French Open 2009 Midpoint Notes

15:28 Sun 31 May 2009. Updated: 20:25 31 May 2009
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I started thinking about writing this post on Friday, and also mulled it over yesterday. I certainly didn’t expect to be writing about the biggest upset of the year: Nadal losing in the fourth round of the French Open to Robin Soderling. Soderling took it in four, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2). It still seems crazy.

It also makes Elena Dementieva look like a genius:

Q. Let me make you a little question about men’s draw. Do you think that anybody could win or beat Nadal here? And in this case, who?

ELENA DEMENTIEVA: Well, it looks like he’s—I mean, he actually looks a little bit tired to me. Even he’s winning pretty easily his first two rounds, it doesn’t look like he’s fresh enough. Maybe he was playing too much.

I think it’s going to be tough challenge for him to win this time, actually.
Elena Dementieva post-match interview, 30 May 2009, www.rolandgarros.com

Of the match, I’ve only seen the final tiebreak. In it Soderling just seemed more aggressive, and Nadal seemed unable to come up with the fantastic shots with which he often punishes such aggression. He did seem a little flat. Then again, when the opponent is playing as well as Soderling seemed to be playing, anyone can look a little flat. Nadal himself felt that he was hitting the ball too short, and indeed doing so against an on-form heavy hitter like Soderling would spell trouble.

Before the shocking loss by Nadal, I had most of a post in my head about Djokovic, Federer, predictions, and consistency.

While I had no idea that Nadal would (or even could) lose this early, I wasn’t surprised at all that Djokovic went out early. In fact I even though that Kohlschreiber was a dangerous opponent for him, one of those players who can have completely ridiculous matches (he beat Andy Roddick in the 2008 Australian Open third round in a five-setter that included his hitting one hundred winners). Further, Djokovic is just not that consistent, and it seems like he often has these letdowns.

Peter Bodo, a tennis writer I usually like, predicted that Federer wouldn’t make the semifinals, which would feature Nadal, Djokovic, Monfils, and Montanes. Okay, edgy picks, I suppose, but what really irked me about it is that he didn’t even mention in passing that for Federer to lose before the semifinals would be the end of a historic streak: Federer’s nineteen straight Grand Slam semifinals (or better). I admit that I’ll look like an idiot if Federer now doesn’t make it there, losing to either Haas tomorrow or Roddick or Monfils in the quarterfinals, but any smart pick has to be Federer in the semifinals at any Grand Slam.

Many people thought that Djokovic was the most likely candidate to take out Nadal, and that Djokovic would knock Federer out in the semifinals. I thought that while Djokovic would give Federer a tough match at that point, he had to get there first, and that was uncertain.

I suspect that Federer and Nadal, through their amazing consistency, have made many commentators forget how unpredictable a game tennis really is, and that Federer’s consistency in Slams is overlooked by many of them as a partial result of this. They look at Murray and Djokovic against Federer, conclude (rightly or wrongly) that those two now have the upper hand, and then make the incorrect leap from there to assuming that the head-to-head advantage also means that they’ll progress as far as Federer in the Slams somewhat automatically.

That’s just not how it works. Federer’s semifinal streak is historic because that’s not how it works. His streak of nineteen is almost double the previous record of ten—meaning he’s extended that record by more than two years.

To show just how consistent Federer has been in comparison with the rest of the top four, here are their Grand Slam results since 2006:

Current Top 4 Grand Slam Results, 2006AO–2009AO
Player 2006 2007 2008 2009
Rafael Nadal A W F QF QF W F 4R SF W W SF W
Roger Federer W F W W W F W W SF F F W F
Novak Djokovic 1R QF 4R 3R 4R SF SF F W SF 2R SF QF
Andy Murray 1R 1R 4R 4R 4R A A 3R 1R 3R QF F 4R

Those results give us these percentages:

Current Top 4 Grand Slam Result Percentages, 2006AO–2009AO
Player 2006-2009 2007-2009 2008-2009
QF+ SF+ F+ W QF+ SF+ F+ W QF+ SF+ F+ W
Rafael Nadal 84.6 69.2 53.8 38.4 88.8 77.7 55.5 44.4 100 100 60 60
Roger Federer 100 100 92.3 53.8 100 100 88.8 44.4 100 100 80 20
Novak Djokovic 61.5 46.1 15.3 0.7 77.7 66.6 22.2 11.1 80 60 20 20
Andy Murray 15.3 0.7 0.7 0 22.2 11.1 11.1 0 40 20 20 0

The point is not that performance at an individual Grand Slam can be predicted by virtue of examining these numbers. The point is that both Federer and Nadal’s numbers are insane. Federer’s numbers go beyond that to the other side of ridiculous. The last time he didn’t make it to the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam was five years ago—also the last time he didn’t make it to the semifinals. Another way to look at it is this: if he makes it to the semifinals this year, his streak of straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances will have continued for a longer span of time than Nadal’s streak of straight semifinal appearances at the French Open.

Even if we restrict the numbers to just since the start of 2008, which makes for better comparisons with Djokovic and Murray, the differences are significant:
Quarterfinals or better for Nadal/Federer/Djokovic/Murray: 100%/100%/80%/40%.
Semifinals or better for Nadal/Federer/Djokovic/Murray: 100%/100%/60%/20%.
Finals or better for Nadal/Federer/Djokovic/Murray: 60%/80%/20%/20%.
Wins for Nadal/Federer/Djokovic/Murray: 60%/20%/20%/0%.

Federer’s numbers for everything except wins are better than anyone else’s, even Nadal’s, and Nadal’s last five Slams were astonishingly good.

While this streak of Federer’s will obviously come to an end eventually, I don’t think it’s time for that just yet. There’s a chance that he’ll react badly to the sudden disappearance of his nemesis at the French, and put himself under too much pressure against his next opponent (Tommy Haas), but I think he’ll make it to at least the semifinals, keeping that streak alive, and I think the semifinal streak will continue until at least 2010.

Federer is clearly the favorite at Roland Garros now. The main danger in my opinion is that it’ll be too much pressure—a golden chance to complete his career Slam and tie the all-time Slam record. But he’s won 13 Slams already, I think he can handle the pressure. He should take out Haas to make it to the quarterfinals, where he will face either Roddick or Monfils. I’ve been impressed with Roddick this year, even more so on clay (he’s never done so well at the French), but if Roddick faces Federer, Federer is almost guaranteed to win. Monfils might be tougher, but even with the French crowd behind him I think Federer will be able to handle that challenge. Of the possible four semifinal opponents, Tsonga and Kohlschreiber are probably the most dangerous because they can have periods of incredible brilliance. Even so, it’s a lot to ask of either of them to beat Federer.

If he gets that far, I think that Federer’s most likely opponents in the final are Murray, Gonzalez, and Soderling. I may be doing a terrible disservice to Nikolay Davydenko here, and he might have a great shot at making his first Grand Slam final, but I don’t think it’ll happen. I think that Murray isn’t that likely to make the final, but would be toughest for Federer to face because of their recent head-to-head. I still think Federer would win that match.

There are plenty of caveats, but Federer looks quite likely to win his first French Open title.

One Response to “French Open 2009 Midpoint Notes”

  1. Frank Says:

    Very nicely presented arguments, Tadhg. Leave it to you to make an awesome match between Nadal and Soderling all about Federer. :)

    But, hey, I won’t buck that trend: I caught the final four sets yesterday, and they actually reminded me of Nadal’s win over Federer at Wimbledon last year, at least in the losers’ respective mental states if not the style of play. This was on a court that Nadal is used to dominating completely, but he seemed to be having an off day, playing far below his best, and he was facing an opponent who was really on his game. It seemed to dig progressively further under his skin, translating earlier mistakes into later ones in a nasty cycle he couldn’t break.

    It was a really stunning match, when you consider that nobody had ever taken Nadal to a fifth set in the French Open, let alone beaten him in four. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best tennis I’ve ever seen, but still, quite good.

    Once, the camera zoomed in on Nadal’s shoes, which had four flaming tennis balls with, “05″, “06″, “07″, and “08″ on them — his previous wins at the French Open. I think he had similar shoes at last year’s French Open. I remember thinking that it would be embarrassing if he didn’t win, but then, of course, he did. Until now. I’m curious to see what his shoes look like next year.

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