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The Roland Garros Report Card: Who impressed and who disappointed in Paris

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TENNIS – The 2014 Roland Garros crowned Rafa Nadal for the ninth time and Maria Sharapova for the second time. The French Open was also been highlighted by Ernests Gulbis who reached the semifinal after beating Roger Federer in the third round and revealed rising stars like Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza, Ajla Tomljanovic, Ajla Tomljanovic. It’s time to look back at the most successful players and those who disappointed more in the two exciting weeks in the French capital. Diego Sampaolo

The King and the Queen of Clay

Rafa Nadal: Rafa has been crowned as the King of the Roland Garros for the ninth time becoming the first player to win so many titles in a Major. He won the last five editions with 66 match wins and just one defeat in ten years against Robin Soderling in 2009. With 14 Majors the Mallorcan legend has tied Pete Sampras as the the second most successful Grand Slam winner. Only Roger Federer was more successful with 17 Grand Slams. Only Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer won a Grand Slam tournament for five consecutive editions. Moreover he has extended his winning streak at the Roland Garros to 35 victories and improved his winning record to 23-19 in head-to-head matches against Djokovic

He did not enjoy a particularly successful build-up to the Roland Garros on his favourite clay surface to his traditional extraordinary standards. He suffered quarter final exits in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona before winning his only European clay tournament in Madrid (he was on the verge of defeat against Kei Nishikori who suffered an unlucky back injury in the most crucial stage of the match). He lost in three sets against Novak Djokovic in a close three-set match in Rome in the final tournament before Paris. In the French capital he recovered from a set down in the final against Djokovic but he edged the Serb in four sets with 3-6 7-5 6-2 6-4. He lifted his ninth Roland Garros Trophy after dropping just sets in the whole tournament

Maria Sharapova: The Siberian Queen of Clay faced three very hard battles in which she recovered from a set down in three consecutive matches to reach the final. She again had to fend off a tough match in the match against Romanian 22-year-old Simona Halep in which she was forced to third set for the fourth time in the tournament. This year Masha has enjoyed a successful clay campaign on clay winning three tournaments in Stuttgart, Madrid and the Roland Garros.

Sharapova did not played her best tennis during the tournament. She was two games from losing against Sam Stosur. She was one game from dropping the quarter final match against Garbine Muguruza in the quarter final and one game from losing against Eugenie Bouchard in the semifinal but she raised the game in the most crucial moments of the tournament and celebrated her second triumph at Porte d’Auteuil two years after beating Sara Errani in 2012. Sharapova has moved from 8th to 5th in the WTA Ranking.

“This was the toughest Grand Slam final I have ever played. All the respect to Simona. She played an unbelievable match”She had an amazing two weeks and this is just the first step. Simona will have an incredible career”, said Sharapova.

The runners-up:

Novak Djokovic: The Serb missed the chance to win the only elusive Grand Slam time of his career and complete the Career Grand Slam. He dropped his first set of the tournament in the semifinal against Ernests Gulbis in the semifinal before losing a four-set battle in the final against Nadal. In the final Djokovic made a crucial double fault handing the win to Nadal. In the final he won the first set but Nadal bounced back to clinch his third match against Djokovic in three consecutive editions of the Roland Garros after the final in 2012 and the epic semifinal in 2013.

Simona Halep: The 22-year-old Romanian player has completed her rise from the 57th spot in the Ranking in 2013 to her career-high Number 3 overtaking Agniewska Radwanska after her incredible Roland Garros in which she won three consecutive matches in straight sets against Sloane Stephens in the fourth round, Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter final and Andrea Petkovic in the semifinal. In the final she forced Sharapova to the third set and give the Siberìan star a run for her money

“This is my first Grand Slam speech, but I wish to have many more in the future”, said Halep after the Roland Garros final. She will certainly have the chance to celebrate her first Grand Slam in the future if she continues to play so well.

The come-back of the tournament:

Andy Murray: Clay is not the favourite surface for Murray but the Scotsman has showed encouraging improvement reaching the quarter final in Rome and the semifinal in Paris losing on both occasions to Nadal. In Rome he played a great match against King Rafa losing a hard-fought match in the third set. In Paris Nadal was simply too strong but Murray is gradually reaching top form and his coach relationship with Amelie Mauresmo could boost his confidence ahead of his title defence at Wimbledon.

Gael Monfils: The Frenchman pleased the local crowd with an impressive win in a roller-coaster third round match against Fabio Fognini 5-7 6-2 6-4 0-6 6-2. He went on to reach the quarter final where he lost 4-6 1-6 6-4 0-6 against Andy Murray.

Ana Petkovic: The German player beat 2012 finalist Sara Errani 6-2 6-2 in the quarter final achieving a great result especially considering that the Italian clay specialist beat Jelena Jankovic in the quarter final two weeks after reaching the final in Rome. Her dream ended in the semifinal where she lost to Halep in three sets. . She faced rivals who are ranked Number 71 or lowerin the early rounds but the semifinal is a well-deserved prize after so many injury problems. She has showed the same form which propelled to a career high World Number 9 in 2011.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: The 2009 Roland Garros champion played one of the best matches of the tournament against Petra Kvitova in the third round. The Russian player edged the 2011 Wimbledon champion in three sets with 6-7 6-1 9-7.

Other good notes go to:

Carla Suarez Navarro: The Spanish player reached the quarter finals without dropping a single set before losing against Eugenie Bouchard in the round of eight.

Sara Errani: The Italian player reached her third consecutive quarter final after a great win in the fourth round against Jelena Jankovic but she lost in round of 8 against Petkovic. Errani also reached the final in the doubles with her close friend Roberta Vinci but the Italians lost against Peng Shuai and Hsieh We who won 11 of the final 13 points

Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger Vasselin: French crowd had something to celebrate as Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger Vasselin became the first French doubles winners at the Roland Garros in 23 years after beating Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers 6-3 7-6. It was just their third Grand Slam tournament together.

The major surprises:

Milos Raonic: The young Canadian is continuing to make big progress on clay. He followed the semifinal in Rome (where he lost against Djokovic in three sets) with a quarter final in Paris (losing again to Djokovic in straight sets). He has become the first ever player from Canada to reach the quarter final at the Roland Garros and has moved a step closer to reaching the ATP Finals in London at the end of the season.

Ernests Gulbis: He followed up his win win in Nice in the warm-up to Paris with a remarkable semifinal in the French capital where he knocked out Roger Federer in the fourth round after a five-set epic match and Tomas Berdych in the quarter final. He reached his first Grand Slam semifinal where he forced Novak Djokovic to the fourth set. He jas joined the Top-10 for the first time in his career.

Garbine Muguruza: The young Spanish player produced the major upset of the tournament knocking out defending champion Serena Williams in the second round and advanced to the quarter final where she lost a hard-fought battle against Sharapova.

Taylor Townsend: She was the sensation of the first week when she reached the third round in her Grand Slam debut. She beat Alizè Cornet in the second round before losing against Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round.

Eugenie Bouchard: At the age of 19 she has already reached two Grand Slam semifinals after reaching this stage at this year’s Australian Open. Sharapova had to dig deep to beat the young Canadian. It’s a matter a time before Bouchard could join Sharapova in the list of Grand Slam champions.

Ana Tomljanovic: The 21-year-old player beat 2010 Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone in the first round, Elena Vesnina in the second round and Agniewska Radwanska in the third round before losing to Carla Suarez Navarro in the fourth round

The major disappointments:

Roger Federer: The Swiss Maestro, Roland Garros winner in 2009, played just one match in the five weeks between the end of the Monte-Carlo and the start of the French Open following the birth of twin sons Lenny and Leo and this had an impact on his preparation for the Roland Garros. He lost in five sets in the fourth round against Gulbis but he will have the chance to bounce back on his favourite green surface in Halle and Wimbledon in the coming weeks

Stan Wawrinka: The Lausanne player came to Paris with the dream to win a back-back Grand Slam tournament after clinching the Australian Open last January. He won his first Master 1000 in Monte-Carlo on clay which boosted his hopes to lift the Roland Garros crown but he suffered a major upset losing to Guillermo Garcia Lopez in the first round. The Spaniard, who won in Marrakesh and reached the quarter final in Monte-Carlo on clay earlier this year, inflicted a bagel in the fourth and final set.

Grigor Dimitrov: He travelled to Paris with high hopes following his semifinal in Rome (where he lost to Nadal in straight sets) but he suffered a first-round defeat against Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic in the first round. The young Bulgarian could find some consolation when his girlfriend Maria Sharapova lifted her second Roland Garros Trophy.

Serena Williams: Serena was looking to score her second consecutive Rome-Paris double but she suffered the major upset of the tournament against Garbine Muguruza, who went on to reach the quarter final.

Li Na: The reigning Australian Open champion and World Number 2 could not replicate her triumph in 2011 as she lost in the first round against Kristina Mladenovic.

Agnieszka Radwanska: The Pole started well with Zhang and Pliskova in the first two rounds but she lost in the third round against Tomljanovic

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Personal Branding In The World Of Tennis: The Case Study Of The Big Four

How did Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray build their own brands?

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Sportsmen have always had passionate and devoted fans, but becoming more visible implies the development of one’s own personal branding – but what is it? It is the practice of actively positioning oneself in the market and building a “valuable narrative”, creating a brand, a mark or a “mnemonic” to support this message, association, expectation and/or “faith” in the mind of a “consumer” (or enthusiast, team, sponsor, etc).

 

The term “personal branding” was coined by Tom Peters, a business management expert, in the late 1990s, in his essay “The Brand Called You”, which examines the role of marketing in creating a distinctive image in the American corporate world. Although that essay is over 20 years old, its contents are even more relevant in today’s hyper-saturated, hyper-competitive and hyper-connected world,   in which differentiation strategies are becoming increasingly complex. The sports market is in fact characterised by a high degree of complexity as it encompasses a multitude of actors, each of them with certain characteristics and interests.

Following the categorization of sports marketing, personal branding can be understood as being incorporated into the marketing of individual athletes, and as a   branch of sports marketing.

Initially, sports marketing exclusively pertained product placement and product sales. Only towards the end of the 1970s did the use of sports as a marketing tool    really begin to catch the collective corporate imagination. However, a distinction must be made between sports sponsorship – which mainly concerns brand awareness – and sports marketing, which focuses on the creation of sponsorship contracts. Personal branding is about creating a connection between the sports icon and the  brand, then communicating it to the consumer, trying to find as many points in common between the company’s history and that of the icon in order to create a “narrative” that has to be understandable and appreciated by the consumer. The increasing popularity of sports and the resulting media coverage meant that the  best players were able to capture the hearts and minds of the public, thus starting to transcend their own discipline. Interestingly, companies don’t just look at investment return in money terms, their primary aim being to create emotional bonds with consumers. Sports marketing is now based on creating passion for the consumer and gaining their hearts and minds, an outcome that advertising campaigns alone are not always able to achieve.

THE NIKE-JORDAN PARTNERSHIP MARKS A WATERSHED MOMENT

An experience that has certainly changed sports marketing has involved basketball icon Michael Jordan, who, signed to the sports giant Nike, has become so important that it is felt by consumers as being a different branch, separated from the Oregon company. We often hear “these shoes are Jordans”, or “this shirt is a Jordan”, completely omitting the fact that the full brand is “Nike Jordan”. On this account, at the end of 1997 the Portland company realised that the “Jordan” brand was so strong it could become a sub-brand of Nike, and that   was how “The Jordan Brand” was born. To celebrate this, the first AIR model was released: the “AIR Jordan XIII”. From then on, Jordan shoes no longer sported Nike’s swoosh but only the “Jumpman” logo.

Back to the world of tennis and some years earlier, the first successful brands were  those of ex-players such as Lacoste, Perry and Tacchini, who gave life to important companies selling sports clothing and accessories, entrepreneurial initiatives that leveraged specific marketing tools for sports equipment and clothing.

All these entrepreneurial cases have one thing in common: the establishment of the production and marketing companies took place after the specific tennis player  had ended his sports career, exploiting – in the case of Lacoste and Perry – a fame already acquired, but limited only to enthusiasts of the game. These brands, although no longer dominant, are still present on the market today. Lacoste can still boast the sponsorship of three WTA and five ATP players in the Top  50 of their respective rankings, including recent Australian Open finalists Djokovic and Medvedev. Fred Perry resurfaced in 2009 as a sponsor of Andy Murray’s, and has been organising  a major youth tournament in the UK since 2019. Sergio Tacchini has recently reappeared as a technical sponsor, after having been the dominating force in tennis merchandising during the 1980s – as for Lacoste and Fred Perry, we are talking about brands which are strongly linked to their national context.

THE CURRENT SITUATION IN TENNIS ENDORSEMENTS

Even today, the largest number of sponsorships of a tennis player concerns sports clothing and accessories:

Figure 1 – Sponsorships of professional tennis players by product sector in July 2019 – Statista (click to enlarge)

The distribution of the brands has changed, however, as can be seen when looking at the Top 30 on both the WTA and ATP tours.

Figure 2 – Source: scoreandchange.com – March 2020 (click to enlarge)

So, what has changed? The context variables (external and internal) are simply different, and there is a greater awareness on the part of successful athletes about the value of their image. The external environment is made of factors apparently furthest away from the endorsing company, including technologies, demographics and social trends, economic issues, politics, laws, concepts of environmental sustainability. The internal environment consists in variables such as: resources, skills, the ability to  provide services, customer-oriented culture, performance of departments, suppliers and outsourcing, sponsorships, marketing channels (sales outlets, financial companies, communication) and the role of the general public. These variables converge in the SWOT matrix (Strength-Weakness-Opportunities-Threats), which in turn flows into the marketing plans, allowing experts to mitigate risks, improve process efficiency and the decisional effectiveness of the marketing activities.

Advertising and marketing strategies have evolved over the past 30 years, and no tactics    that companies and organisations use to get the consumers’ attention has undergone more transformations than sports endorsing. In the past decades, advertising executives could buy large amounts of advertising space on television networks and “bomb” viewers with ads. The formula was simple: whoever spent the most, won. Today, however, as consumers watch less television and the selection of viewing options has increased exponentially, brands are forced to diversify and invest money to find new ways to engage potential customers. It took years of low incomes to realise that simply paying for your logo to appear alongside that of a professional sports team, buying TV commercials or advertising in stadiums during matches no longer provided the same profit it used to.

So, if the notion of getting a high return on investment from traditional advertising campaigns is almost dead, how can companies achieve success for their brands in terms of consumers’ appreciation? They need to leverage customer passions and promote brand relationships: collaborations today aim to improve the experience of the consumer or enthusiast and are based on building relevant connection points between the customer, the athlete and the corporate brand he/she represents.

Today we are witnessing a proliferation of personal brands, such as those listed below. Normally they are sub-brands, with some exceptions like that of Roger Federer, able to buy back his “RF” logo after a long legal battle with Nike. Self-referencing brands are just the tip of an iceberg in a brand-building strategy to obtain a long and successful career outside of sports. Even after an athlete’s sporting career is over, many carry their personal brand with them, just like Michael Jordan.

STRATEGIES

The distance between sports fans and champions has diminished, as social media and the web contribute to create emotional involvement and loyalty, together with traditional channels. Some general rules can be identified in the construction of a  strong brand identity:

  1.  Create coherence between the personality and the values of the athlete and his/her personal brand. It’s important to create a personal story that puts the athlete under an authentic light, which is not too far from his true character. There is no need to create a discrepancy between your real story and the image you intend to communicate externally. So, you must always check that the personal narrative is aligned with the core of the person.
  2.  Promotion of philanthropic causes. Showing of the  selflessness of sportsmen is manifested in causes where there are strong inequalities. Athletes who sincerely try to help solve even a small problem will not only be invested with the merits of positivity in solving the problem but will also benefit from a significant impact on their personal brand’s value and positioning.
  3.  Control of one’s own personal branding in detail. Keeping control of even the smallest    detail makes it possible to think of forming really interesting PR strategies for brand development that can target narrow segments of professionals, whilst ordinary fans may not even be aware of it.
  4. Select appropriate tools apt to interact with each of the important segments of the target audience. In most cases, when building athletes’ brands, one opts to use only a standard set of channels and tools. Today it is enough to take your personal brand to the top, as in reality no one is trying to achieve more in the sport, but in the near future this will not be enough anymore, given the enormous competitive pressures. Therefore, it is necessary to invest 80% more to obtain a substantial 100%. The world around us  is developing fast, and athletes have to work hard to stay in the conversation.
  5.  Each action must be framed within the context of the positioning of the personal brand. An athlete who has global visibility must pay attention to all personal actions, as this is  relevant to the positioning of his brand, built around his personality and individual beliefs.

THE PERSONAL BRANDS OF PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYERS

In order to find the aforementioned characteristics, a small empirical research was conducted on the personal sites and philanthropic initiatives of the so called “Fab Four”. Their sales in relation to their foundations or academies are summarized below:

Although Sir Andrew Barron Murray does not have a foundation or a clothing collection with his personal brand, he is involved in several philanthropic initiatives. Both Murray and Djokovic have personal pages on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, which is in fact a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and is one of the most popular sites in China. Djokovic’s numerical approach to social media is also very original, given that his site has a counter that adds up all his fans interactions scattered across the various social media channels, reporting the latest tweets.

Nadal’s conception of the relationship with his fans is instead more traditional: it includes a sort of virtual bulletin board with many pictures taken in the company of  his devoted followers. Federer moves along similar lines, using the classic channels, namely Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with a gallery of historical photos of the matches played in his professional seasons. Moreover, the fact that other tennis players such as Stan Wawrinka, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Marco Cecchinato, and more recently Jannik Sinner have chosen to create their personal brands, with the aim of improving their communication and marketing strategy, needs also to be remarked.

CONCLUSIONS

Why is personal branding becoming more and more common? If we look at those who already have a brand, the answer is closely linked to the business of professional sport, and is simply the ability of an athlete to generate a return from their image. Analysing the concept with a critical spirit and keeping in mind the goal  of maximising incomes for a sportsman during his or her short career, there are three basic reasons for building a “personal sports brand”:

  • Effectiveness
  • Relevance of their Image, which triggers the Fear of losing it
  • Level of importance, which will change throughout a professional athlete’s career span.

In the beginning or mid-career, a personal brand or a support logo are forms of efficient involvement of sponsoring companies, because they indicate the values that an athlete possesses and that a brand could exploit via an endorsement. As the  athlete heads towards the twilight of his professional career, the motivation becomes fear and relevance or, more precisely, the fear of not being relevant anymore. The skills of a professional athlete will naturally establish a certain positioning in the minds of the stakeholders, but an active cure of a market position derived from this ability is a strategic undertaking that requires not only a change in the mentality of an individual, but, above all, a shift in managerial culture to encourage athletes to think long-term and beyond the immediacy of their physical ability.

Cultivating the mental and physical well-being of a professional sportsman is the job  of a manager or a coach, but when it comes to thinking ahead, many athletes are woefully unprepared. A retired athlete will come from a world where everything revolves around him and will land on another where he quickly loses the spotlight.

Therefore, strong brand recognition will generate opportunities for athletes throughout their careers, and once they stop playing the game, the effectiveness with which they have defined, positioned and built their image and values will have  an impact on their future after tennis. If they postpone the aforementioned definition of their brand for too long, the lack of relevance they fear so much will undermine the value they offer to society, in which standing out requires far more than a logo.

Article by Andrea Canella; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa

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A Look at the Numbers: the Second Serve Is the Key to Victory for the Best in the Business

We conducted a comparative analysis of time periods, surfaces and player rankings. It turned out that the serve is becoming more and more important. However, the situation is different when it comes to matches between Top 10 players.

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We often muse about the evolution of the style of play over the last few decades. It is relatively simple to identify a turning point in the introduction of new materials, which progressively led to the obsolescence of wooden racquets starting in the 1980s. It can be said that the swan song of the old wooden racquets took place with Miloslav Mecir’s victory at Indian Wells in 1989 (a player as talented as he is unjustly forgotten). From that moment on, all the major tournaments were won by athletes brandishing a more modern racquet with a bigger sweet spot, a much wider point of impact at maximum effectiveness, which now extends to pretty much the whole of the racquet head.

 

From that moment on, the tennis style, at least at the highest levels and in particular for men (who traditionally hit harder) changed in favour of baseline rallies instead of net play, following in Bjorn Borg’s footsteps (thanks to the greater effectiveness of topspin shots which, because of new technologies, can be successful even from defensive positions). The 90s were mostly characterised by the Sampras-Agassi dualism, i.e. the challenge between an extraordinary server and an exceptional returner. After a short interregnum, Federer, Nadal and then Djokovic appeared on the scene, three players who have broken almost every record, especially in the Slams.

However, these three legends are quite difficult to classify in their playing styles – the same cannot be said for their competition, though. In the same period, we can identify, just behind them, players such as Murray, Roddick, Del Potro, Wawrinka: all equipped with a very solid first serve. And the same can be said for the elusive Next Gen, which has been awaited to take over for a few years, although at the moment it seems that they’ll still have to wait awhile. Likewise, the majority of the new contenders make the serve a cornerstone of their game: think for example of Medvedev, Sascha Zverev, Tsitsipas or Thiem.

Is the serve becoming increasingly important over time? The data made available on the ATP website, which include rather detailed statistics on all the matches held from 1991 to 2017, allow us to test this hypothesis more systematically. For this purpose, we will distinguish three periods within our analysis: 1991-1999, 2000-2009 and 2010-2017. We will compare them in statistical and data-driven terms, with a careful look at the role of the serve.

ACE RATES

Picture 1. Average difference in terms of ace between winner and loser

First of all, we can verify whether, and to what extent, the winner is also the player who hits the most aces: even if there are different degrees, this is the case in all three periods considered. In the 1990s, in fact, the average difference between the winner and the loser in terms of ace is 1.44. It reaches 1.64 in the first ten years of the new millennium (marking a strong growth, +13.8%) and 1.71 in the last period considered, from 2010 to 2017. It would therefore be tempting to conclude that the serve, in its most direct manifestation of effectiveness (the ace), has gained an increasing weight in determining the winner of a high-level match.
But what happens if we narrow the analysis to the Grand Slam tournaments, which represent the most important moments of the season, with all the big players competing (injuries notwithstanding)? In this case, the result is diametrically opposite: the difference measured in the 90s is 2.35 and decreases to 2.29 in the early 2000s. This difference settles, on average, at 2.15 in the last period considered.

At this point, however, we are reminded of the words of Andre Agassi, who often received comments related to the not exceptional effectiveness of his serve compared to the rest of his game. The American acutely observed that very often, and in particular when he was able to hit a first serve, even if he did not get a direct point, he put himself in a position to play an easy shot immediately after the serve. Considering the effectiveness of his groundstrokes, this was more than enough to make it difficult for the opponent to break his serve and to put him under pressure. On this basis, let’s try to delve more deeply by focusing on another stat, which is more indicative of serve performance overall and not just in terms of direct points: the percentage of points won with the first serve.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS WON WITH THE FIRST SERVE

Picture 2. Average difference in terms of percentage of points won on first serve between winner and loser

By repeating the analysis and applying it to this new statistic, we actually obtain a concordant result, both considering the totality of the tournaments or just the Slams. Considering every tournament, in the 1990s the winner of a match gets a percentage of points with the first serve that exceeds that of the losing player by 10.8%. In the early 2000s, the gap rises to 11.1%, reaching 11.5% in the third period considered (2011-2017). Focusing on Grand Slam tournaments, the trend remains similar in relative terms, although starting from a slightly lower base: the initial average difference is 10.4% in the 1990s, which grows to 10.7% and finally to 11.2% in the two subsequent periods considered.

We can conclude that, in average terms, the player who wins the match is the one who manages to get points from his first serve, thus imposing his game on the opponent. Once again, let’s try to re-read the data between the lines, considering another observation made by a great tennis player, former world number three and now Roger Federer’s coach: Ivan Ljubičić. During an interview, he was asked to compare Federer’s serve to that of other players, including Stan Wawrinka. Ljubo highlighted that, even though Wawrinka was able to reach higher speeds on the first ball, Federer was gifted with a more complete and unpredictable serve. But that’s not all.

One of the strengths of Federer’s serve is the second ball. “On Roger’s second ball“, concluded the Croatian coach, “it may be relatively simple to return, but it is still very complicated to attack“. In this sense, we look at another aspect of the serve: not only as a definitive shot (ace) or an aggressive one (first ball), but also as a tool to avoid being a victim of the opponent’s aggressive return: in a certain sense, it is a maneuvering shot, if not an outright defensive one. So, let’s try to ask ourselves if, especially at high levels, the second serve is key to victory, and the weight it takes throughout the years.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS WON WITH THE SECOND SERVE

Picture 3. Average difference in terms of percentage of points won on second serve between winner and loser

Again, we will first examine all the tournaments, and then focus on the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Considering the former, we identify a decisive step forward between the 1990s and the early 2000s, with the difference in terms of the percentage of points won on the second serve which goes up, on average, from 10% to 11%. Over the following years, up to 2017, there was still a slight growth, which leads to an average gap of 11.1%.

Focusing on the Grand Slam tournaments, we register a similar dynamic but, in this case, starting from a higher base: we go from an average gap of 11% (90s) to 11.8% (early 2000s), to reach an average difference of 12% on the points won with the second serve in the period 2010-2017.
Thinking back to what we observed in terms of percentage of points won on the first serve, we can assume that, in a best-of-five event, especially in the advanced stages of a match, players lose both brilliance and precision. It is therefore not surprising that the longer rallies, which start from a second and not from a first serve, end up determining the result of a match.

Starting from a first intuitive observation based on the evolution of playing styles, we have collected evidence that seems to support, in different forms, that the pattern suggested by intuition (the growing importance of the serve) is reflected in the data. Now let’s try to take a step back and, buoyed by this, ask ourselves: considering that more and more top players are focusing on their serve, is this shot assuming an increasing importance even in matches between Top 10 players

THE TOP 10

Picture 4. Average difference in terms of ace (top) and percentage of points won on the first and second serves (bottom) between a top 10 winner and loser

By examining picture 4, it can be noticed how the evolution of the role of the serve seems to be characterised in a different way, at least in the last three decades, in matches between Top 10 players. As for the difference in terms of aces between winners and losers, we witnessed a growth in the early 2000s, followed by a marked decrease in the period 2010-17.

It is also worth noting how the average values ​​associated with Top 10 matches are higher than the average values, ​​considering all the matches in the first two decades. In other words: in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, the difference in terms of aces between winner and loser in a Top 10 match was on average twice as much as the difference between aces in any other match. Between 2011 and 2017, however, the difference for the Top 10 is less than half of that associated with a generic match. The statistics relating to the points won on the first and on the second serve confirm this. The first serve becomes almost a “must have” at a high level and, for this reason, it cannot be the shot that “makes the difference” – because everybody has it.

The percentage of points won with the first serve grew from 8.1% in the 1990s to 9% in the early 2000s, then decreased to 8.5% in the year 2010-2017. On the contrary, the performance with the second serve grew in both decades, with an acceleration in the last analysed timespan. On average, we move from a 9% difference in the 90s to a 9.9% difference between 2000 and 2009. Then we reach an 11.8% difference between 2010 and 2017. We would therefore conclude that the serve has become a sort of business card to be presented at the entrance of the club of the best players in the world: a shot that cannot be ignored but that is not enough to beat the opponents, and thus to conquer Grand Slams et similia.

Let’s now try to verify this hypothesis once again by recalculating the statistics about the effectiveness of the serve, this time making a distinction between surfaces. In other words, let’s try to answer this question: is what we have deduced valid both on grass, on hard, and on clay?

GRASS, HARD AND CLAY

Picture 5. Average difference in aces between winner and loser, distribution by surface

By observing the trend of the difference in aces between winner and loser by surface, we observe how the gap between clay and hard court is roughly constant. This would raise more doubts over the theory according to which surfaces tend to be more and more alike over the last few years. There is a dissonant dynamic with regards to grass, in contrast with the other surfaces and the global average analyzed in section 2. In this regard, it can be observed that there are fewer and fewer serve & volley players, even on grass. In this sense, therefore, we can imagine that even a mediocre server will look to hit an ace when he hits the first serve on that surface. Consequently, he won’t want or need to end the point at the net. Due to the decreasing frequency of net approaches, the service box, especially in the final rounds of the tournaments, tends to return higher speeds than the baseline, an area where the grass is worn out and thus slower. Hitting a very fast first serve and going for an ace can therefore be the way to go for many players. It should also be noted, however, that even during the last period covered the difference in aces, in absolute terms, is greater on grass than on hard and clay, despite a downward trend.

Picture 6. Average difference in terms of points won on the first between winner and loser, distribution by surface

Considering the average difference in terms of percentage of points won with the first serve, and making a distinction not only by period but also by surface, we observe a different trend. On grass and on clay, the gap tends to grow (particularly on clay, from the 1990s to the first years of 2000s), while for hardcourts the statistics are more or less stable, with a slight decline in the early 2000s followed by a small increase starting in 2010. Perhaps it is the statistics about the clay that deserve specific reflection. While trying to analyse this growth, we can reflect on the fact that the early 2000s marked the success of players on clay courts (apart from Nadal) who make the power of their shots a winning card. The dirt aficionado, therefore, is no longer a Sergi Bruguera or a Thomas Muster, who were pure pushers, but rather players who attacks from the baseline: from this point of view, we can just recall the remarkable results of Wawrinka, or even of Federer himself. In this sense, therefore, even if the surface tends to reduce the number of direct points with the serve, it can be understood how these players end up creating a gap between themselves and the opposition in terms of percentage of points won with the first serve.

Picture 7. Average difference in terms of points won on the second between winner and loser, distribution by surface

The difference in terms of points won on the second serve shows similar trends between the three surfaces. In all three periods considered, the greatest difference is on clay, followed by hard and grass. Grass is experiencing a significant growth (from 9.7% to 11.2%) from the early 2000s, perhaps due to the fact that more and more players, even on grass, play from the baseline.

Given all the previous considerations, it could perhaps be observed that, at least starting from the early 2000s, despite the growing importance of the serve, the greatest difference between winner and loser is in terms of percentage of points won on the second serve, and not on the first one. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in Top 10 matches. This is what the data are telling us. However, we should try not to receive them like a verdict, but rather to interpret them like a story. As Dostoevsky recalled in Crime and Punishment, “Facts are not everything – at least half the business lies in how you interpret them.”

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Luca Rossi; edited by Tommaso Villa

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Azarenka Beats Local Favourite Kerber to Reach Quarterfinals in Berlin

The Belarusian advanced in straight sets against the German in hot and humid conditions on Steffi Graff Stadium.

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Victoria Azarenka booked her spot in the quarterfinals at the Bett1 Open in Berlin beating the local favourite Angelique Kerber in straight sets 6-3, 7-5 in one hour and 22 minutes.

 

” I feel like I got broken because I didn’t stick to being disciplined and it turned the momentum but I felt like I came back to what I was doing before which was working which was being aggressive and going for my shots, so it was very good that I was able to turn it around that quickly”.

It was the German who earned the first breakpoint of the match in the first game, but the world N.16 saved both she faced in the opening game and managed to hold serve. It stayed on serve until 4-3 when the Belarusian pushed for the break to serve out the first set and she did just that, taking it 6-3.

The first three games of the second set were on serve and at 2-1 it was the German with the chance to break. She took it and jumped out to a 4-2 lead, looking to push it to a decider.

At 4-2 the Minsk, Belarus native managed to set up two breakpoints with a sublime backhand passing shot and broke the German to go back on serve, but the former Wimbledon champion broke right back the following game. However, she failed to serve out the set and things were back on serve at 5-4.

At 5-5 Azarenka had two more chances to break. She succeeded once more, this time with a stunning forehand winner, and served out the match. After the win, she spoke about playing in 35 degree weather in her post-match press conference.

“It’s been a while since I have been in such hot weather, so for meit was more about preparation and the precaution for being hydrated, but physically it was fine but obviously it was a bit hot”

In the other matches of the day, the Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza, the number six seed, beat Elena Rybakina in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, while the young Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova continued her amazing run, booking a spot in the quaterfinals beating Veronika Kudermetova in an all Russian battle 6-4, 6-3.

In the last match of the day we witnessed another upset, as the American Jessica Pegula beat the number four seed Karolina Pliskova in straight sets 7-5, 6-2.

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