The first couple of rounds of a grand slam tennis tournament are reasonably easy to handicap. Ranked players in good form meet up with less experienced, less talented, or less prepared players, and they usually come out on top. At this year’s French Open, 24 of the 32 men who made the third round were ranked in the top 32 of the 128 man field when the tournament started. Women’s tennis is often more uncertain and volatile, but 24 of the top 32 made it through to the third round there as well. It stands to reason, then, that things get much more difficult in the third round and beyond. The vulnerable and outclassed players have been knocked out, and the remaining players are all in good enough form to at least win two grand slam matches – no easy feat. To pick a winner as we get deeper in the tournament you need to do more work and use more insightful analysis. Here are five things you’ll need to consider to find winners in the second week of grand slams:
Head to head record – It’s rare for a raw rookie to make it deep in a grand slam, so there is a pretty good chance that two players who meet in later rounds have played each other in the past. Looking at how players have done in the past against each other, then, is obviously important. It’s not just good enough to look at the record, though. You need to go deeper to understand what the record is telling you. When were the games played? What surface were they played on? How were the players doing at the time of the meeting? What stages of their careers were the players in when they met – was it a young player against an established veteran? Has their been a consistent winner when they have met, or is the matchup wide open?
Number of sets played in tournament – As a general rule, the player who has played the fewer sets in a tournament is going to be more rested and more ready to play than one who has played more, so they would have an edge. There are many exceptions to this rule, though. Some players need to play more early on to get the kinks worked out and get into a rhythm. Others, like the Williams sisters, need to roll through their early matches, and can see their confidence dented if they are challenged. What you need to look at, then, is the number of sets a player has played compared to what they have done when they have been at their best.
Style of play so far – More significant than the number of sets a player has played is the style of play in those sets. A player could easily be well rested despite playing 13 sets in three rounds if those sets were often of the 6-2 variety – one sided, mostly fast sets. On the other hand, a player could be physically devastated despite playing just nine sets in three rounds if many of those sets have gone to 7-5 or 7-6. You also want to take a look at the number of aces that have been hit in the player’s games, and the length of the matches. Short rallies are obviously less exhausting by far than long, sustained rallies. For the most part players at this level are fit and well prepared, so it’s important not to overcompensate for what has happened. One long game isn’t likely to cause lasting damage. If the player has played several long games in a tournament, though, or if weather delays has forced them back on the court soon after a real grueling match, then there could be an edge to exploit.
Surface – The deeper you get into a tournament, the more a player’s aptitude on a particular surface has to be factored in. Up to a certain point a player can win games just because their skills and strategy are superior to their opponents. If they don’t love the surface, though, then sooner or later they are going to meet a player that is similarly skilled but more suited to the surface, and they will be in trouble. The most striking example of this is Roger Federer. Clay is not his best surface by any means, but he’s easily the most talented all round player on the planet. Rafael Nadal is close to Federer in overall skills, and he was born to play on clay. In the last four years Federer has made it to the final of the French Open each year. Three times he has lost to Nadal, and last year he won but Nadal had already been knocked out. Federer’s skills are enough to overcome the combination of anyone else’s skills and surface aptitude except for Nadal.
Recent form – In the early rounds hot recent form can be a costly trap. At the French this year both Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Ernests Gulbis came into the tournament riding hot streaks through the prep tournaments, and they drew a lot of public and bettor attention. Neither player made it out of the first round. The further we get into a tournament, though, the more significant recent form becomes. Players at the later stages need to be at their best, so a player needs to have had a good base of preparations and some success before the tournament to be ready to succeed in the big tournaments.