, big thanks to Jerry for calculating this. Not that Lisicki is a big winner here and same for Kerber -- which was born out. And Errani and Wozniacki were big losers. Which also came to pass.
Enjoying the daily pieces from SW19. Finish this sentence: Right this moment the four best women tennis players are Maria Sharapova, Halep, Bouchard and...
-- Cainim, Seattle
Well… Serena still HAS to make the list. This has not been a banner year; but a little respect for a player who is sill No. 1. Li Na, as you imply, has dropped out. Same for Radwanska. And there are so many players like Muguruza who are coming along but not there yet; and so many like Jankovic who are good a match but then regress to a mean.