by Harold Li
It happened again. The supposedly greatest player of all time Roger Federer lost to unseeded Gael Monfils in the 3rd round of the Shanghai Rolex Masters a week ago, one step short of a tantalizing quarterfinal matchup with Novak Djokovic. Since losing in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January, Federer has gone on a decline, failing to advance past the quarterfinals of any subsequent majors and dropping down to No. 7 in the world. For the first time in the decade, he is in danger of missing the ATP World Tour Finals, the year-end event that invites only the Top 8 Players of 2013. Where has Federer’s game gone wrong?
Many fans around the world have offered insight on the reasons behind Federer’s apparent decline. Some blame it on his high unforced error counts, some criticize his sporadic schedule and lack of competitive practice, and some attribute Federer’s decline to his age and increasing focus on his family life. In this article, we analyze Federer’s decline from a “numbers” point of view. By analyzing match statistics, we can grab some intriguing insights into his lackluster record in 2013.
Federer is still a top-class player when he is on…
Make no mistake about it. Contrary to what many people think, overall player statistics suggest that the greatest player of all time is still playing top-level tennis. In fact, his statistics are comparable to his 2012 season that saw him win his 7th Wimbledon Title and break Pete Sampras’ record for most weeks at World Number 1. In 2012, Federer won 91% of service games, 26% of return games, and 54% of total points. In 2013, he won 88% of service games, 27% of return games, and 54% of total points. Only Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have won a greater percentage of their points in 2013. From these numbers, we can make the point that Roger Federer is still a dominant force in the tennis world. However, delving into the more detailed statistics may suggest a slightly different picture.
BUT, Roger Federer has lost his “clutchness.”
There are couple of reasons why Federer has lost his “clutchness.”
1) He just can’t beat the top guys
The numbers don’t lie – in 2012, Federer held a 17-8 record against top 10 opponents and has won 64.8% of those matches in his career. In 2013, he has a dismal 1-6 against the top 10. This is especially appalling given that all but one of the top 10 players have a better record against the same opponents. The 32-year-old veteran has failed to beat the best. Some may point out that 3 of his 6 losses have come against Rafael Nadal, who has had an unbelievable 2013 season and compiled a 67-4 record thus far. However, his losses to Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are inexcusable for a top player. In short, Federer has lost the ability to win the most high-level, high-stakes matches.
2) He can suddenly lose to a sub-caliber player.
We can analyze his record against players outside the top 10 and find similar flaws. In 2012, Federer compiled an unassailable 54-2 record against players outside the top 10. In 2013? 35 wins and 7 losses. The two losses he suffered in 2012 were against Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick, both of whom have been top 2 in the world. In 2013, Federer lost to two players outside the top 100 at Wimbledon and at the German Tennis Championships.
But why do the general match stats tell a different story? Why has he lost 13 matches in 2013, while still winning an impressive 54% of his points?
3) He has won fewer points at the important moments.
The margin of winning and losing in tennis is miniscule. Players usually win their service games and lose their return games. Winning a return game or losing a service game typically constitutes a major turning point in any tennis match. Unfortunately, Roger Federer seems to lost some ground in capitalizing on these “turning-point” opportunities. In 2012, Federer saved 69% of break points he faced; in 2013, he saved 65%. The previous year, Federer converted 42% of his break point opportunities; this year he has converted only 39%. While these numbers don’t seem significant, a quick look at the break point conversion and saved leaders suggest that a 3-4% difference is substantial. At 65%, Federer is placed 18th on break points saved; had he been at 69%, just like in 2012, he would have been placed in the top 4. At 39%, Federer is currently in 37th place in break points converted; had he been at 42% just like last year, he would have been in the top 20. Dropping 10-20 positions in these statistical categories makes a huge difference in the increasingly competitive tennis circuit. Perhaps Federer’s less clutch performance this season has played a role in his decline.
We can further explore this reason by looking at some of his surprising losses in 2013. It turns out that he does have difficulty converting break points in the important moments. In the losses Federer suffered against opponents outside the top 10, he converted 2/16, 0/5, ½, ⅛, 2/7, and ⅖ break points respectively. In the majority of these matches, he has failed to match his average conversion rate of 39%, yet other match statistics suggest that he was not outplayed. In one of his losses against Nishikori, he actually won more points than his opponent (76 vs. 69), another indication that he is simply losing the points that matter.
So what’s next for Roger Federer?
By looking at the numbers, there are two main takeaways:
1) Federer is still capable of dominating his opponents – he still wins 54% of the points.
2) But fails to dominate when it matters – his break point conversion rate tells the story.
Thus, it seems to be that if Roger Federer wants to rebound in 2014, he needs to win the BIG POINTS. What does he need to do to win more of the big points? We’re not sure. What we do know is that he has done that before, in the golden age where he won 15 grand slams over a 6 year period. Given that he recently split with long-term coach Paul Annacone, let’s hope that he recaptures some of his “clutchness” so that tennis fans can once again relish the Swiss maestro.