Ivo Karlovic and the Inevitable Tiebreak
Ivo Karlovic is back. He missed most of last season due to a foot injury, but he’s healed, and playing just like he always has. In Doha last week, he reached the quarterfinals, beating Philipp Kohlschreiber in the round of 16.
What should come as a surprise to no one is that, before reaching the quarters, he played a total of five sets, every one of which went to a tiebreak. For most opponents, Karlovic is impossible to break, and since his game is so service-centered, he doesn’t break serve much himself.
That’s the anecdotal story, and it’s intuitively sound. Does the data back it up?
To find out, I used a data set of all ATP-level matches from 2001 to 2010 and counted, among other things, how many sets ended in a tiebreak.
In that span, about 17 percent of sets ended in tiebreaks. Indeed, Karlovic has played tiebreaks at a higher rate than anyone else. And it isn’t even close.
After eliminating everyone who played fewer than 200 sets in the last decade, we’re left with 205 players. Of those, 33 guys reached a tiebreak in at least 20 percent of sets. Only 7 played tiebreaks in more than a quarter of sets. Karlovic reached a tiebreak in 40 percent of sets, more than anyone else in this time period.
Rounding out the top of the list are Chris Guccione at 35% (in only 203 sets), John Isner and Wayne Arthurs at 33%, and Alexander Waske at 31%.
The highest possible range for top-10 level success seems to be about 24 percent. That’s where Ivan Ljubicic has been over the last decade, while Pete Sampras (albeit in only 252 sets) and Andy Roddick are at 23 percent. To find more elite-level players, we must go down to 21 percent, the level Marat Safin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have maintained.
But did they win?
Tennis fans often view success in tiebreaks as a proxy for clutch, and perhaps they are right to do so. If two players reach a tiebreak, they are fairly evenly matched, and the tiebreak itself doesn’t necessarily give an edge to either player.
This may explain why few top players end up in a high percentage of tiebreaks. Only a handful of players are able to sustain tiebreak winning percentages above 60 percent, but to have a very successful season, you need to win more than 60 percent of sets.
What came as a surprise to me is that the players who reach the most tiebreaks are not necessarily that successful in the tiebreaks. In fact, there is no meaningful correlation between the two rates.
Karlovic, for instance, won only 49 percent of tiebreaks in the last decade. Ljubicic only 52 percent, and Safin only 50 percent. Yet there are plenty of standouts at the high end of the spectrum: Isner has won 63 percent of tiebreaks, while Roddick has won 64 percent and Tsonga has won 61 percent.
The same variety is on display among those players who contest tiebreaks at the lowest rates. David Ferrer ends up in a tiebreak only 11 percent of the time, and wins only 47 percent of them, but Nicholas Kiefer played tiebreaks in 12 percent of his sets and won 58 percent.
Perhaps this is all reassuring. I suspect I’m not the only tennis fan to be annoyed watching Karlovic or Isner cruise to a tiebreak with what appears to be a minimal effort. At least, for many such players, winning the set is not such an automatic result.