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Why did Nadal beat the algorithm in the Australian final?


Start of the third set of the Australian Open final. Daniil Medvedev has won two sets and is ahead 0-1 in the third. The television image shows the probability of victory on the track: 96% for the Russian, 4% for the Spanish Rafael Nadal. The rest is the story of an epic comeback and the milestone of the ‘Grand Slam’ number 21 for the Spanish. But, did Nadal beat the mathematical algorithm? Several experts in data analytics applied to sport analyze the keys.

That 4% that the ‘win predictor’ of the Australian tournament gave at that time to a comeback from the maniacrí -at the beginning of the match it gave him a 36% chance of winning- has been the subject of all kinds of humorous comments on social networks, all of them made a posteriori, when the tenacity of the player with the greatest tournaments in the history of tennis The men’s game turned a nearly lost match into an epic triumph.

However, judging by the experts consulted, the percentage was justified. In 338 games played by the Spanish tennis player in Grand Slam tournaments, the four main tournaments on the circuit, of 19 situations in which Nadal had started losing 0-2, he had only come back two; and in 13 of them in which he faced a player from the top ten of the ATP circuit he had not prevailed in any. Until Sunday.

“An algorithm does not beat or win. What an algorithm does is based on information, such as Rafa Nadal’s results history, to see how he has fared in that situation. Nadal had never won in that situation. Does that mean that 4% is not going to win a game? No, but that game, in that situation, played 100 times, he would have won it in 4“, explains to EFE Jesús Lagos, partner of ScoutAnalyst, a consultancy that provides data services to Spanish and European soccer clubs.

In the Open era, since 1974, only six tennis players had come from two sets down in a major tournament final: Bjorn Borg (Roland Garros 1974), Ivan Lendl (Roland Garros 1984), André Agassi (Roland Garros 1999), Gastón Gaudio (Roland Garros 2004), Dominic Thiem (US Open 2020) and Novak Djokovic (Roland Garros 2021). “To be frank, 4% was very generous,” adds Salva Carmona, CEO of the analytics company specialized in football Driblab, which works with clubs, player agents and federations.

“From now on, what we all have to think about is whether we are going to have to include other variables in the prediction model, such as fatigue, how long they have run, or if we only take into account the result. There are things that the model does not take into account. And then there is the Nadal factor, who is not just any tennis player, he is a player with 21 Grand Slams“, he adds. For the data analyst of the sports representation agency YouFirst, Sara Carmona, this case is a sign that the data in sports is “a complement” and should not be treated as if it were an absolute truth.

“That 4% gives circumstantial information, a probability that does not have to be fulfilled. Although the normal thing would have been for Nadal not to achieve victory, mainly because of the dynamics that the match had, but with Nadal we are talking about an out of series. a competitive animal with a mind as worked as his game,” he says.

How to squeeze 4%

The key, says Jesús Lagos, is understand how Nadal managed to squeeze that 4%. “The grace would be to find out under what patterns that 4% occurs, if it is because you make fewer services and the rival fails more, for example. But that in real time is complicated, and there artificial intelligence adds more value,” he explains. The Australian Open analyzes its data through a company called Game Insight Group, formed by the Australian tennis federation and the University of Victoria in Melbourne. In addition, in this area it has the sponsorship of the technological consulting firm Infosys, also a sponsor of the ATP circuit, to which it offers its technological platform for data visualization.

This company recently revealed some data that helps to understand how Nadal squeezed that 4% chance. After having an average of 55% accuracy on his first serve in the first two sets, in the third the Spanish champion raised his effectiveness with the service to 82%. From 11% accuracy with his forehand in the first set to 35% in the fourth.

An example of working with that data to maximize performance is the team of the Olympic and world badminton champion Caroline Marin, led by his coach Fernando Rivas. “They analyze what they call the sequences, if a player hits the shuttlecock right, right, left and up, what is the probability of that happening, which allows you to get ahead and turn it almost into a game of chessLagos explains.

Another element that shines in the case of Rafa Nadal is the mental strength. A key that, according to experts, is currently not possible to translate into data incorporated into a probabilistic model. “You can’t get into the model if there isn’t a provider of psychological data, and as far as I know, at least in football there isn’t. In football we usually take into account the idea of ​​playing at home or away, but in tennis players always play outside. The weather is not taken into account either, or the quality of the playing field,” says Salvador Carmona.


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