Rafael Nadal - A problem of bad variance?


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23rd May, 2015 (One day before the 2015 French Open):-

There has been almost endless speculation about Rafael Nadal, and whether the Spanish legend poses little threat at the upcoming French Open, or even is finished!

What I want to do is to show readers the difference between basic facts, and in-depth facts, and how they give a very different impression of Nadal's 2015 season.  

Naturally, most bettors and fans look at basic facts, because they are usually either too lazy to do detailed research, or they don't actually know what they are looking for, to perform further analysis.

2015 Rafael Nadal Basic Facts:-

*Ended the 2014 season ranked 2, but is currently ranked at 7.
*Accumulated a 25-9 win-loss record (74%), which is well below his 688-134 (84%) career record.
*Has won 77% of matches on clay in 2015, well below his career record of 94% wins on clay.
*Is 2-4 in non-exhibition matches against top 10 opponents in 2015.
*Has a 66-1 record at Roland Garros, with one defeat against Robin Soderling.

What does this suggest?

Pretty much that Nadal is on decline, dropping 5 places in the world rankings, and having a much worse win/loss record across all surfaces, on clay, and against top 10 opponents, but he does have a magnificent record at the French Open.

Whilst all of these statistical assertions are undeniable, as mentioned previously it's vital that more in-depth research is required, and this disputes all of the above, with the exception of his Roland Garros record, which is without comparison.

2015 Rafael Nadal In-Depth Facts:-

*Across all surfaces, he has held serve 85.1% and broke opponents 33.3% (combined 118.4%).  This is very slightly below both his 2014 (85.1%+35.1% = 120.2%) and all-time (85.8+33.5% = 119.3%), but it's very little, and might change the price of him from now to 2014 generally by a few ticks, but nothing hugely more, unless it was a very close match-up.

*In 2015 on clay, he has held 83.9% and broken 35.8% (combined 119.7%).  It's still his best surface, evidenced by his combined percentage being bigger than all-surfaces statistics.

*However, this is quite a bit lower than his 2014 figures (83.1%+44.3%=127.4%) and all-time (85.1%+43.2%=128.3%).  His serve is very consistent with just 2% splitting his 2014, 2015 and all-time hold percentages, but the percentage that he breaks opponents has declined significantly, although it's still at elite level.

*A drop in these return stats would usually be due to several reasons.  Either Nadal isn't creating as many opportunities, or he isn't taking them.  A closer look at his stats makes this much clearer - all-time on clay, he has created 0.88 break point chances per return game, a figure that dropped to 0.83 in 2014, but rose again to 0.88 in 2015.  So Nadal has actually created as many break point chances in 2015 on clay as his whole career, yet has broken 7.4% less - he's simply not taking enough break point opportunities.

*This is illustrated by him taking 3% less break points (40.6%) than return points (43.6%).  On average, ATP players take 2.8% more break point chances than return points, so his break point conversion based on return points won is 5.8% below expectation - very similar to the 7.4% less that he's broken.

What does this suggest?

Nadal isn't winning close to enough key points on return.  This is either due to variance or a lack of confidence, or both - there is no other reason.  It's that simple.  

Negative variance defeats:-

Nadal has lost 9 times in 2015.  The table below shows the break points he has accumulated in each game, compared to his opponent:-

Opponent

Venue

SP

Break Point Chances for Nadal

Break Point Chances for Opponent






Berrer

Doha

1.07

12

4

Berdych

Australian Open

1.61

4

10

Fognini

Rio

1.10

9

9

Raonic

Indian Wells

1.59

7

4

Verdasco

Miami

1.14

12

6

Djokovic

Monte Carlo

3.02

3

10

Fognini

Barcelona

1.08

14

8

Murray

Madrid

1.38

3

6

Wawrinka

Rome

1.21

9

7


The table is absolutely shocking.  In these 9 defeats, Nadal actually generated at least 2 break points more than his opponent in 5 matches, and the same as Fognini in Rio.  Only in the matches against Berdych, Djokovic and Murray did defeat look justified, particularly in the former two matches.  

In the defeats, he actually earned 73 break points to 64 for his opponents DESPITE him losing the matches.  It is absolutely clear that Nadal's inability to take break points has cost him these matches.

French Open Draw:-

Nadal is seeded 6th, and is in the brutal top half of the draw.  

He opens against young wild card Quentin Halys, before a tricky meeting with Almagro or Dolgopolov in round two.  Grigor Dimitrov is likely to be his 4th round opponent, before one big stumbling block in the quarter-finals - world number one Novak Djokovic.  Against the Serb in the best of five sets, fitness is critical and Nadal will need to ensure he conserves energy in previous rounds and can get through the matches ideally in straight sets.  

Statistically, only Djokovic and Kei Nishikori (in the bottom half of the draw) are close to Nadal's current 2015 stats.  He is likely to be a strong favourite against all in the draw with the exception of Djokovic.  Given the fact that Djokovic's clay stats read 92% holds and 34% breaks (126.0% combined) he is justifiably favourite over Nadal in the outrights, although if Nadal could improve his break point conversion, his 2014 and all-time clay stats are better than the Serb's current numbers.  With Nadal 6.00 in the outrights, compared to Djokovic's 1.90, it's very difficult to justify such a short price on Djokovic, and an outright position on Nadal can strongly be considered.

Considering Nadal's stats solely lie with an inability to take key points on return, writing the Spaniard off is clearly laughable and at a tournament where he has won nine of the last ten years, he will be a formidable threat.
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