Thursday, March 12, 2015

Grand No-Slam Scores

We’ve spent a significant amount of time and virtual ink exploring Grand Slam Scores as a method for historical evaluation of tennis players – and so far, a significant portion of the findings that have resulted can be summed up by saying, “Roger Federer is really, really good.” While that is, of course, a perfectly valid conclusion to draw (and reinforce many times over), it is also not one that requires the development of new metrics to discover. So let’s expand our horizons beyond the Nadals, Samprases, Lendls, and Borgs of the tennis landscape, and use Slam Scores to evaluate some of the lesser lights of tennis history.
Here are the 20 highest Slam Scores recorded by players who have never won a Slam, along with the players’ overall rankings in Slam Score among the 174 members of my database (which is every top 10 player and every Open Era Slam finalist):

1.       David Ferrer 3.96 (36)
2.       Todd Martin 3.52 (41)
3.       Tomas Berdych 3.48 (42)
4.       Tom Okker 3.25 (45)
5.       Tim Henman 2.98 (51)
6.       Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 2.89 (52)
7.       David Nalbandian 2.84 (54)
8.       Cedric Pioline 2.81 (55)
9.       Tommy Haas 2.79 (56)
10.   Henri Leconte 2.67 (57)
11.   Nikolay Davydenko 2.52 (60)
12.   Wayne Ferreira 2.49 (61)
13.   Tommy Robredo 2.38 (64)
14.   Alex Metreveli 2.37 (65)
15.   Sebastian Grosjean 2.34 (66)
16.   Mikhail Youzhny 2.34 (67)
17.   Brian Gottfried 2.33 (69)
18.   Phil Dent 2.30 (72)
19.   Mark Philippoussis 2.30 (73)
20.   Jonas Bjorkman 2.30 (74)

The list is largely composed of the players you’d expect – guys who played for a long time and hung around near the top of the game without ever reaching its pinnacle. It seems worth pointing out that three of the top six are currently active – Ferrer, Berdych, and Tsonga, all of whom have held “guy who seems like he should win a Slam at some point” status for some time – and they’ve taken over that title from guys like Nalbandian and Davydenko, recent retirees from the current era. The top three active players have each made exactly one final; Berdych and Ferrer lost theirs to Nadal, and Tsonga fell to Djokovic.

It may be worth pointing out that nobody on the list has made more than two Slam finals; Andy Murray’s US Open triumph in 2012 reestablished a vacancy in the position of the Buffalo Bills of men’s tennis (with Ivan Lendl and Goran Ivanisevic also standing as former occupants of that slot). Contrariwise, there are several players listed who never made it past the semifinal stage. The highest Slam scores among players who have never made a Grand Slam final:

1.       Tim Henman 2.98
2.       Tommy Haas 2.79
3.       Nikolay Davydenko 2.52
4.       Wayne Ferreira 2.49
5.       Tommy Robredo 2.38
6.       Sebastian Grosjean 2.34
7.       Mikhail Youzhny 2.34
8.       Jonas Bjorkman 2.30
9.       John Alexander 2.29
10.   Tim Mayotte 2.04

Henman made 10 Grand Slam quarterfinals, including eight (in a nine-year span) at his home Slam, Wimbledon. In six of those quarterfinals (four at Wimbledon), he advanced to the semis. And in all six of those events, he made it no further.

Tommy Robredo has taken things a step further (or, technically, a step less far), having never reached a semifinal (despite making 7 quarterfinals and a remarkable 23 total appearances in rounds of 16). I would post the list of players who meet (or fail to meet) that standard, but Robredo’s score is nearly 50% higher than the #2 player on the list (a lead which is still increasing), and the scores listed would quickly go low enough that I wouldn’t be assured of the completeness of my database in answering the question at hand.

Having looked at the best players who haven’t tasted victory, let’s turn the question on its head: Who are the least-accomplished players who have won a Slam in the Open Era? The bottom 10 Slam Scores among title-winners, and their Slams won:

1.       Gaston Gaudio 1.63 (2004 French)
2.       Brian Teacher 1.90 (1980 Australian)
3.       Albert Costa 2.22 (2002 French)
4.       Andres Gomez 2.32 (1990 French)
5.       Thomas Johansson 2.33 (2002 Australian)
6.       Mark Edmondson 2.34 (1976 Australian)
7.       Marin Cilic 2.39 (2014 US)
8.       Adriano Panatta 2.48 (1976 French)
9.       Petr Korda 2.55 (1998 Australian)
10.   Juan Martin del Potro 2.60 (2009 US)

Del Potro and Cilic are, of course, both active and young enough to move off of this list at some point; on the other hand, they’ve combined to play three competitive matches so far in 2015 due to injuries, so further progress is not exactly guaranteed. Outside of those two recent US Open titlists, the list is peppered with French and Australian Open champions. (Remarkably, no Wimbledon winners are anywhere close; the lowest score among players who’ve won the grass court Slam is a 3.24 by Richard Krajicek.)

It seems poetic somehow that Gaudio won the last French Open before Rafael Nadal made his debut at the event. You could almost (almost) say that Rafa came in just when one of the sport’s biggest tournaments had reached its nadir, and singlehandedly made it a title worth winning again.

Let’s take another step backward, shall we? Here are the lowest scores achieved by anyone who’s made a Grand Slam final in the Open Era:

1.       Martin Verkerk 0.60 (2003 French)
2.       John Marks 0.64 (1978 Australian)
3.       Mariano Puerta 0.71 (2005 French)
4.       Alberto Berasategui 0.96 (1994 French)
5.       Mikael Pernfors 1.01 (1986 French)
6.       Chris Lewis 1.13 (1983 Wimbledon)
7.       Victor Pecci 1.17 (1979 French)
8.       Patrick Proisy 1.23 (1972 French)
9.       MaliVai Washington 1.27 (1996 Wimbledon)
10.   Magnus Norman (2000 French), John Sadri (1979 Australian), Steve Denton (1981 and ’82 Australian), Kei Nishikori (2014 US Open), all tied at 1.30

Nishikori is the only active player here, and his next Slam appearance will move him off of this list… Verkerk’s 2003 French Open final may be the greatest single-tournament fluke of the Open Era. He won two titles in his career – not Grand Slams, titles of any kind of the ATP World Tour. He had a losing career record (59-70), and never made it so far as a round of 16 in a Slam outside of the ’03 edition of Roland Garros. And yet, he somehow knocked off three consecutive top-12 players in best-of-5 matches – more wins than he would have against players ranked that high in the rest of his career combined. Frankly, the ensuing decade of predictable Slam results may well have just been the universe making up for this astoundingly unlikely outcome.

Nearly as strange is the fact that Steve Denton reached consecutive Australian Open finals when his best results apart from that were a pair of R16s. Both of these cases were brought on by a Slam at a low historic ebb – the Australian in the early ‘80s was often skipped by the world’s best players (especially since the great Australian players of the previous two decades were now retired), and the French in the five or so years before Nadal’s arrival suffered from a downturn in the quality of the available clay specialists and a lack of historic all-court players.

Those issues have since been remedied, and there is no reason to expect the Australian to suffer any future remission in draw quality unless either international travel becomes more difficult again or the monetary rewards for top tennis tournaments backslide severely. But it’s always possible that the conditions seen at the beginning of the last decade could return, and therefore that another Martin Verkerk or Gaston Gaudio could find an opportunity to grab a moment’s worth of immortality.

There may be further mining to be done in this collection of data, but for the moment, it seems we've covered a sufficiently broad array of information that can be presented simply by looking at Slam Scores in their raw form. Up next, I'll be trying to take the relatively basic information contained in the scores themselves and process it into a more complicated (or, arguably, convoluted) shape in order to evaluate which historic players are likely to be overrated or underrated by conventional wisdom.

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