Topspin Rate: What The 2019 Stats Tell Us - UBITENNIS
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Topspin Rate: What The 2019 Stats Tell Us

Let’s take a look at the data collected during the season-ending events of last year, the NextGen and ATP Finals.

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Topspin groundstrokes are the ever-present feature of contemporary tennis. As it goes, the widening of racquets’ sweet spots (starting in the early 1980s) allowed for a greater net clearance, lowering the rate of baseline errors without losing girth on the shot, quite the opposite. In some kind of arms race, grips and swings have developed as well (as highlighted by this New York Times piece), increasing the role of topspin even more, to the point that “flat shot” is a mere figure of speech in today’s tennis, as almost every shot generates rotation, especially on the forehand side. 

At the same time, however, data needs to be relativized. While it’s true that all players put topspin on their shots, at the same time some put more than others, de facto flattening the less spinny ones in the perception of the opponent – a playing style is necessarily tied to the way a foe relates to it.

A compelling analysis can thus be to compare the numbers of each player, albeit in the limited setting of the Masters 1000 and the two Finals, the NextGen and the Master, which are the only events for which Tennis TV provides public information.

As a matter of fact, the latter two tournaments have been an object of study for the analyst (his handle is “Vestige du jour,” a likely nod to Kazuo Ishoguro, a fellow Japanese expatriate), a Twitter user who lives in Paris and who has collected the available topspin data for the 16 players who competed in the year-end bouts. Here’s the graphics, with the caveat that he used RPM, Round Per Minute, as a measure, instead of Tennis TV’s  RPS, Rounds Per Second, probably to emphasise the differences between the various samples:

Clearly, these are very limited samples, and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt (each player played a maximum of five matches), but a few inferences can be made, three of which appear to be more interesting than others.

HOMOLOGATION – The first, and most relevant, pertains the proportionality vis-à-vis the data on almost every player’s groundstrokes. it can be noticed that most rates are in the central lane of the diagram, with a ratio of about 60-65% between the rotation of the backhand and that of the forehand, barring unique styles like Tiafoe’s, whose forehand’s rate is over 3000 RPM, more than twice as much as his backhand (an even starker antinomy would emerge from the analysis of Britain’s Cameron Norrie), or single instances like Sinner’s route of Ymer (he went over 2800 with his backhand while flattening his forehand to 2200, but that match ended with a 4-0 4-2 4-1 score, far too lopsided to carry meaningful insights).

Specifically, most players have an average between 2700 and 3000 RPM on the forehand, and between 1800 and 2300 RPM on the backhand, respectively – this category features Djokovic, one Federer match, one Zverev match, Humbert, Kecmanovic, Sinner, Davidovich Fokina, and Ymer, pretty much half of the involved players, most of whom are youngsters, giving interesting indications as for the direction the game is moving towards.

This percentage of homologation is confirmed by another chart prepared by our numbers-crunching friend, which extends the study to six Masters 1000 events from the 2018 season (Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Roma, Canada, Cincinnati):

An interesting corollary emerges when looking at the low reported average of Alex De Minaur and Daniil Medvedev, two players with a few shared quirks, such as their eastern grip which leads them to hit the ball with no exaggerated pronation and supination of the forearm, inherently generating less spin. Their semi-flat style extends to the backhand too, though, and this combo has them labeled as counterpunchers, given their penchant for using their opponent’s speed to generate their their own on both sides.

What seems relevants with regards to the two of them (and the same can be said for Murray, Simon, Mannarino, Bautista Agut, and especially Kukushkin) is that their reputation and imagery as reactive players is a great example of how the classic dichotomies of our sport have shifted, particularly with the way we look at offensive and defensive players, creating a chasm between tennis’s signifiers and signifieds. Until 15-20 years ago, attacking players hit hard and flat on fast surfaces, while grinders overcharged with topspin on slower turfs, whereas now most aggressive players rely on condor-like backswings and therefore prefer the clay and slow hardcourts, as opposed to the aforementioned counterpunchers who find their natural habitat indoors (thanks to the clean shots they can get) and on quick ground – Medvedev’s performance at the ATP Finals notwithstanding, since he’d been out of gas for weeks. In our view, this is the most interesting subject in contemporary tennis, and even though there isn’t much room in this piece to elaborate on its etiology (from physical changes to new tools to different surfaces), which should definitely be tackled in future, and it’s very meaningful nonetheless to highlight how the numbers confirm this transfiguration.

EVOLUTION – The second point revolves around the admirable adaptation that clay-bred champions (e.g. Nadal and Thiem, it’d be insulting to call them specialists) have undergone in order find success on the indoor Green Set of the O2 Arena.

Their versatility emerges when looking at the second chart above. As can be noticed, their topspin rate is a lot higher on clay and outdoors. This is due to the fact that greater humidity lowers the bounce indoors, making tospin shots anodyne and punishing players who stand far from the baseline, inherently forcing them to go for flatter shots (or better, less spinny), more advanced stances (something that in turn forces them to shorten the backwings), and more vertical ball-placements – this datum is rendered even more apodictic by the second chart’s footnote, reporting a 5-7 %increase in tospin rates in the three slower events, Miami (tropical hardcourt, much more humid than Madrid’s MASL-caused rarefied air), Monte Carlo, and Rome.

The contrasti s particularly stark for the Austrian, and it’s a clear symtpom of his incredible technical strides under the aegis of Nicolas Massù, especially regarding his anticipated backhand down the line (a great net play aide) e more generally his on-court positioning, far more advanced than it used to be.

Flipping this line of reasoning, on the other hand, it can be inferred that players with similar rates who have disappointed in these two events (e.g. Ruud and Berrettini, who finished with one win and five losses between the two of them) still haven’t completed their game to the point of being able to skin-change in less friendly conditions. Ruud, in particular, spins mightily from both sides (something that’s helping him in South America), and is the only player who regularly clocks at over 2400 RPM with a two-handed backhand, excluding Sinner’s one-spin-wonder.

LIMITATION? – One more contemporary axiom-disproving stat, at least among fans, is the one pertaining the topspin rate of one-handed backhands, which are purportedly without a future in their being less assertive than their paired evolution. This is a false myth though, a straw-man argument: as can be seen, the three one-handed backhands featured at the ATP Finals (Federer, Tsitsipas, Thiem) have always hit above the 2100 mark, resulting heavier than almost all of their rivals’ ones, and the truth becomes undeniable when looking at the second chart, in which all backhands averaging over 2300 RPM (except for Jaziri’s and Nadal’s) are one-handers.

The bane of such shots doesn’t abide in its abrasiveness (a longer lever generates more spin and more speed as opposed to the closer-to-the-body contact point of a two-hander) as much as in its practical use: as a matter of fact, the same distance from the contact point makes it a lot more problematic on high balls (just think of the long years of strife that Federer has endured on the left side against Nadal). What’s more, the necessity to execute a wide backswing and to hit it in a closed stance limit the shot on fast surfaces, both in the rally and in returning – it could be said that its Achilles’ heel actually stems from its very firepower, which hinders versatility in its elaborateness, especially for those who don’t possess a good slice backhand.

Some might object: what about three out of four semi-finalists at the ATP Finals being one-handers, though, without considering the many others who have performed well during the 2019 indoor season, such as Shapovalov, Dimitrov, and Wawrinka. That is unquestionably true, but a few things need to be clarified: firstly, some of these players (Federer, Dimitrov, Shapo) possess such arm-speed that they can adapt easily to such conditions, actually thriving in them, due to the effectiveness of the slice backhand of Federer and of his epigone; secondly, Thiem and Tsitsipas have had to change their game a lot to accommodate the surface switch and to succeed, learning how to hit earlier and flatter in order not to lose ground – quick demonstration, consider how many more one-handers are doing better on clay than they are on grass, and that’s precisely because bouncy slowy clay allows to hit hard from afar, whereas SW19’s lawns are unpalatable for every one-hander whose name isn’t Roger, in another flip of long-held convictions.

We’d like to end on an idea, which is that analytics help us mediate between our own prejudices and the reality of phenomena, providing us with objective considerations that could seem counter-intuitive at first sight. The dyad involving semi-flat counterpunchers and one-handed backhands (especially in relation to the surfaces on which they perform best) is the perfect representation of such concept. While it’s true that the topspin rate is just one side of the coin, it’s also true that this is exactly the kind of number that could have an impact in the upbringing of new talents, especially in the wake of a game that is becoming more and more rooted in quick points (0-4 shots) and on powerful solutions, and this evolution might widen the gap between those punchers and counter-punchers. Is this the direction the game’s going towards?

 

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Motivation, Pressure And Expectations – Novak Djokovic Targets History At Wimbledon

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image via x.com/wimbledon

Novak Djokovic has broken numerous records throughout his career but he still feels the pressure of trying to make history in the sport. 

The world No.2 is through to his 10th Wimbledon final where he will play Carlos Alcaraz, who beat him at this stage of the tournament 12 months ago. There is plenty on the line for the Serbian who could equal Roger Federer’s record for most men’s titles won at SW19 and break the overall record for most major singles won in the sport if he triumphs over the Spaniard. Djokovic currently has 24 Grand Slam trophies to his name which is the same as Margaret Court, who won some of her titles before the Open Era started. 

“Obviously I’m aware that Roger [Federer] holds eight Wimbledons. I hold seven. History is on the line.” Djokovic said on Friday after beating Lorenzo Musetti.

“Also, the 25th potential Grand Slam. Of course, it serves as a great motivation, but at the same time it’s also a lot of pressure and expectations.”

Coming into Wimbledon, there had been doubts over Djokovic’s form after he underwent surgery to treat a knee injury he suffered at the French Open. However, he has defied the odds to reach the final. His run has also seen him beat Alexi Popyrin and Holger Rune before getting a walkover in the quarter-finals from Alex de Minaur, who sustained an injury during the tournament. Then on Friday, he overcame a spirited Musetti in three sets. 

Despite the challenge, Djokovic has insisted that his expectations to do well are always high no matter what the situation is. During what has been a roller-coaster first six months of the season, he is yet to win a title this year or beat a player currently ranked in the top 10. Although he will achieve both of these if her beats Alcaraz on Sunday. 

“Every time I step out on the court now, even though I’m 37 and competing with the 21-year-olds, I still expect myself to win most of the matches, and people expect me to win, whatever, 99% of the matches that I play.” He said.

“I always have to come out on the court and perform my best in order to still be at the level with Carlos [Alcaraz] or Jannik [Sinner] or Sascha [Zverev] or any of those guys, Daniil [Medvedev]. 

“This year hasn’t been that successful for me. It’s probably the weakest results the first six months I’ve had in many years. That’s okay. I had to adapt and accept that and really try to find also way out from the injury that I had and kind of regroup.”

Djokovic hopes that a Wimbledon win will help turn his season around like it has done in the past for him. 

“Wimbledon historically there’s been seasons where I wasn’t maybe playing at a desired level, but then I would win a Wimbledon title and then things would change.” He commented.

“For example, that was the case in 2018 when I had elbow surgery earlier in the year, dropped my rankings out of top 20, losing in fourth round of Australian Open, I think it was quarters of Roland-Garros, and just not playing the tennis that I want to play. Then I won Wimbledon and then won US Open and then later on became No.1 very soon.”

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Alcaraz is hoping to stop Djokovic in his tracks. Should he defend his title at Wimbledon, he would become the first player outside the Big Three to do so since Pete Sampras more than 20 years ago. He has won their only previous meeting on the grass but trails their head-to-head 3-2. 

“I’m sure he knows what he has to do to beat me,” said Alcaraz.

“But I’m ready to take that challenge and I’m ready to do it well.”

When the two players take to the court to play in the Wimbledon final, Djokovic will be 15 years and 348 days older than Alcaraz. Making it the largest age gap in a men’s Grand Slam final since the 1974 US Open. Whoever is victorious will receive £2,700,000 in prize money. 

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Carlos Alcaraz And Novak Djokovic Wouldn’t Yield To Medvedev And Musetti At Wimbledon

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image via x.com/wimbledon

Carlos Alcaraz seemed to be on his own against a vastly improved Daniil Medvedev. The defending Wimbledon champion appeared to be out of tricks.

And Medvedev sensed it.

Alcaraz still scored a 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Medvedev. It may look rather easy on paper, but there was nothing easy about Alcaraz’s victory. The young Spaniard just came through when he needed it to advance to what he hopes will lead to his fourth Grand Slam title.

MEDVEDEV APPLIED ENDLESS PRESSURE

Medvedev was always there, ready to pounce on any mistake by Alcaraz. But mistakes didn’t happen that often after Medvedev took the first set in a tie-breaker.

Alcaraz hadn’t served that well in the first set that Medvedev had taken in a tiebreaker. But it was a different story once Alcaraz found the mark on his serves. He just kept holding service until the match was his.

Remember, he’s only 21 years old. But now he faces someone in this Wimbledon final almost twice as old in 37-year-old Novak Djokovic.

NOVAK DIDN’T LET INJURED KNEE STOP HIM

Early in the match, Djokovic looked like he might have problems against Lorenzo Musetti. He appeared to have a slight limp in the right knee that was covered by a band. Of course, it’s been less than six months since Novak underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in that knee.

Djokovic didn’t always chase after balls in situations where his service game wasn’t in jeopardy. He just hit winners when the opportunities came along, and his serve was always ready to win a point, a game or the match.

MUSETTI WASN’T THE SAME

Young 25th seed Musetti had been so strong and talented in his quarterfinal upset of Taylor Fritz. The 22-year-old Italian had looked like he might be a threat to the likes of Djokovic and Alcaraz in the last two rounds in London.

Musetti appeared to be able to run down everything against the speedy Fritz, until Fritz seemed to grow tired in a fifth set that Musetti won easily.

The Italian wasn’t the same against Djokovic.

Djokovic was just too good and too consistent to allow Musetti to stop his bid for another title.

NOVAK THE VIOLINIST

The setting was completely different this time with Djokovic looking questionable at the start. But Musetti could hardly push Djokovic, and ended up losing by a 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Once Novak charged through the second set tiebreaker, dropping only two points, Musetti couldn’t get back into the match.

And then Novak came out pretending to play a violin on his racket for his precious 6-year-old daughter Tara, whom Novak said has been learning to play the violin for about six months.

Some fans apparently didn’t like this, but then there probably were others who became Novak Djokovic fans. Novak obviously is a great guy and dad these days.

After all, Novak has just played his 97th Wimbledon match, and he’s hoping in his 37th Grand Slam final to tie Roger Federer’s record of eight Wimbledon titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Daniil Medvedev Calls For Video Replays After ‘Small Cat’ Insult At Wimbledon Umpire

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Daniil Medvedev - Credit: AELTC/Jed Leicester

Daniil Medvedev admits the use of his words against the umpire in his Wimbledon semi-final match was not pleasant but he believes he didn’t cross a line. 

The world No.5 was issued with a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct during the first set of his clash with Carlos Alcaraz. Medvedev was visibly irritated when umpire Eva Asderaki ruled there was a double bounce before he returned a ball during a rally. He was then caught on camera mouthing an insult to Asderaki who consulted with the tournament supervisor before issuing him with a violation. Verbal abuse towards match officials can lead to players being defaulted from matches. 

Medvedev went on to win the first set before losing in four to Alcaraz. After his exit from the tournament, he was quizzed about what he said. 

“I would say small cat, the words are nice, but the meaning was not nice here,” he said without elaborating any further.

Continuing to defend his actions, the 28-year-old said he had previously been involved in a similar incident involving Asderaki where a double-bounce call was made against him at the French Open. Medvedev says memories of what happened were triggered today. 

“I don’t know if it was a double bounce or not. I thought no. That was tricky. The thing is that once long ago at Roland Garros against (Marin) Cilic I lost, and she didn’t see that it was one bounce. So I had this in my mind. I thought, again, against me,” he said.

“I said something in Russian, not unpleasant, but not over the line. So I got a code for it.”

It is not the first time Medvedev has used the phrase ‘small cat’ as an insult. During a heated match against Stefanos Tsitsipas at the 2022 Australian Open, told umpire Jaume Campistol he would be a small cat if he did not take action against claims that Tsitsipas was being coached illegally during the match.

The former US Open champion says he did not fear being defaulted from his latest match before going on to say video replays should be allowed in the sport. A comment that was also made by Coco Gauff during the French Open earlier this year after she was caught up in a dispute concerning a double-bounce.

“Not at all because, as I say, I didn’t say anything too bad,” he replied when asked if he was concerned he might be disqualified for what he said on Friday.

“The thing is that I think it would be so much easier with a challenge system. The challenge system shows a bounce. So if there was a bounce, it would show it. 

“Then if we use it, we would never have this situation. So I don’t know why we don’t use the challenge system for double bounce, the Hawk-Eye or whatever.”

Medvedev’s focus will now turn back to the clay ahead of the Olympic games which will be held at Roland Garros. 

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