Roger Federer - Does he have an issue against elite opponents?

Skype: @TennisRatings

After a conversation on Twitter earlier, and with the business end of the Paris Masters, as well as the ATP Tour Finals, on the horizon, I decided to analyse how Roger Federer has fared recently against elite opponents.

The Swiss legend has had a superb 2014 after a disappointing 2013, and currently sits in second place in the ATP rankings behind Novak Djokovic, having recently leapfrogged the sidelined Rafael Nadal.  Should he take the title in the last two events of the season, there's a chance that Federer can regain his world number one position at the end of the year.

Roger Federer has had a superb 2014 generally...

However, the previously mentioned Twitter conversation highlighted a lack of ability against elite opponents regarding break point conversion, and I wanted to see if that was actually the case.

I made a decision to limit the 'elite opponents' to Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray.  These have been Federer's rivals at the top of the ATP rankings for a number of years and I think it's a pretty reasonable assessment to make.

Federer has a career 19-18 head to head lead over Djokovic, but this is somewhat flawed due to their age difference.  Federer took 7 of their first 8 meetings, and is 12-6 down since the start of 2011.  Quite incredibly, 13 of their 22 best of three set matches (59.1%) have gone the distance, which is huge considering the ATP mean is around 34% - showing how both players fight when losing in their head to head matches.

Nadal has a big edge over Federer, with Federer struggling a touch generally against left-handers.  The Spaniard leads their series 25-10, and 10-2 since 2011.  Also worth noting is that Nadal leads Federer 13-2 on his favoured clay surface.

Rafael Nadal has an excellent historical record against Federer...

Federer has better historical success against arguably the worst of the three elite players, Andy Murray.  Since 2011, he leads 5-3, although they are tied at 11 wins apiece over the course of their career.

Therefore, against these three opponents, Federer is 40-54 in his career (42.6%).  Since January 2011, this drops further to 13-25 (34.2%).  There is no doubt that in the last three years, Federer's elite peers have got the better of him.  Despite Federer being in many people's eyes the greatest of all time, he has a negative record against elite players, which makes that assertion very debatable indeed...

Since 2013, against these opponents, Federer is 5-9 (35.7%), which is very similar to his post January 2011 percentage.  Below are some head to head stats against each player, and his overall stats against all 3 combined:-

Head to Head Opponent Holds Broken BP Faced BP Chances BP Won Ret Games
3-4 ND 9 4 10 5 3 14
ND 10 5 11 5 3 15
ND 12 1 6 7 3 13
ND 13 2 6 3 2 15
ND 10 0 2 5 3 10
ND 24 4 11 7 3 28
ND 10 0 1 10 2 10

Head to Head Opponent Holds Broken BP Faced BP Chances BP Won Ret Games
0-5 RN 5 4 11 2 1 9
RN 3 5 6 2 1 8
RN 13 2 9 2 1 16
RN 7 4 4 4 1 10
RN 11 4 15 2 1 15
39 19 45 12 5 58

Head to Head Opponent Holds Broken BP Faced BP Chances BP Won Ret Games

2-1 AM 19 6 16 6 2 26
AM 20 1 2 17 4 19
AM 8 2 6 13 5 11

Head to Head Opponent Holds Broken BP Faced BP Chances BP Won Ret Games
5-9 OVERALL 174 44 116 90 35 219

Having these stats in front of us allows us to make some comparisons between his stats vs elite opponents, and his stats against all opponents.  Naturally his stats against elite players will be worse than general players because of their quality, but having a base to go from is very useful indeed...

Since January 2013
vs Elite vs All
Hold % 79.8 89.0
Break % 16.0 25.7
BP Save % 62.1 67.8
BP Faced/Game 0.67 0.34
BP Won % 38.9 39.4
BP Earnt/Game 0.41 0.65

As we can see, his stats against elite level opponents are very poor indeed.  

Combined against Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, he's held 79.8% and broken 16.0%, compared to 89.0% and 25.7% against all opponents.  A combined hold/break percentage of 95.8% is not good at all, but not that horrific considering he has a 5-9 record from the sample.  I'd expect an average player with that win-loss record to have a combined percentage in the low 90's.  Federer has held serve just 67.2% in his five defeats against Nadal since January 2013.

We can also see that he's faced 0.67 break points per game against elite players - almost double the amount he faces against all opponents.  Particularly against Nadal again (0.78 faced per game) he has struggled on serve, 

Ironically the source of the original idea for this article, a Twitter conversation about his break point conversion, shows this was actually his best area, with his 38.9% conversion rate very similar to his 39.4% overall rate.  This would indicate that either he is complacent against lower opponents, or he raises himself at key points against elite players.  Considering his overall return points won since January 2013 is 39.6% against all opponents, for him to convert just 39.4% is very poor indeed - the average ATP player converts around 2.8% more break points than they win overall return points, so he's 3.0% below expectation for this sample.

Whilst his overall conversion rate against elite opponents is solid, he's had several shockers - 4/17 vs Murray at the 2014 Australian Open, and 2/10 against Djokovic recently in Shanghai.

His break point save percentage of 62.1% against elite isn't strong compared to his 67.8% overall percentage, but based on a ratio from his service hold percentage it's pretty similar (62.1/79.8 = 0.78 vs elite) (67.8/89.0 = 0.76 overall) so it would appear he's about as clutch when facing break points on his serve against elite than general - it's the elite returning ability that has caused this low percentage.

Overall it's pretty clear that Federer has issues against elite players, particularly on return, breaking 16.0% and creating just 0.41 break points per game.  When getting to the key points, the stats indicate that he can hold his own, but throughout the course of the match, he's facing too many key points on his serve to consistently hold enough.  

As Federer gets older - he was 33 in August, I don't expect these stats to improve, but I'd be looking to oppose him against Djokovic and especially a fully fit Nadal, if the opportunities arose in the future.

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