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Sam Querrey Beats Novak Djokovic In A Very Old-Fashioned Upset

Novak Djokovic entered his third-round match at Wimbledon on Friday against California-born Sam Querrey as the prohibitive favorite — not just to win, but to win in straight sets. Djokovic had won 30 straight Grand Slam matches, 86 straight matches in “the first week” of Slams — an imprecise phrase meaning the first three rounds, even though the fourth round sometimes starts in the first week — and an astonishing 73 consecutive sets in the first weeks of Slams.

But on Saturday, Djokovic exited the match — one day, many rain delays and plot twists and inexplicable misses later — as a surprise loser.

Just how big a surprise was it? It depends on what standard you hold Djokovic to. He and his rivals — fellow Big Four members Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — have set an astonishingly high bar for consistency in what we’ll call “should-win matches,” as top-five players in the first week of Slams. Each member of the Big Four has won between 95 and 98 percent of should-win matches. If one of them has entered a major when healthy enough to play, that player has been almost a sure thing to advance to the fourth round.1

But not all prior men’s tennis stars were nearly so consistent. They had off weeks or struggled at particular tournaments or faced tougher early opponents, back when draws were more open. Pete Sampras, who is tied for second all-time with Nadal as a winner of 14 Grand Slam titles, lost 7 percent of his should-win matches. So did Sampras’s top rival, Andre Agassi. If Djokovic wants help coming to terms with his loss, he can turn to his coach, Boris Becker, who lost 13 percent of his should-win matches. Becker’s contemporaries John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg all lost should-win matches more often than has Nadal, the least consistent of the Big Four early in majors.

AS TOP-FIVE PLAYER AS NO. 1 PLAYER
PLAYER WINS WIN PERCENTAGE WINS WIN PERCENTAGE
Bjorn Borg 60 100%
18 100%
Ivan Lendl 97 99
49 100
Jimmy Connors 92 98
37 100
Andy Murray 92 98
Roger Federer 145 97
65 98
Novak Djokovic 107 97
47 98
Rafael Nadal 99 95
33 100
John McEnroe 57 93
29 100
Pete Sampras 91 93
56 95
Andre Agassi 75 93
23 92
Mats Wilander 54 92
1 50
Stefan Edberg 81 91
12 92
Boris Becker 73 87
2 67
Record in first three rounds of Grand Slam events

Note: Andy Murray has never been ranked No. 1

Source: tennisabstract.com

Djokovic isn’t just a top-five player: He’s the world No. 1. And the world’s best player really should win should-win matches. The loss to Querrey was Djokovic’s first in a should-win match as No. 1. Nadal has never lost one. Federer lost one: to Gustavo Kuerten in the third round of the 2004 French Open. Kuerten was a three-time French Open champ. Querrey has never reached the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam.

But again, these things used to happen more often. Sampras lost three should-wins as a No. 1. Agassi lost two. Becker lost only one — but he played only three. (He was No. 1 for only 12 weeks.)

Other factors beyond the numbers might make more sense of Querrey’s win. His great serving, the rain delays, health problems that Djokovic alluded to after the match: All of these probably played a role in the upset. To topple any of the Big Four usually requires lots of things going right for the underdog.

Footnotes

  1. This doesn’t count withdrawals before matches, such as Nadal’s before his third-round match at the French Open in May.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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