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Face the Facts: There's More to Nadal and Federer Than Head-To-Head Meetings

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 01:  Rafael Nadal of Spain consoles Roger Federer of Switzerland during the trophy presentation after his men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Lucas Dawson/Getty Images)
Xeno-philous F Correspondent IJuly 29, 2009

Rafa leads 13-7 H2H, but Roger leads 29-20 STE and 35-23 TTAT.

To caution, this piece is not written in defense of Roger Federer’s GOATness. It is not intended to downplay Rafael Nadal’s achievement either, definitely not his clean six Slams. This article is intended to unveil the logical flaw behind the interpretation of this 13-7 H2H stat, which is often used negatively against Federer to delegitimize his achievement, whereas, I argue, it should be viewed as something positive to admire.

First part explains the problem; second part discusses the flaw in the H2H logic; the final part proposes a more comprehensive logic of STE and TTAT.


Part I

According to the ATP Rulebook, the tennis authority is neutral to H2H as it counts toward neither ranking points, nor award, nor a title, nor even as a tie breaker. If H2H proponents have employed this logic to break a tie between two players with equal number of Slams for historical purpose, that would probably not have been objectionable.

When ATP/ITF does not even consider using H2H stat as one of the ways to break a tie between two players’ rankings, Federer’s critics have been using this H2H statistics to question the best of the generation and/ or best of all times. In my opinion, Nadal has been made a pawn in this logic because their goal has been far from assessing Nadal’s place in the history of tennis; rather, the underlying target of the logic has been to defame and delegitimize Federer.

I should begin with the propaganda machine generated and fueled by Raymond Lee, a reputed tennis historian and analyst, despite his earlier debunking of the H2H being the determining factor for a champion: "Tennis is not a sport like boxing in which a contender can defeat a champion and in the course of one fight elevate himself from challenger to champion. For all we know Federer could win the next 10 majors and not play Nadal in any of the those tournaments" (Tennis Week 7/15/08).

Lee correctly observed back then the player defeating the champion does not automatically become World Champion later. If that were the case, Andy Murray, for instance, would have been coronated No. 1 back in September 2005 and would have lost the No. 1 position to Xavier Malisse the very next week, etc. (Another way to look at this is, in boxing format, Murray would not have gotten a chance to play Federer until this year; Rafa would not have played Federer in 2005 Roland Garros semifinal, either).

Thanks heaven, tennis is not boxing and you don't win a championship by challenging and beating the title holder. In the Open Era, tennis does not provide that opportunity for a player to focus on defeating another player consistently and leveling the H2H.

Nadal, too, understands the logical flaw of the H2H interpretation, as reflected by his recently revised schedule, which emphasizes on consistently getting to the finals of the majors, winning them, and bridging the staggering Slam gap, which Fed leads by 250 percent (15-6), which is more lopsided and of greater value than his 185 percent (13-7) H2H lead.

The task before Nadal is to level (or even exceed) the Slam tally of 15-6 than to enlarge upon 13-7 H2H. If Federer were to be stopped at 15, and Nadal tied this number, the H2H could be evoked at that time as a tie breaker, but we are not there yet, and they are far from done.

Yet, Lee revives the same principle that he once rightly jettisoned as cumbersome and absurd. And in the process of furthering his agenda, he finds an ally in Sampras, "While Sampras himself has bestowed the GOAT on Federer, he suggested today Federer must find a way to beat Nadal consistently in order to truly be called the GOAT" (Tennis Week 7/14/2009).

And he quotes Sampras, "Tough question to answer. I do understand the argument as being the best ever you have to be the best of your generation and he has come up short against Nadal."

At times, the H2H interpretation has been analogous to a conspiracy theory. For example, Lee goes as far as to suggest, "[Y]ou can make a clear case he [Federer] is not even the best of this time."

To back up their arguments, the Lees of this world brandish around only one card: Nadal has 13-7 H2H (5-2 in Slams) lead over Federer. These propagandists should have at least considered the obvious, "If Federer is not the best player of his generation, then who is?"

If by no account they can conclude that Nadal is the best of this generation, what are they implying? This leads to question their motive of undermining Federer’s achievement, evidently because it is too big for them to digest in a short period of time, or that more than a few great players’ endorsements of Federer as the Greatest of All Time must have been baffling for them.

To reiterate, it is equally significant to note that this stat is not evoked to uplift Rafa’s position in the history of tennis, either. I think Rafa does not need to and will not use this H2H card to establish his position among the Greats in the history of tennis, or to inch closer to Federer: Rafa is already among the Greats, and undoubtedly he possesses immense talents and has plenty of time at his disposal to get closer to (or even transcend) Federer, though that may appear long distance for now but not impossible.

Only players of less caliber with no Slam or players with little prospect of getting the minimum number of Slams required to be considered among the Greats would need the H2H card to console themselves. Certainly, Rafa is not among those players.

Let me remind you once again that I am not arguing for Federer’s GOATness. I am arguing against where and how the H2H logic is used.


Part II

The biggest logical flaw lies in the ignorance of the fact that reaching a final is better than falling before it (reverse this: not reaching the finals is worse than trailing in H2H stat).

Yes, it is convenient to throw one-liner stat, 13-7 overall or 5-2 at the Slam level, but there is so much into it, and, yes, the flaw lies in the conclusion that Federer critics draw out of this H2H stat.

If one-liner soundbite is lacking, let’s create one: Is not reaching the finals more rewarding than failing to reach there? Or, are not 24 finals at the Masters Series better than 20 finals, Federer and Nadal’s numbers, respectively?

Let’s first look at the majors and then Masters Series, though it ultimately boils down to 9-2 on clay, and the problematic inference that is drawn from this stat is that Roger did not do well on clay as his reaching the finals is misinterpreted as a way to undermine his overall performance.

Did Roger do better or did he not, especially in comparison to Rafa’s record on hard court Slams, AO and USO?

Although he officially turned pro in 2001, the beginning of Rafa could be reasonably pinned down to 2003 Wimbledon, the major that he automatically qualified for. Rafa would have been 0-11 H2H on hard court (in 2005 and 2008 AO, Roger lost in Semi, so these are subtracted), i.e. Rafa stumbled long before the final in those 13 occasions, i.e. long before he’d have opportunity to face head to head with Roger.

Since Rafa’s Slam debut, Roger has reached the RG finals on all the occasions except one semi in 2005, providing Rafa with 100 percent opportunity for H2H clash. This is a record in itself, four consecutive French Open finals, tying with only three others Borg, Lendl, and Nadal.

Would not Rafa have preferred to reach the hard court Slam finals in those missed occasions?

Instead of exiting in the early rounds, if Rafa had reached those finals and lost in all, would it be logical to use those loses against Rafa’s achievement?

Would not those finals be more rewarding for Rafa? Were not Rafa’s two final encounters with Roger at Wimbledon more respectable than the others in which he did not make it to the finals or could not participate in?

If so, should not Roger’s finals be evaluated using the same measuring standard?

Primarily, what 13-7, or specifically 9-2, means is Federer was there on all those occasions, beating 4 to 6 most successful players of the draw to reach the finals. Did Nadal win a title on all those 13 occasions when he eliminated Federer? Almost. Federer did slightly better due to his no. 1 position.

Had Federer reached the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters finals this year and, let’s say, he lost both of them to Nadal, his H2H with Nadal would have increased to 7-15 in Federer’s disfavor. So, can we say that Federer performed better by not reaching the finals of those two clay Masters Series and therefore not allowing Nadal to beat him (which most assume to have happened had he faced Nadal) to make his H2H look even worse against Nadal?

Pardon my digression (you will see the relevance of the analogy), is it not right to conclude that Novak Djokovic did the right thing this clay season by reaching Monte Carlo and Rome finals and losing both of them to Nadal, thereby worsening his H2H with Nadal?

Had Djokovic not been in the finals of those two clay masters and semi of Madrid, his H2H with Nadal would have stayed at 4-11 in his disfavor, better than the current 4-14 deficit. But by playing good enough to reach the finals and semifinals in clay tournaments, Djokovic allowed Nadal to widen H2H to 4-14, in his own disfavor.

Now, who should be called as the better performer in those two clay masters?

The guy, Federer, who was unable to reach the finals but was able to save his record from worsening, or the other guy, Djokovic, who played good enough to reach the finals knowing Nadal’s invincibility on clay and allowing his own H2H to worsen? Moreover, should Federer have decided to intentionally lose before the 4th round at Madrid and RG, fearing his H2H would slide further?

Using the same logic, instead of falling before the finals, if Nadal had been good enough to reach the finals on those 12 Slams that Federer won and, let’s say, Rafa lost in all of them (actually he reached the Slam finals in only 2 occasions that Federer won), should we not conclude Rafa performed better than his other early exits, despite the 0-2 H2H deficit resulting from these two finals?

Federer has done just that in the past: Second only to Rafa, he reached the most finals of the clay Masters Series and French Open from 2004-2009, with the hope of winning the title in each (eight runner-ups and six titles, beating Nadal in Hamburg 2007 and Madrid 2009).

One has to admit what the H2H trailing shows: a bad matchup. Federer’s game does not match up well with Nadal, for a number of well-known reasons. But that does not put Nadal above Federer in any measure.

Are Hrbaty, Blake, and Nalbandian overall better players than Nadal because they have better H2H but never made it to a round on any clay tournament where they could meet Nadal? Should that bother Nadal and should he be focusing on improving his H2H with them, instead of winning a Slam?

Imagine Hrbaty, Blake, Nalbandian and Rafa were the only players to reach semi finals and final of every event. How many titles would Rafa win and what the H2H with these players would look like? Tennis is single elimination sports, and you don’t have to beat the entire players of the draw.

How about Sampras, who reached RG semi only once? Sergi Bruguera has better H2H against Sampras because of clay, and it could have been more lopsided had Sampras advanced to semis and finals on clay. Thomas Muster, who won six Masters on clay and one RG, was known as "the King of Clay" at his peak and would have leveled his H2H with Sampras (9-2), had Sampras been as good as Federer.

The same could be said of Courier, Rios, Medvedev, Costa, and Kuerten, other clay court specialists of his time: Had Sampras been good enough to advance to semis and finals on clay, each would have improved his H2H against Sampras.

All together, Sampras did not participate in 17 clay Masters. Should we give Sampras higher mark for maintaining his H2H against his rivals because he escaped 17 Masters and did not advance beyond the third round except on eight occasions, clay Masters Series and RG combined (eight out of 36 in 13 years) and punish Federer for consistently reaching four RG finals and 11 Finals at the Masters on clay (advancing beyond third round on 25 out of 37 occasions in 11 years)?

Like Sampras did in those 45 occasions (either escaping 17 times and not advancing beyond third round on 28 occasions), if Federer has done the same thing, would he be considered a better player because he would have avoided the lopsided H2H with Rafa?

Is that what we have arrived at? Are we saying Rafa is better than Fed on outdoor hard hard because Rafa would not make it to the other finals that Federer did, thus better H2H (2-1) on outdoor hard?

Had Federer been only as moderately good as Sampras was on clay, Federer would not have faced Rafa in those 11 occasions (9-2), and the H2H would be 5-4 in Fed’s favor.

Besides all these obvious reasons, there is a historical reason to debunk the H2H logic. The H2H logic entails the corpse of the pre-Open era head to head tours, which both ATP and ITF found to be unjust as we ushered into the open era in 1968, because it undermined the rest of the field as if no other player existed, sort of two pros and the rest amateurs. For instance, in their head-to-head tour in 1941, Don Budge defeated Bill Tilden 51-7. Back then, it was reasonable to base the greatness on H2H when tours were conducted in such a fashion. 

If used in the measurement of two players or to determine the place of one player or both in the history of tennis under the circumstance that both are still active players at the top of their games, H2H violates the spirit of the Open Era. At best, the true value of H2H lies in predicting matches, less reliable in Grand Slams due to their 5-setter format.

ATP and ITF have embedded the H2H device in their websites for exclusively that purpose, so it is fair to say that H2H is limited to match-predicting entertainment at this point.


Part III

I present in this concluding section a more comprehensive and reliable logic: The logic of STE (Same Tournaments Entered). To give a postmodern twist, we may call it a post-H2H logic.

On my path to the new logic, let me quickly touch on another bellicose noise. Encouraged by the skewed interpretation of the H2H, some have even raised this question, "Can Roger win when Rafa is around?"

Since Rafa’s Slam debut in 2003 Wimbledon, he has played in the same 21 Slams that Roger played (Roger played four more during the same period). Roger won 12 times in those same 21 slams that Rafa was also playing. Rafa did not play ‘04 SW19, ‘06 AO, and ‘09 SW19, the three occasions Roger won.

Roger’s 80 percent of the titles (12 out of 15) came from the same Slams that Rafa played. So, one could add these 12 to Roger’s total H2H, in which Rafa lost long before the finals, which should be counted as less favorable than H2H (interpret H2H as reaching the finals, at least since the time Rafa has been number 2 or 1).

The originality of my argument lies in the new logic of Roger’s lead over Rafa by 29-20 in STE.

Both Roger and Rafa participated in the same 62 tournaments, with a combined win total of 49 titles. Neither of them won in 13 of those. And Roger’s lead stands tall at 29-20 in those 62 events participated.

Now you might wonder how this STE is more comprehensive and how it is aimed at greater justice. It is comprehensive because it takes into account all the tournaments participated, and it does greater justice because it acknowledges the depth of field, i.e. four and six players standing on the way to the finals of Masters and Slams, respectively.

Actually, one could include all tournaments available for a player to participate in a given time. A player often fails to participate due to poor fitness and under-preparation, which are parts of all sports. Once qualified to play, a player is honored to cherish and participate.

Due to higher ranking players’ leniency in the past toward honoring their automatic qualification into draws, from this year ATP/ITF has introduced a new rule to penalize for non-participation: "Once a player is accepted in the main draw of these twelve tournaments [13 in the case of the top 8]…his result will count…whether or not he participates" (ATP Rule 9.03 A, emphasis added).

The player who is unable to participate is awarded the same point as the one who loses in the first round; moreover, there are other penalties. Even before this rule came into existence, acceptance into the draws of these Masters Series and Slams were expected to be honored without exception.

For this reason, one could include all the available tournaments in the same span of time to measure the performance of two players. This stat measures titles won in the tournaments that were available to both since Rafa’s Slam debut.

It will be comprised of the following: if player A qualifies but does not participate in one of those 13 mandatory tournaments, and player B wins the title in the tournament that player A missed (e.g. Masters Cup 2005 and 2008 will not be counted, though Rafa missed both but Roger did not win either of them; but Wimbledon 2009 will be added); plus other lower-tier tournaments both participated and one of them won the title, regardless if they met or not.

In this statistical logic, which we may acronym TTAT (Titles in Total Available Tournaments), the gap between Roger and Rafa widens further to 35-23.

(Acknowledgment: I appreciate my friend Huh’s logic, a Tennis X poster, inspiration, valuable comments and feedback from Nancy Drew, a Bleacher Report contributor, and a number of Tennis Planet posters Jennifur, YMD, Pommesdesuisse, Chipnputt, Sarah, Banti, Sol, Ch, Andy, Mircea, Ash, Sam, Bella, Rafa4ever, and Alex.)

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