Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In the final(s) analysis

When, last Sunday, three Americans played in the finals of ATP and WTA events, it was first time since July 2012 that had happened in the same week, and only second time since February 2010.

In honor of this achievement, I thought it might be interesting to track and compare the finals appearances for Americans over the past few years.  So I did some Wikipedia research (admittedly, not foolproof) and came up with some charts, and thought I'd share them with you, along with some analysis.

I decided to focus on finals rather than titles because (a) there are a LOT more data points to work with, (b) it goes along with the Sporcle quizzes I created (men here, women here), and (c) finalists get trophies too! But you'll get stats from finals as well.

Also, rather than just compare American men to American women, I decided to separate American women into two categories: Serena Williams, and everyone else. To do otherwise would be to skew the results massively. Serena has more finals, and far, far more titles, than all other American women combined over the past 5+ years.  I just thought it would be more instructive, in the final(s) analysis.


Total finals: 43 (23 titles)
Total finals in US: 31 (17 titles)
% of finals in US: 72% (75% of titles)
Number of players: 9 (6 with titles)
Most finals: John Isner - 17 (9 titles)
% of finals by Isner: 40% (39% of titles)

Outdoor hard: 25 (13 titles)
Indoor hard: 4 (2 titles)
Clay: 9 (4 titles)
Grass: 5 (4 titles)
% of finals on hard: 67% (65% of titles)
% of finals on clay: 21% (17% of titles)
% of finals on grass: 12% (17% of titles)

Tournament Level
250: 34 (21 titles)
500: 4 (2 titles - both Memphis)
1000: 5 (0 titles)
ATP Tour Finals: 0 (0 titles)
Grand Slam: 0 (0 titles)
% of finals at 250 level: 79% (91% of titles)


Total finals: 31 (27 titles)
Total finals in US: 12 (11 titles)
% of finals in US: 39% (41% of titles)

Outdoor hard: 18 (14 titles)
Indoor hard: 3 (3 titles)
Clay: 8 (8 titles)
Grass: 2 (2 titles)
% of finals on hard: 68% (63% of titles)
% of finals on clay: 26% (30% of titles)
% of finals on grass: 6% (7% of titles)

Tournament Level
International: 1 (1 title - Bastad)
Premier: 19 (16 titles)
WTA Championships: 3 (3 titles)
Grand Slam: 8 (7 titles)
% of finals at International level: 3% (4% of titles)

Non-Serena WOMEN

Total finals: 26 (10 titles)
Total finals in US: 3 (0 titles)
% of finals in US: 12% (0% of titles)
Number of players: 13 (5 with titles)
Most finals: Venus Williams 10 (6 titles)
% of finals by Venus: 38% (60% of titles)

Outdoor hard: 15 (4 titles - 3 Venus)
Indoor hard: 3 (1 title - Venus/Luxembourg)
Clay: 4 (2 titles - both Venus)
Grass: 4 (3 titles)
% of finals on hard: 68% (50% of titles)
% of finals on clay: 15% (20% of titles)
% of finals on grass: 15% (30% of titles)

Tournament Level
International: 17 (6 titles)
Premier: 9 (4 titles - 3 Venus)
WTA Championships: 0 (0 titles)
Grand Slam: 0 (0 titles)
% of finals at International level: 65% (60% of titles)


The number one thing that jumps out is the trends - men's final appearances fell dramatically over four years, coinciding with Andy Roddick's retirement and Mardy Fish's health issues. Last year was the nadir for men, with a mere two finals appareances - a number that has already been surpassed this year. Meanwhile, non-Serena women were in the doldrums for years until their breakout last year - the ten finals they reached in 2014 was two more than the previous three years combined.  Through one-third of 2015, they seem to be on track for a similar year to 2014.

Serena's 12 finals in 2013 is pretty stunning in comparison to everything else. Note that in 2010 and 2011 she was facing major health concerns as well.

Locations & levels: It's really amazing - 72% of the men's finals took place in the USA vs. only 12% of the non-Serena women's finals. Similarly, 75% of the men's titles were in the States, while no American woman, other than Serena, has won a tournament in the USA since Lindsay Davenport won the Tier III Memphis tournament in 2008. That's an incredible difference.

One reason for this is the level of tournaments being played - nearly 80% of US men's finals and 65% of non-Serena women's finals happened at the smallest levels of each tour: the ATP 250s and the WTA International tournaments. Those tournaments give players outside the Top 10/Top 20 the best chance to pick up a title, as rarely do the best players compete.  To wit: the reason Serena only has one International title in the past 5+ years on tour is because she's only played one International tournament over that time. She's earning her titles via majors and Premier events, which makes her title haul all the more impressive.

So here's the thing - low-level tournaments are not equally distributed geographically.

Take 2014:  Of the 39 ATP 250 events, 6 were in the US (15%). Meanwhile, of the 31 International WTA tournaments, only 1 was in the US (3%).  Tournaments in which US men have reached finals - like Delray Beach (Donald Young), Houston (Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Isner, and Ryan Sweeting), Atlanta (Isner, Fish, and Roddick) and Newport (Isner and Fish) - don't have comparable tournaments for US women. Instead, the women are in Luxembourg (Venus), Tianjin (Alison Riske), and Quebec (Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Venus).

However, the geographic correlation goes beyond the lowest tournaments. To wit: of the 9 ATP 500 & Masters Series 1000 finals that Americans reached since 2010, 8 (89%) were in the US (Fish in Montreal in 2011). Conversely, of the 9 Premier finals non-Serena US women have reached, only 3 (33%) were in the US.

(When it comes to overall percentage of finals in the US, Serena (39%) splits the difference between the men (72%) and non-Serena women (12%).

Surface: As for surface, there's a remarkable similarity: hard court finals were between 67-68% for all three categories, while hard court titles accounted for between 63-65%. Perhaps a bit surprising is that men in our sample did a bit better on clay than the non-Serena women did. Men reached 4 finals in Houston, yes, but also 1 in Nice (Brian Baker) and 2 in Belgrade in 2010 (Querrey and Isner). Venus had a couple back in 2010, and then other than Serena, no clay finals until Shelby Rogers last year in Bad Gastein and then Madison Keys this year in Charleston.

Grass, by contrast, has been a bit friendlier to women, with Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe, and Melanie Oudin all recording their first titles there.

Serena has only played Wimbledon the past few years. Hopefully we'll see her at another tournament this year with the extra week of grass, although I haven't heard anything yet.

Number of players: 14 different women - including Serena - having reached finals since 2010 is an impressive number. Five of them (Serena, Venus, Keys, Vandeweghe, and Mattek-Sands) have reached multiple finals, but only the Williams Sisters have multiple titles in that time. The question of whether these finals and titles are blips or building blocks are big questions for players such as Keys, CoCo, and Rogers.

The nine US men who have reached finals have them more spread out - only Sock, Baker, and Sweeting have just one final; Young has two; Querrey, Roddick, Fish, and Isner all have had at least 7.

Ages: I didn't track ages but we've seen a few finals by men under 25 - Querrey, Young, Sweeting, and Sock. Querrey built his amazing 2010 (5 finals, 4 titles) into a Top 20 position, but struggled after that.  The question of whether Sock can build on his own title is a huge story for US tennis moving forward.

As for women - we know that Serena has gotten better with age, but it seems like US women have as well. Brengle,  Lepchenko, and Riske all achieved their first career finals well into their careers. Again, though, whether they can build upon those results is yet to be determined.

Final question: Given how much better US women have been doing in the rankings over the past couple of years, a question worth asking is whether the relatively high number of ATP tournaments in the US is helping or hurting American men. On the one hand, would they be getting to ANY finals if there were fewer tournaments on US soil? Or are the too dependent on the home courts, making it less likely they'll go on the road, take their lumps, but ultimately be stronger players who rely on themselves more than a home environment?

I think to figure the answer to this, it might be necessary to look down into the lower levels of tennis - challengers and ITF events. Are Americans at those levels having as large a contrast between gender based on geography?

Problably not - based on a cursory review of 2014 results, 16 of 150 ATP Challengers (11%) were in the US; Americans secured 12 of the 32 final spots in those. (There were 8 finalists in the other 134 non-US tournaments.)

13 of 56 ITF women's tournaments at the $50K level and above (23%) were in the US, and Americans reached an impressive 15 finals in those. Remarkably, there was only 1 American finalist in the other 43 events - Maria Sanchez at the $50K in Toronto. (None of the WTA $125K events were in the US, and Americans did not reach any finals in those.)

A full analysis of lower levels of tennis is beyond the scope of this piece.

I'd love to get your feedback on this - what pops out at you, and what should we expect given the trends going forward?

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