Opposing Serena Williams in 2015

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Serena Williams has been world number one since February 2013, and for long periods prior to that she was either the best player in the world, or considered the best.

However, with the American recently having turned 33, there are signs that her powers are on the wane, and this could give us a number of profitable betting and trading angles next season.

In previous years Williams has been a friend to in-play traders, as backers of her when a set down will testify.  It has been said by many people that she has an immense will to win, but I'd look at this from a slightly different angle - her hold/break stats are so good, her comebacks were merely variance correcting itself (especially given that her very strong serve means she very rarely falls a double break down).   Furthermore, she had an aura which was probably akin to Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager - players turned up on court having no belief whatsoever that they could win the match.  

In the last 12 months she's turned around 4 first set deficits to win the match - against Li Na (Istanbul World Tour Championships), Ana Ivanovic in Stanford, and Caroline Wozniacki twice in consecutive weeks, in Montreal and Cincinnati.  However, she's also lost in straight sets to Alize Cornet, Jana Cepelova and Garbine Muguruza, all with a starting price of under 1.07.

Overall, in her last 50 first set losses, she's claimed 27 wins (54%) with 36 second set wins (72%).  With the average WTA player turning around a deficit around 20% of the time, you can see why the markets have had so much faith in Williams to recover set deficits.

Serena Williams has won 54% of her last 50 matches when she lost the first set...

However, Williams has appeared more fallible of late, with the previously mentioned three defeats priced under 1.07 shocking the Tennis world.  In her career, she's won 14 of 22 when she was priced under 1.20 and lost the first set (63.6%) and took the second set in 16/22 (72.7%).  These figures are only a slight improvement on her overall figures and perhaps illustrates that when she's not firing, the opponent across the net isn't particularly relevant.

Other areas where traders have faith in Williams is when she's a break down.  However, the Ultimate In-Play Spreadsheet shows that in 2014, her ability to recover a break deficit has declined markedly from 2013 figures.  From the start of the 2014 season to the end of September 2014, she's recovered a break deficit 57.5% of the time.  Whilst this is strong, it's a significant drop from 2013 figures - the table below illustrates the WTA top 5 for recovering a break deficit in 2013 and 2014:-

2013 2014
Player Break Deficit Player Break Deficit
Recovery % Recovery %
Williams S 75.6 Li 66.7
Hampton 70.9 Ivanovic 61.7
Radwanska A 70.5 Cornet 61.1
Dolonc 66.7 Sharapova 59.5
Li 66.7 Williams S 57.5

As we can see, her percentage has dropped 18.1%, and brings her from the stratosphere down to a top 5 level.  Therefore traders should have less faith in her recovering a break deficit, and this is also in line with her overall set win percentage, which has fallen from 89.7% (156-18) in 2013 to 83.8% (93-18) in 2014.  So this year, she's lost the same amount of sets but won 63 less...

Garbine Muguruza got the better of Williams in straight sets at the French Open...

Quite interestingly, the 2013 figures also showed Jamie Hampton (injured for the whole of 2014) as being superb when a break down, as was the low-ranked Vesna Dolonc, who hasn't replicated this in 2014.  Agnieszka Radwanska's percentage has also dropped heavily (I am aware of many traders now losing faith in her recovering deficits) from 70.5% in 2013 to 51.3% in 2014.  Alize Cornet, third in 2014, was just outside the top 5 in 2013 as well, so despite the Frenchwoman's frequent histrionics when losing, she possesses a strong will to win.

2013 Combined Stats 2014 Combined Stats
Player Break Lead  Break Deficit Difference % Player Break Lead  Break Deficit Difference %
Loss % Recovery % Loss % Recovery %
Williams S 20.3 75.6 55.3 Ivanovic 23.4 61.7 38.3
Radwanska A 37.1 70.5 33.4 Williams S 20.4 57.5 37.1
Hampton 42.2 70.9 28.7 Lucic-Baroni 22.2 55.2 33.0
Azarenka 38.5 62.5 24.0 Williams V 26.7 57.4 30.7
Li 42.9 66.7 23.8 Bouchard 26.3 53.7 27.4

The above table illustrates the best five players for difference between their break deficit recovery percentage, and their break lead loss percentage.

Williams' 2013 stats were insane - a 55.3% difference which was head and shoulders above any other competitor.  However, in 2014, we can see she's merely at a similar level to the leading players (and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni), and second overall to Ana Ivanovic, who has really improved her in-play stats this year.  These statistics indicate she has become much more human, and just one of the best from an in-play perspective, as opposed to being by far the best.

Assessing the overall all-surface hold/break percentages of the current WTA top 10 is also very interesting:-

2013 2014
Service Hold % Opponent Break % Combined % Service Hold % Opponent Break % Combined % Combined %
Williams S 83.5 54.5 138.0 82.2 45.2 127.4 -10.6
Sharapova 77.8 46.1 123.9 71.8 46.0 117.8 -6.1
Halep 69.9 51.2 121.1 72.7 47.3 120.0 -1.1
Kvitova 70.1 37.7 107.8 77.0 37.4 114.4 6.6
Li 71.6 46.3 117.9 72.6 46.0 118.6 0.7
Bouchard 65.6 40.3 105.9 69.8 41.0 110.8 4.9
Radwanska A 71.5 43.8 115.3 68.3 47.0 115.3 0.0
Ivanovic 71.1 42.6 113.7 70.7 43.6 114.3 0.6
Wozniacki 68.4 43.4 111.8 73.7 42.7 116.4 4.6
Kerber 70.1 42.1 112.2 68.0 42.0 110.0 -2.2

Williams - with Maria Sharapova not far behind - has declined markedly in 2014 with a 10.6% reduction in her combined hold/break percentage this year.  Whilst her 2014 hold/break stats still makes her the best player and deserving of her number one status currently (she leads the next best, Simona Halep, by 7.4%), a similar drop-off in 2015 will rank her around 5th in the hold/break rankings.  

It's also interesting to see that Radwanska has no improvement or decline based on 2013 stats despite her huge decline from break deficit positions.  This would indicate that the Pole has lost a lot of tight sets this year, and has steamrollered lower level players.  An analysis of tight set win percentages would almost certainly see the older Radwanska sister struggle.  To use a cricket phrase, the statistics indicate she is a 'flat-track bully'.

Statistics indicate Agnieszka Radwanska is a flat track bully...

However, the main focus of this article is Williams, and by looking at the above table we can see that her main decline is her return game, with opponents being broken just 45.2% in 2014 compared to the 54.5% in 2013.

This ranks her 7th in the WTA this year behind Simona Halep, Monica Niculescu, Na Li, Sara Errani, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, and given that her 2013 stats were so strong (she beat the 2014 leader, Halep, by 3.3%) it is clear that her return game is her main current deficiency and the reason why a) she has a lower set win percentage in 2014 and b) she has much poorer break deficit recovery stats.

Should this decline continue in 2015, we can expect to see the following:-

* Williams to fall from her top world ranking position
* Williams to break opponents much less
* Williams to be merely strong for recovering break deficits
* Williams to win far fewer matches by a 2-0 scoreline, with a drop in her overall set win percentage
* Williams to cover less game handicaps, due to her breaking opponents less

The 2015 season will be a big test for Williams.  

Declining at 33, her best days are almost certainly over, but it may take the markets a while to realise this.

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