No matter what happens this weekend in Chicago, tennis fans can safely say that Europe holds the edge over the rest of the world in the men’s game these days. According to my forecast, Europe has a healthy advantage in the second edition of the Laver Cup, and that’s with Rafael Nadal, the top-ranked singles player (and an excellent doubles player!) skipping the event.
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in 1999, a pair of Americans, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, held sway, and an Australian, Patrick Rafter, was also in better form than anyone Europe could have sent out in a proto-Laver Cup. Earlier in the 90s, Sampras and Agassi fought it out at the top of the rankings with even more Americans, such as Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Europeans have almost always been present near the top of the ranking table, but the rest of the world has often held its own.
The Laver Cup format provides a plausible way to measure regions against each other. Comparisons like this are virtually impossible to quantify, because there’s no consensus on what it means for one region to dominate another. Laver Cup gives us a compromise. Singles is more valuable than doubles, but doubles plays a part. Depth–at least to the extent of six guys–is required, but the top three players can have a greater impact on the result.
Using (surface-neutral) singles Elo ratings and year-end ATP doubles rankings, I built six-player Team Europe and Team World rosters for each season going back to 1983. I followed the logic I set out in yesterday’s post about the value of a doubles specialist, so each team consists of the five best available singles players plus the highest-ranked doubles player. If the best doubles option was already on the singles list, I took the next player on the list. I required that each singles player have a minimum of 20 victories that season, so as to filter out the most substantial injury problems (for instance, Andy Murray didn’t make it onto the hypothetical 2018 Europe squad), but otherwise, I assumed everyone was healthy and willing to participate.
As an example, let’s look at the fictional 1983 competition. The World team consisted of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jimmy Arias, Guillermo Vilas, Jose Luis Clerc, and Peter Fleming, while the Europe squad was made up of Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Jose Higueras, Anders Jarryd, Yannick Noah, and Pavel Slozil. (Lendl didn’t play under the USA flag until 1992, at which time the imaginary Team World, then captained by Rod Laver himself, snapped him up.) These sides made for one of the tightest hypothetical scenarios, with Team World winning 55% of simulations.
World’s fortunes soon turned. They were more heavily favored in the 1984 competition, but fell to underdog status for nine years after that. The graph shows each team’s probability of winning the Laver Cup every year, from 1983 to the present:
Keep in mind, the figures for 2017 and 2018 assume that the best available players all show up. Yesterday I gave Europe a 67.6% chanceof winning with this week’s actual rosters; add Nadal and move off hard courts to a neutral surface, and Europe’s chances improve to 75%, even with Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori available for Team World.
The gap between Europe and the rest of the world peaked in 2012, when the Big Four plus David Ferrer all had higher singles Elo ratings than any non-European player. It’s even worse than that: All the Europeans had Elo ratings about 2200, and among potential World team members, only Delpo rated above 2000. Plug those numbers into a Laver Cup forecast, and the hypothetical European side has an 87.5% chance of winning.
The 1987 competition–only three years after the World team would have been favored–looks nearly as lopsided. McEnroe and Connors were still leading the World side, but their levels had dropped while Lendl’s had risen. Add Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker to the mix, and it’s an 86.3% edge for the Europeans. Team World had a nice run in the 1990s, but at no point did their probability of winning a Laver Cup-style competition exceed 75%.
Europe’s power has eroded somewhat since 2012, but it’s difficult to imagine the event tilting fully in World’s favor anytime soon. Four of the five top ATPers under the age of 23 hail from the continent. There’s more hope in the teenage ranks, with Denis Shapovalov and Alex de Minaur (both potential World members) the only under-20s in the top 100, but even there, Europe’s depth wins out. Of the top ten teenagers in the ATP rankings, six are European.
Based on my hypothetical rosters, Team Europe would have been favored in 24 of the last 36 Laver Cups, and they would have won 23 of the 36. The format of the event introduces enough randomness that World is bound to win one of these years. But it will probably take a lot longer before tennis’s current top continent loses its position, even to the combined forces of the rest of the world.