Men's Tennis

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic: Who's the Best Front-Runner?

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 17:  Rafael Nadal of Spain congratulates Roger Federer of Switzerland after their match during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 17, 2012 in Indian Wells, California.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
AndersCorrespondent IIIApril 10, 2012

Pundits and fans alike ascribe certain qualities and features to players. Qualities such as Nadal's fighting and 'never say die' attitude and his ability to cope with pressure. And Roger Federer's ability as a front-runner.

The qualities will always have some base in reality, perhaps often based on observations from career-defining matches. But some of them are not as true as the pundits and the fans think. 

And one of them is with regard to the top-fours front-running ability. Front-running can be defined in different ways, but in general it is used to describe a players ability to win while ahead. For that reason, I define it as the players ability to win the match after winning the first set. 

Often a match report on any given Federer match will see the three words 'in full flight' used to describe Federer once he has sealed the first set and raises his game to his other-worldly level in the second. 

But if one goes by the stats, it is actually Novak Djokovic, closely followed by Nadal, who's the best front-runner in the men's game. And Federer? Well, he's the worst (though still pretty good). 

All of the current top four are in the top eight on the all-time list on front-runners, defined as winning the match after winning the first set. But whereas Djokovic wins 95.0 percent of the matches at second, Federer wins a mere 93.0 percent at eight. Rafa is third at 94.8 percent and Murray sixth with 93.8. 

Those stats cannot be viewed in isolation. Obviously, the more matches you win, the more matches you will also win after winning the first set. And Nadal leads the match-winning percentage game with 82.4 ahead of Federer with 81.5, Djokovic with 78.6 and Murray with 75.4. 

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - MARCH 28:  Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts to winning a match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France during Day 10 of the Sony Ericcson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2012 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Ge
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When you view the two stats together, Murray may in fact be the best front-runner among the top-four, comparatively speaking. How? Well, because he has the, by far, worst winning percentage, yet he manages to win almost as many matches after winning the first set as Djokovic and Nadal.

Not exactly the conclusion you would expect 

Federer, though, is still the worst. And Nadal is, comparatively speaking third worst after Murray and Djokovic. But in absolute terms, i.e. who wins most matches regardless of overall winning percentage, Nadal and Djokovic are the front-runners in the history of the game, only beaten by a small margin by the great Björn Borg, who's at 95.4 percent. 

There's a small caveat with this article that needs mentioning. Front-running has been viewed as a statistical entity over the entire career. But as already mentioned, the ideas about who's good at what (Federer at front-running, Nadal at never giving in) are often born out of career-defining matches. 

The current analysis has not gone into depth with regards to specific matches. It is thus possible that when it comes to matches against top-five opposition, Federer is indeed the best front-runner. However, the answer to that question would require a deeper, longer and much more time-consuming qualitative analysis than I can offer you this time. 

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