Tennis's wooden spoons

06/10/2018

The women's tennis world got an interesting trivia night entry this month. The highest tier of tennis tournaments are the Grand Slams, four of which are held every year. Jeļena Ostapenko, a young and hard-hitting Latvian player, shook things up in 2017 by winning one of them, the French Open, securing the first French Cup win by an unseeded (low-ranked) player since 1933.

Well, the French Open came and went again, and this year we saw defending champion Ostapenko win...a wooden spoon.

The wooden spoon is a booby prize of sorts for any player in a single-elimination tournament who is defeated by another player in the first round, who is then defeated by another player in the second, who is then defeated by someone else in the third, and so on, all the way up to the second-place finisher (who loses to the tournament champion in the final).


Whereas the champion sits atop the longest possible list of wins, the holder of the wooden spoon sits beneath the longest possible list of losses. Therefore if the champion of the tournament is supposedly the best player there, then logically the holder of the wooden spoon is the worst.

However, this is only really true if matches are deterministic, and the winner of each match is always the better of the two players. In reality, there is a lot of randomness involved (just enough to make the sport exiting). In almost every sport even top-ranked players are statistically likely to eat a shock first-round exit from time to time.

This got me thinking. Every tournament has a wooden spoon holder (just as every tournament has a champion). Who are the wooden spoon holders? How often do top-ranking players earn them? Is Ostapenko's un-slam really all that rare?

The best list I could find is years out of date, and only covers the ATP. The data is out there, so I did some quick number crunching.

Men's tour

Here is the list for the men's tour (the ATP). The numbers next to the players' names are their seeds, for those players that were ranked highly enough to receive seeded entry into the tournament.

Australian Open French Open US Open Wimbledon
1968 Unknown Joseph Mateo Billy Knight Lance Lumsden
1969 Bob Giltinan Ivan Molina David Lloyd Bob Giltinan
1970 Anthony Hammond Jean Francois Caujolle Onny Parun Szabolcz Baranyi
1971 Alvin Gardiner Bob Giltinan D Richard Russell Pat Cramer
1972 Jun Kuki Ion Tiriac Pat Dupre Jim Osborne
1973 Robert Casey C100 Piero Toci Rayno Seegers Neale Fraser
1974 John James Michele Leclercq Jun Kamiwazumi Peter Szoke
1975 Joao Soares Patricio Cornejo Howard Schoenfield John Andrews
1976 Unknown Chris Kachel Ove Nils Bengtson Jay Royappa
1977 Allan Stone Chris Kachel Ricardo Cano Mike Machette
1978 Richard Lewis Jiri Granat George Amaya John Mcenroe [11]
1979 George Hardie Bernard Fritz Adriano Panatta [15] John Yuill
1980 Jay Lapidus Bernard Boileau George Hardie Byron Bertram
1981 Chris Johnstone Mark Edmondson Bill Cowan Phil Dent
1982 Jonathan Smith Tim Mayotte Eddie Edwards Rick Fagel
1983 Henrik Sundstrom [9] Jose Luis Damiani Chip Hooper Tom Cain
1984 Russell Simpson Matt Doyle Thierry Tulasne Tom Cain
1985 Mark Wooldridge Shlomo Glickstein Robert Seguso Jimmy Arias
1986 Unknown Victor Pecci Ulf Stenlund Jeremy Bates
1987 John Fitzgerald Peter Lundgren Bruno Oresar Gary Donnelly
1988 Larry Scott Sergio Casal Jean Philippe Fleurian Mark Petchey
1989 Michael Kures Tore Meinecke Paul Chamberlin Patrick Baur
1990 Kelly Evernden Guillaume Raoux Paul Chamberlin Danny Sapsford
1991 Peter Doohan Jeff Tarango Francisco Montana Jordi Arrese
1992 Karsten Braasch Javier Sanchez Felipe Rivera Richard Fromberg
1993 Grant Doyle Nicolas Escude Henri Leconte Brian Devening
1994 John Sullivan Grant Stafford Greg Rusedski Richard Krajicek
1995 Goran Ivanisevic [4] Hernan Gumy Greg Rusedski Vincent Spadea
1996 Jonathan Stark Nicolas Lapentti Marcelo Filippini Michael Joyce
1997 Juan Albert Viloca Puig Emilio Benfele Alvarez Patrick Mcenroe Nicolas Lapentti
1998 Marcelo Filippini Javier Sanchez John Van Lottum Andrei Pavel
1999 Joseph Sirianni Karol Kucera [11] Andrew Ilie Cecil Mamiit
2000 Cedric Pioline [13] Galo Blanco Bob Bryan Michael Russell
2001 David Sanchez Martin Damm Nikolay Davydenko Franco Squillari [28]
2002 Flavio Saretta Max Mirnyi [26] Agustin Calleri Juan Ignacio Chela [19]
2003 Hicham Arazi Justin Gimelstob Joachim Johansson Dick Norman
2004 Rainer Schuettler [6] Joachim Johansson Marat Safin [13] John Van Lottum
2005 Felix Mantilla Fabrice Santoro Noam Okun Vincent Spadea
2006 Fernando Vicente Oliver Marach Jeff Morrison Greg Rusedski
2007 Luis Horna Fernando Gonzalez [5] Fernando Gonzalez [7] Juan Monaco [32]
2008 Donald Young Viktor Troicki Brendan Evans Igor Kunitsyn
2009 Kristof Vliegen Yen Hsun Lu Dmitry Tursunov Nicolas Lapentti
2010 Robin Haase Rainer Schuettler Illya Marchenko Ramon Delgado
2011 Denis Gremelmayr Daniel Brands Karol Beck Lukas Lacko
2012 Gilles Muller Eric Prodon Mikhail Kukushkin Alex Bogomolov Jr
2013 Tommy Haas [19] Denis Kudla Lukas Lacko Carlos Berlocq
2014 Federico Delbonis Albert Montanes Julien Benneteau [24] Ivo Karlovic [29]
2015 Blaz Kavcic Maxime Hamou Paul Henri Mathieu Thomaz Bellucci
2016 Rafael Nadal [5] Julien Benneteau Julien Benneteau Santiago Giraldo
2017 Feliciano Lopez [28] Damir Dzumhur Andreas Haider Maurer Malek Jaziri
2018 Stefanos Tsitsipas Unknown Unknown Unknown

The highest-rank seed ever to hold the spoon is Goran Ivanisevic, who was the fourth seed in the 1995 Australian Open. If you want to argue over the best-ever player to hold the anti-slam, John McEnroe (former number one, 7-time slam winner) held the spoon at Wimbledon in 1978, and Rafael Nadal (current number one, 17-time slam winner) held it at the 2016 Australian Open.

In fact, at least four of the players on this list have won a Grand Slam, and at least three have spent time ranked number 1 in the world. It's looking like Ostopenko is in good company!

Women's tour

What about the women's side?

Australian Open French Open US Open Wimbledon
1968 Unknown Sally Holdsworth Mary Lowdon Gail Benedetti
1969 Wendy Gilchrist Erzsebet Polgar Eva Lundquist Kerstin Seelbach
1970 L Cameron Unknown Mary Struthers Odile De Roubin
1971 Janet Fallis Helga Masthoff [5] Lany Kaligis Helen Amos
1972 Dorte Ekner Unknown Maria Teresa Nasuelli Glynis Coles
1973 Frances Candy Patti Hogan Sharon Walsh Pete Gertruida Walhof
1974 Unknown Linky Boshoff Janet Haas Christina Sandberg
1975 Helen Cawley [5] Sue Mappin Mima Jausovec Terry Holladay
1976 Unknown Iris Riedel Kuhn Carrie Meyer [14] Florenta Mihai
1977 Kathleen Harter Carrie Meyer Robin Harris Kathleen Harter
1978 Birgitte Hermansen Chris Oneil Diane Desfor Unknown
1979 Unknown Daniela Marzano Julie Anthony Sue Barker [12]
1980 Diane Evers Kim Jones Shaefer Unknown Dana Gilbert
1981 Rosie Casals Dana Gilbert Lea Antonoplis Claudia Casabianca
1982 Barbara Hallquist Renata Tomanova Camille Benjamin Sue Barker
1983 Beth Herr Lele Forood Barbara Hallquist Debbie Freeman
1984 Wendy Prausa Hana Fukarkova Julie Harrington Ginny Purdy
1985 Linda Gates Iva Budarova Katerina Maleeva Masako Yanagi
1986 Unknown Beverly Bowes Hackney Nathalie Herreman Beverly Bowes Hackney
1987 Regina Marsikova Pascale Etchemendy Kathy Horvath Terry Phelps
1988 Dianne Balestrat [14] Terry Phelps Mareen Louie Harper Shaun Stafford
1989 Halle Cioffi Nathalie Tauziat Mercedes Paz Anne Meredith
1990 Janine Tremelling Rosalyn Nideffer [13] Elise Burgin Manuela Maleeva Fragniere [8]
1991 Patty Fendick Isabelle Demongeot Amanda Coetzer Susan Sloane Lundy
1992 Petra Thoren Carrie Cunningham Tammy Whittington Sarah Loosemore
1993 Nana Smith Mana Endo Caroline Kuhlman Alexandra Fusai
1994 Lisa Mcshea Catherine Mothes Jobkel Janette Husarova Bettina Fulco Villella
1995 Nana Smith Alexia Dechaume Balleret Andrea Temesvari Stephanie Rottier
1996 Sonya Jeyaseelan Isabelle Demongeot Corina Morariu Annabel Ellwood
1997 Maria Sanchez Lorenzo Rachel Mcquillan Erika De Lone Ann Wunderlich
1998 Sandra Dopfer Amelie Cocheteux Cristina Torrens Valero Nicole Pratt
1999 Kimberly Po Messerli Miriam Oremans Tatiana Panova Magdalena Grzybowska
2000 Anna Smashnova Barbara Schwartz Kristen Schlukebir Rita Kuti Kis
2001 Adriana Gersi Lisa Raymond Tamarine Tanasugarn [26] Anne Keothavong
2002 Mary Pierce Stephanie Foretz Gacon Shinobu Asagoe Anna Smashnova [15]
2003 Libuse Prusova Bahia Mouhtassine Eleni Daniilidou [25] Virginia Ruano Pascual
2004 Arantxa Parra Santonja Mara Santangelo Stephanie Cohen Aloro Gala Leon Garcia
2005 Tiffany Welford Meghann Shaughnessy Sandra Kloesel Emilie Loit
2006 Jill Craybas Maria Vento Kabchi Stephanie Dubois Camille Pin
2007 Catalina Castano Caroline Wozniacki Yaroslava Shvedova Anna Lena Groenefeld
2008 Laura Granville Elena Vesnina Lucie Safarova Nuria Llagostera Vives
2009 Viktoria Kutuzova Irena Pavlovic Roberta Vinci Alberta Brianti
2010 Raluca Olaru Alberta Brianti Jill Craybas Ana Ivanovic
2011 Jamie Hampton Junri Namigata Tamarine Tanasugarn Yaroslava Shvedova
2012 Anna Chakvetadze Alize Cornet Julia Glushko Monica Niculescu [29]
2013 Stefanie Voegele Coco Vandeweghe Chanel Simmonds Irina Camelia Begu
2014 Mariana Duque Marino Luksika Kumkhum Annika Beck Taylor Townsend
2015 Annika Beck Evgeniya Rodina Karolina Pliskova [8] Sachia Vickery
2016 Klara Koukalova Jelena Jankovic [23] Nadia Podoroska Camila Giorgi
2017 Aliaksandra Sasnovich Naomi Osaka Taylor Townsend Yulia Putintseva
2018 Shelby Rogers Jeļena Ostapenko [5] Unknown Unknown

This list is admittedly sparser. You have to go back to the 1975 Australian Open to find another seed as highly ranked who performed as poorly as Ostapenko did. Still, there are a couple of other notable names on this list: former world number 1 Karolina Pliskova was left with the spoon at US Open 2015, and former world number 1 and 1-time slam winner Jelena Jankovic got it at the 2016 French Open.

Conclusion

If you include non-Slam tournaments spoons are even more common: among the Big 4 Nadal and Federer have four apiece, Murray two, and Djokovic none (there's a running count elsewhere on the Internet).

Ostapenko is clearly in good company!