The data provides a conflicted view in these unestablished head-to-heads, writes Jack Houghton, but the side markets point to some value bets...
"The conflicting data - what the ratings suggest will happen versus what the recent head-to-head record suggests may happen - means I'll be leaving the match odds alone..."
A period of change
There was a period of several years where previewing these grand-slam finals soon became a struggle to find something new to write. Inhabited, as they were, by varying combinations of the same four players, it was hard to do little else than make minor adjustments to the statistics quoted last time, consult the market, and make recommendations. Revelatory insight and novelty were in short supply.
Recent times have been more interesting. In the last three seasons, nine out of the 12 majors' finals have seen a range of cameo appearances from the nearly-but-not-quite-yet of men's tennis, and whilst the winners of those finals - always one of Djokovic, Nadal or Federer - have remained predictably familiar, at least the narratives of those finals have introduced something new.
Beware of less-reliable data
This brings its own challenges, however, with novelty match-ups invariably meaning that there is less player head-to-head data to work with.
This year's Australian Open is no different. Thiem makes his third grand-slam final appearance (the previous two being against Nadal in the French Open), having only played Djokovic on 10 prior occasions.
Considering the arc of players' careers
A relatively small dataset is not the only issue, though. Problems of statistical accuracy are magnified because the early head-to-head record in these situations inevitably sees one player at the peak of their career playing another who is starting out. How relevant, for example, is Thiem and Djokovic's match in China in 2014 in terms of providing useful data to inform our betting of this final?
At that time, Djokovic was building to his peak career performance, whereas Thiem was barely considered an adult.
Caution is therefore advised. And slavishly applying historic statistics is ill-advised.
Djokovic the rightful favourite
What seems clear, though, is that Djokovic is the worthy favourite. In my modelling, I have his fair odds at somewhere between 1/41.24 and 30/1001.31, so the 2/71.29 currently available in the match odds market looks about right. Likewise, Thiem sits at somewhere between 4.16 and 5.15, with the 7/24.40 currently available at the low-end of that range.
These prices, though, are somewhat at odds with the duo's recent head-to-head record, which has seen Thiem win four out of the last five. Now, four of those matches were on clay, a surface on which Thiem could make valid claims to being the second best in the world; however, Thiem's defeat of Djokovic on the hard courts of London's O2 Arena in a closely-fought round-robin match at the ATP finals perhaps showed that Thiem is becoming more versatile surface-wise.
On this basis, I wouldn't argue with anyone who claimed Thiem was value to cause an upset in Melbourne on Sunday, but the conflicting data - what the ratings suggest will happen versus what the recent head-to-head record suggests may happen - means I'll be leaving the match odds alone and focusing on the side markets.
To date, head-to-head, Djokovic has served more aces on five out of the 10 occasions they have met, with three ties. Djokovic has served fewer total aces, however, accounting for just 48% of their total ace count. At the time of writing, the market is illiquid, but I expect Djokovic's odds to settle around 4/71.57. At those odds I'll be a layer.
Tie Break in Match?
In a total of 28 sets played, the duo has contested seven tie-breaks, or one every four sets. That makes them one of the most likely pairings to play a tie break in the men's game, and I'll be having a decent bet on the Betfair Sportsbook at 1/21.50 that we'll see one here.
A curious pattern in Djokovic's and Thiem's head-to-head record is that these tie breaks often come in the first set of the match. Indeed, this has happened five times. On that basis, I'll be having another Sportsbook wager: this time smaller stakes on the first set (11/102.10) being the Set With Most Games.
Of the 36 sets they've had available to play in their matches, they've used 28, or 78% of them. Applying this to Sunday's final, it looks like a four-set score-line is most likely. I have a feeling that Thiem will take a set off Djokovic - quite possibly the first - but that Djokovic's endurance will see him win. Djokovic at 11/43.70 to win 3-1 looks value.
Back Djokovic to win 3-1 @ 11/43.70
Lay Djokovic to serve most aces @ 4/71.57
Back "Yes" to see a tie break played @ 1/21.50
Back "First" as the set with the most games @ 11/102.10