Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Mystery of Northampton Town

While much of the focus at Northampton may have surrounded the ownership issues with HMRC serving the club with a winding-up petition, the takeover issues 'tearing the club apart' according to Chris Wilder, Northampton's manager, and players that were not paid October's wages until this week. However, on the pitch, the team have been performing miracles and find themselves in third place in League 2 with only goal difference separating them from the top. Five straight wins in all competition and an unbeaten run stretching back eight matches, they have seemingly put the off-field issues to the back of their minds.
Chris Wilder has done a remarkable job under very difficult circumstances so far this season

However, looking at some of the stats, we find a couple of interesting observations. For a team that is joint-top of the division, they create remarkably few chances. As the table below shows, there are only six teams that have taken fewer shots than Northampton and all of them are languishing in the lower reaches of the table.
Now, we shall look in greater depth at these shots later, but it is interesting that they have managed to score the third most goals in League 2 with so few shots. Based on this, we might expect them to be very solid defensively. They are certainly better in this regard, but their 192 shots conceded puts them just 9th in terms of the fewest shots conceded - hardly the figures that we would expect from title contenders.

These shot statistics combine to give Northampton a total shots ratio (TSR) of 47.5% for the season so far (15th in League 2), a shots on target ratio of 51.8% (10th in League 2), but a PDO of 111.0 (2nd in League 2). Could we possibly make an argument that Northampton are significantly overachieving their underlying statistics?

Going back to their shots, while they have not created that many chances, we find that their 11 shots from 'Very Close Range' is actually the second highest in League 2, only behind Leyton Orient. These shots generally result in a goal in just over 50% of occurrences, meaning they are very valuable chances to create. However, interestingly, we find that not only have they created a lot of chances from this area, but that their 11 shots conceded is actually third highest behind only Morecambe and Newport County.
Here we can see a remarkable difference in the conversion rate for those 'Very Close Range' chances created by Northampton and conceded by Northampton. They have scored 9/11 of the chances that they have created, which is well above the League 2 average, while only conceding 2/11. Maybe Northampton are incredibly efficient at converting these chances while somehow doing something to prevent their opponents scoring them? Alternatively, they may just have been lucky and both of these figures will start to revert toward the mean.

If these chances start to be converted at lower rates, the worry for Northampton becomes where the goals will come from. Their 52 chances from the 'Centre of Box' is the fourth lowest in the division, so they will need to start to find a way to create more opportunities. Indeed, their 25% conversion rate from this area is the fifth highest in the league. Maybe these combined suggest a high level of finishing ability among their strikers?

As we might have suspected, these shot figures do not translate into particularly promising ExpG numbers. We might have expected them to score 22.6 ExpG, which is well below the 33 goals that they have actually scored, while the 22 goals that have been conceded is lower than the 27.4 ExpG that they might have conceded. Indeed, their ExpGD of -4.8 is actually only 17th in League 2 - massively different to the 3rd place that they find themselves in.
If we simulate the season 20,000 times based on the shots that have been taken in each match, we find that Northampton Town would have 40 points in just 12 of those simulations, or 0.06% of the time. As the chart shows, we would expect to find them somewhere between 22-27 points, which would put them somewhere between 12th and 18th in the current League 2. In fact, the modal position for them in the 20,000 simulations was actually 16th. They were only inside the Top 3 in 0.8% of simulations and were only even in the Top 7 in 8.1%.

Unless Northampton are doing something special that the basic shots data is not picking up, then we might expect to see their incredible run come to an end in the near future and unless they can improve their underlying metrics, sustaining a title challenge may be beyond them.

As an interesting aside, it was noticeable that Chris Wilder, during his spell at Oxford United, had several seasons where his team started incredibly well, outperforming the basic TSR and SOTR figures, to find themselves high up in the table before falling away as they regressed back toward their underlying stats and injuries began to hamper them. This could be coincidence or maybe there is something about how Chris Wilder prepares his teams as the season progresses.

Recap

"we might expect Plymouth to drop down the table in the coming months, we might also expect AFC Wimbledon to move up into the promotion reckoning"
In the last League 2 article, I concluded that we might see Plymouth start to struggle in the coming months. Whilst it has only been three matches since then, we have seen the league leaders pick up just 2 points from matches against Exeter, Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge. Their five point lead has disappeared and it will be interesting to see how they progress from here.

AFC Wimbledon have not quite lived up to the prediction, although their remarkable ability to fail to convert strong shot stats into results has continued having outshot Leyton Orient 15-2 away from home last weekend. Before that, they lost 1-0 to Dagenham & Redbridge, despite the shots figures suggesting that they would have won that match 79.6% of the time. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

League 2 Analysis - Plymouth and AFC Wimbledon

With most teams having played 17 games this season, we are over a third of the way through the 2015/16 League 2 season. Plymouth Argyle are currently setting the pace on 38 points and have a five point lead over Oxford United, with Northampton another two points further back. Pre-season title favourites Portsmouth lie in fourth place on 29 points, while at the bottom, Dagenham and Redbridge seem to finally have regressed to the level that their underlying statistics seem to suggest as they lie rock bottom. Just above them are Yeovil, while York, Newport and Stevenage are just outside the drop zone and the two relegated teams are likely to come from those five.

Let us look in slightly more detail at Plymouth. It is difficult to find any underlying statistics that support their current league position. Their total shots ratio of 53.7 is the eighth best in the division, while their shots on target ratio of 54.0 is also eighth best. Their expected goal difference is 3.0, putting them seventh in the league. None of these statistics seem to suggest that they should be five points clear at the top of the table. The biggest area in which they seem to be overachieving compared to their underlying statistics is in defense. Their 12 goals conceded is the best in the division, but this is well below the 22.0 goals that they are expected to have conceded from the shots that they have given up. This overachievement is backed up by a PDO value of 114.7 for the season so far.

We can see how unlikely Plymouth's current overachievement is by using the shots data for the season so far to run 20,000 simulations. The chart below shows the distribution of the expected points from those simulations with their current total of 38 points marked in red.


As we can see, Plymouth gained 38 points in just 61 of the 20,000 simulations, or just 0,3% of the time. Their expected points are much lower than their actual total at 25.5, which is still a very decent total and would put them on the verge of the playoff places. Indeed, in 11.8% of the simulations, they are currently lying in the top three and are in the playoff places in 40.7% of simulations. However, they are only top in 2.4% of simulations.

Based on this, we might expect Plymouth to start dropping down the table in the coming months unless they can improve their underlying statistics.

Looking at the underachievers and we find AFC Wimbledon stand out. Currently sitting in 9th in the league on 26 points, their total shots ratio of 61.8 is second in the division, while their shots on target ratio of 60.7 is fourth. Their expected goal difference of 10.8 puts them third in the division. While Plymouth were hugely overachieving defensively, AFC Wimbledon have the opposite problem. Their expected goals conceded of 13.8 is the second lowest in the division, but their actual goals conceded of 23 is letting them down. Whether this is bad luck or symptomatic of poor keeping or defending is unclear, but one would expect this to regress toward the expected goals in the future.


AFC Wimbledon can consider themselves quite unfortunate not to be in the playoff places at the moment. In the 20,000 simulations, 17,770 of them had AFC Wimbledon in the top seven in the table, while they were actually in the automatic promotion places in almost 60% of the simulations. Indeed, they were top of the table in just under a quarter of all the simulations.

Just as we might expect Plymouth to drop down the table in the coming months, we might also expect AFC Wimbledon to move up into the promotion reckoning.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Transition to Serena 2.0 - A Review of 2015

It was almost an unprecedented year for Serena Williams. She became the oldest woman ever to have won a Grand Slam title, she completed the Serena slam for the second time in her career and she lost just three matches all year, albeit one in the most important match that she played. She continues to dominate the women's game to the extent that her current run of 143 weeks at number one is only behind the great Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf and you would certainly not rule out the possibility of her completing the additional 44 weeks needed to pass Steffi. Whichever way you look at it, she is the undoubted number one in the ladies game.


This time last year, I wrote an article looking at the stats behind Serena's game and made the claim that her overall game was in decline. Whilst I did emphasise that she was still comfortably the best player in the world, many people jumped on this questioning how Serena could be in decline and still beating every other player. Certainly, on the face of it, Serena's results in 2015 do not seem to back up the idea that she is in decline.

Recently, I read an interesting article about Cristiano Ronaldo and the way in which he was adapting his game to mask the effects of physical decline. Age catches up with every professional athlete in the end, no matter how good and how well they train. However, some of the smarter athletes are able to tweak their game to extend their run at the top of the sport. Combining the stats from 2013, 2014 and 2015, I shall look at whether Serena is adapting her game to overcome the physical effects of ageing.

Basic Statistics

Let us first look at some of the basic statistics. As with last year, I shall focus purely on Serena's strongest surface, hard court matches, for this comparison.


The first thing we notice is that Serena is winning more on her first serve than in the previous two years. Indeed, a nearly 2% increase is a significant rise and shows her domination behind that first serve. This ties in with the increase in the number of aces per game that she is serving. For the second straight year, we can see an increase here, suggesting that her first serve is working better than ever before. Interestingly, her points won on second serve has actually decreased this year and has dropped to below the level from two years ago. Perhaps as a result of this drop on second serve, we can see that she is facing more break points per game than in either of the past two years - this is something we shall look at in more detail later.

On the return side, we can see that she is winning more on return than last year, although still below the 49.7% that she was winning in 2013. However, this has corresponded to creating more break points per game than in either of the previous two seasons. Maybe this is an indication that she is focusing on specific return games - if she falls behind in a game, she is happy to conserve energy for future games.

Looking at the data, we can see that in 2014, in return games where she went 30-0 down, she came back to win 23.0% of those games. In 2015, this has dropped to 18.3%. There was a similar drop in games from 40-0, falling from 14.3% in 2014 to 10.2% in 2015. We can also look at the proportion of return games in which Serena fought back to Deuce from 40-0 down. This has also dropped from 27.1% in 2014 to just 16.9% in 2015.

Based on this, there certainly seems to be some merit to the argument that Serena is happier to let return games go if she falls behind to conserve energy for the rest of the match. However, the increased break points created per game statistic suggests that when she does get into a return game, she goes in for the kill. However, how do these stats convert into what really matters - winning games?


We can see that, despite the increase in her points won behind the first serve, Serena is actually winning fewer service games than in either of the past two years. However, the proportion of return games that she is winning has increased from last year, although it is still well below the incredible 50.3% that she recorded in 2013. Based on this, we might surmise that, while she is winning more points behind her first serve, she is making fewer first serves. Again, the stats back this up with her first serve percentage dropping from 59.9% in 2013 to 58.2% in 2014 to 56.5% in 2015.

It would seem that Serena is going for more and more on her first serve, hitting more aces and winning more points, but at the expense of missing a few more first serves and opening up her second serve to attack from her opponent.


This table helps to back up this idea. She has improved her non-ace first serve points won from last year, which is undoubtedly helped by plenty of big first serves that are resulting either in nonreturnable serves or looped returns that she is able to put away easily. However, the boost that she received in her non-DF second serve points won last year seems to have disappeared, suggesting that her second serve is becoming more susceptible to attack.

So, the broader top level statistics seem to suggest that Serena's first serve is working as well as it ever has. She is continuing to develop what is arguably the greatest serve in the history of the women's game into an even more dangerous weapon. This is important as it provides plenty of short and easy points, allowing her to conserve energy. We can also see a shift to targeting certain return games based on how the first couple of points play out - if she goes behind in a game, she is more willing to let that game slide and conserve energy for future return games.

Let us now look in some more detail at certain aspects of her game. To achieve this, we shall use data from the Match Charting Project on TennisAbstract. One caveat to this section though is that this data is not complete - it contains data from 12/32 matches in 2015 and 11/46 matches in 2014. This obviously means that we may miss a few things or that the data can be overly affected by the quality of opposition, but it is still a valuable source of insight and should give us a few ideas of how her game has changed over the past two years.

Serving

First, let us look at her serving on the key points - break points, game points and points at deuce.


Firstly, we can see in the first column that, while she may be winning slightly fewer game points than last year, the points won on break point and deuce are both up, driven significantly by a big rise in the percentage of aces that she is hitting on these points. In 2014, she served an ace on 11.3% of break points, but this has risen to 17.0% in 2015. Similarly, at the important deuce points, she has gone from serving an ace on 10.5% of points to 24.7%. That is quite astounding - hitting an ace almost one in every four points at deuce gives a huge advantage to Serena in those situations. We can also see a rise in rally winners and rally forced errors at deuce, suggesting that she is really going for it on these points and, in 2015 at least, going for it successfully.

Let us go into even more detail on her serve.


We can see here how she directs her serve, broken down by first and second serve as well. On the deuce court, we can see a big drop in the number of serves aimed down the middle, both on first and second serves. This is visible particularly on her first serve, where she has reduced it from 12.0% of serves down the middle to just 3.7%. Instead, she seems to be aiming these serves both wide and down the T - lower percentage serves, but with a greater chance of winning the point. In 2014, she won 68.8% of serves out wide, 65.1% down the T, but just 51.7% of serves down the middle in the deuce court. She has clearly observed this and decided that risking bigger serves down the T and out wide is worth the extra missed first serves as a result.

This is also consistent with a desire to limit the length of points. In 2015, with serves out wide on the deuce court, she has won 46.5% in three shots or fewer, 61.9% of those serves down the T and just 12.4% of those serves down the middle. She is taking more risks with the direction of her serve to shorten points.

We can see a similar drop in serves down the middle on the ad side, with the most noticeable change here being an huge increase in second serves down the T, increasing from 19.8% to 37.3% this year. The decrease in wide serves here is particularly interesting given that it has been a very effective serve when she has hit it this year.

Return Game

Let us now move on and look at her return game in more detail.


Less of a dramatic change here, but we can see an increase in unforced errors in all three situations, combined with an increase in rally winners in two of the three situations. Maybe this suggests that Serena is going for more aggressive shots this year in an attempt to keep points shorter?

There is also a theme in her return stats to suggest that she is attacking more on the forehand return.


We can see that she is getting fewer returns in play, but we can also see a 1.8% increase in the percentage of return winners that she is hitting and a marked decrease in the average number of shots in the rally when she gets the chance to make forehand returns. Again, she is gambling on being more aggressive, but it is not necessarily clear here whether this tactic is working. It could well be that she feels her stamina and her rally game as a whole is declining, so by keeping points short, she is giving herself a greater chance of winning matches, even if she is winning slightly fewer points year-on-year.


We can see here that she is particularly attacking the wide serves. While we can see the percentage of winners increasing on all types of serve, the increase from 3.0% to 8.3% on wide serves is a huge increase and suggests that she is attacking on these returns rather than risking being caught out of position and having to move quickly across the court to recover her position.

Conclusion

As mentioned earlier, I stated last year that I felt Serena was in decline. With another year having passing, this picture is not quite as clear. She is, or believes herself to be, clearly declining in certain aspects of her game. Age is catching up with her and her speed and stamina around the court is not what it once was. This is something that she cannot really prevent. There have also been suggestions of a knee issue, which would also feed into this physical decline.

However, she is clearly adapting her game to overcome these physical restrictions. Her first serve continues to become more of a weapon and she is looking to shorten points by hitting winners whenever she has the opportunity. She is also becoming more selective in the return games that she expends energy in.

Whether all of this means that Serena is improving or declining is unclear. She has undoubtedly had an outstanding 2015 and she continues to retain that aura of invincibility when she steps on court, which gives her a huge mental edge. So many players have had the opportunity to win sets or matches against Serena this year, but few truly believe that they can actually do it, even when only points from doing so. While she continues to have this effect over opponents, she will have a big advantage even before the match starts. However, a few losses can easily start to shatter this aura as we have seen with both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent years.

It will be interesting to see what 2016 holds for Serena, but it would seem likely that the transition to Serena 2.0 will continue.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Using Clustering to Predict the Career Potential of ATP Players

There has arguably been a dearth of young talent coming through on the ATP Tour in recent times. Until the emergence of the current crop of youngsters, there were few players that were realistically expected to push toward the top level of the game. One aspect of the emergence of young players that people love to discuss is their potential and seemingly every young player is judged as to whether he has the talent to win a Grand Slam title in the future.
Can the statistics of a young Roger Federer be used to plot the career potential of the current youngsters?

One thing that I thought it might be interesting to look at is whether we can use the statistics of former and current players to help look at how the current crop of young players might progress in the future. Using all of the statistics from the ATP Tour going back to 1991, I took a look at the numbers for every player in the database during their teenage years. Removing those players that had played fewer than 25 matches as a teenager left a sample size of 63 players.

By using a K-means cluster analysis with 8 clusters, it allows us to look a grouping these players to see whether we can find whether similar types of player during their teenage years show a similar career progression.

Cluster 1
(Rafael Nadal)

Rafael Nadal is genuinely unique as a teenager in the sample. No other player comes remotely close to his ability. His return game was outstanding for a player so young and while his serve was not top level, his ability in rallies meant that he was able to limit the number of break points faced.

Cluster 2
(Gael Monfils, Bernard Tomic, Evgeny Korolev, Ryan Harrison, Jose Acasuso, Kei Nishikori, Hendrik Dreekmann, Nicolas Almagro, Donald Young, Galo Blanco and Robby Ginepri)

Within this second cluster, only three of the eleven players have reached the top 10 in the ATP rankings and they have just one Grand Slam final and two Grand Slam semi-finals between them. There are plenty of names in this cluster that have shown promise as a young player, but really struggled to turn that potential into actual top level results. The likes of Gael Monfils and Bernard Tomic often suggest they have the talent, but not the mental side of the game, whilst Ryan Harrison, Robby Ginepri and Donald Young have both struggled to meet the expectations of the American public, who are desperate for a new top level American hero.

A feature of this cluster as teenagers is a pretty solid first serve, but struggles on second serve and return, which indicates a potential reason for the difficulties in maintaining and progressing on the tour.

Cluster 3
(Andy Murray, Michael Chang, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Guillermo Coria, Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Nalbandian)

This third cluster is a high level collection of players, all but one of which have reached the top 3 in the ATP rankings and all but two of which have won Grand Slam titles. The two players without Grand Slam titles are Guillermo Coria, who really should have won the 2004 French Open final and David Nalbandian, who is often considered the best player never to have won a Grand Slam title. This group might not have an outstanding first serve, but are very strong behind the second serve and on return, showing their excellent ability in rallies.

Cluster 4
(Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Marat Safin, Marin Cilic, Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling, Ernests Gulbis, Borna Coric, Mario Ancic, Dominik Hrbaty, Goran Ivanisevic, Nicolas Kiefer, Alexander Zverev, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Lars Rehmann)

This is a large cluster, but if we exclude the current youngsters (Coric, Zverev and Kokkinakis), there are only two of the remaining twelve players that did not reach the top 10 in the ATP rankings (Hrbaty and Rehmann). However, with the exception of Roger Federer and Marat Safin, none of the other players in this cluster reached the number one ranking. If we exclude Roger Federer, there are only four of the twelve that reached Grand Slam finals, although only three failed to reach the semi-final of a Grand Slam and Mario Ancic almost certainly would have had it not been for the illness that eventually forced him to retire from tennis.

For the three current players in this group, there are mixed signals. It would seem likely that their current statistics suggest that they could quite feasible make it deep into the second week of Grand Slams in the future, it could be a stretch to see them regularly challenging for titles, although the achievements of Roger Federer and Marat Safin will give them hope. It would be a surprise if Coric, Zverev and Kokkinakis do not reach the top 10 at some stage in their careers and maybe one of them might even win a Grand Slam title one day.

Cluster 5
(Andy Roddick, Mark Philippoussis, Sam Querrey, Richard Krajicek, Pete Sampras, Kenneth Carlsen and Nick Kyrgios)

It is clear to see the similarity between the seven players in this cluster - they all have a booming first serve, their second serve is powerful enough to win them an above average number of points, but they do not quite have the ability on return to be the complete player. However, there are positive signs for Nick Kyrgios with four of the five players in this collection reaching Grand Slam finals and there are plenty of ATP titles as well. Both Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick reached the number one spot in the rankings, while Richard Krajicek and Mark Philippoussis both reached the top 10.

However, with the number of top quality returners at the top level of the men's game at the moment, it remains to be seen whether the serve is still as big a weapon as it has been in the past, but it will always be a threat and there is every chance that Nick Kyrgios will reach a Grand Slam final in the future. Whether he can become a multiple slam winner though remains to be seen.

Cluster 6
(Mikhail Youzhny, Thomas Enqvist, Andreas Vinciguerra, Tommy Robredo, Sjeng Schalken, Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Luis Herrera)

This is not one of the stronger clusters, although four of the nine players have reached the top five in the rankings. Just one Grand Slam winner in this collection in Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Thomas Enqvist was the only other player to have reached a final. Players in this cluster may reach the odd Grand Slam semi-final, but they are more likely to be players that lurk around the 10-20 mark in the rankings.

Cluster 7
(Fabrice Santoro, Alex Corretja, Alberto Berasategui, Alberto Martin, David Prinosil, Marcos Ondruska and Mariano Zabaleta)

The weakest of the clusters, this group struggle behind their first serve, have below average second serve statistics and an average return game. Just three of these ever broken into the top 20 with Alex Corretja topping the group with a career high ranking of number two in the world. There are no Grand Slam titles here and just two finalists.

Cluster 8
(Andrei Medvedev, Lleyton Hewitt, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marcelo Rios and Wayne Ferreira)

This is a genuinely top class cluster. Four of the six players reached the number one spot in the rankings, while Del Potro and Medvedev both reached the top four. All but one of the group have reached Grand Slam finals, three have won Grand Slam titles and there are no fewer than 148 ATP titles between the six players. They have above average first serve statistics, a very good second serve and above average ability on return.

Other Young Players

Let us take a quick look at where a couple of current younger players would have fitted in if they had met the minimum 25 matches criteria.

The first is Grigor Dimitrov. He would have joined Coric, Kokkinakis and Zverev in Cluster 4, which would seem to fit with how his career has progressed thus far. He has shown plenty of potential, has a Grand Slam semi-final under his belt, but is yet to really suggest that he will be a fixture at the very top of the rankings.

Jack Sock would have joined his fellow countrymen in Cluster 2. His strong first serve is a threat, but he is yet to really demonstrate that he has the all-round game to really challenge for a top 10 ranking or even top 20 ranking. Elias Ymer also falls into Cluster 2.

Andrey Rublev interestingly falls into Cluster 5 with the big servers, although this seems to be predominantly based around a strong second serve and ability to limit break points faced, but combined with a weak return game. However, he only has a very small sample of matches, so he may well move around to a different cluster once his sample size increases.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Fixing in Tennis - The Public Perception

The issue of fixing in tennis is one that I have focused a lot on in the past eighteen months. From looking at some of the reasons that players on the lower tours might be tempted to fix outcomes to highlighting some of the more blatant fixes (Westerhof and van der Duim, Molchanov and Kicker), it is an area that I feel is of concern for not only tennis, but sport in general. With the rise of sports betting at the lower levels of sport, the temptation to fix outcomes for financial gain becomes more appealing to some individuals. With my background, I have a decent understanding of fixing and the threat that it poses to tennis, however, I thought it would be interesting to try and get an idea of the wider perceptions of fixing in tennis among fans, traders and journalists. To achieve this, I created a simple survey and encouraged people to complete it.
Daniel Koellerer was the first player to be given a life ban by the TIU

The response to the survey was far greater than I expected. Once clearly fake responses were eliminated, there were 402 completed surveys left. Of these, 49% classified themselves as 'Tennis Fans', 46% as 'Tennis Gamblers/Traders', 3.5% as 'Journalists' and 1.5% as 'Current or Former Professional Players'. There were completed forms from 43 different countries - the majority being from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, but there were completed forms from all over the world, ranging from Bosnia and the Brazil to Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.

How serious a problem is fixing?
The first question was very simple - 'How serious a problem do you believe that tennis has with match fixing?' This was broken down into five sub-categories: ATP, WTA, Challenger, Futures (Men) and ITF (Women). The results are as follows:
We can see that there are relatively different perceptions of how serious the fixing issue is at the varying levels. The WTA is perceived to have the smallest problem with almost 31% of people believing that there is no problem with fixing. The ATP is not far behind with 22% of people believing there is no problem and another 46% believing there is only a minor problem.

However, when we move down to Challenger and Futures level for the men, there is a different story. Only 2% of people believe that there is no problem with fixing at the Challenger level with 47% believing that it is a serious problem. At Futures level, 4% believe there is no problem, but 48% of people believe that it is a serious problem. Given there were 18% that said they did not know that that level, it means that well over half of all those answers where people felt they had an opinion felt that it was a serious problem. That surely has to be a concern for the perception of the lower levels of the sport.

The outcome for the ITF events for women is interesting as well. 37% of people did not know, while there was a relatively even split across the other four options, suggesting that there is really very little idea of the scale of fixing for the women at that level.

Generally, in all of the different levels, those that classified themselves as tennis traders or gamblers felt that there was slightly more of a problem than those that classified themselves as tennis fans, while among journalists, there was less of a perceived problem in the ATP/WTA compared to the overall average, but more of a perceived problem at the lower levels.

How many players have been banned?
The next question was simply to see how many people knew the actual number of players that had been banned for corruption offenses since the TIU was established back in 2008? The responses are shown below:
The most popular response was 4-6 with just under 31% of completed forms choosing that option. In actual fact, there have been 14 players that have been given bans by the TIU since 2008 for corruption offenses, plus one official. Of those 14 players, there have been four life bans (Daniel Koellerer, David Savic, Andrey Kumantsov and Sergei Krotiouk), four bans for a period of two years or more (Guillermo Olaso, Ivo Klec, Piotr Gadomski and Arkadiusz Kocyla) with five bans of six months and a one month ban. Of these, they were not all offenses involving fixing match outcomes, but they were all banned for corruption offenses.

What type of fixes occur?
The next question started to delve a little deeper into how tennis fixes were perceived to be carried out. While the most commonly known fix involves fixing the actual winner of the match, this arguably contains the greatest risk, given that the entirety of the match needed to be scripted. Whilst it may also be the easiest fix to hide due to the fact that there is more money in the betting market for this, it also generally marks the end of a player's involvement in the tournament and limits any further prize money from the event.

There are a number of alternative types of fixes though that can earn an unscrupulous player additional money, whilst not guaranteeing that he loses the match. This could vary from fixing individual sets, particularly the first set (there have been indications that this may be happening at ATP level in recent weeks), fixing correct scorelines in sets, fixing individual games or points, or if both players are involved in the fix, fixing the opening two sets of the match before playing out the third set to determine who progresses in the tournament.
We can see that fixing individual points is felt to be the least common type of fix, which seems logical. In terms of the other four types of fix, there seems to be a perception that fixing the outcome of the match and fixing individual sets are the most common type of fix.

Who is behind the fix?
Having determined that the majority of people feel that fixing does happen in tennis, albeit to varying extents, the next question attempted to determine who was actually behind the fix. Obviously, the players on the court are the ones that actually carry out the fix, but who was the mastermind behind the plan?
We can see that almost 65% of responses believed that the players themselves were behind the fix. In this case, we are looking at the fixes being carried out solely for the financial benefit of the individual player or players involved in the fix as opposed to there being any organised match fixing ring involved. Betting syndicates come out of this in a relatively negative light with over 13% believing that they are behind the fixes. This is perhaps related to the fact that betting syndicates are generally seen in a negative light and are often misunderstood by the wider public. There appears to be only limited belief that organised crime is behind fixing in tennis, while over 8% of forms believed that the bookmakers themselves were orchestrating the fixes. One particularly interesting form actually suggested that umpires themselves might be behind the fixes, which is actually a very plausible answer.

What would help to combat fixing?
The next question was designed to offer a number of potential tools in the fight against fixing and see which ones that people felt would help. The responses are below:
The first option was to ban betting on the minor tours completely. Almost 28% of responses felt that this would help, which is almost certainly true. However, the reality is that this is simply not a feasible option. Almost 40% believed that increased funding for the TIU might help, but only just under 11% felt that it would definitely help, which only serves to highlight the lack of confidence in the TIU in terms of combating fixing in tennis. That barely one in ten replies feel that they would do a better job with increased funding suggests that there is a sense that they are simply not able to make a dent in the problem in their current form, regardless of resources.

Increased prize money at the lower levels was a popular option with almost 25% feeling that this would definitely help in combating fixing. This seems a logical progression based on the belief that many players are forced to fix at the lower levels to supplement an inadequate income from a prize money system that is unequally balanced toward the top end of the game. This certainly appears to be the case as this quote from Ryan Harrison explains:

"I've heard Molchanov in particular, in the past, say that he did not necessarily frown upon it (fixing). He never at any point in time said that he was going to do it, but he would be one of the guys in the conversation saying - not that he would do it, or he supported it - but almost trying to justify it because it's tough financially."

However, the question must be asked as to whether players would still continue to chase the additional income through fixing even if prize money increased.

The two options that are seen as the most effective tools in combating match fixing in tennis are those that involve the two groups that should have the greatest knowledge and ability to spot fixes - the bookmakers themselves and tennis traders. Over 35% of responses felt that greater cooperation between the ATP, WTA, ITF, TIU and bookmakers would definitely help to combat fixing. This seems obvious as it is the bookmakers that are taking the bets on the fixed matches, so by not using this information, it is almost impossible to catch fixers. Having worked for a bookmaker myself, I have reported matches that were almost certainly fixed, but no response was ever received and no further information was ever requested. Safe to say that none of the players involved have ever been sanctioned for corruption offenses.

The other popular option is to harness the knowledge of professional tennis traders to help detect fixes. Tennis traders spend hours each day following the markets and they can detect very quickly if something is wrong in a market. This does not necessarily indicate a fix, but it can be used to highlight matches for further investigation or players to focus on. There is virtually no information available about the investigators at the TIU, but it would be very interesting to know whether they employ anyone with a background in either bookmaking or tennis trading.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these latter two options were very popular among those respondents that classed themselves as tennis gamblers or traders, but even among those tennis fans and journalists, they were two of the most popular options.

How much faith do you have in the TIU?
The Tennis Integrity Unit describe themselves as being 'charged with enforcing the sport's zero-tolerance policy toward gambling-related corruption worldwide' and claims it has a 'global brief to protect the sport from all forms of betting-related corrupt practices.'

However, they work in a very secretive manner and there appears to be little confidence in them to actually carry out this brief, not only among fans of the sport, but even among the players themselves. An unnamed player explained how he reported an approach to the TIU, but nothing ever came of it, while Peter Polansky said the following:

"From the chatter around the guys, it sounds like it's something that definitely happens, and quite often. It happens, and there's not a whole lot anyone can do about it"

If players themselves feel that there is not much that can be done about it and that reporting to the TIU achieves nothing, then the disincentive to fix becomes far smaller. We have already seen earlier that barely one in ten felt that extra funding for the TIU would help and the results here show the lack of faith in the organisation.
Almost 27% of completed forms said that on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being no faith and 5 being completed faith, they had no faith in the TIU to reduce the problem of fixing in tennis. With another 37% scoring the TIU as a 2, it means that almost 65% of people lack any real faith in the TIU reducing the problem of fixing.

The TIU may do a lot of good work behind the scenes, but their highly secretive nature means that their public perception is not good at all.

Level of Proof
The final question focused on the level of proof that should be required for the TIU to impose a ban on a player. The two options were taken from the legal system. The first was 'Beyond Reasonable Doubt', which is generally the level of proof required to validate a criminal conviction in most legal systems. It places the burden of proof on the shoulders of the prosecutor, who must prove that a player has fixed an outcome to the extent that there could be no reasonable doubt in the mind of a reasonable person. The second option was 'Balance of Probabilities', which is more commonly used in civil disputes, which requires that the dispute be decided in favour of the party whose claims are more likely to be true.

To prove beyond reasonable doubt that a player has fixed an outcome is very difficult. Unless you have bank statements showing money from a bookmaker or phone or text records proving a fix took place, it is almost impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt, even if the betting markets strongly suggest that the outcome was fixed.
Just over 60% of forms felt that fixes should be proven beyond reasonable doubt in order to impose a ban on a player. Among tennis fans, this proportion increased slightly to 64%, while among gamblers and traders, this decreased to 55%, but both still had a majority that felt that it should be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Among journalists, this proportion increased significantly to almost 77%, while it was almost unanimous among current or former players that it should be determine on beyond reasonable doubt.

Further Work
This article was simply designed to give an overview of the outcome of the survey and try and get an idea of the public perception of fixing in tennis. I will be writing another article later this week that will look in more depth at some of the excellent suggestions and ideas that came up in the survey on how to combat the problem of fixing in tennis.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Fast Starters On Return

In the last article, we looked at those players that are proficient at defending their serves well in the early stages of matches. However, what really separates the top players from the rest is the ability to break serve. Without the ability to break, you are relying on tiebreaks and no matter how good a player you are, there is a significant element of luck in a tiebreak. In this article, we will look at those players that are able to take advantage of their opponent's serve in the early exchanges of matches and get off to a great start.

Robin Soderling's ability to break serve early on was almost unparalleled

From a trading perspective, the ability to identify players that have a strong ability to break serve early on could be invaluable. While the price may move slightly on a hold of serve, it is breaks of serve that provide the opportunity for more significant profit. Picking early breaks of serve gives the ability to build a good book within the first few games of the match providing greater margin for error later on.

Although no long active on the ATP circuit, this table shows how good Robin Soderling was at getting off to a lightning start. His 26 breaks of serve from 62 opening two return games in matches is extraordinary and no other player comes close to this 41.9%. Andrey Rublev is an interesting one to keep an eye on here as well. He is still very young and if he can improve his stamina to the extent where he can keep up his quick starts, he could become a very good player.

At the other end of the scale, there are some truly awful performances here. Peter Luczak has failed to break in his opening two return games in any of his 11 matches in the sample, while Alex Bogomolov's performance early on is poor compared to his improvement later in the match.

One particularly interesting name to note here is Victor Estrella, who is the only player to appear in the bottom 15 for both serving and returning. It would certainly seem to suggest that if you are looking to back Estrella, it is worth waiting until he gets past the early stages of the match, at which stage, if he has managed to keep it on serve, you are likely to still be able to get virtually the same price as at the start.

Here, we look at a number of top players and some of those that we identified in the previous article on serving. In terms of the young pairing of Borna Coric and Hyeon Chung that stood out as good starters on serve, there is a interesting difference here. Coric's strong start on serve is needed to cancel out his early difficulties on return, which could suggest that he requires a few games to really start to read the serve of his opponent. However, Chung also starts very strongly on return as well as serve, which raises an interesting question of whether he is simply very strong out of the blocks or whether there is an issue with stamina that causes his game to deteriorate from its initial high level.

Once again, we see the Italian pair of Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini at the bottom of this list, just as they were on serve. It certainly suggests that for whatever reason, they both struggle in the early stages of matches, which is definitely something to bear in mind if you are looking to trade matches involving either of them.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Fast Starters On Serve

It is no secret that some players excel at racing out of the blocks quickly, whilst others often need time to build themselves into matches. At the top level, Andy Murray is often regarding as a relatively slow starter, while further down, the likes of Fabio Fognini and Jiri Vesely are seen as players that do not exact start rapidly.

If we could identify those players that start matches quickly and those that struggle to get out of the blocks, we may be able to use the information in terms of betting. If you are looking to get onside with a player that tends to start slowly, maybe it is worth waiting a game or two before entering the market rather than backing him from the start. Similarly, if you are looking to back a quick starter, backing him from the very start may lead to early chances to build a good position. So, how are we to find the quick and slow starters?

Nikoloz Basilashvili is very effective at protecting his serve in the early exchanges

The obvious place to begin is to look at the percentage of holds of serve and breaks of serve in the opening games of the match and compare it with the percentage for the rest of the match. Those players that start quickly are likely to show up with high percentages of holds and breaks in the opening two service and return games, while slow starters will probably have much higher statistics later in the match.

Using the excellent point-by-point data from Jeff Sackman (@tennisabstract), we can break matches down to gain this data. We have point-by-point data from 11,663 ATP matches, which represents the majority of matches from the start of 2011 until the end of the 2015 US Open, and should give us a reasonable sample size for a number of ATP players. We shall calculate the service hold percentage for each player for their first two service games of the match and the service hold percentage for all other service games, and the same process for return games and break percentages. Players with less than 20 service games in the 'Opening Two Games' category will be excluded.

This table shows the top 15 players in terms of the difference between their service hold percentage in their opening two service games compared to the rest of their service games. Nikoloz Basilashvili tops this list with an impressive 19 holds of serve from 22 games, given him a service hold percentage early on of 86.4%. For the rest of service games, this drops to just 67.7%, which suggests that players should not panic if they struggle to make a breakthrough against his serve in the early stages.

We can also see the talented young pairing of Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric on this list. Over time, it will be interesting to see whether they remain toward the top of the table here or whether it is just a lack of stamina that causes their service game to drop as the match progresses.

It is certainly worth considering that if you are looking to oppose any of these players in the market, you might be able to get a slightly bigger price by waiting a couple of games until we get past their strong starts.

At the other end of the scale, we can see some players that really struggle to get out of the blocks. Yannick Mertens has held just 12 out of 24 of his opening two service games, which is pretty horrible when you consider it. It certainly suggests that if you are looking to oppose Mertens, it is worth doing it from the very start, rather than waiting, or if you are looking to back any of these players, you may want to wait a couple of games to see whether they are able to limit the damage in the early stages.

Here, I have listed a few of the bigger name players in the ATP as a comparison. For all the notion of Andy Murray being a slow starter, on serve there does not appear to be much of a difference. Whilst he does hold serve on very slightly fewer occasions, it is a small difference. However, the French pairing of Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils do appear to start relatively slowly, although this is nothing compared to the Italian pairing of Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi. If you are looking to back these players, you may benefit by waiting for a slightly bigger price after a slow start.

On the flip side, we can see that Stan Wawrinka is a very strong starter on serve, while the duo of Milos Raonic and Roger Federer are both very proficient at protecting their serve immediately from the start of the match.

The next article will look at those players that have the ability to break serve effectively in the early stages and those that take time to get a read on their opponent's serve.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Luton v AFC Wimbledon: Betting Preview

Since taking over at AFC Wimbledon in December 2012, Neal Ardley has built the club into a solid mid-table outfit in League 2, but there are signs that the club could mount a playoff push this season. They are arguably slightly unfortunately to only find themselves in 12th position in the table after eight games - they should have beaten Plymouth on the opening day and will feel aggrieved to have not taken at least a point against Cambridge. On their travels, they have had three consecutive 1-1 draws, but could easily have taken three points against both Mansfield and Yeovil based on the stats.

This weekend, they face a Luton Town side that was tipped for a title push before the season began, but who have struggled and find themselves in 19th position at this stage. Home defeats to Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth and away defeats to Yeovil and Notts County are not results that will have pleased John Still and the statistics do not give them any great areas for optimism.

One major area of concern for Luton will be the number of chances that they are conceding in central areas of the penalty area, particularly in the air. The graphic below shows all of the chances that Luton have conceded at home so far this season.

As we can see, there are plenty inside the penalty area. Only Dagenham & Redbridge and Hartlepool have conceded more than Luton's 2.00 headed chances per match from 'Centre of Box', which will be a concern for John Still with AFC Wimbledon and Adebayo Akinfenwa heading to Kenilworth Road. Indeed, only Cambridge's Leon Legge and Leyton Orient's Paul McCallum have had more headed opportunities this season than Akinfenwa's six. However, Akinfenwa is not the only danger for Luton's defenders as 6`4 striker Tom Elliott has also had five headed chances from good areas this season. On the ground, Andy Barcham is also a danger with his eight chances only being bettered by two other players this season. As we can see, AFC Wimbledon are very capable of creating chances in the areas where Luton struggle.

However, the concern for Luton could be going forward. While they have scored 12 goals, their xG of just 8.83 suggests that they have overachieved in an attacking sense so far. Their three goals from seven shots on target from outside the area is unlikely to continue and, even if you include shots off target and blocked, they have a conversion rate of just under 10% from outside the area, well above the league average of 3.7%. They also have a conversion rate of almost 30% from shots from Centre of Box compared to a league average of 16.4%. They could have good strikers, which could lead to a slightly above average conversion rate, but both these numbers are likely to regress slightly.

It will not help that they come up against an AFC Wimbledon defense that has performed well according to the stats. The 8.5 shots conceded per game puts them in a group of teams that are just behind the elite defensive trio of Oxford, Portsmouth and Northampton and the only area that they show up poorly in is headed chances inside the box. However, only three sides have created fewer headed chances this season than Luton, so one wonders whether they will be able to take advantage. With both Craig Mackail-Smith and Josh McQuoid comfortably under 6`, it is unlikely that they will be putting crosses into the penalty area too often.

Recommended Bets

AFC Wimbledon +0.25 @ 1.77 (Pinnacle)
Adebayo Akinfenwa To Score First @ 7.25 (10Bet)
Tom Elliott To Score First @ 9.0 (Bet365)

Monday, 21 September 2015

League Two Stats: Eight Games In

The League 2 season is now eight games old for the majority of teams and some of the narratives for the season are beginning to be drawn up.

It is a division that is often talked about in terms of the unpredictability, but the league table is currently suggesting otherwise, even at this early stage. Three of the top four favourites for the title pre-season currently find themselves in the top five in the standings, while the two relegation places are currently occupied by two of the three shortest-priced pre-season relegation favourites. With almost a fifth of the season already completed, let us take a look at some of the statistics from League 2 and try and draw out any interesting discoveries that are not immediately obvious from the league table.
Paul Cook's Portsmouth team appear to be living up to their pre-season title favouritism thus far
ATTACKING


The table shows the five best attacking teams and the five worst attacking teams in League 2 thus far based on their expected goals, not including penalties. We can see that Plymouth Argyle have accumulated the greatest expected goals with 13.7, which is a full goal ahead of Carlisle in second position. This is driven by two interesting aspects.

Firstly, their 12.88 shots per game is the most of any side in the division. This is not a huge surprise - more shots generally equals more expected goals - but this is not necessarily the case, as Notts County prove. Notts County have taken joint third most shots in League 2 per game this season, but rank just tenth for expected goals, with over half of their shots coming from outside the penalty area.

Secondly, Plymouth are not only having more shots than any other team, but they are also creating shots in good areas. Their 0.75 chances per match from Very Close Range with either left or right foot (worth 0.59 xG) is almost twice as high as the second highest in the division and shows that they are generating shooting opportunities in the most dangerous area at an impressive rate. Indeed, these chances mean that their attacking duo of Jake Jervis and Graham Carey are currently 1st and 3rd in terms of xG for individual players with 4.1 and 3.2 respectively, which roughly reflects their actual tallies of 5 and 4 goals.

In terms of individual players, it is also no surprise to see 2nd and 4th on the list coming from Carlisle United. Jabo Ibehre and Jason Kennedy have 3.5 and 3.1 in xG this season, although this is not quite reflected in their actual goal tallies with Ibehre having scored 8 goals and Kennedy still yet to get off the mark from open play.

At the other end of the scale, Yeovil Town are in disarray and are being forced to consider the possibility of consecutive relegations down from the Championship into non-League. Their 6.25 shots per match is comfortably the lowest in the division and even their 8 non-penalty goals so far is potentially an over-achievement.

It is interesting to note that Leyton Orient are the only one of the top nine pre-season title favourites to feature in this list and just two of the top five teams in the list are currently in either promotion or playoff places.

DEFENDING


Oxford United finished last season with nine clean sheets in their last fifteen matches and have continued their excellent defensive record into the current season. They concede just 7.0 shots per match, have not conceded a single shot from Very Close Range, concede a league low 0.88 shots with the foot from the Centre of Box and tend to force teams to shoot from wide areas of the penalty area. With just 4.8 xG conceded in eight matches so far, their seven actual goals conceded is actually a bit high compared to what we might expect. Five of these seven goals have come from 17 shots in Centre of Box with a conversion rate of almost 30% compared to a league average of just under 16.4%. This may come down, but interestingly it mirrors last season where they appeared particularly vulnerable in this area. Time may tell whether there is a systemic weakness in their defensive system or whether this will simply revert back toward the mean.

AFC Wimbledon also appear highly in this area, which combined with their third-place in the attacking stats suggests that maybe they should be higher in the table than their current 12th place in the table.

The presence of Barnet and Carlisle in the bottom five for defensive ability in contrast to their top five ranking in attacking ability explains why they have combined for 24 and 34 goals respectively in the league so far. Yeovil Town will be seriously concerned about their position in the bottom five for defensive ability, given their struggles in attack that we looked at earlier.

ACCRINGTON STANLEY

One team in particular is notable in comparison to the pre-season expectations - Accrington Stanley. They were the joint favourites for relegation according to the bookmakers, but currently find themselves in 6th position in the table. This position appears deserved thus far, given their 5th position in the defensive stats and 8th in attacking stats. While they may not be able to keep this up for the rest of the season, they are already looking in an excellent position to stay in the division and can seriously eye up a top-half finish. They have been aided by the good form of Josh Windass, whose 2.1 xG places him at 13th in terms of individual players.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

How To Fix a Tennis Match (by Nicolas Kicker)

If you were to ask people what they knew about the city of Barranquilla, which is located on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, the answer is likely to be very little. Some may know it for the Carnival, the second largest in the world behind Rio de Janeiro, while others may recognise it as the birthplace of singer Shakira or actress Sofia Vergara. Some of the more cultured may know it as the city where the legendary author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was based for much of his life. However, I can guarantee that nobody will have heard of Barranquilla for its tennis.

However, last night saw Barranquilla join locations, including Meersbusch, Dallas and Scheveningen, to have seen match fixing scandals in ATP Challenger Tour matches in the past 18 months. While this article will focus predominantly on the match between Nicolas Kicker and Giovanni Lapentti, it will also touch on another match from Barranquilla between Facundo Mena and Patricio Heras.

Nicolas Kicker is a 23-year old player from Argentina, ranked at #171 in the world. He has three ITF titles in 2015 and ten in total in the past three years. Before heading to Barranquilla, he had reached back-to-back Challenger finals in Biella and Todi, which marked a real breakthrough for his career having previously failed to pass the second round at that level. Going into his match against the veteran Ecuadorian, Giovanni Lapentti, he was the eighth seed and might even have been mentioned as a dark horse for a good run again. As the pre-match odds show, he was priced at 1.53, which relates to an implied probability of around 65% of winning the match.
There was nothing suspicious about these pre-match odds. It has been mentioned that Kicker might have been a fraction short based on data, but in general, these odds look to be about right.

The match did not start particularly well for Nicolas Kicker as he went down an early break at *2-1, but he was able to break back straight away in a long game. He then held to love and broke Lapentti again in another long game and held serve to go 5-2* ahead. At this stage, you would expect Kicker to be pushing toward a price of around 1.25. However, as we can see, this was far from the case.
Rather than being a strong favourite, for some bizarre reason, Nicolas Kicker has actually drifted way out in the betting to a price of 3.3, implying a probability of just 30.3% of winning the match. For a player that was 65% to win before the start, it is entirely nonsensical for him to now be only 30% to win the match, despite being ahead by a break in the opening set. Unless there is a major injury concern, this is highly suspicious.

Kicker would break the Lapentti serve for the third time in the set to win it 6-2, but the market did not seem to care at this stage. As the second set began, Kicker held serve and the market drifted out slightly to around 1.69 on Lapentti as the graph from 6-2, 1-0* shows:
However, Lapentti would break and consolidate to take a 4-2* lead in the second set by which time the market had decided how the match was going to play out. At this stage, we can see that Bet365, who would have been reflecting the Betfair movements had Giovanni Lapentti at 1.12 to win the match, implying an 89% chance. Given the initial match price and the fact that he was still down a set, this is just farcical.
Indeed, despite only being down a single break, Nicolas Kicker is rated as having just a 9.1% chance of winning the second set. Given that at this stage of the match, he had broken the Lapentti serve three times in seven games and had only been broken twice himself, this is quite simply beyond belief.

To the surprise of nobody that was following the match, Lapentti won the second set and went on and won the match in the third set. The fact that Lapentti was playing so poorly, particularly in the third set, actually made this all the more obvious to watch. Indeed, you almost get the impression late on in the third set that Lapentti, who was on the end of another questionable match earlier in the year against Jimmy Wang, had figured out what Kicker was doing and did not quite know what to do. The clip below from Kicker's service game at 4-4 is a perfect example. Kicker throws in two double faults to bring it to deuce, but Lapentti then puts one into the net and then hammers a return wide to the frustration of the Argentinean.

In the decisive game at 5-5, Kicker loops his first serve in for Lapentti to hit an easy return winner on the first point. The second point sees a first serve that almost bounces before it reaches the net followed by an unforced error into the net during the rally.The third point is an almost carbon-copy backhand into the net and it was finished off by a decent point by Lapentti, who by this stage, almost looked disinterested as he knew what was happening.

I would stress at this stage that, while he may have gained an idea toward the end of what was happening, there is no evidence to suggest that Giovanni Lapentti had any part in any wrongdoing in this match. The finger is pointed at Nicolas Kicker and Kicker only. By the end of the match, there was almost £700,000 matched on Betfair on the match market.

As with all of these suspicious matches, there is virtually no way to explain the movement of the betting odds other than that someone knew the outcome of the match before it happened. An injury might have moved the odds to an extent, but there was no indication of any injury. The full video of the match is below, so you can check it out yourself.


I mentioned another questionable match earlier as well - Facundo Mena against Patricio Heras. This was also in Barranquilla.

Facundo Mena started as a slight favourite in this match and there appeared to be little between them as they reached a first set TB. Patricio Heras went up a mini-break, but this marked the influx of a large sum of money into the market backing Facundo Mena. As the image below shows, by the time that Mena had recovered the mini-break and the score was 4-4, Mena had been backed into a price of 1.1, implying a 91.0% chance of winning the match. This seems unlikely given it was not far off a 50-50 match at the start.
Facundo Mena would win the tiebreak and would not lose another game, eventually winning the match 7-6, 6-0. However, there does not seem to be a stream available for this match, so it is difficult to tell whether there was an injury concern around Heras during this tiebreak.

It has been suggested that Heras took a MTO between sets, which suggests the presence of an injury. However, even if this is the case, given there were no pictures of the match, it seems strange that someone with large amounts of cash just happened to be live at this match in Barranquilla. Is it plausible? Just about. Is it likely? Maybe. However, there is probably not enough evidence to say for certain that the match was fixed. Instead, it must be filed in the highly suspicious pile for now.

The concern for tennis is that the Challenger Tour is simply becoming a hive for match fixing, whether it be obvious fixes like this, more sophisticated fixes that are tougher to detect or simply spot fixing. As each blatant fix passes without the player(s) involved being sanctioned, the temptation for other players to fix matches grows. If they know that nothing will happened even if the fix is so obvious, what is there to put players off fixing matches?

Update 1

Patricio Heras withdrew from the doubles with a left arm injury lending some credence to the theory that he was actually injured during his match against Facundo Mena.

Nicolas Kicker also withdrew from his doubles match, citing a lower back injury. While this could partially explain the odds movements, it seems unlikely to be able to completely exonerate Kicker in this particular match... 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Rules of Tennis: A Few Thoughts

Although it does not mark the end of the season by any means, by virtue of being the final Grand Slam event of the year, the US Open tends to be the point that people often start to wonder about what the future may hold. The off-season will again be littered with exhibition matches, chief among them being the IPTL, and it is these exhibition matches that often lead to discussion around potential rule changes in tennis.

Now, tennis is clearly not broken. It continues to be a popular sport in many countries, albeit with a slightly ageing audience, but it does not need wholesale rule changes. Indeed, wholesale changes would probably damage the sport, both as a contest and as a spectacle. However, there are a number of areas in which rules could be tweaked or adjusted to improve the sport for various parties, whether that be the players, the spectators at the event itself or the audience watching televised pictures or streams. I thought I would put down a few of my thoughts as to what these changes might entail.

1. Injured Players and Lucky Losers

Given the recent situation with Vitalia Diatchenko and Serena Williams bringing this issue to the foreground, it seems an obvious place to start. Players, particularly those lower down in the rankings, rely on money from slam first rounds or even standard ATP/WTA events to finance large portions of their year. Over 50% of Vitalia Diatchenko's prize money this year has come from first round exits at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. So while people question why they do not just withdraw if they have a slight injury, it is not really a sensible decision from a player's perspective.

You also see people suggest that you scrap prize money for first round losers - the idea being that you do not want to reward failure and stop players just turning up for the money. However, given the number of players that rely on this money, this does not seem to be a smart idea. For the majority of professional tennis players, merely reaching a grand slam is seen as success - a first round defeat is certainly not seen as a failure.

However, injured players playing matches below their ability and being forced to retire is clearly not good for spectators. So, how does one solve the issue?

My suggestion would be that if a player is in the draw, but is forced to withdraw on-site before their first round match, they would still collect the prize money for having lost in the first round. They would be replaced in the draw by a lucky loser. However, the lucky loser would not receive any prize money or ranking points if they lose this first match. Rather, the incentive for the lucky loser is gaining the opportunity to reach the second round at which stage, they would start to collect prize money and ranking points.

This would mean that an injured player could withdraw and not have to worry about losing out financially. The lucky loser would benefit by gaining the opportunity to reach the second round, but does not immediately gain financially purely on luck. The tournament would not be paying any extra prize money, but would be guaranteed a match between two fit players. The spectators get a full match between two fit players. It feels as though everyone benefits.

I would also be fully in favour of the lucky loser system at all tournaments being determined by the four highest ranked players to lose in qualifying being entered into a random draw and whichever player is drawn out of a hat gets the place. This prevents the issue with players tanking qualifying matches because they know that they are already in the draw.

2. Hawkeye Challenges and Technology

In a perfect world, tennis matches would be decided by the two players on court and no external factors. We do not want matches to be decided by calls by the umpire or the line judges. The challenge system was introduced to improve the accuracy of calls and has arguably been a big success. More decisions are correct and it is popular with crowds.

Ultimately, the point of the system is to ensure correct calls. It is ridiculous when a player has no challenges remaining and loses a point on a clearly incorrect call. It is also occasionally being used as a stalling technique by players to give themselves an extra few seconds to recover or compose themselves. We also see controversy over whether players are challenging in an appropriate time frame. Thus, I would propose that challenge system is taken away from the players and shifted to the umpire. The umpire would have the power to request a review on any call that he deemed to be marginal.

In the future, there is certainly the potential for technology to replace line judges completely. It is already being trialled in certain competitions and if that is successful, there are few arguments against it as a long-term solution. The major issue admittedly would be cost, but at the bigger events, it is certainly something to look at.

I also see no real reason that instant replays could not be used to rule on issues such as foot faults or double bounces. These can often be very controversial issues and can affect the whole flow of a match when a player is upset with a call. The use of instant replays would solve these issues almost instantaneously and remove the controversy allowing players to concentrate on the actual tennis.

3. Medical Timeouts

There has been plenty of debate around MTOs and their use as strategic timeouts to disrupt an opponent's momentum. Now, there is little doubt that they are sometimes used for this reason. However, there is also little doubt that players do often legitimately need to call for one to treat a genuine medical issue.

Scrapping them completely has been mooted, but this seems as though it would just lead to increased retirements and fewer completed matches. We may also see players playing through injuries without adequate support or strapping and exacerbating that injury. Neither of these are outcomes that are positive for players or spectators.

However, there does seem to be potential for a slight change to ensure that they are used for their intended purpose. We do not want to penalise a player too seriously for a medical issue, given that the mere presence of a medical issue is arguably penalising the player as it is. However, it does interrupt the game and momentum of an opponent for no fault of their own.

Thus, I would suggest that we keep MTOs as they are, but if you call one either during a game or that extends beyond the normal changeover period, then you are given a two shot penalty. So, if you call one before your own serve, you would start the next game at 0-30, and similarly, if you call one before your opponent served (a time that is often criticised for being for strategic reasons), you would start 30-0 down in the next game.

This should hopefully be enough of a penalty to prevent people from simply calling them for strategic reasons, but does not penalise a player too heavily if they have to call for a MTO for a genuine injury.

4. Left-Handed Servers

Left-handed players tend to have an inherent advantage in that their stronger serving side tends to coincide with game points or break points. It means that on the big points on their own serve, they have an advantage that a right-handed player does not have. A simple change to rectify this would simply be to have left-handed players start serving from the ad-court. This is not a major change, but it helps to level the playing field.

5. Warm-ups and Towels

Two fairly small issues, but as far as I am concerned, the warm-up is entirely pointless in tennis. The players will have been warming up before their match in the locker room and they will have been on the practice courts earlier in the day. All it achieves is to bore the crowd.

The practice of taking a towel to the back of the court and using it after every single point is also pretty ridiculous. Ignoring the fact that it is pretty unpleasant and unhygienic for the ball kids that have to handle the towel all the time, I cannot imagine that players cannot go more than a point without having to towel off. They should either be restricted to using it after games or simply during changeovers.

6. On-Court Coaching

Recently, I had a discussion around on-court coaching on Twitter. It stemmed from the fact that people were arguing that the ATP did not have on-court coaching, so the WTA should scrap it because it suggested that women were unable to manage without a coach helping them through. However, rather than assuming that the ATP is always the way forward, I would suggest that the ATP allow on-court coaching and it be permitted at all tournaments, including grand slams.

Most individual sports have an element of in-play coaching these days. Boxing has coaching between rounds, motor-sports have team radio and golf has caddies to provide advice. I see no reason why tennis should not embrace on-court coaching. If it leads to more competitive and interesting tactical matches, then what is the issue with it?

It could also be interesting for television audiences. Hearing a coach talk about the match and the tactics that a player should employ, then watching to see how and if those tactics are utilised appeals to certain people.

7. Shot Clock

Another issue that is regularly debated is the time taken between points and time violations seemingly being issues at the most inappropriate moments. Adding a shot clock in the corner of the court that is controlled by the umpire would take away any debate. It would count down from the end of the previous point and if a player has not served by the time it counts down, it would simply make a noise and the player would automatically lose the point. To establish continuity across the board, I would simply make it a 30-second limit for all tournaments.

However, I would also give the umpire the power to add time onto the shot clock if he felt it appropriate after the previous point or under other extenuating circumstances. Obviously after a long and strenuous rally, it would be acceptable to give the players a few extra seconds to recover. The idea is not to force players to rush, but simply to keep the match flowing and stop players taking long periods between points.

8. U21 and Junior Tour Finals

The final one is not a change to tennis in itself, but more an addition to the calendar. At the moment, there is an empty week between the final Masters event of the season and the World Tour Finals. This could be filled with a combined U21 and Junior version of the World Tour Finals. The eight highest ranked U21 players in one event and the top eight juniors in another.

In a sport that is becoming tougher and tougher to break into the top echelons for young players, this would help to highlight the young talent that is coming through and give them the opportunity to play on a big stage. In terms of the quality of player, if we look at the current rankings, then the two fields would consist of the following players:

ATP U21 - Dominic Thiem, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric, Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, Hyeon Chung, Lucas Pouille and Kyle Edmund

Junior - Taylor Fritz, Michael Mmoh, Mikael Ymer, Seong Chan Hong, Reilly Opelka, Orlando Luz, Marcelo Tomas Barrios Vera and William Blumberg.

For the U21 event, that is a pretty solid field full of players of whom big things are expected. Whilst the junior field consists of names that are probably fairly unfamiliar to many, it would provide the opportunity for fans to see the potential future stars of the sport.

It is currently a week in which there is no major tennis and it marks the end of the season, so the likelihood is that most of the players would be happy to play and it would have the spotlight on it for the week. It could help tennis market some of its future stars and it could even be used as a trial event for new rule changes in a competitive atmosphere.
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