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January 14, 2014 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Australia 2014: Indicators and Predictions
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Each new tennis year begins with the Australian sequence, ever since January 1987 when Australian Open moved from December to January. The Open's permanent, new home opened in Melbourne one year later, even as the Australian became the first of the Slams to be played on paved courts and the first to employ a convertible roof. The women's champion that year, 1988, was Steffi Graf, who defeated Chris Evert in the final round to launch what remains the sport's most recent Grand Slam in singles.
But if the Grand Slam remains elusive, each year the Australian winner obtains a strong start toward becoming the full-year champion. The advantage is hardly secure, however, as the male singles winner at the Open later became the year-end leader only nine times in the 27-year history of Melbourne Park. Meanwhile the female champion has done so eight times, mostly in the early years.
Three male superstars share the distinction as the most frequent champion since the move to Melbourne Park (since 1987). Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic have all captured the Open four times during that period. Serena Williams leads among the women with five, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles each have four, Hingis three. Both Djokovic and Williams are strong candidates to win again in 2014.
Extreme heat sometimes afflicts the Open, along with occasional insect invasions. The court pavement was originally designed to be intermediate in bounce speed between grass and clay. The surface has been reengineered for less traction and now plays at about the same in bounce speed as U.S. Open -- i.e. moderately fast, as measured by such indicators as percentage of aces and breaks of serve. Two arenas -- the Laver and the Hisense -- will employ convertible roofs in 2014, while a not-yet-completed roof atop Margaret Court Arena will be kept open this year.
The roughly half-day time difference separating Melbourne from Europe and the Americas promises sleep deficits among devotees of live tv action.
The victories of Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams at the 2013 year-end finales in London and Istanbul confirmed the immediate dominance of these two megastars atop pro tennis. Attention stirred upon announcement that Boris Becker, who won the Australian Slam twice, had signed on as a coach for Djokovic. Novak's current game of patient but relentless pressure seems almost unbeatable. Does he seek to widen his strengths toward the heavier-serving, heavier-stroking, more-aggressive style of Becker?
Closest to Djokovic in late 2013 was Rafael Nadal, who lost to Novak in London but who remained the official #1 from his successes earlier in the year. A distinct gap followed to the next tier -- David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, and Juan Martin del Potro. Murray had been finalist to Djokovic at Australian Open last year and had then captured Wimbledon, but Andy later underwent back surgery and remained sidelined at year's end. Completing the official top eight as 2013 ended were Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka, both of them potent servers and strokers, both capable of severely testing the higher leaders.
Meanwhile Serena Williams stood distantly above her strongest opponents. The second tier consisted of Victoria Azarenka, Li Na, Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Petra Kvitova. Maria, the runner-up to Serena at Garros 2013, played only three more matches in the rest of 2013, beset with hip and shoulder injuries.
Our indicators and predictions worked out well at the most recent Slam, U.S. Open 2013. That was not true at Wimbledon 2013, where our scheme failed to predict the triumphs of either Andy Murray or Marion Bartoli. A fourth, new indicator is added here -- Riser Index, designed to identify players most strongly on the rise.
Our Composite of Indicators weights the first three indicators equally, Riser Index at half-weight. All scores shown below are normalized to a total of 100 for the top sixteen in the given indicator. A fifth indicator, Head-to-Head Results, is then applied to likely match-ups as indicated in the official draw.
1. Basic Indicator
Results of the last 13 months are here weighted according to past correlations between each predictor tournament and its ensuing Australian Open.
1. Rafael Nadal, 25.94
2. Novak Djokovic, 18.15
3. Roger Federer, 8.08
4. Andy Murray, 7.73
5. David Ferrer, 7.13
The top two are far ahead of all others here. Rafa's edge over Novak agrees with the official rankings but contradicts Novak's clear edge in late-2013 play. Although our calculations generally weight clay events lighter than non-clay, Rafa's superiority over Novak on clay was far greater than Novak's superiority on faster surfaces.
2. Quality-Win Quotient (QWQ).
QWQ measures recent success of players in defeating top-tier opponents, who are grouped into three tiers for weighting here. This measurement has often been especially useful in past analyses.
1. Rafael Nadal, 39.81
2. Novak Djokovic, 33.03
3. Andy Murray, 6.42
4. Juan Martin del Potro, 6.22
5. Stan Wawrinka, 3.47
Nadal led Djokovic slightly in total quality wins. Djokovic led in quality wins over top-three opponents (counted triple in the calculation). Nadal led in wins over next-four opponents (counted double), and had fewer total losses, used as divider here. Largely explaining his lead was Rafa's 15-2 edge in quality wins on clay.
Del Potro's rank here reflects his three match wins over members of the top three -- over Djokovic and Murray at Indian Wells and over Nadal at Shanghai. Tomas Berdych, in sixth place here, also had three -- two over Murray and one over Djokovic.
3. Hard-Court Index (HCX).
HCX measures past success on hard courts. Here are the leaders:
1. Novak Djokovic, 20.04
2. Rafael Nadal, 15.86
3. Roger Federer, 10.20
4. Andy Murray, 9.38
5. Juan Martin del Potro, 8.86
The HCX combines two sub-indices, as follows:
-- Career W-L percentage on hard courts. Roger Federer has a miniscule edge over second-place Djokovic here. Murray is third, Nadal fourth.
-- Ranking points earned on hard courts 2013-2014. Djokovic leads. Nadal is second, del Potro third.
4. Riser Index
Here we calculate each player's results since last July, giving extra weight to results of early 2014. That score is then compared with each player's previous best 12-month ranking. (Only top-64 players in the official 2013 rankings are eligible for inclusion.)
1. Vasek Pospisil, 32.83
2. Joao Sousa, 20.64
3. Edouard Roger-Vasselin, 15.59
4. Stan Wawrinka, 7.27
5. Pablo Carreno Busta, 6.63
Our top two here -- Pospisil of Canada, age 23 at height 6-4, and Sousa of Portugal, 24 at 6-1, are clearly improving. Both performed well during Third Trimester 2013 and in the pre-AusOpen sequence, far exceeding their previous best ranking. Pospisil reached the semis in January at Chennai but then retired with back trouble against Wawrinka. In the same week, Sousa won the $125K Challenger at Sao Paulo. Roger-Vasselin, third here at age 30, reached the final at Chennai. Just outside the top five here are Milos Raonic and Juan Martin del Potro.
Most other leaders in the first three indicators showed success in at least one of the late tune-ups for Australia. Novak Djokovic won the six-player non-ATP tournament in Abu Dhabi, where both Nadal and Murray also competed. Nadal then won the tournament in Doha. Tsonga swept at Hopman Cup, Federer reached the final at Brisbane but then lost to Lleyton Hewitt, 32, and Wawrinka triumphed at Chennai. Advancing through early-round play in the final week of tune-ups were del Potro at Sydney, Berdych and Gasquet at Kooyong.
Composite of First Four Indicators
Our Composite strongly predicts a Nadal-Djokovic final at Melbourne:
1. Rafael Nadal, 23.41
2. Novak Djokovic, 20.35
3. Andy Murray, 6.72
4. Juan Martin del Potro, 6.40
5. Roger Federer, 5.69
The main draw was announced on Friday, 10 January. The qualifying rounds were nearly completed, where among the late survivors were risers Thiem of Austria, Rhyne Williams and Kudla of U.S., and Ze Zhang of China.
Nadal's Quarter
Loaded with interesting likely match-ups, this quarter promises full test of Rafa's readiness. His first opponent will be Bernie Tomic, who has just reached the final at Sydney, scheduled to face del Potro. Tomic is typically at his best in January. Farther ahead looms ever-dangerous Gael Monfils, with Hewitt, the likely winner over Nishikori, in the quarters. Rafa, who seemed at his best at Doha two weeks earlier, should survive.
In the lower half of the quarter, Juan Martin del Potro seems safe for three rounds. His next opponent should be either Milos Raonic, 23, or rising Grigor Dimitrov, 22, where our indicators as well as recent form point strongly to Raonic, though Dimitrov won their most recent head-to-head, last year in Brisbane. Our indicators point clearly to del Potro over Raonic, though the two split their two 2013 meetings.
It could hardly be a more challenging quarter-final for Rafa. His edge over del Potro in the indicators is convincing, however, and he leads also in the head-to-heads, though del Potro won their most recent meeting, in Shanghai last fall. Juan Martin has the blazing weapons to break up Rafa's patterns. Rafa will need full command of his many strengths, but the importance of the occasion should help his focus in achieving this. Nadal over del Potro.
Second Quarter
Andy Murray is the favorite by our indicators here, but Andy's results in returning from back surgery have not been encouraging, including a close loss to Lleyton Hewitt at Kooyong one day ago. Still, his weaponry as last year's runner-up is undeniable, and a relatively easy draw should help. Meanwhile Roger Federer in the opposite half must surmount Tsonga, who won their most-recent meeting, at last year's Garros, and nearly beat Roger in a five-setter last year at Melbourne Park.
Federer, now 32, has held his ability well as the years advance, but the younger cohort has now reached equality. Roger leads in our Composite, however, and should be in top form for this major event. But after overcoming Tsonga, the quarter-final against Murray will be more difficult still for Roger, where Andy leads in our indicators as well as the head-to-heads. With Andy's game on the rise after four matches, and with Roger's probably weakened after Tsonga, and with Andy having won their five-set semi last year at Melbourne Park, our choice is Andy Murray over Federer.
Third Quarter
Neither Tomas Berdych nor David Ferrer arrive at their likely quarter-final in full flight. The two are extremely close in all our indicators, and the two split their two head-to-head meetings of late 2013, in Paris and London. But if the margins are narrow, Ferrer leads in all measures. Ferrer over Berdych.
Novak's Quarter
The road to the quarter-final is wholly favorable for Djokovic, where the unpredictable Gulbis provides the only threat albeit small. The upper half of the quarter should be competitive, featuring a likely meeting of Wawrinka and Gasquet, whose only meeting since 2006 came in Wawrinka's five-set win at Garros 2013. Stan has the clear edge in Composite including in Riser Index, though Richard leads in HCX. With Wawrinka advancing to the quarter-finals, but with Djokovic holding the 15-2 edge in head-to-head play, it should be Djokovic over Wawrinka.
The Big Two should be safe, both having sharpened themselves in the fortnight's earlier action. Djokovic's head-to-head edge over Ferrer on hard courts is strong, including a comfortable straight-set win at Melbourne Park last year. Meanwhile Nadal's past edge over Murray on hard courts is narrow, but Murray's weaker results of late reinforce the message of the indicators. Djokovic over Ferrer and Nadal over Murray.
Final -- Nadal vs. Djokovic
Our Composite gives the moderate advantage to Nadal over Djokovic in their final-round meeting. Nadal leads in Basic Indicator and QWQ, Djokovic leads in HCX.
Several other factors intrude, however, tending to favor Djokovic, none of them strongly reflected in the indicators. (1) Novak has been the champion at Melbourne Park in the last three years. (2) His fine performances in Davis Cup are plainly undervalued both in our calculations, which require future changes, and in the official rankings. (3) Novak's current winning streak confirms that he has been the world's top player for several months now. (4) Novak is one year the younger. (5) Finally, there is our fifth primary indicator, Head-to-Head Results, which requires detailed examination.
The two have played each other many times. Over their pro careers, Nadal leads in W-L, 22-17, but Djokovic is ahead 13-7 on hard courts. In their six meetings of 2013, each won three times -- each twice on hard courts, once on clay. Djokovic won their last two meetings, both on hard courts, both in straight sets
Several years ago, we employed a numerical scheme to quantify head-to-head histories, where each match outcome was weighted for its winning margin, recency, and commonality of surface. Applying the same formula now to the last three years of their head-to-head play, Djokovic leads Nadal by small margin. Some details in the calculation are sketched in the footnote.
Not reflected in the head-to-head record are Djokovic's triumphs last fall in tournaments at Shanghai, Paris Indoors, and Abu Dhabi. Nadal played in these events but there were no Djokovic-Nadal match-ups, as Rafa lost to other opponents prior to the final round in all three cases. Although the two did not meet across the net, the net message was almost as persuasive.
We can expect many severely contested, long rallies from back court between the two. Djokovic's magnificent mobility and answering skills will tend to prevail over Nadal's, which are almost as magnificent. The two men are the world's best in countering an opponent's attack. (It would be hard to label these abilities "defensive," as the rockets both men generate in replying to pressure are themselves screamers. If both men are at their best, to win Nadal will have to be the more aggressive, the less patient, the one who takes the greater risks. Novak's athleticism makes the rewards of such risk-taking extremely difficult to obtain.
We therefore predict that in spite of the evidence of our indicators favoring Nadal, the winner of the new Australian crown will be Djokovic. It will be Novak's fourth straight triumph at Melbourne Park, and he will remain our Il Primo of men's tennis.
The dominance of Serena Williams in women's pro tennis in 2013 places the powerful American firmly atop our first three indicators. The tier of players just behind Serena are fairly closely grouped, while various newcomers populate the second eight of Composite.
Basic Indicator
1. Serena Williams, 24.78
2. Victoria Azarenka, 12.37
3. Maria Sharapova, 11.49
4. Agnieszka Radwanska, 10.32
5. Li Na, 8.36
Quality-Win Quotient (QWQ)
1. Serena Williams, 61.05
2. Victoria Azarenka, 12.84
3. Maria Sharapova, 8.61
4. Li Na, 3.36
5. Simona Halep., 3.22
Serena shows by far the greatest number of quality match-wins, and her margin here is magnified by her low total of losses -- five, against Azarenka's ten and Sharapova's eight.
Hard-Court Index (HCX)
1. Serena Williams, 22.66
2. Victoria Azarenka, 11.92
3. Li Na, 10.30
4. Agnieszka Radwanska, 9.92
5. Maria Sharapova, 7.82
The first sub-indicator used here is slightly different from the one used for the men. Serena leads in both sub-indicators -- (1) Career W-L percentage at hard-court Slams and (2) Ranking points earned on hard courts 2013-2014.
Riser Index
1. Eugenie Bouchard, 21.64
2. Shuai Zhang, 17.95
3. Elina Svitolina, 12.38
4. Bojana Jovanovski, 8.41
5. Annika Beck, 8.06
Bouchard of Canada, Svitolina of Ukraine, and Beck of Germany are teenagers of high promise. Simona Halep, in sixth place here, surged throughout 2013, and Jovanovski, fourth, who moved upward in third trimester, are both in their early 20's. Shuai Zhang, 24 at height 5-10, had good success in China in 2013 but little exposure elsewhere.
Eugenie Bouchard, first here, and American Sloane Stephens, 20, twelfth, seem most ready to penetrate the top tiers. Both won two of three matches at Hopman Cup, where Sloane showed improved interest in attacking forecourt, probably reflecting the work of her current coach, the inveterate net-rusher Paul Annacone. Sloane retired with left-wrist problem at Hopman after losing the first set to Kvitova. Then at Sydney, Bouchard lost to a reborn Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Stephens withdrew prior to the start. Another American riser, Madison Keys, 18, defeated Halep at Sydney and went on to reach the semis. Garbine Muguruza, 20 at height 6-0, reached late rounds impressively at both Auckland and Hobart.
Li Na follows Halep closely in seventh place here, lifted by her recent triumph at Shenzhen. Serena meanwhile won at Brisbane, defeating Sharapova and, albeit closely, Azarenka.
Composite of Four Indicators
1. Serena Williams, 31.10
2. Victoria Azarenka, 10.61
3. Maria Sharapova, 7.99
4. Li Na, 7.14
5. Agnieszka Radwanska, 6.18
The five leaders here also hold the top five seeds at the Open. Kvitova, Jankovic, and Wozniacki follow here. Relative newcomers dominate the second eight, led by Bouchard, ninth, and Stephens, tenth.
The women's qualifying rounds have reached the final round. Remarkable success has come for several very young players -- risers perhaps already on track to reach the top tiers in a year or so -- unfamiliar names like Bencic, Konjuh, Duval, Sirotkina, Siniakova.
Meanwhile the top six or eight women seem at a level aloof from all others, where only a very interesting cohort of newcomers more advanced than those just noted seem capable of penetrating the top group. Finally, the superior athletic mobility of Serena Williams makes her almost invulnerable at the top, as long as Serena controls her ferocious power. Patience from the baseline is usually sufficient for a Serena victory, but if this strategy fails Serena can attack forecourt brilliantly, assuredly better than anyone else. Thus the details of the draw hardly matter, provided that Serena can summon her best or near-best.
In the top quarter with Serena are Ivanovic (winner at Auckland) and Pironkova (who won surprisingly at Sydney). But Serena's most dangerous opponent, according to our Composite, is young Bouchard. Eugenie is growing stronger but is not yet ready for an in-form Williams. In the quarters, Serena over Bouchard.
The second quarter features Li Na and Kvitova, where Li leads comfortably in all our indicators. The third offers Sharapova, who returned from inactivity with a final-four run at Brisbane. Her likely opponent in the quarters is either Halep or Jankovic. Li over Kvitova, and Sharapova over Jankovic.
The bottom quarter displays Victoria Azarenka, the two-time defending champion at Melbourne Park and the #2 star in our Composite. In her path is Sloane Stephens, who has wonderful weapons but is probably too new at forecourt-attacking to yet prevail. Next for Vika will be the winner of Wozniacki vs. Agnieszka Radwanska. Radwanska is strong and should beat Wozniacki, but Agnieszka shows little success in QWQ against higher-ranked opponents like Vika. Azarenka over Radwanska.
Final: Serena Williams vs. Azarenka
Serena is the clear choice against Li in the semi-finals, and our indicators make Vika the likely winner over Sharapova, especially given uncertainties in Maria's physical readiness and her skimpy recent competitive history. But the final-round match-up is less transparent than our indicators favoring Serena make it seem.
The strong career edge belongs to Serena over Azarenka, including nine consecutive wins in head-to-head play preceding 2013. But in their four official matches of 2013, the result was a split, Azarenka winning three-setters at Doha and Cincinnati, Serena winning at Rome and U.S. Open in straight sets. Next came a meeting at a recent invitational event in Thailand, where Vika won both sets from Serena. This result was then overbalanced by Serena's win over Vika in the final at Brisbane.
Serena is 32 years old, Vika is 24. Vika lists at three inches taller. Serena is the more athletic, has more-extreme power, and has been the stronger mentally. There has been no indicator whatever of a Serena decline attributable to age. If their recent head-to-head history is intriguing albeit inconclusive, Serena's edge in our indicators is sweeping.
By defeating Azarenka at Australia 2014, Serena Williams will capture her eighteenth Slam crown, her sixth at Melbourne Park. She will remain our La Prima, Vika our La Seconda, Serena's place in women's tennis history further enhanced.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
FOOTNOTE -- Quantifying Djokovic-Nadal head-to-heads 2011-2013.
Our formula produces the following results. In each case, the first-shown decimal stands for winning margin, the second for recency, the third for commonality of surface. The product of the three is the amount credited to the winner.
2013 Year-Ender, won by Djokovic, .3 x .4 x .3 = .036 for Djok
2013 Beijing, won by Djokovic, .3 x .3 x .3 = .027 for Djok
2013 US Open, won by Nadal, .3 x .3 x .4 = .036 for Rafa
2013 Canada, won by Nadal, .2 x .3 x .4 = .024 for Rafa
2013 Garros, won by Nadal, .2 x .3 x .2 = .012 for Rafa
2013 Monte Carlo, won by Djokovic, .3 x .3 x .2 = .018 for Djok

Totals for 2013, Djok .081 vs. Rafa .072
2012 Garros, won by Nadal, .3 x .2 x .2= .012 for Rafa
2012 Italy, won by Nadal, .3 x .2 x .2 = .012 for Rafa
2012 Monte Carlo, won by Nadal, .3 x .2 x .2 = .012 for Rafa
2012 Australia, won by Djokovic, .2 x .2 x .5 = .020 for Djok
Totals for 2012, Djok .002 vs. Rafa .036
2011 US Open, won by Djokovic, .3 x .1 x .4 = .012 for Djok
2011 Wimb, won by Djokovic, .3 x .1 x .3 = .009 for Djok
2011 Italy, won by Djokovic, .3 x .1 x .2 = .006 for Djok
2011 Madrid, won by Djokovic, .3 x .1 x .2 = .006 for Djok
2011 Miami, won by Djokovic, .2 x .1 x .4 = .008 for Djok
2011 Ind Wells, won by Djokovic, .2 x .1 x .4 = .008 for Djok
Totals for 2011, Djok .049 vs Rafa .000
Overall totals, Djok .132 vs. Rafa .116


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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


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