Throughout a sporting career, concerted efforts are made by all, be it coaches, family or agents, to keep the ship steady. The consensus is that an athlete on an even keel is more likely to produce his/her best. Top football managers (past and present) actively encourage their young players to ‘settle down’ and start a family as soon as they graduate from the academy. Meanwhile, all your average youth of the same school year is settling down to is the latest release of Call of Duty.
No matter how securely in place one’s life might be off the pitch/court/track, key moments on it might lead to unavoidable changes. And sporting careers (some more so than others) are dotted with key moments in the form of relative personal highs; becoming a pro, surprise breakthroughs, first big trophy, finally conquering one particularly elusive accolade etc. Could such highs be a likely cause of ‘boat-rock’? And crucially, does this present an attractive opportunity for us sports bettors?
The runaway trains
Sure, winning can breed further winning and sometimes it takes a great achievement to trigger the level of confidence necessary for an athlete (or team) to go on and dominate their sport. A teenage Stephen Hendry, and his famed mullet, exploded onto the professional snooker scene in the mid to late ’80s breaking all kinds of records. After his first World Championship triumph in 1990 he would barely take a breath, winning a record five ranking titles the very next season before dominating the sport for a decade. But if you arrive on the scene and raise the bar significantly higher than where it was previously set (a la Roger Federer or Usain Bolt), subsequent steam-rolling should come as no surprise. Maybe a drop in level for Hendry, Federer and Bolt wasn’t enough to drag them down to the level of their mere mortal opponents.
The tale of Monica Puig and Leicester City
Far more examples spring to mind though of post-high dips in form. To pick out a fresh in the memory team sport example, last season Leicester City achieved the 5000/1 feat (or so many bookies thought) of winning the Premier League. “A real-life sporting fairy tale” as their droves of new fans will tell you. Nine months later and two thirds of the way into the new season, you’ll find the champions down in 17th place – relegation a real possibility.
Focusing on tennis, after all that’s what we’re here for, and a trawl through the results archives suggests players’ levels drop time and again following a big fist-pump moment. Monica Puig’s recent Olympic exploits were a shock to all and propelled her to heroine status in her native Puerto Rico. She won their first ever Olympic medal – a gold one at that. Let’s hope not too many of her home fans tuned into her next appearance; Puig’s US Open campaign would be short-lived, losing (from 1.35 pre-match favourite) 6-4 6-2 to Saisai Zheng in round 1. Things didn’t get much better post-US Open either – inconsistency and mixed results since.
Puig is far from the only player to have suffered this ‘hangover’ phenomenon and even the very best in the game are not immune to a post-cheer slump. Angelique Kerber’s worst results last year all came in a flurry immediately after the German’s Aussie Open feat (Bencic 7-6 6-3, Saisai Zheng 7-5 6-1 and Allertova 7-5 7-5). No coincidence, we think.
It’s hard to apply rhyme or reason to the results of some players; erratic characters like Nick Kyrgios are world-beaters one day, hopeless tankers the next. Ernests Gulbis could certainly be grouped in the same bracket. Prior to 2014, reaching the 4th round of the US Open way back in 2007 was Ernie’s best Grand Slam showing. So the run to that year’s French Open semi-final was, and still is, a clear career highlight – it even got him into the top 10, albeit briefly. Not only should his subsequent Queen’s loss from 1.33 favourite to Kenny DeSchepper be considered an undesired after-effect, it would be three months after Paris before Gulbis recorded back to back wins. His hangover lasted well into the following season; from late 2014 to early 2015 he’d endure no fewer than seven losses on the spin (favourite in each of the contests!). As random as ‘The Gull’s’ results can seem, it’s too big a coincidence for the worst run of his career to immediately follow his greatest success.
“Who IS this guy?!”
Jerzy Janowicz couldn’t even make it to the 2012 Australian Open due to lack of sponsorship. Fast forward 10 months… the 22 year old 6’8” Pole would explode into the limelight in the last big event of the tennis calendar, the Paris Masters. Yes, fast indoor courts suit the big servers… but qualifying for and then knocking out five top 20 players en route to the final? A remarkable achievement, head and shoulders (excuse the pun) above any of his previous accomplishments in the professional game. Now, how was he to back-up this impressive feat? Well, aside from entertaining us all with his relentless ‘”HOW MANY TIMES?!” rants, he’d start the new season with 1st round losses in as many as 5 of his next 8 tournaments.
How many tennis players, like our break-building friend, Stephen Hendry, win big and just keep on winning (or more relevantly, win big then don’t start losing)? At Flushing Meadows the veteran Italian Roberta Vinci crushed Serena Williams’ hopes of a 2015 calendar Grand Slam, knocking out the huge favourite to reach the US Open final. Following the greatest achievement of her long career you might forgive a lack of hunger and focus. Surely wild celebrations were had? Vinci would have an inevitable slump, right? Wrong. Next stop Wuhan, Berta would beat Kvitova and Pliskova, both in straight sets, en route to a semi-final vs Serena’s big sis, Venus. Vinci was eventually denied back to back big-stage (and big money) finals by means of a 3rd set tie-break; some revenge for the Williams clan.
Then there’s Lucas Pouille. A real coming of age year for the 22 year old; maiden final in Bucharest, back to back Grand Slam quarters (Wimbledon & US Open). Stand alone, these achievements are impressive enough. Throw in claiming his first ATP title in Metz, the very next stop after New York – truly high acclaim. Quite possibly, with some players, the benefits that are gained from winning out-weigh the detractions that come with the distractions.
Ce-le-brate good times, COME ON! We’re not saying that after such triumphs players are stumbling out of Mahiki and alike night after night, but it’s probable that a cork or two might be popped. And these finely tuned athletes with rigorous, highly structured nutritional plans might be ‘thrown off’ somewhat if exposed to some Dom Perignon shaped interference.
Busy bees; with a big win can come international stardom, excited dollar-sign-eyed agents and demanding sponsors. This means media responsibilities, lots of them. And it’s logical to assume that ten interviews a day, a chain-ringing smart phone and an evening-do-heavy diary could all be distractions that might lead to a player metaphorically taking their eye off the ball. Monica Puig recently opened up about this fact in an interview; “After Rio, there was so much going on, and it was so hectic, that I forgot resting is also part of a tennis player’s job”.
Often, when propelled to super-stardom (Garbine Muguruza springs to mind), a career can have a shift in focus. Yes, Garbine was hot property before storming through the French Open field earlier this year, but success on the court was clearly top priority. With her glamourous looks she’s a sponsors dream; now a prolific instagrammer, have business incentives led to an upping of her gram-game? Maybe excessive finger-scrolling and needy sponsors contributed to the dip in form (Garbine’s post-RG win-rate was close to 50% for the remainder of the 2016 season).
Then there is on court burn-out. Obviously going deep, or winning, a tournament means a lot of tennis. And with a lot of tennis come a load of serves, forehands, backhands and plenty of side to side, back and forth metres covered. At some point the body will inevitably, and inconveniently, throw a strop; niggles will appear. “You only feel it once you stop” is a common sound bite in the world of professional sport – maybe this goes some way to explain a dip in level following a grueling, successful stint on tour.
The psychology game
Usually the match that follows lifting a trophy or going deep in a slam is on a much smaller stage, offers vastly lower prize money and has significantly fewer fans cheering from the stands. We witnessed a shocker of a return to the court when a shadow of the Flushing Meadows finalist, Karolina Pliskova, was resoundingly trounced by Sasnovic in Beijing. And repeat treatment the following week from Cibulkova in Wuhan. Although neither Beijing nor Wuhan could ever be described as a small tournament, the Asian swing notoriously struggles to get bums on seats, often resulting in a rather ‘dead’ atmosphere; quite the contrast to a rowdy mob on Arthur Ashe. After such a high, maybe Karolina just couldn’t get herself up for these matches.
Nice little earner?
In his first match after topping the lot at Flushing Meadows last year, the market had Wawrinka at 1.32 to beat Lukas Rosol. Longer than you would normally expect in this match up? Whilst Rosol might well choose indoor-hard as his court of preference vs Stan, there’s no doubt the price is long. We’d expect it to normally be somewhere in the low 1.2’s. So is the market wise to this phenomenon? Does it always adjust? Stan’s case is obvious, talked about and very news-present. It should therefore come as no surprise that market makers would punt on the Swiss player not being as prepared as ‘normal’ for his next upcoming contest.
So should we have our ears to the ground for similar, less high-profile cases of the Hero to Zero phenomenon? Re-enter Karolina Pliskova. Her much talked about Grand Slam curse was lifted at the US Open last month. The rangy Czech had previously not managed to venture past the 3rd round of any slam despite having 6 WTA singles titles to her name and being an established top 10 player for the last year. This was clearly a major breakthrough, without doubt a significant new ‘peak’ in Pliskova’s climb. So, with this in mind, did the market give her first opponent post-Flushing Meadows, Sasnovich, a good chance of upsetting the Grand Slam runner-up? It seems not. Pliskova was a 1.16 favourite. She lost 64 62, appearing lethargic and not particularly motivated, especially once down a set and a break. Now, don’t get us wrong, Pliskova should justifiably be strong favourite regardless of any external factors. But this is a very ‘normal’ price; if there has been an adjustment then it was a very minor one.
All of this anecdotal evidence points towards an opportunity to find value in betting against a player directly after a notable triumph. It’s quite possible that going from hero to zero is more likely than the market and bookies think.