Aliaksandra Sasnovich’s Bagel Recipe

Aliaksandra Sasnovich was bageled in the first set in her opening round match in Dubai, before coming back to win it.  That’s the 11th set since the start of 2018 in which Sasnovich has been bageled (over 10 matches), and the third time she has won the match after being bageled.  It’s generous to carry this all the way back to the start of the 2018.  Her first of the eleven bagel sets occurred in a Wimbledon warm-up event last June.  Taking into account the two-month off-season, all of these bagel sets have happened in about 6 “Tour” months.  Plus, more than half have occurred in the 2019 season, just over a month old.

These are pretty shocking numbers for a Top 30-ish player, or really, any player consistently in a main draw.  In second place on the list is Su Wei Hsieh, currently ranked near Sasnovich but with a diametrically opposed style.  She has 7 bagels-against.  Two uber-aggressive players, Danielle Collins and Jelena Ostapenko are tied for third (as is Shuai Zhang) with 6.  A glance at the top 20 bagels-against (if “top” is the right word) shows a mix of play styles.  Along with the above players,  you have other aggressive players like like Siniakova and Cirstea.  But you also have non-aggressive players like Kerber, Larsson, Arruabarrena, Sorribes Tormo and Maria.

*All references in this post exclude events $125k and below.

What is a Normal Amount of Bagels To Have?

Since the start of the 2018 season, among the Top 100 a WTA player has been schmeared (sorry!) in a set about every 22 matches, although there have been 3 so far in Dubai this week out of 40 completed matches (there actually was a 4th, but it was against a player outside the Top 100).  Players who are bageled in a set can be expected to win less than 6% of the time.

Sasnovich, bageled in 10 matches out of the 73 she has played since 2018, is three times more likely than a Top 100 player to be bageled.  But, she has won 3 of those matches, so she is five times more likely to win when she is bageled, albeit with a small sample size.

Sasnovich’s Bagel Orders

Rather than continue to explore the bagel set generally, let’s look at each of the Sasnovich bagels-against to see what patterns we might find, if any.

First, for frame of reference, you should know that Sasnovich resides right at the tour average in First Serve Percentage, is above-average in First Serve Won Percentage, and is equally below average on Second Serve Won Percentage…so basically, she is at the tour average in SPWon%.  She is a slightly above-average returner, and better (relative to her peers) on second serve returns than first serve returns.

Bagel #1 (Veggie Spread)

The first bagel was on grass at Mallorca in a bad 6-4 6-0 loss to Antonia Lottner, ranked #140 at the time.  Sasnovich got off to a good start.  She held serve, and then broke Lottner’s serve in the second game.  After losing her own serve in the third game, she then broke Lottner again, and held in the fifth game.  She had started the match with a roughly 66% chance to win, and at 4-1, was at nearly 81% to win.   Then she had two break points in the sixth game, to go up two breaks and seal the deal.  Instead, she lost that game, and then nine more in a row.

In the bagel set, she won fewer than one-third of the points played. She could not get her first serve in, and got pummeled on second serves (losing 78% of her points on second serve).  Her Dominance Ratio (DR) — the ratio of return points won — for the bagel set was 0.44.

Bagel #2 (Rye)

The second bagel also was on grass three weeks later, in the 4th round at Wimbledon, and was on the wrong side of a player with six bagels-against since the start of 2018, Jelena Ostapenko.  Sasnovich would not have been expected to win this match, but also would not be expected to be blown off the court.

The first set proved essentially even, with Ostapenko scraping by in a tiebreak.  Sasnovich then disappeared in the second set, again winning fewer than one-third of the points and losing 82% of her second serve points.  Her DR for the bagel set was 0.42.

Given that the fourth round is easily Sasnovich’s best result at a Grand Slam, it’s possible she was overwhelmed by the moment, but unlikely, since she was only 3 points shy of winning the first set.  Perhaps she was frustrated because she lost both her service points at the end of the first set tiebreak, and let it carry over to the next set.

Bagel #3 (Skyline)

This one was second round Cincinnati, against Viktoria Kuzmova, a player ranked below her, but really a toss-up.  The bagel came in the first set this time, where Sasnovich seems to have decided to take something off the first serve and get a lot of them in.  That she did (71%), but still managed to win only 5 out of 17 points on her own serve.  Her DR for the bagel set was 0.42.  She corrected in the second set, winning 6-4, when she won 62% of her service points, but then crashed again in the third, losing it 6-1.

The Match Charting Project has this match.  Kuzmova clearly served well in the bagel set, but you can also see by the depth of Kuzmova’s return that Sasnovich’s first serve was ineffective.  Based on the data alone, I would surmise that she was not ready for the depth of the second serves, committing quite a few errors (forced and unforced) immediately after Kuzmova’s returns.  There isn’t a shallow return in the bunch.  It is either weak serving, great returning, or both.  Because Kuzmova’s overall return stats on tour are below average, I would give the edge to weak serving.

Bagels #4 and #5 (Extra Cream Cheese)

The one(s) she most wants to forget, utterly overwhelmed by Naomi Osaka in the third round of the U.S. Open.  She couldn’t get her first serve in, she double faulted 7 times in 6 service games, and only won 25% of her second serve points when she did get them in.   If that sounds bad, you should see her return stats.  Her DRs for these two sets were 0.36 and 0.31.

The only saving grace is that Osaka was still four wins away from superstardom, so maybe no one was watching?

Bagels #6 and #7 (Garlic)

Leap ahead to the opening event on the WTA calendar in Brisbane, where Sasnovich made the quarterfinals but was run off the court by Donna Vekic, ranked about the same as our hero.  Vekic won the first set handily, mostly because Sasnovich only managed to win 22% of Vekic’s second serves.  Sasnovich’s own serve was not too bad, in the first set, just a little under the weather, and she had more winners than UEs.

Then, uh, the serve went way bad.  There’s losing a set 0-6, and there’s this.  Let’s start with only 36% of first serves finding the box, and winning none of the ones that placed.  We already have seen what opponents can do to her second serve, and here it is again, winning just 22% of second serve points.  That’s with zero double faults.  All-in-all, 14% of service points won in the second set.  A lot of that is Vekic, though, because she was in top form.  The DR for the bagel set was 0.41.

The Match Charting Project has this match.  It is hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, but a lot of this is Vekic.  If you watch Vekic matches, there are days where she is utterly dominant.  This was one of those days.

I also watched video of this set, and the end of the prior set.  Because Vekic played so well in the first set, you can see Sasnovich’s confidence is low going into the second, but that’s showing only in her shots, not her mannerisms.  Interestingly, Vekic got a coaching visit between sets but Sasnovich did not.  In Vekic’s conversation with Torben Beltz, they laughed that sometimes Sasnovich was hitting her second serve bigger than her first.  Beltz’s principal strategy point was to take time away from Sasnovich.

After the second break, down 0-3 in the second set, Sasnovich received a coaching visit.  The discussion was in Russian, but you could see the frustration on Sasnovich’s face and she was somewhat argumentative, in the “That won’t work, there’s nothing I can do” sense.  From the hand gestures, it appears that she was saying she was rushed.  The coaching visit did not help.

But that was Bagel #7, with too much garlic.

Bagel #6 was in a well-seasoned match against Elina Svitolina in the prior round.  Sasnovich won the first set 6-4 and played quite well.  Between sets, she took a bathroom break, and when she returned, she had none of the same rhythm, while Svitolina took on her usual mix of steadiness with the right amount of aggression.  Sasnovich’s first serve percentage dropped, but not to the abysmal levels we see in the other bagel sets.  Svitolina preyed on Sasnovich’s second serve, and Sasnovich was unable to control her own returns.  The DR for the bagel set was 0.39.

After the bagel set, Sasnovich had a coaching visit.  Unlike the coaching visit in the Vekic match (still to come), the conversation was more interactive, and she was far more positive, with a much better result.  She played even better in the third set than she had in the first set, and that was against a more in-form Svitolina than in the first set.

Bagel #8 (Blueberry)

On to the next week, in Sydney, against local Priscilla Hon, who Sasnovich ought to beat handily.  Instead, she comes out of the gate with a 38% first serve percentage, winning only a third of those, and only 20% of her second serves.  She also does nothing to Hon’s serve.  All-in-all, she wins just 6 points total in the first set.  Her DR for the set is an abysmal 0.19.

Watching this set, I thought I might see negative body language or sluggishness at the start to account for the 0-6.  Instead, her energy and attitude seem normal.  What is more noticeable is that she has trouble getting her feet set after her serve, so when the ball comes back with pace, she struggles.  She received a coaching visit after the third game.  In this one, she is somewhat argumentative, even though only down a break, but I would not go so far as to call her negative.  Whatever the case, not much changed for the rest of the set.

But hey, she knows how to deal with that.  Her energy remained high.  She got her first serve percentage back to normal, and she started returning better.  Then she took everything up another notch to secure the victory in three sets.

Bagel #9 (Toasted)

This year’s third round in Australia, against a comparable Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova who was coming off a surprise victory against Kiki Bertens.  The bagel came in the first set.  Same profile.  Horrible first serve percentage (33%) and horrible second serve success rate (25%).  Her DR was 0.44.

Perhaps Sasnovich could conjure the memory of having lost bagel sets in consecutive weeks and still pulling out the victory?  But no.  The second set was only marginally better.

Bagel #10 (Sliced)

The ultimate showdown, last week in Doha:  Sasnovich faces Su Wei Hsieh, holder of second place on the most-likely-to-be-bageled list.  Will Hsieh close the gap, or will Sasnovich extend her “lead”?

You wouldn’t say Sasnovich played “well” in the first set, but she was in it, despite the 2-6 score.  Hsieh just drove her crazy with unconventional strokes.  In the second set, her first serve percentage plummeted, and Hsieh started killing her second serve.  Still, Sasnovich’s DR of 0.52 in the bagel set was the highest of the 11 bagel sets.  The problem was that her adjacent set (in this case the second set) also had the smallest variance from the bagel set, so the match itself was an overall disappointment.

Bagel #11 (Lox)

In Dubai, against the Ekaterina Makarova formerly known as a good singles player, Sasnovich is again asleep at the wheel coming out of the gate.  At least this time she was getting first serves in, but with not enough on them as Makarova won 59% of Sasnovich’s service points in the first set.  Also, Sasnovich could not keep the ball in the court during rallies.  This was one of her worst bagel set DRs, at 0.24.

She did not receive a coaching visit during, or immediately after, the first set.  But much like the Blueberry Bagel, she returned to form in the second set and then ramped it up in the third set for another victory.

Like the Hon match, this is a match in which she would have been heavily favored. By losing the first set (bagel or no bagel), she practically evened the odds for the underdog.  When you layer on the presumed psychological effect of the bagel and the historical capabilities of her opponent, the edge may have actually tipped to Makarova at that point.  It’s a testament to Sasnovich’s composure that she can ride these incredible lows out, and sometimes snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.

Side note: After this victory, Sasnovich again took on Hsieh. There were no bagel sets, but Sasnovich won only three games.

Key Ingredients

Not a lot goes right when you lose a set 0-6, but it is theoretically possible to play reasonably close to your opponent and have all the breaks go against you.  Generally, that’s not what is happening to Sasnovich.  In half of the 10 matches in which she incurred a bagel-against set, she came out slow, losing the first set 0-6.  In nearly all of the bagel-against sets, she could not find the service box with her first serve.  We are not talking about a dip from her normal first serve percentage from 61.5% to 50.0%.  We are talking about numbers like 35%.  That means she is forced to rely on her below-average second serve.  There is a huge variance in her first serve percentage in these matches.  She can be in the 30s for a whole set, and then be in the 70s in the next set.  On average, in these bagel-against sets, her first serve percentage is down more than 15% from her average.

The first serve percentage clearly is a problem, and that leads to a lot of second serves.  And her second serve is clearly a problem too, although anyone forced to serve too many second serves is going to be on their heels.  If you only look at the numbers you would assume Sasnovich has a lollipop second serve that allows opponents to tee off.  In watching the matches, however, that’s not what is happening, for the most part.  Her second serves have a little pop.  In the sets I watched, they generally are 85 mph and more, and frequently in the 90s.   In Vekic’s coaching visit in the second Garlic Bagel, they are discussing that Sasnovich’s second serve is harder than her first.

It’s hard to tell why the second serves are so vulnerable, apart from just being second serves.  If I had to guess, I would say that despite decent pace, the second serves are are too centered and seem to bounce into opponents’ sweet spots.  That allows deep returns with good pace, and Sasnovich is simply not very good when she doesn’t have a lot of setup time.  Opponents know that.  I heard Vekic’s coach talk about taking her time away, and Sasnovich seemed to be expressing the same sentiment to her own coach.  Even when she is able to effectively handle the deep returns, she is still vulnerable by hitting shallow shots in response.  Then she turns to a combination of crazy chance-taking and bad decision making.  It just doesn’t work.

In the sets I watched, I was surprised how well Sasnovich handled the bagel sets mentally.  Generally speaking, she gets somewhat frustrated during coaching visits, but she does not throw up her hands in defeat during the match.  Her energy levels remain good, and she appears to be mentally competitive, even during the beatdowns.  Players do not like losing sets, of course, and they really do not like to be bageled.  Yet I do not see in Sasnovich anything more than the normal frustration of losing the set.  The fact that she lost the set 0-6 seems to have no additional effect on her.  It reminds me of what we hear from Nadal and other professional athletes in press conferences all the time.  There are no moral victories in sport.  A loss is a loss.  You learn and move on.  That is usually asserted for the proposition that you cannot feel good when you lose, but the flip side should be that if you lose, the amount by which you lost makes no difference. A loss is a loss.

The root of the problem is probably not mechanical.  She perhaps does not yet have the concentration level she needs, because in sets adjacent to the bagel sets, she frequently does pretty well, even in the losses.   In other words, it is not just an overall bad day that results in the bagels, although she had a couple of those.  Her DR in the bagel sets averages 0.38.  Her DR in adjacent sets averages 0.98.

If there’s any good news about her tendency to be bageled, it is that she has won 30% of the matches in which she incurs a bagel set.  All of those wins are this season.  Maybe she and her coach have just accepted that bagels are going to happen to her because of the wild variance in her first serve percentage, and that if she just plays on, she can still win those matches.