Quantifying ATP Players’ Recent Form

One of the reasons I devised a mathematical way to measure player’s recent performance was to pick out young players ready to compete at a higher level. One thing I learned by applying the formula to men’s tennis is that young prospects are few and far between on today’s ATP Tour. Of the 20 players with high scores described below, only Sock, Janowicz, Nishikori, Zopp, and Sijsling (from youngest to oldest) are under the age of 26. One could see this as a sign of a strong era for the ATP, in which the veterans occupying the top ranks are so good they’re hard for young players to displace. Or one could see it as a sign that there are hard times ahead for the men’s tour.

The form scores discussed below are based on the ranking points scored by players over the final 15 weeks of the 2012 season, with greatest weight given to the most recent results. Players with scores between 4 and 5 can be expected to stay near their current ranking. Players with higher scores should improve their ranking if they maintain that form. For a more complete explanation, see my previous post about the WTA.

Players to Watch in the New Year

My picks, based both on the numbers and on qualitative impressions:

Player Total Points Form Score
Janowicz 1299 21.8
Dodig 695 8.5
Zemlja 782 7.4
Nishikori 927 7.1
Sijsling 712 6.9

Jerzy Janowicz started the 2012 season playing Futures tournaments, ranked #221. He steadily built a record of positive results. In Moscow he scored the best win of his season up to that point, beating #52 Carlos Berlocq to reach the quarterfinals, raising his ranking to #69. Then came his amazing breakthrough in Paris, where as a qualifier he beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, Marin Cilic, Andy Murray, Janko Tipsarevic, and Gilles Simon to reach the final and vault his way into the top 30. There’s some cause for skepticism given that so far he’s only showed for one week that he can play that well against such strong opponents. But his game features a unique combination of height, reach, power, speed around the court, and most importantly touch and creativity so often missing from modern men’s tennis. He may have some hiccups as he adjusts to his new level of competition, but he has all the tools to be a real factor in 2013.

Ivan Dodig is an aggressive player who can be very dangerous when his timing is on, as he proved with upsets of Ivan Ljubicic and Robin Söderling in 2011. Despite a mostly forgettable 2012, he proved it again by beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Queen’s, and then beating Kohlschreiber, Lleyton Hewitt, and Cilic on his way to the semifinals in Valencia. He’ll continue to have bad weeks, but should improve significantly on his current ranking of #72.

Grega Zemlja showed promise by reaching the third round of the US Open as a qualifier, and then backed it up by beating Tommy Haas and Tipsarevic on his way to the final of Vienna. He looks well placed to become a factor in the new year.

People have praised his talent for years, but the counterpunching Kei Nishikori really established himself among the ATP’s elite in 2012, defeating Tsonga, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych (the last on his way to winning his home tournament in Tokyo).

Igor Sijsling played a lot of challengers early in 2012, winning three, and then established himself at the ATP Tour level by beating Feliciano Lopez in Kuala Lumpur and Alexandr Dolgopolov in Paris.

Sometimes the Numbers Only Tell Part of the Story

Players with impressive recent results I’m taking with a grain of salt:

Player Total Points Form Score
Montañes 565 15.4
Llodra 823 15.3
Müller 719 11.8
Blake 450 10.8
Lu 759 9.9
Mathieu 763 9.6
Stepanek 1135 9.0
Sock 375 8.3
Zopp 579 7.7
Nieminen 927 7.1

After an impressive 2010 season propelled him well into the top-30, Albert Montañes utterly failed to back up that performance the following year. He had some good results in 2012, mostly in late-season Challengers, but at age 32 his potential make another run up the rankings is questionable.

Michael Llodra is an enigma to me. At its best, his serve-and-volley game is fearsome on fast surfaces, as he proved in 2012 by reaching the final in Marseille and the semifinals in Paris. But he seems unable or unwilling to play at that level very often.

Big-serving Gilles Müller is good at picking off vulnerable opponents on fast surfaces, and achieved his score by punctuating a good, consistent season with a run to the semifinals in Vienna. But his game isn’t complete enough to threaten the ATP’s elite consistently.

After failing to win enough matches at the tour level to stay in the top 100, James Blake finally swallowed his pride and had a good run in two October Challengers. Still, it’s hard to see his recent results marking anything but the twilight of his career.

For years, Lu Yen-Hsun has been a journeyman who occasionally becomes a giant-killer on fast surfaces. The best player he beat in a completed match in 2012 was Julien Benneteau, who… doesn’t quite qualify for giant status.

Paul-Henri Mathieu had scattered good results in 2012, reaching the semifinals in Gstaad and Basel. But after multiple knee surgeries, he has yet to prove he can compete consistently enough against top players to return to the top-30 status he last enjoyed in 2009.

The cunning Radek Stepanek had a solid 2012. Making the quarterfinals in Shanghai and beating Nicolas Almagro in the final rubber to win the Davis Cup for his Czech team could inspire him to even better results in 2013. But at age 34, how much does he have left?

A year after winning the US Open mixed doubles title with Melanie Oudin, 20-year-old Jack Sock reached the third round of the US Open in singles and made the finals of two late-season Challengers, winning one. He’s shown enough ability on big stages to mark himself as a genuine prospect. But the best player he beat in a completed match in 2012 was a slumping Alex Bogomolov Jr., and he started 2013 by losing to Hiroki Moriya in Brisbane qualifying. He still has a bit more to prove.

The powerful Jürgen Zopp had a couple of good wins toward the end of the season, beating Denis Istomin at the US Open and Pablo Andujar in Stockholm. But Istomin had a poor season in 2012, and indoor hardcourt is hardly Andujar’s best surface.

Jarkko Nieminen put nice bookends on 2012, winning Sydney in the second week and making the final of his home Challenger in Helsinki in the final week. But Nieminen’s career has been characterized by fits and starts, mixing moments of glory with missed opportunities.

Convalescing?

Quality players hampered by injury or playing limited schedules:

Player Total Points Form Score
Monfils 660 15.1
Fish 1255 7.8
Robredo 495 7.5
Davydenko 885 7.2
Hewitt 625 7.0

Gael Monfils is a former top-10 player known for his enormous talent, spectacular athletic ability, questionable sense of tactics and self-preservation, and hence his history of injuries. If he can get healthy and rein in his recklessness, he will be a top player again.

After joining the ranks of elite players in 2011, Mardy Fish underwent surgery for a heart arrhythmia in 2012, never fully recovered his form, and missed the end of the season. Hopefully he will recover fully in 2013.

Since returning from hamstring surgery in June, Tommy Robredo has scored a couple of good wins, beating Andreas Seppi at the US Open and Jarkko Nieminen in Tokyo. Whether he can stay injury free in 2013 and start stringing such victories together again remains to be seen.

Nikolay Davydenko’s score was boosted by decent results against mediocre competition in Metz and Kuala Lumpur. But his form has been limited by repeated injuries. More importantly for his future prospects, he has shown little sign of the motivation or confidence that made him a top-10 player from 2005-2010.

Lleyton Hewitt had heroic moments in 2012 despite missing the spring for foot surgery. The former number-one with the fundamentally defensive game has run far more miles than most of the opponents he faces, and injuries have limited his schedule and form for five years in a row.

Players with Poor Scores

Most of the men with the lowest form scores are struggling journeymen who happened not to achieve any notable results late in the season, or better players hindered by injuries. It seems cruel to list them all alongside their embarrassing scores. Instead, I’ll just mention a couple of prominent players whose performance markedly declined late in the year, and a couple of young players widely mentioned as prospective stars whose match results have yet to bear that out.

Player Total Points Form Score
Tipsarevic 2990 2.5
Kohlschreiber 1770 1.5
Harrison 710 1.4
Haase 780 0.3

After securing his spot in the top 10 with solid performances from the beginning of the year through the US Open, Tipsarevic’s results faded badly as his performance on court demonstrated a lack of either energy or motivation. He admitted at the World Tour Finals that he had played too many tournaments in his determination to qualify for that event.

Kohlschreiber also made questionable scheduling decisions in 2012, most notably his decision to play Kitzbühel on clay the week before the Olympic Games, from which he subsequently withdrew. He has been a dangerous but inconsistent player for years, and ended the season with mostly disappointing results.

At age 20, Ryan Harrison still has time to develop and has done well to establish himself as a player who usually beats opponents he is supposed to beat. But he still shows emotional fragility on the court, and has yet to prove he’s a threat to the better players at the tour level. The only top-50 players he beat in 2012 were Viktor Troicki, Istomin, Bogomolov, and Olivier Rochus, all of whom had poor seasons.

Robin Haase has attracted significant attention in recent years by playing close matches against elite players, even winning sets against them. But he has seldom converted that potential into results by winning big matches. He did beat Kohlschreiber in the final of Kitzbühel (the only top-50 player he faced there), but then finished the season with a 1-10 match record.

Looking Ahead

The scores presented here are an objective measure of match results toward the end of 2012, and provide some indication of how well players are likely to start the new season. But they can’t give a complete picture of the future. Things can change dramatically for players during the offseason, as they try new training regimes and coaching strategies, some for the better, some for the worse. In today’s ATP especially, the situation is complicated by the ages of the high-scoring players. Most of the high-scoring players are either over 30, nearing the ends of their careers, or too inexperienced with tour-level competition to have built up a fully convincing track record. As always, the new season will bring surprises. That’s the fun part!

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