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Visualizations of Day 14 at the 2016 U.S. Open

The final day of the 2016 U.S. Open brought us the 26th meeting of Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic has built up such a win record in recent years that, even at the final stage of a Grand Slam against as formidable an opponent as World No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, he was still the favorite by far. FiveThirtyEight predictions gave the World No. 1 an 88% chance of winning his 13th Major title. As imbalanced a final as that suggests, Djokovic’s win record against Wawrinka backed up those odds: going into the final, Djokovic won 21 of their professional meetings since 2004 and 11 of 13 of their meetings since Djokovic’s inhuman year in 2011.

One of the things that made this men’s final particularly interesting was how different each finalist’s journey was to get to the title match on Arthur Ashe. Wawrinka had the more typical course of the two, having 3 matches of more than 3 hours in length with an especially tough quarterfinal against a resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro and semifinal against 6th seed Kei Nishikori. In total, it took Wawrinka 247 service games, 18 hours and 15 minutes of matchplay to reach the final.

Djokovic, on the other hand, had a much more irregular path. With one walkover and 2 retirements up to the final, the 128 draw looked much more like a draw of 16 for Djokovic. Having played only 118 service games to get to the final, he had to spend just 9 hours and 3 minutes on court, less than half the match age of Wawrinka. Add to that the fact that Djokovic was never really tested, as neither of his most able opponents, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, brought there full game— Tsonga having an injury that forced a retirement and Monfils employing a bizarre tanking strategy that made him absent for most of the first two sets of their semifinal match.

The polar opposite experiences made for an interesting natural experiment as to what best prepares a player for a top final performance: a slog over two weeks that wears on the body but builds confidence in one’s game? Or, a series of easy matches that never push the competitor’s skill or body to their brink?

After nearly four hours on court, it was grind-familiar Wawrinka who pulled out the upset of a career and took his first U.S. Open title. Here is the point-by-point review charting Wawrinka’s path to the win and the major turning points that earned him his 3rd Major title.

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Tracking Wawrinka’s win chances from the first to the final point of the match, we see that it wasn’t until the end of second set, that the odds were against him throughout the first 3 sets. The pre-match odds in favor of Djokovic didn’t really begin to shift until the end of the second set. Although, there were signs that Wawrinka could threaten an upset in the first set in the eighth game when he saved two break chances and avoided going down a second break to Djokovic and then converted his break chances in the following game to force a tiebreak.

After being shutout in the first set tiebreak, Wawrinka made a move in the fourth game of the second set when he converted his first break opportunity of the set and fought off 3 break chances in his following service game. Djokovic was struggling to convert break chances but he was still generating nearly 3 break chances to every 2 Wawrinka was creating. That stat didn’t bode well for Wawrinka when Djokovic got the break back in the seventh. The decisive moment came in the tenth game when Djokovic had a loose service game with 3 unforced errors that gave Wawrinka the break and set.

The first game of the third was characteristic of Djokovic’s flaw throughout the match. He created 3 break chances but wasn’t able to seize those opportunities, in this case, because he was outplayed by Wawrinka who forced errors from Djokovic in each of those critical moments. After 12 tough points, Wawrinka managed to hold serve. One of the biggest turning points in the match came in the second game, when Wawrinka, perhaps aided by the confidence of the previous service hold and two backhand winners, broke Djokovic’s serve in six points. With that break, Wawrinka’s increased his odds from 17% at the start of the third set to 31%.

Wawrinka held that advantage until the fifth, when his backhand magic seemed to fail him and he made 3 unforced errors on that side and 1 on the forehand side to give Djokovic the break, dropping his chances of an upset back down to 20%. Both players held serve for the next six games. Needing a break to avoid a tiebreak in the twelfth game, Wawrinka played on a weak backhand game for Djokovic to take the break and set. That would be another milestone in the match, with a two-set lead, Wawrinka went into the fourth with even odds against the World No. 1.

The momentum for Wawrinka turned the tables even more in favor of the Swiss quickly in the second. In the second game, with Djokovic serving, Wawrinka needed just six points to get to a break point opportunity. That advantage was helped by 2 unforced errors on Djokovic’s forehand. Seeing Djokovic’s struggle on that side, Wawrinka took that opening and forced an error on the forehand to convert his break point chance. With the first break on the board and games away from match point, Wawrinka’s odds were at a match high of 80%.

It was at that point that Djokovic had a bloody toe patched by the trained, revealing for certain that he was playing through pain and banged up feet. From that point on, helped by Djokovic’s injury or not, Wawrinka seemed to have all the answers. There were only a few moments when Djokovic threatened to live up to his pre-match forecast. These included 3 chances to get the break back in the fifth game of the set. But Wawrinka was consistently more clutch and Djokovic couldn’t capitalize on those chances.

The games went easily for the server up until the ninth, when Wawrinka was in a match winning position. Djokovic hadn’t given up, even as Wawrinka had already done the impossible in going from less than a 20% chance of a win to a 90% chance. He got to 30-Love by forcing two errors from Wawrinka, but Wawrinka dug down and won 5 of the next 6 points to take the set, match, and title.

It was disappointing the Djokovic wasn’t his sharpest or healthiest for this match. It appears he has felt a bit off for all of the tournament as he admitted, in the post-match statements, to contemplating a withdraw weeks before the tournament. Still, no one can really get to a Grand Slam final without aches and pains to deal with, that is part of what makes consistency at the top-level so astounding. Credit to Djokovic for acknowledging Wawrinka’s courage to have played the way he did after such a grueling two weeks.

There aren’t many 10% underdogs that get to enjoy moments like this but, today, Wawrinka was the exception.

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