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How Difficult are Back-to-Back Titles in Tennis?

One of the often mentioned assumptions in tennis is that players that win a title one week often struggle to back it up the following week. Whether through fatigue from playing an entire week of tennis, the hassle of flying from one tournament to the next with little turnaround time or simply celebrating the title too much, there are a multitude of reasons given for this.

However, it begs the question of whether this assumption is really true. The converse argument might follow along the lines that winning breeds confidence. Winning a tournament involves winning at least four matches, which undoubtedly boosts the confidence of a player, suggesting they might play better the following week. Could this be the case instead of the negative impact of a title?

Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open title, but how good is
she at winning back-to-back titles?

There are plenty of other factors that could come into play. The location of the two tournaments no doubt plays a role. For example, if you win a tournament in Asia, then play the following week in Europe, the amount of travelling and the effect of changing time zones would certainly have an impact on the ability of the player in the second week. However, if you win the tournament in Eastbourne, there is little travelling required to play at Wimbledon the following week. In this situation, there may be a positive impact.

Similarly, winning a title on clay one week might negatively affect your ability to win a tournament on a hard court the following week. The differences between the courts and the lack of practice time on the second surface surely must have an impact? Alternatively, it could be that the top ranked players are used to winning, while the lower ranked players celebrate winning a tournament more and experience a hangover the following week?

To investigate this question, I have looked at every tournament since the beginning of 2011 on the WTA tour. This works out at a total of 117 tournaments. For this, I simply want to look at players attempting to win a title the following week. Therefore, this cuts the sample down to 59. This might be a little small and I may look to increase this in the future, but for now, we shall use these 59.

One thing that we shall look at is whether players overachieved or underachieved in the week following their titles. As a guide to this, I shall use the betting odds for the matches to determine which player was the favourite for each match. This is a solid basic measure, although it could certainly be influenced by the title the previous week, meaning that close matches might see different favouritism than they would have the previous week. However, this is only a minor issue.

The first thing to note is that there are just two players that have won titles in consecutive weeks – Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska. Victoria Azarenka has actually achieved this no fewer than three times, winning Sydney-Australian Open 2012, Beijing-Linz 2012 and Miami-Marbella 2011, while Agnieszka Radwanska has achieved it twice, winning Auckland-Sydney 2013 and Tokyo-Beijing 2011. Notably, the Miami-Marbella double that Azarenka won in 2011 is the only time that a player has won back-to-back titles in consecutive weeks on different surfaces – a feat that Serena Williams is looking to achieve this week in Charleston.

As two of the leading players, you would expect Azarenka and Radwanska to have been favourites for the second titles. Azarenka was the favourite for every match that she played in the three tournaments that she won in the second week. Agnieszka Radwanska was the favourite for every match in Beijing 2011, but won in the semi-final of Sydney 2013 as an outsider against Li Na.

Out of the 59 title winners that have played the following week, it is interesting to note that just twelve of them have won a match the following week as an outsider. The biggest win for a champion as an outsider was for Marion Bartoli. Having lifted the title in Eastbourne in 2011, she took that form into Wimbledon, reaching the quarter-final, most notably beating Serena Williams in the 4th round, priced at 3.92 by the bookmakers. Interestingly, the second biggest priced upset winner was Tamira Paszek, also at Wimbledon following a win at Eastbourne, beating Caroline Wozniacki in the first round in 2012, priced at 3.30.

Tamira Paszek backed up her Eastbourne title with an excellent win
over Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon

This might back up our initial idea that following a title win with a tournament in the same country with minimal travel might maximise the boost.  Other overachievers following a title include Roberta Vinci in the US Open, following victory in Dallas, Gisela Dulko in Monterrey following victory in Acapulco, and Roberta Vinci again in Madrid following victory in Barcelona. All tournaments in the same country.

Looking at the other side of the coin, we find that 32 of our title winners lose the following week as a favourite. As we have mentioned, they may get a boost in the odds from their first title, although this is only really applicable to the matches where there is no clear favourite. Of these 32, we find that no fewer than 10 of these have lost at odds of 1.25 or shorter in the betting.

The shortest price loser was Serena Williams in the Australian Open against Sloane Stephens. However, this result is slightly anomalous due to the ankle injury that Serena picked up early in the tournament. While this could have been a result of having played the previous week, it is more likely to just have been a freak incident. However, it is worth noting that Serena has attempted to win back-to-back titles three times during this period without success. As well as the defeat to Sloane Stephens, she has withdrawn from the tournament on two further occasions.

Interestingly, we find Petra Kvitova is responsible for three of these ten short-priced losers. She lost to Marion Bartoli at the 2012 US Open as a 1.22 favourite, having won New Haven the previous week. She also lost to Ayumi Morita in Dubai in 2011, having won Paris the previous week, and finally lost to Magdalena Rybarikova in the final of an ITF tournament in Prague in 2011 having lifted the title in Madrid. Indeed, Kvitova has attempted to win back-to-back titles four times in our sample and has lost as a favourite on all four occasions.

Looking more closely, we find that of the 32 in our sample, seven players have won the title, and then lost in their first match the following week. The aforementioned match between Kvitova and Morita in Dubai is one of these. She joins Jarmila Groth (Hobart-Australian Open), Anabel Medina Garrigues (Estoril-Madrid), Ksenia Pervak (Tashkent-Guangzhou) and Daniela Hantuchova (Pattaya City-Dubai) to have achieved this unwanted accolade in 2011. Interestingly, there were no players that did this in 2012, but two in 2013 so far. Sara Errani won the title in Acapulco before losing in the first round at Indian Wells, while Daniela Hantuchova finds herself on the list for a second time after her first round defeat in Doha following her triumph in Pattaya City.

There are a couple of things to note from these examples. Twice we see Daniela Hantuchova losing after winning in Pattaya City. This is a tournament noted for the problems caused by the weather. Often players have to play multiple matches in a short period to fit all the matches in. To play three matches in two days, then fly from Thailand to the Middle East and look to back it up is very difficult.

We also see Errani struggling to adapt from the clay of Acapulco to the hard courts of Indian Wells, demonstrating the difficulty of transitioning from one surface to another in such a short period. Indeed, she is one of only three players that have attempted to win back-to-back titles on different surfaces alongside Victoria Azarenka and Gisela Dulko.

Interestingly, there is little evidence to suggest that smaller players underachieve the following week any more than the higher ranked players do. While there are examples of lower ranked players crashing out early the following week as strong favourites – Ksenia Pervak losing to Yung-Jan Chan in Guangzhou and Monica Niculescu losing to Kirsten Flipkens in Indian Wells – there are just as many examples of top players struggling.

Kvitova often struggles in the week after
winning a title

Similarly, there are plenty of examples of lower ranked players taking confidence from their title victories and scoring upsets the following week. Polona Hercog beat Flavia Pennetta in Palermo and reached the final, having won the previous week in Bastad. As mentioned earlier, Tamira Paszek reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, beating Caroline Wozniacki, having won in Eastbourne the previous week.

Hopefully, we have discovered a few facts that can help to shed some light on the effect of winning a title and attempting to play the following week. Even for top players, winning back-to-back titles is incredibly difficult. Serena Williams has failed on three occasions, Petra Kvitova on four occasions and Caroline Wozniacki on five occasions. Agnieszka Radwanska has achieved it twice, but has failed on no fewer than four other occasions. Indeed, the only player seemingly able to do this on a consistent basis is Victoria Azarenka, who has done it three times out of four.

While some players do seem to take confidence from winning a title, there is not a great deal of upset victories the following week. Instead, it is far more often that the titlist loses as a favourite, often as a strong favourite, in the betting. Changing surfaces, long travelling and interrupted tournaments all exacerbate this trend.

It would appear that there is certainly truth in the initial assumption. Whilst not every player struggles the following week, it is far more likely that they will crash out of the tournament, often as a favourite, rather than overachieving and winning back-to-back titles.

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