Why Federer keeps losing to Djokovic

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Since 2011 Djokovic has been the dominant player on the Mens’ Tour, which is an understatement. Not even the foremost GOAT candidate Federer has been able to live with his wall-like defense, sharp movement and mental resilience.

While it can be argued that this was because 2011 was when Federer hit 30, an age when players went into irreversible decline, this does not seem to apply to Federer (or Djokovic and Nadal for that matter, who have also won multiple Grand Slam titles since that age and maintained their Top 3 ranking).

After Federer’s latest loss to Djokovic in the Paris Masters, a match that could have gone his way with 2 tie-breakers and Federer serving for set in the first one, it reminded me of other close matches (basically all) Federer lost to him. It looked like when push comes shove, Djokovic is really a better bet, despite there not being a major difference in the overall game. The Immovable Object overcoming the Unstoppable Force…

Tennis is a game of slim margins. A very small number of players win almost all the big titles. If Federer has 20 times more Grand Slams than Cilic, whose only win was 2014 US Open, it really does not mean he is a 20 times ‘better’ player. What usually happens is on the handful of decisive points in a match, the winners raise their game while their opponents fail to do so or get worse, and no one does this better than Federer, except it seems like to Nadal and Djokovic.

I set out to investigate how this dynamic has played out in Federer-Djokovic Grand Slam matches since 2011, where Djokovic holds a 7–2 record (77.7% win rate). I will focus on ‘Pressure’ points, when players are exactly neck and neck in the later stages of games (30–30, 40–40) in later stages of sets (3–3, 4–4, 5–5). What happens after these points will also be partially analyzed but tie-breaks will not.

There were 36 such points in these 9 Grand Slam matches. While it is clear that Djokovic really shines on the Pressure Points (winning 64% of those), to get a more accurate picture it is necessary to compare this to overall points won as it may just be that he is winning more points. Therefore I also defined a Pressure Index, which is ‘Pressure Points Win Rate’/’Overall Points Win Rate’ i.e. how much better or worse a player is doing on Pressure Points versus Overall Points.

We see that Djokovic has a better Win Rate on Pressure Points (64%) versus Overall Points (52%), a Pressure Index of (0.64/0.52=) 1.24 meaning he is winning 24% more on Pressure Points and raising his game, while Federer’s Pressure Index comes out to be (0.36/0.48=) 0.75, meaning he is winning 25% less:

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Another major factor in tennis is Serve. While Djokovic is winning more of these Pressure Points, it is also possible that that is because they are on his Serve, giving him a higher chance of winning. So I set out to investigate how this plays out on Serve. The biggest sign of choking is not winning on your own serve as you have the first strike and advantage.

Out of the 36 big points, 14 (~44%) were contested on Djokovic’s serve. Unfortunately as a Federer fan, Djokovic came up with answers, winning 88% of these points, besting his overall Point Win Rate on Serve of 66%, doing 32% better. While Djokovic served better under pressure than normal, Federer won only 55% of Pressure Points on Serve compared to 64% Overall, doing 14% worse:

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One important thing that comes after these Pressure Points is Break Points, winning which gives a major leg up. It is something Federer has had issues with (Federer fans will remember the stream of breakpoints on Nadal’s serve in French Open finals). Looking at the full match, not just deadlocks at 3–3,4–4 and 5–5, in these 9 Grand Slam matches, Federer was only able to convert 26% of his 100 break point opportunities. Djokovic converted 42% of his 99. DECISIVE. The nadir really came in Wimbledon and US Open 2015 where Federer converted less than 20% of his breakpoints. In contrast, the lowest Djokovic has had in a match is 27%.

While we are not analyzing certain pressure situations like tie-breaks, or defining pressure as one player being close to losing like being down 1–5 in a set (debatable whether having nothing to lose takes away pressure or increases it) and only partially analyzing what happens after someone wins the Pressure Point by only looking at breakpoints (including those in non-Pressure games) it does look like the reason for Djokovic’s dominance is really raising the game on the big points. Holding winning records over Federer and Nadal, Golden Masters, holding all 4 Grand Slams at same time, longest winning streak, 2 best seasons ever (2011 and 2015), in pure stats terms, the arguments are running out for not considering Djokovic as the best of this generation, and reaching Federer’s 20 Grand Slams would end the debate

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