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
Conventional wisdom vs data: the seventh game and the importance of serving first
Is it true that whoever wins the seventh game at 3-3 ends up winning the set? And that he who will serve first in a decider has an edge? Let’s take a look at the last ten years of Grand Slam matches’ data to see if there’s some validity to these truisms.
It is a commonly held opinion that tennis is one of the sports in which the psychological component weighs the most during matches. Proof of that is, for example, that Timothy Gallwey, one of the fathers of Business and Life Coaching, was inspired by his experience as a tennis coach in writing his best seller “The inner game of tennis”, published in 1974 and in some ways still very relevant today. In more recent times, even Agassi and Panatta have insisted a lot on this aspect in their autobiographies, with the italian using this concept in the title of his book, stating boldly that “tennis was invented by the devil”.
This close connection between what happens on the court and what happens in the mind of the players often leads to proverbial statements that, it can be said, are viewed as conventional wisdom. For example, it is believed that, precisely for psychological reasons, the seventh game, in a set tied at 3-3, is particularly important because it breaks the balance just when the set enters its bottom half. Or, again, it is commonly believed that, particularly in a match that goes to the fifth set, the first player serving has an advantage in the decisive set, thus causing in the opponent the unpleasant feeling of chasing at a time when the match is about to end.
The growing availability of structured data related to ATP matches allows us to put these claims to the test, and to verify their veracity. For this purpose, we will consider all of the men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments of the last decade, from 2011 to 2021. Considering this huge database, let’s start by asking ourselves the first question: does the one player who wins the seventh game on a 3-3 tied set win the set in the end?
THE 7TH GAME
At a first glance, it would be tempting to answer in the affirmative. In fact, in 54.3% of cases whoever goes 4-3 by winning the seventh game ends up winning the set. But to attest to the validity of this first superficial observation it might seems appropriate to ask ourselves, more specifically, whether gaining the advantage at that particular moment is more significant or helpful than doing it slightly earlier, or slightly later. In other words: does winning the seventh game at 3-3 carry more weight than winning the ninth game at 4-4, or the fifth game at 2-2?
The set is won by whoever wins the ninth game after a 4-all in 53.6% of cases. Comparable, but slightly lower than the 54.3% recorded for the seventh-game-case in a tied set. Considering that the ninth game is closer to the ending of the set, winning a game in that situation should have a bigger impact. Therefore it would be tempting to identify a correlation, albeit not particularly strong, between the vin in the seventh game at 3-3 and winning the set. Before getting to any conclusion, however, let’s repeat the analysis, this time examining the fifth game at 2-2.
Perhaps a little surprisingly, we find that, at 2-2, the set is won in 56.7% of cases by whoever wins the fifth game. Although this game takes place further away from the end of the set, it seems to have a greater effect on the final outcome of the set. Although this fact alone is not proof in debunking the myth of the seventh game, this simple analysis has perhaps the merit of generating some doubts and some more curiosity, bringing to the forefront a hypothesis that comes from experience in more direct touch with the data. Let’s try to apply this logic to another statement as well: it’s better to serve first in the final set.
SERVING FIRST IN THE DECIDER
Let’s focus on the 728 Grand Slam matches that have reached the fifth set over the last ten years. Indeed, the percentage of cases in which whoever served first in these 728 occasions won the set (and, consequently, the match) is greater than 50%: to be precise, the count is 380 cases (52.2% of the total). Looking back, we can consider that, if such an advantage really exists, it is reasonable to expect it to be greater in the case of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, which, for a large part of the period considered, did not provide have final set tie-breaks or super tie-breaks, with (possible) prolongation of the psychological pressure on whoever is serving second.
Indeed, 310 of the 576 matches of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon of the last 10 years in the fifth set were won by the player who served first: 53.8% of the total. A higher percentage, therefore, than the one observed also considering the US Open’ s data. We can therefore say that, in this case, at least for this analysis’ sake, there seems to be a correspondence between conventional wisdom and actual data.
Let’s now move on to the critical analysis of a third consideration, common indeed, but not necessarily supported by the data: in a hard-fought match, whoever wins the most games who go to deuce will win the match in the end.
To analyse this statement, and to measure its coherence with the trend of men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments over the last ten years, let’s first focus on the matches with at least ten games that went to 40-40. This will allow us to focus on the statistically more significant data. Winning ten deuce games out of ten (100% of them), for example, has a different weight than winning the only one who went the distance.
Preparing the dataset for analysis, we can see that in the last ten years 2,050 men’s singles matches have been characterized by at least ten hard-fought games. To evaluate whether, starting from this subset of games, the victory of the games with advantage points is significantly linked to match wins, let’s try to use a different graphic representation: the box-plot.
The box plot represents the statistical distribution of a variable, in this case the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of the match for the 2,050 matches considered. A commonly used concept, in the analysis of statistical distributions, is that of the percentile. Let’s imagine we order the hard-fought-game percentages won by the winners of the 2,050 matches considered in ascending order. Match number 205 of this ordered list would be classified as the to the 10th percentile of the distribution (given that 205/2050 = 0.1 = 10%). In the box plot, we see a thin yellow bar to identify the fiftieth percentile, also called the median of the distribution. If the percentage of deuce games won was particularly significant, we would expect a median value, for the winners of the matches, greater than 50% – but this is not the case.
Not just that: the green colored area of the box-plot defines the range within which the “central” 50% of the distribution is found. That is, the lower end of the green colored area coincides with the twenty-fifth percentile of the distribution, the upper end with the seventy-fifth. We observe that the central band of the distribution has the same excursion towards the lower extreme (50% -36.4% = 13.6%) than the upper one (63.6% -50% = 13.6%).
As a further check, let’s ask the data the same question once again, using a different survey tool: the ROC curve.
We will ask ourselves, this time, if there are thresholds (not necessarily 50%) of 40-40 games that can become decisive for the match win. Once again, for the reasons already mentioned, we will focus on matches with at least ten hard-fought games. To conduct this type of analysis, we can use the ROC curve.
To trace it, we will proceed as follows:
- every possible threshold value is considered in terms of percentage of deuce games won, starting from 0% up to 100%
- for each of these values (let’s take 10% for example) we ask ourselves: how accurate would it be to say that whoever wins more than 10% of the game at the advantages wins the match?
- the answer to this question is analysed using two components: sensitivity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified victories) and specificity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified losses)
- each threshold can therefore be represented as a point, drawn in a chart in which the vertical axis is represented by the wording “Sensitivity” and the horizontal axis represented by “Specificity”
- by connecting these points, a curve can be drawn, called ROC curve (Receiver Operating Curve)
- it can be shown that the area included under this curve, called AUC (Area Under the Curve) equals to the probability that, given a pair of matches (match 1 and match 2), the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of match 1 is greater than the percentage of deuce games won by the loser of match 2.
The more the AUC approaches to the value of 1, the more the element considered (in this case the percentage of deuce games won) is relevant compared to the target (the match win). We observe that, in this case, the AUC is equal to 0.504, just above 50%. The lack of relevance of deuce games supremacy therefore seems to be confirmed.
Let’s now try to ask ourselves if, indeed, as is often supposed, the victory of the first set is often decisive, especially for the underdog player.
THE FIRST SET IS KEY, ESPECIALLY FOR THE WEAKER PLAYER
The matches in which the winner of the first set has a better ATP ranking at the end of the season is represented by the green bars of the histogram, the other matches are represented by the red bars. So let’s ask ourselves if, especially in a Grand Slam tournament, considering the men’s singles matches only and therefore a three out of five set match, the victory in the first set is relevant and, more specifically, let’s try to understand if this consideration is more valid for players who face an opponent of greater clout, or with a better ATP ranking.
First of all, we observe that 2,271 of the 2,902 matches considered ended with the victory of the player who won the first set: in other words, in 78.2% of cases whoever won the first set also won the match. This is by far the strongest pattern explored in this article. For example, if we consider the effect of ranking on the outcome of the match, we observe that in 2,238 cases out of 2,902 (i.e. in 77.1% of cases) the match is won by that player who, at the end of the season, will occupy a better position in the ATP ranking. In other words, the victory of the first set seems to “weigh” even more (albeit slightly) than the ranking in the outcome of the match.
And, as conventional wisdom teaches, the combination of the two factors is even more predictive of the name of the match winner. In fact, if the first set is won by the lower ranked player, the opponent will manage to get away with it in 30% of cases (196 matches out of 664). If, on the other hand, the better-ranked player takes the first set, then his opponent seems to have less than a 20% chance of reversing the situation (435 cases out of 2238).
This is what the data tell us, which, as always, we try to approach with a critical eye. That is, always keeping in mind Henri Poincarè, according to whom “science is made of data as a house is made of stones. But a mass of data is no more science than a pile of stones is a real house.”
Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa
Flink: “Djokovic Was Lucky at the Beginning of the Final Because Berrettini Was Even More Nervous than Him”
A Wimbledon recap. Zverev struggled once more with nerves, while Barty cemented her status. How many losses like the one to Hurkacz will Federer be able to cope with?
Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta and Hall-of-Famer tennis writer Steve Flink met virtually to discuss the events that transpired at the 2021 Championships, which were won by world number ones Novak Djokovic and Ashleigh Barty. Here’s their chat:
00:00 – The rise of Berrettini: “He was a little lucky to avoid both Federer and Zverev, but his level was outstanding.”
01:45 – How well did the Italian fare against Djokovic in the final?
06:35 – Zverev has never beaten a Top 10 opponent at a Major – a sign of frailty?
08:25 – Sebastian Korda was one of the most pleasant surprises of the tournament – will he become the American number one?
10:45 – The Canadians are on the rise. Who will have a better career between Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime?
15:15 – Hurkacz beat Federer but then couldn’t reach the same level against Berrettini – what went wrong for him?
16:50 – Is Berrettini a better player than he was in 2019 when he reached the US Open final?
27:05 – Will Djokovic go to the Olympics?
35:35 – Federer lost very badly to Hurkacz – was he lucky to reach the quarter finals?
41:40 – Should people in Federer’s camp start to talk to him about retirement?
45:30 – The women’s tournament: “Pliskova’s terrible start to the final was actually a good thing because it got the crowd on her side…”
52:30 – Coco Gauff lost against Kerber – will she learn from this defeat?
Transcript a cura di Giuseppe Di Paola
Djokovic Meets the Moment Forthrightly Once More
Despite losing the opening set, Djokovic clinched his sixth Wimbledon title and tied Nadal and Federer’s Major tally while inching closer to the Grand Slam
We are running out of superlatives for the one and only Novak Djokovic. All year long, he has set the bar as high as possible in his quest to collect major championships. He has been entirely transparent about his lofty goals and his largest dreams, refusing to shy away from what is at stake, and willing to put himself fully on the line at all of the Majors in a spirited bid to move beyond both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the historical race for supremacy. In his sterling career, Djokovic has never been as maniacally single-minded in pursuit of the game’s greatest and most enduring prizes as he is at this very moment.
That sharp focus on what now matters most to him has put the Serbian in an enviable position as he heads into the heart of summer. After upending a spirited Matteo Berrettini 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3—the first Italian ever to appear in a Wimbledon singles final—in a hard fought and well played contest, Djokovic has established himself as the first man since Rod Laver took the Grand Slam 52 years ago to secure the first three majors in a season. That is no mean feat because Djokovic recorded those triumphs on the hard courts of Melbourne, the red clay at Roland Garros and on the lawns of the All England Club. They call that supremacy on all surfaces.
With this magnificent first half of his 2021 campaign, Djokovic has put himself in very good stead. At long last, he stands on the same turf as Federer and Nadal with 20 Grand Slam singles crowns. For far too long, he has lived at least somewhat in the shadows of those two luminous figures, but Djokovic has altered his status immeasurably and is earning the acclaim and recognition that he so richly deserves from not only his fellow players but also the worldwide public. Starting with his victory at Wimbledon three years ago, the Serbian superstar has captured eight of the last twelve majors. He has been victorious in 12 of his last 14 Grand Slam finals dating back to Wimbledon in 2015, raising his record to 20-10 in those critical, career defining clashes.
To be sure, he has raised his historical stock enormously and demonstrated that life after 30 in this sport is not necessarily a time of diminishing returns for a top-of-the-line athlete. Since Djokovic turned 30 on May 15, 1987, he has amassed the largest number of major titles ever taken by a man in the history of the sport at that age and beyond, lifting his total to eight “Big Four” crowns by virtue of his sixth Wimbledon triumph. Clearly, Djokovic doesn’t look 34 or play like it either; he is competing like a sprightly man in his late twenties who has seldom tasted the champagne in the places of prestige. His thirst for success sometimes seems unquenchable.
He explained after his win over Berrettini, “Obviously it’s all coming together for me now. I feel like in the last couple of years for me, age is just a number. I don’t feel like I’m old or anything like that. Obviously you have to adjust and adapt to phases you go through in your career, but I feel like I’m probably the most complete that I’ve been as a player now in my entire career.”
Discerning critics of the game could not justifiably disagree. Djokovic is s better server than he has ever been before and his capacity to fend off challenges from his opponents and keep holding on is at a new level. He lost his serve only seven times across 23 sets in his fortnight at Wimbledon, saving 26 of 33 break points in the process. He won 84% of the points when he got the first serve in and 56% on second serve points. Looking at his six triumphant years at Wimbledon, his numbers this year on serve all told are arguably the best he has ever posted. Only once was he broken less in a winning year and that was in 2015 when he lost his serve only six times, but his first serve winning points success rate was only 77% that year. Moreover, his instincts, anticipation and execution at the net are significantly better than ever before.
In the last two rounds this year against his toughest opposition (Denis Shapovalov and Berrettini), Djokovic was very disciplined in making certain to hold serve. He saved 15 of 18 break points against the Canadian and Italian combined, losing his serve only three times in seven sets. That was critical in his quest to take the title and keep his Grand Slam aspirations alive.
Shapovalov played perhaps his most inspired match ever at a major against Djokovic. Granted, he had taken apart two-time former champion Andy Murray and the ever tenacious Roberto Bautista Agut, routing both in straight sets. The gifted southpaw server who is so dangerous off both flanks from the backcourt came into the penultimate round with considerable confidence after halting Karen Khachanov in five sets.
He commenced his duel with Djokovic in fine fiddle. Shapovalov served for the first set at 5-4 and went to 30-30. Djokovic displayed his incomparable brand of defense at that crucial moment. Totally outstretched wide on his forehand side and well off the court, he somehow got a forehand back into play. Shapovalov probably thought he had the point won. With Djokovic stranded, he sent a forehand long. Djokovic broke back and took that set in a tie-break 7-3.
All through the second set, Djokovic was in danger. Down 0-40 at 1-2, he held on. At 2-3, he rallied from 15-40. Meanwhile Shapovalov was serving stupendously, holding seven times over the first two sets at love. But Djokovic was resolute and unshakable, composed and confident when it counted. He held at love for 5-5, broke the Canadian at 30 for 6-5 on a double fault, and held on at 15 to close out the set by claiming 12 of the last 15 points. Having survived two awfully tense sets, Djokovic dealt with some more difficulty honorably early in the third, holding from 15-40 and saving three break points to avoid a 2-0 deficit. He eventually broke at 5-5 and served out the match at love to win 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5 in precariously close straight set showdown.
Call it opportunistic. Classify it as the superior match player overcoming the better shotmaker. Look at it any way you want. But the bottom line is that when the chips were on the line Djokovic was not found wanting. He knew how to get the most out of himself when the stakes were highest.
Talking after the final, Djokovic put into perspective what he had done down the stretch at this Wimbledon and how he came through so deservedly in the end. Asked what he has improved the most over time, he answered, “All areas to be honest. I feel like from 15 years ago to today the journey that I have been through has been very rewarding for every segment of my game. And it is also my mental strength, the experience, understanding how to cope with the pressure in the big moments and how to be a clutch player when it matters the most. That’s probably the highlight of my improvement in the last 15 years— just the ability to cope with pressure.”
Elaborating on that theme, he added, “The more you play the big matches, the more experience you have. The more experience you have, the more you believe in yourself. The more you win, the more confident you are. It’s all connected.”
When Djokovic defeated the 25-year-old Berrettini for his third consecutive major title, he practiced what he was preaching in the press conference. Once again, he brought out his best when he needed it and pushed past his obvious apprehension at the outset. The 34-year-old was clearly too aware initially about the immensity of the occasion. He served two double faults on his way to a 30-40 deficit in the opening game of the match but rescued himself for the hold. He served another double fault to trail 0-30 in the third game but managed to take the next four points to reach 2-1.
After that uncertain start, Djokovic seemed to relax as Berrettini plainly was overwhelmed by the size of the occasion. Djokovic rolled to 5-2 and then pushed his adversary to no less than eight deuces in the following game. Djokovic had one set point but somehow Berrettini held on. Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic’s nerves resurfaced. He led 30-15 when Berrettini—swinging much more freely now—clipped the sideline with an inside out forehand winner. The ball was called out but the Hawkeye challenge went the Italian’s way. Djokovic got to deuce but the Italian took advantage of an errant forehand approach from the Serbian and then sent a forehand winner down the line off a sharp angled shot from Djokovic.
Improbably, Berrettini, so uptight at the outset, was moving much more swiftly and hitting the ball off both sides with much firmer conviction. That set was settled in a tie-break, and Berrettini collected four of the last five points from 3-3 to prevail 7-4 in that sequence. Berrettini finished off that set impressively by reading a Djokovic backhand drop shot early and scampering forward for an unanswerable forehand down the line before serving a 138 MPH ace down the T.
That was a spectacular turnaround as Berrettini thoroughly found his range and Djokovic again seemed too aware of the historical implications of this confrontation. When Berrettini surged to 40-15 in the first game of the second set, he seemed to be riding the waves of momentum. But Djokovic made his move propitiously, realizing how important it was to bring the match back into his own grasp and create more doubts in Berrettini.
Djokovic did just that. At 40-15 for his opponent, Djokovic used a deep return to set up an angled backhand drop shot winner, then drove a forehand remarkably deep crosscourt to coax an error. Now out of his comfort zone, Berrettini netted a backhand down the line. Break point down, Berrettini attempted a crosscourt backhand drop shot that Djokovic easily anticipated. He moved forward with alacrity, chipped his backhand down the line, and ready the Berrettini pass, punching a forehand volley down the line for a winner.
That was just the reprieve Djokovic needed. He soared to leads of 4-0 and 5-1 before the Italian secured three games in a row, somehow rescuing himself from 0-40 and triple set point down in the ninth game. But, serving for the set a second time, Djokovic was totally concentrated and in utter command. He served wide to open up the court for a crosscourt backhand winner, released an ace down the T, served wide again in the deuce court to elicit an errant return, and sent a terrific second serve down the T at 106 MPH to draw another mistake on the return from Berrettini. With that love hold, Djokovic was back to one set all.
He kept rolling. Berrettini opened the third game of the third set with an ace. At 30-40, Djokovic benefitted from a sliced backhand error from the Italian to get the one break he would need to prevail in that set. The pivotal game was when Djokovic served at 3-2 and fell behind 15-40. He came forward for a backhand half volley down the line and Berrettini missed a down the line forehand pass under duress. At 30-40, Djokovic approached behind a forehand down the line and Berrettini missed another pass, this one a backhand down the line into the net. Djokovic held on from there with a wicked slice serve wide and an ace down the T, moving on safely to 4-2.
Serving for that third set at 5-4, Djokovic was disciplined and determined. He made a nifty angled forehand half volley with exquisite touch that was as good as a winner to reach 40-15, and held on at 30 when Berrettini overbooked an inside out forehand and drove it wide. Djokovic had moved into a two sets to one lead, and he wasn’t looking back.
But there was one more critical moment when he had to assert his authority and prevent Berrettini from regaining encouragement and finding inspiration. Djokovic served at 2-3, 0-30 in the fourth set. That was surely a precarious moment but he was absolutely composed. He released a deep first serve to the forehand and the return was long: 15-30. Then the world No. 1 demonstrated precisely wby he is the preeminent player in the world. Berrettini produced a biting sliced backhand down the line that Djokovic somehow scooped up off the forehand. Berrettini then leaned into a forehand and ripped it inside out, and Djokovic lunged at full stretch to get it back off the backhand. Berrettini went to a drop shot off the forehand but Djokovic raced in elegantly and steered a forehand pass sharp crosscourt for an astounding winner.
That clutch winner gave Djokovic an incalculable lift. He took the next two points for 3-3. In the seventh game, Djokovic had some more magic in his arsenal. He reached 15-30 with a gorgeous forehand inside in approach leading to an impeccably executed backhand drop volley winner. After Berrettini made it to 30-30, Djokovic moved his adversary side to side with surgical precision and then unleashed an acutely angled crosscourt forehand winner which landed inside the service line. Perhaps shaken, Berrettini double faulted on break point, and Djokovic sensed the end was near.
Serving at 30-30 in the eight game, Djokovic sent a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner and then challenged Berrettini forehand to forehand; the Italian blinked. 5-3 for Djokovic. Now the No. 7 seed served to stay in the match, but Djokovic was making every return count and outplaying Berrettini from the baseline. Although Berrettini bravely saved two match points with a forehand drop volley winner and an explosive forehand down the line winner from the baseline, he could not escape the inevitable. Berrettini erred on a forehand to fall behind match point for the third time and then sliced one last backhand into the net.
Djokovic’s 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 triumph was hard earned and well crafted. Remarkably, he broke one of the best servers in the game six times over the course of four sets. In his six matches on the way to the final, the Italian was broken a total of five times. Djokovic won 34 of 48 points when he approached the net while Berrettini took 24 of 39, so the Serbian’s percentage was decidedly better. Although Berrettini connected for 57 winners and Djokovic had only 31, this was more than balanced by the top seed making only 21 unforced errors. That was 27 fewer than the more adventuresome Berrettini. Djokovic—who became the first man since Pete Sampras in 1993 to lose his first set of the tournament and go on to take the title— said after the final that he felt he had been a bit defensive and conceded that he felt tight in the early stages of the contest, but the fact remains that he got the job done with precision and professionalism. He knew what was at stake and played accordingly. Most impressive of all, he did not turn the loss of the first set into a negative, deciding it was time to let go of his tension and start playing more on his terms.
And so Djokovic is now right where he wants to be, closing in on the Grand Slam, pushing himself to the hilt to realize his greatest goals, using all of his experience along with his remarkably durable physique to meet the demands of today’s tennis. Only four men previously in the history of the game have taken the first three majors of the season. The Australian Jack Crawford was the first in 1933, but he lost a five set final at the U.S. Championships to Fred Perry. Five years later, Don Budge garnered the first three majors and finished off the Grand Slam in New York. In 1956, the dynamic Australian Lew Hoad swept three in a row and was one match away from a Grand Slam before his countryman Ken Rosewall stopped him at Forest Hills in the final.
In 1962 and 1969 Rod Laver won them all and captured two Grand Slams. From 1978-80 Bjorn Borg won the first two majors of the season and came to the U.S. Open hoping to keep his Grand Slam hopes alive with a third in a row. But he lost in the 1978 and 1980 finals to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe respectively, and was beaten in the 1979 quarterfinals by Roscoe Tanner. In those days, the Australian Open was the last rather than the first major of the season so Borg undoubtedly would have gone to Melbourne had he not lost in the two U.S. Open finals.
Now Djokovic has established himself as the first man since Laver in 1969 to come to New York seeking a Grand Slam and is expected by many authorities to achieve it. Six years ago, Serena Williams was in a similarly commanding position as she approached the Open with three majors in hand, but she lost in the semifinals to Roberta Vinci.
Djokovic in my view should and will succeed on the hard courts at the U.S. Open. It is a major where he has had some very bad luck. The Serbian has been defeated in five of his eight finals, twice going out to Nadal (2010 and 2013), once falling to Federer (2007), once bowing out in five sets against Andy Murray (2012) and losing to Stan Wawrinka in 2016.
Considering that Djokovic has swept nine titles at the Australian Open and has never lost a final “Down Under”, the feeling grows that he should have a New York title run in him this year. He has, after all, probably been the best hard court player of the Open Era. But he deserves some time to savor his sixth Wimbledon singles title and his 85th career title overall.
The view here is that Djokovic should not play the Olympics in Tokyo because he needs some time to recover from the rigors of Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He wants to equal Steffi Graf’s astounding 1988 feat of a “Golden Slam” but the view here is that a trip to Tokyo (win or lose), could possibly cost him the U.S. Open title. He said after beating Berrettini in London that it was 50-50 whether or not he would go to Tokyo. He would be much better off not traveling to Japan so soon after Wimbledon.
But Djokovic will always drive himself to the heights because that is simply who he is, what he wants and how he operates. He is a champion through and through, a supreme competitor who thrives under intense pressure like no other individual, and a man who takes nothing for granted. As he said following his triumph over Berrettini, “It’s really fortunate for me and incredible that it’s all coming together in the same year. That is something I didn’t expect but I always dream of achieving the biggest things in sport.”
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