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Big 3 in perspective: statistics aren’t what they seem

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

The title of this piece — “statistics aren’t what they seem” — might lead you to think I am going to focus on Roger Federer winning more points than Novak Djokovic. No, I won’t. This is not about that.

This is about broader historical statistics and the ways in which those statistics come about.

Dan Martin — @DanMartinTennis — writes about tennis at his site, Tennis Abides. Check it out at tennisabides.com.

He offered this statistic in my mentions column on Sunday evening, after a memorable Wimbledon men’s final between Federer and Djokovic:

Go back 11 years to the aftermath of the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal… or, try this instead: Go back seven years to 2012, after Federer had beaten Andy Murray for his seventh Wimbledon title.

Or, try this: Go back six years to 2013, after Sergiy Stakhovsky stunned Federer in the second round of Wimbledon.

In any of those three occasions — 2008, 2012, 2013 — imagine telling someone, ANYONE, that Federer would lose more Wimbledon finals than Roddick or Goran.

Not only would you have been called crazy; you could have been called crazy from two different sides of the argument.

Some would have called you crazy because Federer just didn’t lose Wimbledon finals unless an opponent played an iconically great match (Nadal in 2008).

Others would have called you crazy because they might have said that Federer was on the downslope of his career, especially after 2013.

Still others would have called you crazy because Federer wouldn’t have many years left to play. In other words, even if Federer might have been good enough to make more Wimbledon finals, he wouldn’t have had enough time to lose three more finals. His career would end before then.

“Losing more Wimbledon finals than Andy Roddick or Goran Ivanisevic.” It sounds like such a condemning, indicting statistic. It sounds so crushing and humiliating. It feels so oppressive, even jarring, when read, spoken or contemplated on its own terms.

Yet, as soon as you include the context, it all changes. This is why I say #ContextMatters, such as making a distinction between clay and non-clay in assessing the Federer-Nadal rivalry.

As soon as you include the context that Federer has made 12 Wimbledon finals and won 8, the oppressive nature of that sentence — “Federer has lost more Wimbledon finals than Andy Roddick” — goes away.

To be clear: Roddick is a great sport. He is happy about his life, and he has many reasons to be happy. He is a warm soul, a mensch. Winning and losing is not a character evaluation or a reflection of how we should feel about our LIVES. Our lives are bigger than our careers or whatever we do for a living. The living we DO in life is more, much more, than the living we EARN.

Results shouldn’t affect how we live or feel as PERSONS. As sports fans or analysts, sure, but not as humans. I want to make that very plain.

Yet, in a pure tennis sense — and the business of measuring careers — Roddick’s 3 Wimbledon final losses carry far more weight than Federer’s 4 losses for one very simple reason: Roddick never won Wimbledon. More precisely, his loss to Federer in 2009 was in so many ways like Federer’s loss to Djokovic, 10 years later, a point many people have made over the past 48 hours.

Remember what I wrote during Wimbledon about how we view tennis losses. It does matter if a player who has achieved richly suffers a stinging loss, compared to a crushing loss by a player who has not done much, or who has not reached certain defining milestones.

If a player does something essential to his or her career even once, that act does — and should — change how we view that player. Not the PERSON, the human being, but YES, the player, the athlete, the competitor.

If a player does something essential TWICE, that jump from one-timer to two-time achiever also profoundly changes how that career (not the person!) is viewed. Such was and is the case with Simona Halep, now a two-time major champion on two different surfaces under two different coaches. Her career is so much more complete now than it was before Wimbledon. That is the reality of how careers — and evaluations of them by commentators such as myself — change.

If Andy Roddick, not Roger Federer, had failed to serve out the championship at 8-7, 40-15 on Sunday, the way we (as journalists/editorial commentators/analysts) would write about the match would be so profoundly different from how we make sense of Federer, a man who gets to sleep on a bed of 20 majors and eight Wimbledon titles.

Maybe you think it shouldn’t be different… but I can tell you: fair or not, right or wrong, it IS different.

Statistics aren’t what they seem.

Consider another statistic which exists in much the same vein as “Federer has lost more Wimbledon finals than Roddick”:

Federer has lost as many major finals as Ivan Lendl: 11.

On its face, that seems like such an eye-popping reality, because Lendl — more than any other male tennis player in the Open Era — met his stumbling block in major finals.

Pete Sampras, as a point of comparison, went 14-4 in 18 major finals. Lendl made MORE finals — 19 — but won only eight, losing 11.

Lendl was emblematic of the notion, “everything but the last stroke.” Federer can really relate to that after his Sunday final against Djokovic… and Djokovic — in 2014, before he took the court for his Wimbledon final against Federer, had begun to trace a pattern in which he was the modern-day Lendl, coming up one stop short of a huge trophy on so many occasions.

In the past five years, Federer — not Djokovic — has had to wear that distinction more than the other two members of the Big 3.

Yet, because Federer has made 31 major finals, his ledger sheet of 20-11 is still hugely impressive.

The subtext: Federer, at age 32, 33, 34, and now 37, has lost four major finals to Djokovic, a player more in his prime.

Would it make Federer’s career BETTER to have a 20-7 record in major finals, specifically as a product of losing in major semifinals instead?

Surely no one would say yes. The 20-11 record, compared to 20-7, looks so much worse on the surface… but it is the product of so much sustained excellence.

This is why #ContextMatters… and why, in this Big 3 era, statistics aren’t always what they seem.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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