Even with the men’s final still to come, we can already say that the 2017 Australian Open brought more surprises than anyone expected. As much as we will be focused on the surprise of another Williams sister final and the 35th meeting of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, we shouldn’t overlook the less familiar names that impressed us at the first Slam of the season.
Since it is sometimes hard to look back at two weeks of matchplay and pick out the performances that surprised us most, I was thinking how you might try to put a number to “improvement”. When we think of improvement we are usually thinking of a player that has done more than expected, which combines both how well a player has performed and how much that performance went beyond what he or she was anticipated to do.
To encapsulate these ideas into a numerical score, I’ve taken the total quality of shot-making in each player’s match at the Australian Open and multiplied that by their opponent’s forecast for winning the match. This multiplication factor effectively accounts for the difficulty of the player’s opponents. So, for example, a high-quality performance against Serena Williams would be upweighed compared to the same quality of performance against a qualifier.
A total improvement score is the sum of the difficulty-adjusted quality scores across all of a player’s AO matches. Players that should do well on this score are the ones who advanced against the most difficult opponents and maintained a high overall quality of shot, combining serve, forehand and backhand shot performance.
Among the top 10 most improved men, the number one and two spots go to the Mischa Zverev and Denis Istomin. It was a surprise enough to see Denis Istomin in the main draw after saving three match points in the wild card playoff, but to the man who would send Novak Djokovic his ticket home in the second round was a shock that left us all reeling for the first week. Istomin proved he was more than a one-upset wonder by continuing his run through to the Round of 16, where he eventually lost to a tough Grigor Dimitrov.
Unseeded Mischa Zverev wasn’t the Zverev people thought would leave an impression at the opening slam of the year. But after his brother Alexander fell to Rafa Nadal in the second round, big brother Mischa responded by taking out the No. 1 seed, Andy Murray, in the next in just four sets. Since Alexander has risen up the ranks, Mischa Zverev has seen a surge in his performance at slams. Expect even better outcomes for both brothers this season.
While several other unseeded players landed on the most improved list, including scrappy Dan Evans and feisty Benoit Paire, we also see a few of the favorites on the list. Rafa Nadal and Stan Wawrinka take the number 4 and 5 position. Both players went deep into the event (Nadal still with a chance to take the whole thing) and brought a consistently high-level of play throughout. We knew both players had it in them but, with Nadal’s short 2016 season and Wawrinka’s up-and-down performances at Slams, we weren’t sure we would see it so soon.
Quarterfinalist David Goffin and title-contender Roger Federer round out the list. Neither player was a favorite for the title but both made an impressive run and Federer continues to be making believers of us all.
Many of the names of the most improved women were likely new to causal AO fans. After seeing Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s aggressive yet mature style of play in the second week, no one should be surprised that she lands at the top of the list. Lucic-Baroni has had to deal with more than most during her career. Let’s hope we see more of her in the future and that her success at the Australian Open gives her direct entry into more Majors in the future.
The fiery American Coco Vandeweghe takes the second spot. This was the first Major semifinal for the hard-hitting Vandeweghe. Exiting before the final had to feel like a loss for Coco but she should take comfort in the quality of her game throughout the event in preparing her for bigger and better results down the road.
The number 5 spot among the improved goes to a resurgent homegrown Ash Barty. After a hiatus from tennis, Barty came back strong, ending her journey in the Round of 32 to Venus Williams.
If the ride to final wasn’t already a dream enough, Venus Williams can take more pride from landing on the most improved list. At 36, Venus raised her game to remarkable heights this year, reaching her first Grand Slam final since 2009. It will still be an uphill battle for the trophy against her sister Serena Williams, who has a chance to surpass Steffi Graf’s 22-Grand Slam title record, but in many ways whatever happens from this point is just icing on the cake.