Tennis Case Study - Dominic Thiem's Scheduling

Skype: Sports Analytics Advantage

17th March, 2017.  

As I wrote in this article, Dominic Thiem's scheduling has been questioned of late, with the Austrian playing an extremely ambitious array of tournaments so far in 2017.

The world number nine played back to back to back events in Brisbane, Sydney and the Australian Open - all on hard courts - to kick off his campaign.  It is hard to make a case for playing both weeks before the first Grand Slam of the year (pretty much no top player ever does), but this was nothing compared to post-Australian Open.

Thiem's tournament entries for February and early March is almost certainly the most demanding five-week schedule that I have ever seen, as seen below:-

Date

Event

Surface




6/2/17

Sofia

Indoor Hard

13/2/17

Rotterdam

Indoor Hard

20/2/17

Rio de Janeiro

Clay

27/2/17

Acapulco

Hard 

6/3/17

Indian Wells

Hard


Of these events, only Indian Wells is a mandatory event, so Thiem has played these events - across three different surfaces - purely through planned choice. 

Three events (Rotterdam through to Acapulco) were 500 level, with Sofia being a low-level 250 tournament.

Following this questioning of Thiem's schedule, his coach, Gunter Bresnik, who has coached Thiem since childhood, was quoted as saying 'Thiem's schedule this month [February] was crazy, it's my fault'.

However, while it is admirable to for Bresnik to take the blame, and divert it from the player, who surely has some say in the matter, and who actually performed pretty admirably given the circumstances in these five events (three quarter-finals and one title, albeit in a relatively weak event in Rio de Janeiro where he had a 70% or greater chance of winning each match), further evaluation of Thiem's tournament selection going back to 2016 reveals that this scheduling was far from out of the ordinary.

The table below shows the number of events each of the current ATP top 10 (rankings prior to Indian Wells) played in 2016, and also highlights the number of back to back events they played, and how many immediate continent switches each player had (which also adds arduous travelling into the equation):-

Top 10 

Events

B2B Events

Immediate Continent Switches





Murray

17

5

1

Djokovic

16

2

0

Wawrinka

21

6

1

Raonic

19

4

0

Nishikori

20

3

1

Nadal

16

6

1

Cilic

22

10

3

Tsonga

16

5

2

Thiem

27

17

5

Federer

7

1

0


It seems apparent from this data that not only was Thiem's scheduling in February/early March 2017 questionable, it also was in 2016, with the Austrian talent playing at least five more events than any other current top ten player, seven more back to back events than any other, and an incredible five immediate continent switches, almost at least double every other player's count.

Considering this, accumulated fatigue - something that should be avoided at all cost in any sport - is almost inevitable for Thiem, and detailed data analysis, split throughout three stages of the 2016 season illustrates this:-


Jan-Mar

Apr-Jun

Jul-Nov









Hold %

83.2

84.6

77.8

Break %

27.2

31.6

18.3

Combined %

110.4

116.2

96.1

Service Points Won %

67.3

66.5

62.4

Return Points Won %

39.3

38.8

34.1

Over/Under Performance on Serve BPs

-9.0

1.8

-6.2

Over/Under Performance on Return BPs

5.0

0.4

2.7

Net Over/Under Performance on BPs

-4.0

2.2

-3.5


Here we can see that Thiem was easily posting top ten quality combined hold/break percentages (anything over 110% is top ten level, for sure) from January to June, and also service points/return points won numbers, which drive the hold/break percentages.  

Looking at these hold/break numbers, it's interesting to see that Thiem posted a slightly worse combined percentage (110.4% compared to 116.2%) from January to March, as opposed to April to June, despite better service/return points won data.  

This was largely due to significant underperformance on break points on serve, with him saving just 55.5% of break points on his serve, compared to an expectation (based on service points won percentage) of 64.5%.

The January to June numbers recorded by Thiem on the whole indicate that he is easily top 10 level, and not that far off being top five, so he clearly is a player of immense talent, and at 23 years of age, still has a very friendly age curve in front of him as well.

However, for Thiem, July to November 2016 was an utter disaster.  A drop of 4-5% in both service points won and return points won yielded a combined hold/break percentage of 96.1% - not even top 50 level - although Thiem did underperform (compared to service points won expectation) badly again on break points on his serve, as he did in January to March.  

It is absolutely logical to consider that this gigantic drop-off in level in the second half of the season - there was around 20% difference in combined hold/break percentage from April to June compared to July to November - was due to the fact that he was absolutely shattered, and not surprisingly, with all other top players playing much fewer events, far less back to back events and much less continent to continent travel. 

Assessing his data from ATP Chengdu (26th September 2016) to the end of the ATP season in mid-November, we can see Thiem's level dropped even more:-

Chengdu onwards:-




Hold %

73.7

Break %

12.8

Combined %

86.5

Service Points Won %

58.3

Return Points Won %

29.7


A combined hold/break percentage of 86.5% isn't even top 100 level, and it's not even a competent Challenger player's level, so for a top ten player to record these numbers, when he was playing at a level of greater than 110% for the first six months of the season, is truly shocking.

We cannot even make any type of argument that Thiem's opponent quality was so good that it would be fair to expect a drop-off.  The three matches that he won from Chengdu onwards were against Di Wu (world rank 194), Gerald Melzer (71) and an injured Gael Monfils (6).  

In short, this scheduling almost certainly cost Thiem from a ranking and financial perspective in the second half of the season, with the table below illustrating the financial and ranking point gains available for just one more victory in each tournament that he played:-

Event

Prize Money for One More Victory 

Ranking Points for One More Victory




Chengdu

$22520

45

Beijing

$20090

45

Vienna

€26440

45

Paris

€26290

45

Tour Finals

$179000

200

 

From a ranking point point of view, using the pre-Indian Wells rankings this week, an extra 200 points at the Tour Finals would have moved him from a current ninth in the world rankings to eighth, and just 15 points behind Marin Cilic in seventh.

These small ranking margins actually determine a great deal - eight players make it to the Tour Finals (where financial and ranking point rewards are immense) each season and being ranked above the likes of Cilic and Tsonga would also be hugely beneficial from a seeding perspective in regular tour events.   

Looking at this from a monetary standpoint, with at least $20,000 on the table for at least one more victory, and around $250,000 total prize money for one more win in each event, it is clear to see that by underperforming so badly in the final stages of 2016 - almost certainly down to playing too many events and travelling too much - Thiem left vast sums money on the table.

It is highly likely that a tournament planning service as offered by Sports Analytics Advantage to Tennis players would be of great benefit to Thiem (and others - he is just an extreme and currently high profile/relevant example), and the costs associated with such a service are very small indeed, when compared to the illustrated potential financial benefits and ranking point drop-offs resulting from bad scheduling.
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