Modern tennis fans are incredibly lucky: they can personally observe the play of three, perhaps the greatest masters in the history of this game – the Swiss Roger Federer, the Spaniard Rafael Nadal and the Serb Novak Djokovic. Their rivalry has been going on for over a decade, but who is the best of the best in terms of betting markets?
Before a hiatus in the sports season, Djokovic won the eighth Australian Open in his career, bringing his number of Grand Slam victories to seventeen. Experts and fans expected that the whole of 2020 will be marked by a showdown in face-to-face and correspondence disputes between the three great tennis players.
The main question of this confrontation can be formulated as follows: will Federer be able to win one or two Grand Slam tournaments before the end of his career (and he is clearly not far off), or will they catch up and eventually surpass Nadal or Djokovic (and possibly and both at once).
Of course, each of this trio deserves, with their brilliant performances, the title of greatest tennis player of all time. Federer currently has twenty Grand Slam victories (eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open, and one at the French Open), a record. At the same time, Nadal is the undisputed leader in terms of the ratio of wins and losses in his career (83.2%). As for Djokovic, the Serb has the best result in face-to-face confrontations with both Nadal and Federer.
If we take it as the main criterion in determining the best of the best, then there is no guarantee that Federer will not be ahead of his younger competitors in this indicator, whose careers may continue for several more seasons. Moreover, two or even all three players in theory can have absolutely the same result, and how to be in this variant?
In our today’s material, we will try to approach the issue of comparing the “great trio” from the other side, having studied the preferences in the betting markets and the results of tennis players in comparison with the odds set for them. Perhaps, with an integrated approach, this method can be considered optimal and impartial.
Grand Slam Tournaments
Only ten tennis players, since 2003 (when Federer first won Wimbledon, launching his future streak of victories), have become triumphant in four Grand Slam tournaments. At the same time, seven of them (except Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) had only 11 victories. In the remaining 61 cases, only one of the “great trio” celebrated success.
It is useful to see how supportive the draw was for each of the players. Perhaps, given the strength of each of the trio, she did not play a key role, but still she could help in a certain way or, conversely, complicate the task at different stages of the competition.
Do not forget that at the Grand Slam tournaments the winner needs to beat only seven opponents out of 127 possible. It is clear that the chances of a final triumph to some extent depend on who meets whom in different rounds. The Chart 1 below shows the average ratings of the opponents of each of the “great trio” in different rounds of Grand Slam tournaments:
The Serb played with strong opponents in the semifinals and finals, and in the quarterfinals he got opponents slightly weaker. The Swiss got off to a great start in the Grand Slam tournaments, winning the first seven finals. In these tournaments, he defeated players in positions 48, 86 and 54. The Spaniard has only played once in 26 finals against a tennis player who is not in the top 10 rankings.
Odds at a Glance
Below you can see the Chart 2, which shows the average probability of winning players based on their odds. Since the goal was to compare the three players, we did not exclude the bookmaker’s margin. We see that the quotes for Federer were generally shorter than for Nadal and Djokovic, although in the semi-finals Nadal had the easiest opponents, judging by the odds. Djokovic ranks last in this three. In the semi-finals and finals, the average odds for Federer’s victory were 1.47, Nadal’s 1.42, and Djokovic’s 1.56.
On the one hand, shorter odds may suggest easier opponents, although they also reflect the strength of the player himself. Overall, bookmakers like Pinnacle have very efficient tennis betting markets which means they offer an excellent estimate of the actual odds of winning. What might be more interesting is the performance of the players relative to the expectations of their odds.
Let’s say the probability of winning a Federer match is estimated at 1.25. This means a probability of 1 / 1.25 = 0.8, or 80%. If he wins the fight, then he will exceed expectations by 0.2, but if he loses, then he will be 0.8 behind the expected. Let’s see how Federer, Nadal and Djokovic performed in the Grand Slam tournaments, based on this indicator ( Table 1 ):
It should be noted that we have only used odds data since 2001, so the results of six of our oldest three, Roger Federer, in Grand Slam tournaments are not included here. Pinnacle bookmaker odds from 2004 to 2020 are taken.
In the semi-finals and finals, Nadal performed better than Federer and Djokovic, winning 3.6 more matches than the bookmakers expected. Despite this, it was rated shorter on average. Djokovic also performed well, winning more matches (up 2.8).
Interestingly, Federer (-1.4) actually performed below expectations in the semi-finals and finals. In all Grand Slam matches, Djokovic scored 10.4 points higher than expected, while Nadal’s score is +3.4 and Federer’s is only +0.5.
Let’s analyze Table 1 a little more and focus on our trio’s losses in Grand Slam matches. Federer has lost 53 times (since 2001), Nadal 39, and Djokovic 43. The Chart 1 below shows the proportion of those results that fall into each implied probability quintile:
Of his lost fights, Federer lost 35 (66%), Nadal – 27 (69%), and Djokovic – 24 (56%) times as the favorite. If we assume that Federer’s six Grand Slam losses in 1999 and 2000 were more likely, then his percentage would actually be below 66%, in which case it is fair to say that Nadal had the highest unexpected loss rate. .
Similarly, if we look at the average odds of the players in all their lost matches, Nadal’s (1.56) and Federer’s (1.58) scores are roughly the same, while Djokovic (1.79) performed clearly better. This suggests that in terms of expectations of the bookmaker market, Nadal performed the least, and Djokovic – the closest, with a certain caveat due to the bookmaker’s margin.
The Grand Trio as Underdogs
Now let’s look at the performances of the “great trio”, when the best tennis players acted as underdogs. Of course, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic did not often find themselves outsiders at the Grand Slam tournaments, but still let’s see how they played when the odds were against them ( Table 2 ):
Djokovic is the only one of the three to perform better than expected when he was an outsider, winning 9 games out of 22 (his overall score is slightly above 8.1). Federer was clearly the least impressive in this scenario, winning just 7 out of 25 games, 2.1 fewer than expected.
The Table 3 below lists the Grand Trio’s performances as underdogs in Grand Slam matches:
Djokovic, as we can see, delivered the biggest grief to his fans (4.50 against Gonzalez at the 2006 French Open). Interestingly, Nadal never beat Djokovic as an outsider in Grand Slam tournaments, in four face-to-face meetings. He also hasn’t won as an outsider since 2012.
Detailed analysis of victories in Grand Slam tournaments
The principle of knockout matches in any tennis tournament implies a fairly strong aspect of the dependence of any of the participants on luck in the draw. In a Grand Slam tournament, a player must defeat only seven of the 127 players. When we compare these numbers to other individual sports such as golf, cycling or running, where the winner has to leave every other competitor behind, it becomes clear just how important the aspect of luck can be.
The top tennis players of the current generation have also benefited from the move to a 32-seeded format, which protects them from matches against peers until at least the third round.
Whose path to titles – Federer, Nadal or Djokovic – was the easiest? The Chart 2 below shows the tournament implied probability of their tournament wins, obtained by multiplying their individual implied probabilities in individual matches:
Federer, for example, was the easiest for 2009 at Wimbledon, where he was never rated above 1.11 in his seven games. His odds individually were: 1.002, 1.005, 1.01, 1.04, 1.07, 1.06 and 1.11, which is a tournament implied probability of 75%. On the contrary, his 2017 Australian Open title was his toughest when, after beating Nadal in the final as an outsider (odds on his victory was 2.25), he won the title with just 8.9% tournament probability.
For Federer (52%) and Nadal (49%), median tournament implied probabilities are significantly higher than for Djokovic (39%), which means that Djokovic had to work much harder to win.
Grand Trio records at Grand Slam tournaments
Novak Djokovic was the favorite for Wimbledon 2020 and could well have narrowed his gap in the number of victories in Grand Slam tournaments.
Rafael Nadal remains the favorite at the 2020 French Open, which has been pushed back to September at this stage. Nadal’s 13th win at the French Open would put him on a par with Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles each. He (33) and Djokovic (32) are significantly younger than Federer (38), and if they can, like Federer, win three Grand Slam tournaments after they turn 35, they will probably both surpass the Swiss.
How did the players meet expectations?
Using Pinnacle’s closing odds since early 2004 as a tool, the Chart 3 below shows the trio of favorites versus expectations in all of their professional matches:
At the same time, Federer exceeded forecasts at the beginning of his career (from 2004 to 2008) and in recent years (from 2015 to 2020). The interim period was fairly smooth. Nadal performed better than predicted from 2004 to 2009 and then in line with expectations. Djokovic’s trajectory shows a sustained decade of advancing development from 2006 to 2016, followed by a more even period that coincided with the rise of Federer and Nadal.
Overall, Djokovic showed the best result of all three compared to expectations. He has 36 wins higher than expected compared to Federer (26) and Nadal (18). If we remove the performances at the Grand Slam tournaments, then Djokovic (25) and Federer (25) will have the same record, while both of them performed significantly better than Nadal (15).
Who is the best in personal meetings?
Fans of Nadal and Djokovic often point to their head-to-head advantage against Federer as proof that Federer should not be considered the strongest tennis player. Could Federer really be so, despite not being the best in matches against both of his strongest opponents? Federer’s result in the games against Djokovic is 23:27, and against Nadal – 16:24.
Let’s dig a little deeper. In total, 40% of the confrontations between Federer and Nadal took place on clay courts, where Nadal undoubtedly surpasses his opponent (Nadal is leading here 14: 2). On hard and grass courts, these are completely different matches, with Federer’s advantage 12: 9 and 3: 1, respectively. If they had played more on grass, it is likely Federer would have improved overall stats.
Djokovic, on the other hand, wins against Federer on both hard (20:18) and grass courts (3: 1), while they have shared victories in their eight meetings on clay. Djokovic also performed better than Federer on clay against Nadal (7:16), surpassing the Spaniard on hard surfaces (20: 7).
Djokovic and Nadal shared victories in their four meetings on the grass, but the total match result is 29:26 in favor of Djokovic. So, Djokovic is leading both in his personal fights with Federer and with Nadal. However, analyzing how the results compare to the bookmaker’s odds will give us a little more detail for information.
Federer vs. Nadal
Nadal has been the favorite 23 times (including 14 of 16 on clay) of his 40 matches with Federer. Calculated from BC Pinnacle’s closing odds, the results should be 20.8 wins for Nadal versus 19.2 for Federer, which means that Nadal’s 24 wins put him 3.2 wins higher than expected.
By plotting the Graph 4 of their expected and overall wins, we can see Federer has been consistently overrated. Prior to Federer’s victory in the 2015 Basel final, he was six wins below expectations. Only a six-game winning streak that ended at the 2019 French Open narrowed the expectation gap somewhat for Federer, but he still lags behind Nadal both in wins overall and in wins against expectations.
Nadal vs. Djokovic
In 55 matches against Djokovic, Nadal was the favorite 33 times and his opponent 22. In the Chart 5 below, we can see that Nadal performed significantly worse than the estimated closing odds of Pinnacle winning just 26 games out of the expected 31.2.
On the other hand, Djokovic exceeded the expectations by 5.2 matches, scoring n 29 wins (up from the expected 23.8). Results first began to diverge from expectations in 2011, when Djokovic emerged on his seven-game winning streak, and the divergence has continued to widen in Djokovic’s favor since then. Since the 2011 Indian Wells final, Djokovic has won 22 of 32 matches against Nadal.
Djokovic vs. Federer
There were two different periods in the rivalry between Djokovic and Federer. In 19 head-to-head matches until 2011, Federer started as the favorite on 18 occasions, winning 13 of them. In 31 games since then, Roger has been the favorite four times, but has won ten times.
Overall, the odds give Djokovic a small expected lead, with 25.1 expected wins against Federer’s 24.9 (see Chart 6 ). Match results were relatively close to expectations, with no player ever exceeding expectations by more than three matches. After winning Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open 2020, his 27:23 result is 1.9 matches higher than expected.
The answer to the main question
Some adore watching Federer play, others admire Nadal’s will to win, but still Djokovic is on his way to surpass both of them. Since Wimbledon was canceled this year, and Federer will be 39 years old in a year, it is highly unlikely that the Swiss will win another Grand Slam.
At the same time, Nadal can catch up with Federer in the number of victories in Grand Slam tournaments (20), winning the yet-to-be-canceled French Open 2020, where he is the favorite. Of course, Djokovic will also strive to win the French Championship for the second time. His last victory over Nadal in this tournament in 2015 left a bright mark on the history of tennis.
Even with injury, Djokovic should be the favorite in all three off-clay Grand Slam tournaments for the foreseeable future, and his form over the past few years shows that he could well claim the record here.
Thus, the Serb retains the advantage in almost all respects. In the Grand Slam tournaments, he faced stronger opponents than Federer and Nadal, but he performed significantly better than expected, both as the favorite and as the underdog.
Djokovic has been the most compelling predictor, exceeding expectations in both key games, and more broadly throughout his career. The Serbian tennis player, in our opinion, is the best of the best in the “great trio”. Whether he actually outstrips his rivals, let’s see: in any case, an exciting spectacle awaits us.