Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Nerd's Guide to the Greatest US Open Champs -- Women

The New York Times has created a mock US Open draw pitting eight US Open champions of the last 30 years against each other. They did one for both the men and women, but I’m just focusing on the women here. Their explanation of how they selected and seeded players is almost reasonable, but I found it a bit haphazard and lacking in a real ability to judge relative merits of the careers of these women. Plus, I think it puts people in the draw that really shouldn’t make an eight-person US Open draw of past champions. So, let me briefly explain some of the issues I have with their draw and then fashion something similar myself.

Right off the bat, the “past 30 years” criterion they chose bothered me, mostly because of the way they implemented it. They only included players that had won a championship in the past 30 years, but then they seeded them based on their entire careers. Chris Evert is rightly seeded first in a draw of past champs, but not if you’re only counting the last 30 – in which time frame she only won the title once. Either the competition in the first dozen years of the open era was inferior or it wasn’t. If it was, then Evert can't play in this tournament because all but one of her first five Open titles came against players who played the bulk of their careers in those years. And if it wasn’t inferior, then leaving Billie Jean King and Margaret Court out of it is just ridiculous.

I actually have a few other issues with their process, but since I can see already that this is going to go off the rails with regard to word count, I’ll just deal with them as I create my own competition. I’m not calling it a draw because I’m not sure yet how I’m going to organize the opponents. I’m making this up as I go.

I’m including all women that won two or more US Open titles in the Open Era. I’m not considering any titles won before that time – so Margaret Court gets no credit for her first two nor Billie Jean King for her first. And I’m only going to consider their results at the Open. That was another thing I didn’t like about the NYT draw. When they were making their cases for the players some of the debaters used the player’s overall career results to puff her up. That’s not how we roll here.

As I was trying to put this together, I realized that unless you’re doing a poll it doesn’t really work as a draw. It just has to be a list. When you’re talking about all-time greats, what’s the point of pitting #1 vs. #8. How does 8 ever have a theoretical chance against 1? Although, as I write this Justine Henin has a huge lead over Chris Evert in their NY Times debate. To me, that only proves that the only thing more stupid than the NY Times draw is its voting audience. Morons.

Both statistically and emotionally, the only players with any chance of the top spot are Chris Evert and Steffi Graf. Here’s a stat for you. From 1975-1980, Evert was 41-1 at the Open. But Graf had two spans of greatness – 26-2 from 1987-1990 and 27-1 from 1993-1996. They both had periods where they were dethroned by someone that forced them to raise their levels. There’s not that much to separate them, but there is a little. For instance, Evert played the Open 19 times and never lost before the quarterfinals. So, Evert gets the nod over Graf because of a superior winning percentage overall, in addition to the one more title she won.

Three, four and five were much more difficult than I’d imagined. Until I looked at the numbers I assumed Navratilova would be three and Serena Williams four.

However, here’s what I uncovered statistically. Kim Clijsters has a better winning percentage at the Open than either of them. Navratilova’s is actually worse than all but one of the 11 women with two or more titles. It’s easy to want to give her the edge because of who she is, but at the start I said I was only going to count US Open performance. Because of that, I decided three and four had to be a battle between Clijsters and Williams.

If they both were retired, I’d go with Clijsters at number three. Not only has she won her three titles in three fewer trips to the Open than Serena, but since 2003 she is a crazy 27-1 on the courts at Flushing Meadows. Serena’s winning percentage is only seventh best. I was going to look at their head to head at the Open, but they’ve only played twice. Once was in 1999 before Clijsters was even in the top 20; the other time was the match that Serena foot-faulted out of. That doesn’t really tell any kind of story at all about who should be ranked higher. Again, having to discount all the other majors makes it a more sticky situation. However, Serena’s in the draw this year as the favorite and has a great shot at her fourth Open title. On that very slim line, I’m going to give her the number three spot.

There’s not much else to say about Navratilova. If this were the Wimbledon list she’d be number one in a landslide. But she didn’t win her first US Open until her 11th trip to New York. That obviously is why her winning percentage is so low. But four titles and four other appearances in the final are certainly good enough for the fifth spot.

The field becomes very crowded and confused from here. The NY Times chose Venus Williams, Monica Seles and Justine Henin to round out their field of eight. Billie Jean King and Margaret Court were left out because of the arbitrary 30 year rule. I have no idea why Tracy Austin was completely ignored.

I’m going to go with Seles at number six because even though she only won the Open twice, her career was completely altered by circumstances out of her control. She won in 1991 and 1992, then got to the final in 95 and 96 after missing the two years in between. It’s impossible for me to believe that she wouldn’t have at least four US Open titles if she hadn’t been stabbed.

I’m going rogue for number seven. Tracy Austin only played the US Open six times and won it twice. In 1979 she beat Navratilova and Evert on consecutive days to win the championship. She also beat Navratilova in the final in 1981. She also has the fourth-best winning percentage of the players on this list.

For number eight, I’m going to go with a tie between Court and King. From 1969 to 1974 they combined to win all the US Opens. Oddly, they didn’t play each other in the final once during that time. Weird.

Rounding out the top ten, I’m going to have to go with Venus Williams over Justine Henin. While Henin won her two titles in four fewer tries, she somehow had a lower winning percentage than Venus – actually the lowest on the list. Also, from 1997-2002, Venus didn’t lose before the semi-finals.

For me, this is the definitive list of the greatest US Open Women’s champions of the open era (column one – wins/losses, column two – winning percentage, column three – tournament wins/times played):

  1. Chris Evert                  102-13      88.7        6/19
  2. Steffi Graf                   73-10       88.0        5/15
  3. Serena Williams           52-8        86.6%       3/11
  4. Kim Clijsters                37-5        88.1%       3/8
  5. Martina Navratilova      89-17      84.0         4/21
  6. Monica Seles                53-10      84.1         2/12
  7. Billie Jean King            42-5       89.4          3/9
  8. Margaret Court             34-3       91.9          3/6
  9. Tracy Austin                 31-4       88.6          2/6
  10. Venus Williams             60-10      85.7         2/13
  11. Justine Henin               35-7       83.3          2/9

For super geeks, I’ve done a ranking of the one and done champions as well. That’s down below the signature.

The first thing I looked at was winning percentage at the Open. Since Virginia Wade and Gabriela Sabatini both won less than 78% of their matches, I eliminated them first. 

Arantxa Sanchez and Maria Sharapova both fell in the 78-79 range, but I gave Sharapova credit for still being active. So she’s still in, Sanchez is out. 

Hana Mandlikova and Svetlana Kuznetsova were in the 79-80 range and as much as I hate her, Kuznetsova is still active so she won that battle. 

Both Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport were above 80, so I kept them both for now. 

Next I looked at both retired players relative to each other and active players to each other. Hingis made the final a total of three times, while Davenport only got there twice. Combine that with Hingis’ higher winning percentage and we have our first finalist in the qualies. 

Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova was much more difficult. I was stunned to discover that Kuznetsova had a higher winning percentage than Sharapova at the Open. Plus, she has been to the final once more than Sharapova. Still, once you get down to head –to-head match ups, intangibles count.

1. I hate Kuznetsova
2. I love Sharapova
3. Sharapova is in the top five currently while Kuznetsova isn’t even in the top ten
4. Sharapova is two years younger.

Based on all of this, I decided that Sharapova has the better chance of winning another Open before she retires. 

So that left me with Sharapova vs. Hingis. This was a struggle for me. Ultimately I went with Sharapova because I really do believe she will probably win another US Open before she retires. 

If you think you would have chosen Hingis instead, I completely respect that decision. If you think you’d have chosen Kuznetsova, then get out and never read my blog again. I banish you.

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