The World’s Best Men’s Doubles Player Is American. Too Bad He Doesn’t Want To Play Doubles.

At the World Tour Finals of men’s tennis in London this week, eight of the world’s best doubles teams are vying for the one of the most prestigious titles of the season

At the World Tour Finals of men’s tennis in London this week, eight of the world’s best doubles teams are vying for the one of the most prestigious titles of the season. Bob and Mike Bryan, the 16-time Grand Slam winners, are competing with other elite duos such as U.S. Open winners Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares and Wimbledon champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.

But the field is missing one notable name: Jack Sock, the American who won two doubles medals at the Olympics over the summer in Rio. Sock’s current doubles ranking of No. 14, reached by playing with seven different partners this year, places him ahead of four players present this week in London. But Sock didn’t make the cut because inclusion in the London field is based on ranking points accumulated by teams, not individual players, and each of his short-term teams finished far out of contention.

Yet it’s likely that the official rankings drastically undervalue Sock’s doubles prowess. According to a version of Elo1 I created specifically for doubles tennis, his current level of play in doubles matches rates as the best in the world and one of the highest achieved by anyone in recent years. In addition to his men’s doubles bronze medal in Rio, Sock has won two titles in the past month, including an incredible run at the Shanghai Masters in which he and partner John Isner defeated four London-bound teams in succession.

Doubles Elo (D-Lo, if you will) is almost as straightforward as the singles system. The rating of any partnership is estimated as the average rating of the two players. (While there is anecdotal evidence that suggests a team improves as partners play together more often, incorporating that into the algorithm doesn’t make it any more accurate.) After every match, each of the four players’ ratings is updated by adding or dropping points based on the result and their opponents’ strength. I’m using D-Lo to forecast the doubles tournament at the World Tour Finals.

The World Tour Finals doubles field and other notable players

 

ELO RANK

PLAYER

AGE

ELO

PEAK ELO

ATP RANK

1

Jack Sock

24

2002

2022

14

2

Pierre Hugues Herbert

25

1995

2047

2

3

Nicolas Mahut

34

1967

1987

1

4

Bob Bryan

38

1925

2076

5

5

Mike Bryan

38

1921

2076

5

6

Henri Kontinen

26

1920

1920

10

Rafael Nadal

30

1904

1904

130

7

Marcelo Melo

33

1896

1983

7

8

Ivan Dodig

31

1874

1924

11

10

John Peers

28

1865

1888

12

12

Jamie Murray

30

1859

1899

4

14

Marc Lopez

34

1846

1933

8

15

Bruno Soares

34

1843

1955

3

21

Raven Klaasen

34

1824

1917

16

22

Feliciano Lopez

35

1814

1845

9

Roger Federer

35

1785

1921

28

Rajeev Ram

32

1776

1825

17

34

Max Mirnyi

39

1763

2010

21

Andy Murray

29

1757

1818

259

41

Treat Huey

31

1740

1866

22

Novak Djokovic

29

1668

1726

To have a current Elo rank, players need to have played at least 20 matches this year.

Source: Tennisabstract.com, ATP World Tour

Sock is missing from the London field largely by choice. In July, he said he would compete in fewer doubles events in order to better focus on his singles career — he ranks No. 23 in singles, near his career high. He ended his partnership with Vasek Pospisil, the Canadian with whom he won the 2014 Wimbledon title, and skipped the doubles event at this year’s U.S. Open. Since September, he has played four events with four different partners — hardly the behavior of a would-be elite doubles player.

The American is hardly alone in his decision to prioritize singles. Doubles players perform far out of the spotlight, rarely netting the press and prestige of their singles-playing counterparts. What’s more, the top doubles players each earn about one-tenth the prize money that top singles players make. Plenty of elite singles players are accomplished on the doubles court — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both won Olympics doubles gold medals — but most usually elect to rest rather than play doubles for a lesser prize pool and a smaller fraction of the acclaim. Of the 16 doubles players in London, only Feliciano Lopez and Max Mirnyi have ever numbered among the top 20 on the singles ranking table, and for 39-year-old Mirnyi, that was 13 years ago.

The eight World Tour Finals teams and Sock/Pospisil

 

SEED

TEAM (PLAYER 1/PLAYER 2)

PLAYER 1 ELO

PLAYER 2 ELO

TEAM ELO (AVG.)

1

Pierre-Hugues Herbert/Nicolas Mahut

1995

1967

1981.0

2

Jamie Murray/Bruno Soares

1859

1843

1851.0

3

Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan

1925

1921

1923.0

4

Feliciano Lopez/Marc Lopez

1814

1846

1830.0

5

Henri Kontinen/John Peers

1920

1865

1892.5

6

Ivan Dodig/Marcelo Melo

1874

1896

1885.0

7

Raven Klaasen/Rajeev Ram

1824

1776

1800.0

8

Treat Huey/Max Mirnyi

1740

1763

1751.5

 

Jack Sock/Vasek Pospisil

2002

1830

1916.0

Source: TennisAbstract.com

Despite his priorities, Sock would have been a force to reckon with in London. A pairing with Pospisil would, as measured by Elo, outrank every team except for Herbert-Mahut and the Bryans. Even a partnership with Steve Johnson — Sock’s fellow bronze medalist and a lowly 56th on the Elo ranking table2 — would be the fifth-rated team at the finals.

If he remains focused on singles and resists sticking with a steady doubles partner, Sock could still be a factor in future editions of the season-ending doubles event. The average age of the doubles participants in London this year is 33, while Sock is 24. According to Elo, the Bryans didn’t reach their peak until close to their 30th birthdays, and Mahut, at age 34, is having the best doubles season of his career. For most players, it would be a career-defining achievement to reach Sock’s current level of doubles skill. For the American, he has another decade to decide if it’s worth it.

Media Credit: fivethirtyeight.com