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Feb 27, 2019
Feb 27, 2019

How the top tennis players perform against each other

How do ATP Top 20 players perform against each other?

Analysing data for Djokovic and Nadal

Is Nadal a flat-track bully?

Which players fail to perform against the ATP Top 20

How the top tennis players perform against each other

Credit: Getty Images

Performances against top-level opposition are a clear driver for success in high-profile tennis tournaments. This article looks at how the current ATP Top 20 perform against their fellow Top 20 opposition, with a view of profiling players and generating advantage in the betting markets.

ATP Top 20 players in major tournaments

On the ATP Tour, there are four main tournament levels.  Starting from the biggest to the smallest, there are Grand Slams, ATP Masters 1000, 500 level tournaments and finally, the lower-profile 250 level events. In a 250, it is sometimes the case that there will not even be a Top 20 player in the draw, and it isn’t that unlikely for the winner of the tournament to not have needed to beat a Top 20 opponent en route to lifting the trophy.

If we scale this up to Grand Slams and Masters events, there is a markedly different landscape. In the five Grand Slam events and nine Masters 1000 tournaments which have taken place since the start of 2018, just three of the 14 events required the winner to beat a solitary Top 20 opponent.  

Overall, when looking at the five Grand Slams since the start of 2018, an ATP player needed to beat an average of 2.40 top 20 players to win the title

Seven out of the 14 events (50%) saw the winner defeat three Top 20 opponents, while in Paris at the end of last season, Karen Khachanov arguably had the toughest route to a title during the year, with the young Russian getting the better of four Top 20 opponents to lift his first career Masters title.

Overall, when looking at the five Grand Slams since the start of 2018, an ATP player needed to beat an average of 2.40 Top 20 players to win the title, while in Masters events during the same time period, the figure was almost identical, at 2.44. With it being unlikely that a player will need just one Top 20 win to lift a major title, and two wins still being below average, it is evident that the tournament winner will usually have to have the ability to get past several players ranked inside the Top 20.

Understanding this as a starting point is pretty useful, because it allows us to then profile the main players on tour to see which players are more or less likely to have the skill set to achieve such a feat. 

A close look at Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal

First of all, it’s worth looking at the undoubtedly best two players on the men’s tour currently, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal. As the table a little later in the article will show, both players are out on their own when considering combined hold/break percentages against all opponents on tour - a reliable metric to assess player quality. 

In fact - perhaps padded by numerous resounding wins on his favoured clay courts - Nadal has better overall combined data than Djokovic, running at 123.6% combined across the last 12 months, while Djokovic is lower at 119.0%. Both are world-class numbers.

However, when assessing performances against Top 20 opposition in isolation, it’s actually Djokovic that has the edge. His combined hold/break percentage is lower at 113.2%, but the Serb has less of a drop-off than his Spanish rival, who has run at 112.6% across the last 12 months against top 20 opposition. Effectively, Djokovic’s combined percentage has dropped by 5.8% (119.0% - 113.2%) against Top 20 rivals, while Nadal’s has dropped 11.0% (123.6% - 112.6%).

Is Nadal a bit of a flat-track bully? It would be a little harsh to suggest this given that his data against Top 20 opponents is still excellent, but as mentioned previously, the King of Clay’s data does look a little flattered by his ability to comprehensively defeat lower-ranked players with ease.

ATP top 20 statisitcs 

Player

12 Month Hold % (vs All Opponents)

12 Month Break % (vs All Opponents)

12 Month Combined % (vs All Opponents)

12 Month Hold % (vs Top 20 Opponents)

12 Month Break % (vs Top 20 Opponents)

12 Month Combined % (vs Top 20 Opponents)

Combined % Difference

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Djokovic

87.9

31.1

119.0

88.2

25.1

113.2

5.8

Nadal

87.4

36.2

123.6

82.5

30.1

112.6

11.0

Zverev A

82.4

28.2

110.6

80.3

18.0

98.2

12.4

Del Potro

87.9

25.9

113.8

86.4

16.0

102.5

11.3

Anderson

89.4

16.0

105.4

84.4

12.7

97.1

8.3

Nishikori

82.1

25.0

107.1

74.8

21.1

95.9

11.2

Federer

91.2

22.4

113.6

89.4

13.0

102.4

11.2

Thiem

83.9

24.5

108.4

77.1

22.6

99.7

8.7

Isner

94.5

9.7

104.2

89.1

4.3

93.4

10.8

Cilic

86.8

21.9

108.7

84.4

20.7

105.0

3.7

Khachanov

86.9

20.0

106.9

81.2

16.9

98.1

8.8

Tsitsipas

85.5

16.0

101.5

76.8

15.0

91.9

9.6

Coric

85.2

25.7

110.9

81.1

19.4

100.5

10.4

Raonic

91.7

15.6

107.3

88.0

11.4

99.4

7.9

Medvedev

81.8

25.2

107.0

78.3

15.5

93.8

13.2

Fognini

75.6

28.8

104.4

70.6

18.3

89.0

15.4

Cecchinato

79.0

19.9

98.9

75.3

27.4

102.6

-3.7

Bautista-Agut

82.8

25.2

108.0

76.0

19.2

95.2

12.8

Schwartzman

73.8

30.7

104.5

60.4

24.3

84.7

19.8

Basilashvili

75.9

20.8

96.7

81.6

14.9

96.5

0.2

The table above illustrates the hold/break records of ATP players against all opposition, across the last 12 months (data correct on 21st February, 2019), compared to their hold/break records against Top 20 opposition in isolation, during the same time period.

What is immediately evident is that only one player has been to be able to perform better against Top 20 opposition, compared to their record against all opposition - Marco Cecchinato.

The Italian clay-courter is something of an enigma, and it is difficult to pinpoint why he’s been able to have markedly better return data (breaking 27.4% against Top 20 players compared to 19.9% overall) when he faces a higher calibre of opposition. Given that his data sample size against Top 20 opponents was a little smaller than most other players in the list, variance is a possible explanation, although it is tough to rule out an argument that he’s a man for the big stage.

Nikoloz Basilashvili was another who performed well against Top 20 opponents, with almost identical combined data against Top 20 opposition compared to all opposition, although his playing dynamic against Top 20 rivals changed to a much more serve-oriented style.

This serve-orientated dynamic was apparent when looking at many of the current ATP Top 20, when they played against other Top 20 rivals. 12 of the current Top 20 were able to hold over 80% of the time against Top 20 opposition (all but four could overall), but only seven were able to break Top 20 opponents more than 20% of the time (compared to 15 overall). Just three - Cecchinato, Djokovic and Nadal - were able to do so in more than a quarter of return games.

Only seven players in total were able to break the 100% combined hold/break mark in their matches against Top 20 opposition - as well as the aforementioned Djokovic, Nadal, and Cecchinato, the quartet of Juan Martin Del Potro, Roger Federer, Marin Cilic, and Borna Coric were able to. However, their numbers are nowhere near Djokovic’s and Nadal’s, and go some way to explaining why they frequently fall short at the business end of major events.

Players who fail to preform against the ATP top 20

Having said this, their struggles pale into insignificance when looking at the likes of Kei Nishikori, John Isner, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Fabio Fognini, and Diego Schwartzman. Nishikori’s serve is exposed against the best, while Schwartzman’s is ripped apart. Isner has only been able to break Top 20 opponents 4.3% of the time in the last 12 months, while Tsitsipas and Fognini also have mediocre service numbers as well. 

Understanding whether a player is capable of stepping up in the latter stages of big tournaments is key - this data goes some way to explaining why the likes of Nishikori, Isner, Raonic, and Bautista-Agut have underwhelmed in Slams, for example, despite their solid overall data and consistent ranking inside or around the top 10. 

When looking for outright selections for big tournaments, it’s worth bearing in mind whether a player has potential upside against the best players on tour - if they don’t, it’s going to be a big struggle.

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