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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Daniil Medvedev Can Improve Further After US Open Win, Says Coach

Gilles Cervara has overseen the rise of the world No.2 since 2017 and he believes there is still more to come.

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The 2021 Men's Singles Champion, Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 US Open, Sunday, Sep. 12, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Garrett Ellwood/USTA)

The team of Daniil Medvedev are already looking into ways the Russian can improve his game less than a week after he won the US Open, according to his coach Gilles Cervara.

 

On Sunday the 25-year-old defeated Novak Djokovic in straight sets to claim his first-ever Grand Slam title and become the first Russian man to win a major since Marat Safin in 2005. Impressively Medvedev only dropped one set in the tournament which was against Dutch qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp in the quarter-finals.

Guiding Medvedev to glory in New York was his coach Cervara who has been working with him since 2017. The Frenchman was recognized for his work with Medvedev back in 2019 when he was named ATP coach of the Year. Speaking to Tennis Majors earlier this week, Cervara believes part of the success they have had is due to the desire to continuously improve.

“It’s huge to have won the US Open. But Daniil, me and the whole team, we are always focused on performance,” he said. “It’s a way of life, of thinking, which means that I will always be drawn to the idea of doing better, and therefore of winning the next tournament. To make this possible, I have to set up workouts to be even stronger and respond to more situations, to win even more.”

It is hard to question the approach taken by Cervara when you look at Medvedev’s results on the hardcourts. According to the ATP, the world No.2 has won 147 matches and 12 titles on the surface since 2018 which is more than any other player. The next best player is Djokovic with 115 wins and 10 titles.

Medvedev could end the year as world No.1 but it will be far from easy. He is currently more than 1300 points behind Djokovic in the standings. If he wants to overtake him he will need to win or reach the finals of key events in Indian Wells, Paris and the ATP Finals. Although it is hard to project an exact route as it is unclear as to what tournaments will be played.

“I tell myself that it involves work and improving many things on a daily basis. The team has already started to think: yes, he wins a Grand Slam, but we can see a lot of things to improve,” Cervara commented. “These things represent the concrete aspects to be deployed with a view to a potential future great result. To be number one and win other majors, you have to achieve concrete things, at work, every day.”

Just because Medvedev has won a Grand Slam doesn’t automatically mean that he will go on to dominate the Tour. 12 months ago at the US Open, it was Dominic Thiem who triumphed at the tournament. However, the Austrian admitted that he struggled over the following months after achieving one of his career goals. Thiem didn’t play in this year’s US Open due to a wrist injury.

“I don’t think that will happen to him, but if we want to use what has happened for others, then yes it is a point of attention. It’s too early to know. If that happens, we will look for solutions,” Medvedev’s mentor commented.

One of the most unique aspects of Medvedev’s game is how far he stands behind the baseline during points. In one research article conducted by UbiTennis on the 2020 ATP Finals, the average player stood 1.9 meters behind the baseline. However, Medvedev’s return position was between 4.51 and 5.51 meters. Interestingly the analysis found that the further he stood behind the more he won.

Cervara admits that initially he tried to stop Medvedev from standing so far behind the baseline but the Russian refused to do so. His initial fear was that the tennis player was opening himself up to too many angles which his opponent could use. However, he soon came to realise that this wouldn’t be the case.

“I tried to get him to return closer to the line, but he refused,” he said. “He felt that as he got closer to the line, things just stopped happening for him. I think I had the intelligence to listen to him and put myself in his shoes, not to deconstruct something that is advantageous for him thanks to his size, his eye and his playing intentions. And the stats tell us that it pays a lot.”

Medvedev is set to return to action in just over a week at the Laver Cup. So far this season he has achieved a win-loss record of 44-9.

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Top Seed Tennys Sandgren Defaulted From Match Two Games In At Challenger Event

The tennis player was on court for less than 20 minutes before the incident happened.

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Tennys Sandgren’s appearance at the Atlantic Tire Championships Challenger event in Cary was a very brief one after he was disqualified from his first round match for hitting a lines official with a ball.

 

The world No.103 was taking on Christopher Eubanks in the first round on Tuesday and got off to a promising start by breaking in the first game before working his way to a 40-30 lead in the second. However, Sandgren then landed himself in hot water after hitting a tennis ball which struck one of the court officials. At the time the American was frustrated after hitting a forehand error.

The bizarre incident wasn’t caught on camera by the tournament livestream but Sandgren gave his version of events shortly after. He said a ball thrown to him by a ball kid hit him in the genitals and after that he slapped a wayward ball towards the fence. However, that wayward ball ended up hitting the ‘tushy’ of a court official.

https://twitter.com/TennysSandgren/status/1437933892456140809

Immediately after the incident, the tournament supervisor was called to the court by the umpire. Following a brief discussion on the court, Sandgren was then disqualified from the match for an action which he later took full responsibility for.

“Just to be clear, this was all totally my fault,” he wrote on Twitter.

It is not the first time a player has been disqualified for hitting a ball which then struck an official. The most famous incident took place at last year’s US Open when Novak Djokovic was disqualified from his fourth round match after hitting a ball which hit the lineswoman in the throat. In another incident, Denis Shapovalov was disqualified from one of his Davis Cup matches after unintentionally firing a ball into the umpire’s eye.

Sandgren, who is a two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist, has experienced a disappointing 2021 season so far. The American is yet to win back-to-back matches at a tournament and has only recorded a total of eight wins overall. Since January he has fallen more than 50 places in the ATP rankings.

Full video (go to the 19-minuite mark)

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Daniil Medvedev Marks US Open Milestone With FIFA-Inspired ‘Dead Fish’ Celebration

In his own words, the new champion produced an ‘L2 + Left’ celebration after defeating Novak Djokovic in New York on Sunday.

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Daniil Medvedev reacts to winning the Men's Singles championship match at the 2021 US Open, Sunday, Sep. 12, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Garrett Ellwood/USTA)

Daniil Medvedev’s reaction to winning his first Grand Slam title at the US Open wasn’t random. In fact, he has been thinking about his FIFA-inspired celebration since Wimbledon.

 

On Sunday the world No.2 defeated Novak Djokovic in straight sets to become only the third Russian man in history to win a major title. The triumph caused heartbreak for his opponent who was on the verge of achieving the elusive Calendar Slam which last happened on the men’s Tour back in 1968. Leading 6-4, 6-4, 5-4, Medvedev sealed victory after a Djokovic return slammed into the net. Prompting him to literally drop to the ground in a somewhat unusual way.

“Only the legends will understand, what I did after the match was a L2 + Left,” he said during the trophy presentation.

The reference was to the game FIFA with L2 + Left being the code for what is called by some as the brick fall celebration or what Medvedev describes as ‘dead fish.’ When a player would just drop to the ground on his side after scoring a goal.

“When I was running through [the draw at] Wimbledon… I was really confident about my game. I think it was one night, you know, you cannot fall asleep. Five, 10 minutes you have crazy thoughts, like every other person,” he said.
“I was like, OK, if I’m going to win Wimbledon, imagine I win it against Novak or whatever. To not celebrate is going to be too boring, because I do it all the time. I need to do something, but I want to make it special.”

Medvedev’s planned celebration was no secret with him openly speaking with others in the locker room leading up to the US Open. No names of who he spoke to were mentioned by the Russian who says his peers described the idea as ‘legendary.’

“I like to play FIFA. I like to play PlayStation. It’s called the dead fish celebration. If you know your opponent when you play FIFA, many times you’re going to do this. You’re going to score a goal, you’re up 5-0, you do this one,” he continued.
“Yeah, I talked to the guys in the locker [room], they’re young guys, super chill guys. They play FIFA. They were like, ‘That’s legendary’. Everybody who I saw who plays FIFA thinks that’s legendary. That’s how I wanted to make it… It’s not easy to make it on hard courts. I got hurt a little bit, but I’m happy I made it legendary for myself.”

It certainly was legendary from Medvedev.

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