Number Stumpers

Saturday, December 07, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The role statistics play in the lives of tennis fans may not approach that of typical baseball fans, but one of the great changes brought about by the Open era has been an ever-growing emphasis on and use of stats.

This hasn’t happened merely because the game became a professional enterprise. It’s also because of the consolidation of events and tours, and the voracious appetite of the media. Back when Open tennis first began to find a home on television screens around the world, tennis statistics consisted only of saved draw sheets. We had the scores of matches, and little else.

Two entities with American roots helped jumpstart the statistics industry in tennis: the World Championship Tennis tour (proto-ATP), and the Virginia Slims tour (WTA). Both professional circuits consisted of linked tournaments leading to a grand finale—the WCT Finals in Dallas, and the Virginia Slims Championships in New York City. Suddenly, it became important to know and broadcast a player’s recent results—if not his or her first-serve conversion or backhand winners rate.

A statistical infrastructure began to develop, and as television began to play an increasingly important role in the growth of the game, the need to service commentators with precise, accurate, useful information became critical. Over time, the tennis statistician became an indispensable part of the game, perhaps none more so than today. Let’s take a look at some basic as well as complex statistics generated by the record-keepers of the ATP tour in 2013:

Iron Man
This is an interesting and telling statistic because of the way a player’s ranking is determined by his best 18 events. Roger Federer played the fewest number of tournaments among Top 10 players (19). World No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 9 Richard Gasquet played the most (25), one more than either No. 3 David Ferrer or No. 7 Tomas Berdych (I’m not counting no. 4 Andy Murray, who pulled the plug on his year prematurely with 19 events in the bag). 

Of course, the pros who competed most frequently have a greater number of tournaments from which to cull their rankings. This year, Pablo Carrena Busta won the ATP Most Improved Player award after improving his ranking an amazing 651 places, from somewhere deep in the 700s all the way up to No. 64. Busta played 110 matches (he had a winning streak of 39 matches in just 77 days) and finished 92-18—that’s almost 50 percent more wins than Ferrer posted for the year.

Busta played in 29 events, but he wasn’t even the tour leader among Top 100 players in that category. That honor went to No. 47 Lukas Rosol, who played 33 tournaments.

Clay Court Specialist?
The “most aces” statistic leader is one that anyone who’s been paying attention would get right. John Isner led the tour with 979 aces—97 more than runner-up Milos Raonic. It’s a particularly reliable statistic because they played the same number of matches (60). But would you have guessed that Spain’s Nicolas Almagro finished fourth in ace production?  He banged 622 aces, 19 more than Tomas Berdych, who played nine more matches.

On the whole, though, I think a more accurate statistic here would be aces per match (Almagro still comes out looking good).

Select Company
If you doubt that tennis these days is as much about the return as the serve, just look at the top four in the category of “first-serve return points won.” The top of the list mirrors the world rankings, albeit not in order, as Novak Djokovic leads off.

But fifth place is shared by three men, only one of whom could be called a usual suspect. Federer, Fabio Fognini, and Tommy Robredo all won 33 percent of the first-serve return points they played.

Deadly When it Counts
Djokovic’s ability to successfully convert break points is only good enough to land him in a nine-way tie for No. 5 on the “break points converted” list. The leader? Nikolay Davydenko stands alone, having converted 48 percent of the break points he faced. Nadal finished just one percentage point behind Davydenko, but played almost twice as many matches (81 to 44).

This Guy is Simply Fabious!
Nadal’s success rate in return games in unmatched: He broke serve 34 percent of the time. Two men are tied for second, Djokovic and Ferrer (33 percent). And another pair come in at 31 percent—Murray and. . . .Fognini. So, really, Fognini’s percentage is third best.

*****

Let’s get a little deeper into the weeds here:

The Unbreakables
Guess who was most successful at defending break points on grass, with at least eight matches played? My own gut reaction to this was, someone like Isner or that other ace machine, Almagro. But think about it: When you have an atomic serve, you don’t end up facing enough break points to put up some big numbers. Thus, you might be surprised to find that the leader in this category is . . . Kenny de Schepper.

De Schepper saved 45 of 58 break points opponents held against him, for an excellent success rate of 78 percent. The Frenchman is fifth best in the category, but none of the seven men ranked ahead of him played more than five grass-court matches, and three—including leader Julien Reister—played just two. Lest you discount the stat, neither Wimbledon champ Murray nor Berdych could match de Schepper’s numbers.

How did this guy get to be number one?
David Goffin, Roberta Bautista-Agut, Blaz Kavcic, Aljaz Bedene, and Gasquet were all better than Nadal at converting break points. On clay. No lie.

How did this guy get to be number two?
Ernests Gulbis, Denis Istomin, Dmitry Tursunov, Philipp Kohlschreiber, and Kevin Anderson all were better at saving break points on all surfaces than Djokovic.

How did this guy get to be number six?
Marinko Matosevic, Yen-Hsun Lu, Jarkko Nieminen, Fognini, and Kei Nishikori all won a higher percentage of their second-serve returns on hard courts than Federer.

*****

Well, it’s always fun poking around in the numbers. But it also points out to a shortcoming of tennis statistics—and a strength of the game. I checked the Major League Baseball batting averages, and the differences from one player to another are relatively dramatic. Miguel Cabrera, the top batter, hit .348. The second best batter was Michael Cuddyer, at .331, followed by Joe Mauer at .324.

The difference in those numbers is significant, especially when compared to something like tennis’s first-serve percentage statistic—which is about as close a statistic as tennis has to batting average. The leader, Batista Agut, converted 71 percent of his first serves in 2013, while Nadal made 69 percent. Nadal won 10 tournaments (including two Grand Slams), while Agut has yet to win his first title.

Furthermore, three ATP players put 68 percent of their first serves in the box, and 10 men made between 66 and 71 percent of their first serves. It’s astonishing how finely cut the differences are in so many categories, suggesting that in the end tennis stats are fun to bat about—but far from conclusive in any way.

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