Swimming With the Shark

Wednesday, February 05, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Most tennis fans know who Greg Sharko is, if only by reputation. He’s the director of media information for the ATP, a gold-level follow on Twitter (@SharkoTennis), and a master statistician who goes to sleep each night with a smile on his face, counting not sheep but unforced forehand errors at break-point down.

They call Greg “Shark”—how could he have any other nickname, even if his personality is a lot more panda than Great White? Shark is a universally popular and relied upon source of what I think of as “liquid statistics”—stats that must be created in a rolling, ongoing fashion to meet some need of the moment, like the answer to the question, “When was the last time Portugal had two players in the quarterfinals of an ATP 250 and both were obliged to play their next match against lefthanders?”

Ok, I exaggerate. But not by much.

Thankfully, Shark hasn’t been replaced by algorithms yet. For we rely on him to ask what in his line of work amounts to the equivalent of existential questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” Stuff like, “When was the last time all four semifinalists advanced at a major after winning in straight sets?” Or, “How many men have come back from match-point down in two matches to win a tournament?”

Each year, Shark culls various stats and comes up with “highlights.” He emailed the 2013 edition to me and others the other day, so let me share some of his findings with you.

—Bob and Mike Bryan won 11 doubles titles for the third time in their careers, and finished No. 1 for a record ninth time (in 11 years).

—It was a great year for breaking through to the promised land. Eight of the 33 players who won at least one ATP tournament in 2013 (there were 65 events in all) were first-timers; the only player who won his first ATP title in 2012 was Martin Klizan.

—Spain was the most prolific nation among the 19 that produced champions, bagging over 25 percent of the titles on offer (17) thanks to the efforts of six different players in 35 finals. That meant a Spaniard was in more than half of all finals played in 2013.

—Eleven men aged 30 or over accounted for 16 titles—the most since 19 “elders” won tournaments in 1975.

—A record 30 players surpassed $1 million mark in prize money in 2013.

—The lowest ranked player to win a title? That was 32-year-old Nicolas Mahut, who was ranked No. 240 when he won ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

—The youngest titlist? Twenty-year-old Bernard Tomic, who won Sydney.

—The biggest rankings leap into the Top 100 was that of Pablo Carreno Busta, who gained 650 spots to earn a year-end ranking of 65. Ten players jumped at least 100 places to finish in the ATP Top 100.

—The Top 50 player who made the biggest advance in 2013 was Ernests Gulbis, who rose 115 places from his year-end ranking in 2012. At the start of 2013, Gulbis was down to No. 139 and talking trash about all the guys ranked above him. Give the wacky Latvian credit, he turned out to be right when it came to 115 of those guys. Gulbis finished last year No. 24, tying his previous best year-end ranking.

—The youngest player in the Top 100 was Jiri Vesely, who’s 20. The oldest in the Top 100 was 35-year-old Tommy Haas, who finished the year at No. 12. He was the oldest plater to reach the Top 20 since Agassi did it at the same age. (Even more impressively, Agassi made it all the way to No. 7 in 2005.)

—The 17 combined titles won by No. 1 Rafael Nadal (10 titles) and No. 2 Novak Djokovic were the most by a sum of the top two players’ haul since 2006. That year, Roger Federer won 12 and Nadal won five. In 2013, Nadal and Djokovic won three of the four majors and a whopping eight of the nine Masters 1000 events.

This one merits a little further analysis and comparison.

Does anything more convincingly underscore the theory that tennis is a sport of instant gratification—and near-instant amnesia—than a quick look back at stats like these?

It’s easy to forget just how good Federer was back in 2006. He finished the year 92-5. He didn’t lose a match after Andy Murray handed him his final defeat of the year in August, in the second round of Cincinnati. Federer also was perfect between the Roland Garros final, which he lost to Nadal, and that loss in Cincy. Only one player besides Murray beat Federer in 2006, and that was Nadal.

Federer won all but three of those 12 titles in 2013 on hard courts. He bagged one on indoor carpet (which is most similar to indoor hard) and the final two of his dozen on grass courts in Halle and Wimbledon.

It’s a mark of how far Nadal has come that in 2006, just as he was starting his final push to the top, he won just one event off clay, and it wasn’t even a Masters 1000 (Dubai).

In 2013, though, Nadal won four outdoor hard-court tournaments, almost half of his total title haul. And keep in mind that Nadal played just one tournament (actually, just one match) on grass.

Back in 2006, Nadal was still in a growth phase. His overall record was 59-12, though he did beat Federer four consecutive times to start the year—at Dubai, and then three more times on clay. Federer finally gained a measure of revenge with wins at Wimbledon and the Tennis Masters Cup, but the handwriting was on the wall.

Nadal lost to 10 players not named Federer in 2006, which by the standard he would soon set seems nearly unimaginable. That list includes the likes of Arnaud Clement, Joachim Johansson, Mikhail Youzhny, and James Blake.

If you’re wondering what the fourth person in this tale was doing seven years ago, Djokovic was still just a pup chewing on a shoe he mistook for a rabbit. He won the first two ATP titles of his career at small events: Metz and Amersfoort.

But the gap between Djokovic and Nadal last year was smaller than the one between Federer and Nadal in 2006. Djokovic won one more title in 2013 than Nadal did in 2006, and his overall record was a superior 74-9.

The only player Djokovic lost to more than once in those 83 matches was Nadal, but they ended the year deadlocked at 3-3. Djokovic’s worst loss last year was to then No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov—which no longer looks like a bad loss at all.

See you all at the next feeding frenzy!

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