TENNIS – The 2015 Australian Open crowned Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams after two weeks of exciting tennis, upsets and memorable matches at Melbourne Park. Djokovic won his fifth Australian Open title and his eighth overall win in a Major equalling Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and André Agassi. Williams has become the second best player in history with 19 Majors behind Steffi Graf. The Australian Open may have an impact on the season of some of the top stars. Diego Sampaolo
Novak Djokovic confirmed his status as the King of Melbourne winning this title for the fifth time. Melbourne Park is becoming the backyard of Djokovic in the same way as the Roland Garros for Nadal and Wimbledon’s All England Club for Federer.
Djokovic’s next goal will be to win the Roland Garros for the first time in his career and complete the Career Grand Slam with the only Trophy missing from his cabinet. A triumph in the French capital could raise his hopes to complete the calendar year-Grand Slam.This is a hard but not impossible goal for Nole who came close to this achievement in 2011 when he triumphed in the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open losing an epic semifinal against Federer
Only Don Budge, the first player to win the four singles Majors in the same year was Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver, who accomplished this feat in 1962 and 1969, accomplished this feat in the history of men’s tennis. Three women won the four Slams in the same year: Maureen Connolly (1963), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (who achieved the Golden Grand Slam with the Olympic Gold in Seul 1988). This is enough to say how tough the achievement is for Djokovic especially in modern tennis.
The First Grand Slam of the year also produced some major changes to the ATP Ranking. These changes could have a major impact on future seeds and draws for the next tournaments. The most significant changes regard two top-10 player Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
The first change to the Ranking is the return of the Fab 4 after the return of Murray to the fourth place behind Djokovic, Federer and Nadal after finishing runner-up to Djokovic in the Australian Open final on Sunday. The Dunblane native, who fell out of the top-4 after losing in the quarter final last year in Melbourne and ended the 2014 season in sixth place in the Ranking after a difficult year marred by injury problems which he managed to rescue thanks to a strong finish to the year in which he collected three titles in Shenzhen, Vienna and Valencia. Murray had a strong return to form Down Under with wins against Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Tomas Berdych before keeping pace with Djokovic in the first two sets of the final which ended with tie-breaks. Murray broke serve at the start of the second set but from then on he started faltering and dropped 12 out of the last 13 games. Murray will have to improve his game especially after the final in which he hit 41 winners but 49 unforced errors.
Apart from the rise to the fourth place the Australian Open final was an important confidence-booster for Murray for the next months in which he will be bidding to his third Grand Slam title after the 2012 US Open and his triumph at Wimbledon in 2013. He will have to defend important points at the Roland Garros where he reached the semifinal last year. He reached the quarter final last year at Wimbledon and at the US Open where he will have his best chances to lift another Grand Slam Trophy.
The other major impact on the Ranking regards Stan Wawrinka who reached the semifinal Down Under after another solid tournament in which he beat Kei Nishikori in the quarter final but he could not defend his title points this year and dropped five places to Number 9 in the ATP Ranking after losing the semifinal against eventual champion Nole Djokovic. This means that he will face the risk to meet tough rivals in early rounds of the next Master 1000 Tournaments. He will also have to defend the title points in Monte-Carlo, although early exits last year in Madrid, Rome and the Roland Garros mean that he will have the chance to collect a lot of points since May.
The other major impact on the Rankings was produced by young Aussie Rising star Nick Kyrgios who rose to a career high Number 35 after reaching his second Grand Slam quarter final after last year’s Wimbledon. He has become the first teenager to reach two Grand Slam quarter final since Roger Federer in 2001
Kyrgios, who beat Federer’s conqueror Andreas Seppi before losing to Murray in the quarter final, has the potential to become the next star of the circuit and the great achievement in the Happy Slam could raise his confidence ahead of Wimbledon where he will try to improve his result of last year.
Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov reached at least the semifinal stage in Grand Slam tournaments in 2014 and are expected to follow in the footsteps of Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic as first-time Grand Slam champions in 2015. These three stars were not ready to lift their first Major Trophy in Melbourne but upsets are behind the corner especially at Grand Slam level. Among the reasons, which explain how the challenge faced by Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov is, there are the return to the top of Andy Murray, and the consistent tournament of Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych.
Raonic has moved up to his career high position of World Number 6 after reaching the quarter final for the first time at the Australian Open. However, the young Canadian showed that he cannot rely only on his big serve if he wants to have a serious chance to beat the Fab 4 in Grand Slams, as it happened in the Melbourne quarter final match where his best weapon was not enough to prevail against Djokovic.
Raonic, who will have to defend his semifinal points at Wimbledon after reaching this stage of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in his career, is just 360 points behind fifth ranked Kei Nishikori, who reached the quarter final in Melbourne.
The Japanese player, Grand Slam finalist for the first time last September at the US Open, beat David Ferrer but lost against Wawrinka who played his best match of the tournament in the quarter final against the Japanese player. By reaching the quarter final Nishikori equalled the same result achieved in 2012. The player coached by Michael Chang won just six of his 25 head-to-head matches against the top-10 but prevailed only twice in Grand Slams against Wawrinka in the quarter final and Djokovic in the semifinal at the 2014 US Open.
In comparison to Nishikori, Raonic won just five of his 27 head-to-head matches against top-10 players but has a 4-2 win-loss record against Murray. The Canadian has the potential to reach again the semifinal in Grand Slam tournaments in the near future.
Dimitrov reached the semifinal at Wimbledon last year but in the other Slams he was quarter finalist only at the Australian Open in 2013 and 2015. This year he faced a very tough task when he was beaten by Murray who was looking to take a re-match after losing last year at Wimbledon. Dimitrov won just four of 19 head-to head matches against the top-10 but has the talent to equal the semifinal achieved last year at Wimbledon.
Tomas Berdych performed well at the start of this year reaching the final in Doha and the semifinal in Melbourne. His Australian Open campaign was highlighted by his win over Rafa Nadal in the quarter final where the Czech player broke his 17-match losing streak against his Spanish rival. His run ended with the defeat against Murray in the semifinal but he showed consistency during the tournament reaching the semifinal for the second consecutive year. Much credit goes to his new coach Dani Vallverdu. Reaching the second Grand Slam final after Wimbledon in 2010 could be a realistic goal for Berdych in the next tournaments if he keeps the consistency.
Roger Federer suffered a major disappointment as he was knocked out by Andreas Seppi in the third round but he has still the chance to bounce back and add another Grand Slam to his impressive collection especially in his favourite Slam at Wimbledon where he won seven times and played a epic final against Djokovic. Winning the 18th Slam title could be the major goal for the final part of his legendary career- It remains to be seen how the Swiss Maestro will plan the rest of the season after the Australian Open especially in spring, if he will drop some tournaments from his calendar and if he plays in the Davis Cup first round against Belgium next March.
Rafa Nadal showed once again his ability to win very hard battles but he is vulnerable to injuries which are taking a heavy toll on his career. He will chase a lot of titles on his favourite clay surface next spring in the tournaments, where he did not perform at the same level as in the past years, before defending his title points at the Roland Garros. After Paris he will not have much to defend for the rest of the year, because he played sparingly in the second half of 2014 because of injury and physical problems.
Serena Williams celebrated her 19th title to move up into second place in the all-time list of winners of Grand Slam titles behind Steffi Graf who won 22 Major titles. Williams can dream to win more Grand Slam crowns and close the gap on the German legend if she keeps her form.
Serena has been at the top of the Ranking for a total of 226 weeks and is closing the gap on Chris Evert who was first for 260 weeks and is still ranked third in the all-time ranking of players who stayed at the top for more weeks behind Steffi Graf (377 weeks) and Martina Navratilova (332 weeks).
Runner-up Maria Sharapova lost her 17th consecutive match since 2004 against Serena but she fought hard in the second set and can look to the next tournaments with a renewed confidence especially during the spring clay season where she will have to defend the title points in Madrid, Stuttgart and the Roland Garros. Maria, who started her season with a title in Brisbane against Ana Ivanovic, showed once again the ability to fight hard until the end especially when she saved two match points against Alexandra Panova in the second round. Last year she won a hard final match against Simona Halep in Paris and she will certainly take advantage of this ability to fight hard until the last point in long and tough matches during the European clay season.
Sharapova has learned to move effectively on the clay surface, which was considered as one of her worst surface. She won two of her six Grand Slam titles in 2012 and 2014 in Paris and finished runner-up in 2013.
The major surprise of this year’s Australian Open Madison Keys could produce a major impact in the circuit after reaching the semifinals. The US teenager has reached the top-20 for the first time in his career after starting the tournament in 35th place in the WTA Ranking and is the youngest player in the top-20. Keys upset her childhood idol Venus Williams in the quarter final before losing against Serena in the semifinals. If Keys keeps this level, she could reach have the potential to reach the top-10 in the coming months and become the new star of the future. Keys could follow in the footsteps of Eugenie Bouchard, who start the 2014 season with a semifinal in Melbourne and went on to reach another Grand Slam semifinal at the Roland Garros before qualifying for the final at Wimbledon. The young Canadian did not confirm the semifinal of last year but she played a good tournament losing to Sharapova in the quarter final.
The other semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova confirmed her excellent level on the Grand Slam stage reaching her second consecutive semifinal after the US Open. She also reached the quarter final at Wimbledon last year. The Russian player crushed Simona Halep 6-4 6-0 in the quarter final before losing to Sharapova in the semifinal showing her potential to raise her game on the bigger stage. Thanks to her consistency Makarova has moved up to ninth place in the WTA Ranking and has the potential to reach her first Major final in the coming three tournaments.
Serena’s older sister Venus made a surprising start to her season winning in Auckland and reaching the quarter final in Melbourne. Venus beat Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the quarter final in a Grand Slam for the first time since 2010. She was beaten by Madison Keys in a clash between two different generations. Venus moved up seven position from 18th to 11th place in the WTA Ranking and cannot be written off in the coming tournaments if she is fit. Considering her illness which affected her in her recent years it’s a great achievement for the US legend.
Two players who suffered defeats in the early rounds were Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova but they faced tough players. Wozniacki lost to Vika Azarenka in the second round, while Kvitova was knocked out by Keys in the third round. Both players will have the chance to bounce back in the coming months. Last year they also did not start well but they raised their level in the second half of the season. Kvitova lost in the first round in Melbourne in 2014 but she finished strongly winning her second title at Wimbledon, New Haven and Wuhan. Wozniacki lost in the third round in Melbourne and fell in the first round in Paris but she enjoyed a second half winning a title at Istanbul and reaching the final at the US Open and Tokyo and the semifinal in Eastbourne, Cincinnati, Wuhan and in the WTA Championships in Singapore.
Vika Azarenka made a successful come-back with her her spectacular second round win over Wozniacki after starting the tournament as unseeded in 44th place in the WTA Ranking. She dropped to World Number 49, but her win over Wozniacki could be a confidence-booster for Azarenka who will try to improve her ranking in the coming tournaments.
Halep could not handle the pressure of high expectations and faltered in the second set against Makarova losing with a bagel. The young Romanian will have to defend a lot of points during the spring clay season where she will try to defend the final reached last year in Paris.
Agnieszka Radwanska was beaten by Venus Williams and dropped to eighth place, her lowest ranking since 2012.
Last year’s Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova lost eight positions in the Ranking dropping to 18th but she showed encouraging progress reaching the quarter final in her favourite tournament.
Italian Camila Giorgi enjoyed a solid tournament reaching the third round where she came close to upsetting Venus Williams. She improved her ranking by two positions to Number 31.
The major disappointment of this year’s tournament Down Under was Ana Ivanovic who did not advance the first round. The Serbian enjoyed a consistent 2014 season winning four titles in Auckland, Monterrey, Birmingham and Tokyo but reached her only Grand Slam quarter final in the Australian Open. She will have to raise her game if she wants to improve her record in Grand Slam tournaments. She will have to defend her final points of last year in Stuttgart and the semifinal points in Rome.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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”:
- 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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