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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic: Who's Best at Coming from Behind?

UNSPECIFIED, UNDATED:  (EDITORS NOTE: THIS IS A DIGITALLY ALTERED COMPOSITE IMAGE) 15 of the top male tennis players in the world (L-R) Ryan Harrison of United States, Bernard Tomic of Australia, Milos Raonic of Canada, Kei Nishikori of Japan, Fernando Verdasco of Spain, Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia, John Isner of United States, Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic, Roger Federer of Switzerland, Novak Djokovic of Serbia, Rafael Nadal of Spain, Andy Murray of Great Britain, David Ferrer of Spain, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France and Mardy Fish of United States look forward to the Indian Wells Open, the first of the season's ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for the ATP World Tour)

Kris Timken
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
AndersCorrespondent IIIApril 16, 2012

In my previous article, I asked who's the best front-runner among today's top four. The answer was not Roger Federer, but Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, depending on definition.

Today, I ask who's best at coming from behind. Again, this is a category where we have certain expectations. Many fans and pundits alike will say that you can never count out Nadal, no matter the score. This statement appears to be closer to reality than the belief that Federer is the best front-runner in the game. 

Coming from behind is defined as being able to win the match despite losing the first set. Naturally, this is easier to do in the best-of-five format, but in the stats provided here, best-of-five and best-of-three are molded together.

To go straight to the point, Nadal is head of the class among today's top-four players with an impressive 41.0 win percentage after losing the first set. That leaves him at ninth on the all-time list. Federer is a clear second and 11th on the all-time list with a 39.8 win percentage. 

And Djokovic and Murray? Well, they are down at 18th and 21st, respectively, winning 36.1 and 35.7 percent of their matches after losing the first set. 

Lleyton Hewitt is the best active player in this category and seventh on the all-time list, winning 42.1 percent of his matches after losing the first set. 

It's interesting how the current top four dominated the front-running all-time list with positions at second, third, sixth and eighth and none of them are within the top eight on the "come from behind" list. 

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - MARCH 26:  Andy Roddick reacts to beating Roger Federer of Switzerland during Day 8 of the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 26, 2012 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A possible explanation can be that today's game is filled with less surprises and simply more professional. In earlier times, players could perhaps more easily get away with relaxing a bit after winning the first set. And would get upset more often earlier in a tournament.

Today's top four make it to the semis of almost every single tournament they enter. Federer, a player past the age of thirty, had not lost to a player outside the top 20 in one-and-a-half years before losing to former No. 1 Andy Roddick, who just happens to be outside the top 20 at the moment. 

On the other hand, players from yesteryear possibly had the ability to come from behind, when they needed it (i.e. when they had squandered a first-set lead or simply lost the first set.)

None other than Rod Laver leads the list above with an amazing 49.0 winning percentage after losing the first set. And this is based on 145 of his matches, presumably from late in his career. 

Björn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Lleyton Hewitt and Arthur Ashe follow before we get to Rafa at No. 9. 

As with the front-running stats, these stats get better with more context, i.e. the player's overall win percentage. Naturally, the higher an overall win percentage you have, the higher a percentage of matches you will typically win after coming from behind. 

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. 

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 Matt
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

 

With these stats in mind, Nadal and Federer are more or less dead even in terms of the ability to win when they come from a set down.

When compared with the previous article on front-running, the surprising conclusion is that Nadal is a marginally better front-runner that Federer, but that Federer is actually closer to Nadal in terms of the ability to come from behind, where they are close to dead even. 

But perhaps the real surprise is that the differences are so small that they are hardly worth mentioning between these two giants of the game. 

And Djokovic and Murray? Well, when you factor in their win percentages, Murray is the better player when it comes to coming from behind. And, comparatively speaking, he's pretty close to Nadal and Federer. 

Then again, at this point in time, you cannot overlook Djokovic coming back against Federer two times in a row at the U.S. Open, coming back from two sets to one down in Australia against Murray, coming back after losing the first set to Nadal in Australia and then also in the fifth set after he lost the fourth set in a heart-breaking tie-breaker. 

Next article in the stats game: Coping under pressure. 

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