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
United Cup Daily Preview: The United States Plays Italy in the Final
On Sunday in Sydney, the champions of the inaugural United Cup will be decided.
In the semifinals, the United States completed a clean sweep of Poland on Saturday, while Italy defeated Greece 4-1 despite Matteo Berrettini’s loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in an excellent three-setter. Sunday’s play will feature four singles matches and a mixed doubles contest, with the first nation to win three matches to be crowned the United Cup champions.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most prominent matches on the schedule. Sunday’s play gets underway at 1:00pm local time.
Jessica Pegula [USA] vs. Martina Trevisan [ITA] – Starts at 1:00pm
This will be the first match of the day. Pegula has gone 3-1 at this event, losing to Petra Kvitova in her first match, but defeating World No.1 Iga Swiatek on Friday. Trevisan is 2-2, though she helped propel Italy into this final with an epic victory over Maria Sakkari on Friday.
In their first career meeting, Jessica is a significant favorite. Pegula was 42-21 last season, reaching a career-high of ranking of No.3 thanks to her consistency at big events. And the fast-playing hard courts strongly favor her game, as they helped her reverse her lopsided rivalry with Swiatek in dominating fashion. By contrast, Trevisan had a losing record on hard courts last season, claiming just six tour-level matches in main draws on this surface.
The second match of the day will feature Frances Tiafoe taking on Lorenzo Musetti. Both men are 4-0 to this stage, and this matchup feels like it could easily go either way.
Taylor Fritz [USA] vs. Matteo Berrettini [ITA] – Not Before 5:30pm
This will be the third match of the day. Both players are 3-1 thus far at this event. Fritz’s loss came to Cam Norrie in the city finals, while Berrettini’s loss came in Saturday evening’s semifinals to Stefanos Tsitsipas. Notably, Matteo spent about an hour longer on court Saturday than Taylor, with the Italian’s match ending much later in the day.
Fritz is 2-0 against Berrettini. His victories came four years ago in Davis Cup on an indoor hard court, and two years ago at Indian Wells on in outdoor hard court. Taylor should be the fresher player on Sunday, and with the decided edge in their head-to-head, the American is the favorite to prevail.
The fourth match of the day sees Madison Keys take on Lucia Bronzetti, with Keys heavily favored. And the mixed doubles at the end of the day is scheduled to feature Pegula and Fritz against Trevisan and Berrettini. Overall, the United States is the favorite to win the first-ever United Cup.
The United Cup daily schedule is here.
LGBT Rights: Is It Fair To Criticize FIFA For Staging Its Event In Qatar When Tennis Have Been Doing So For Years?
Is it time for tennis to take note of the concerns raised over the staging of the FIFA World Cup?
November 20th will mark the start of one of the world’s most-watched sports events.
32 teams and thousands of fans will travel to Qatar for the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup which is being held in the Middle East for the first time in history. In what is set to be a landmark event for the region, the build-up to Qatar 2022 has been marred by concerns such as corruption in the bidding process, the controversial treatment of migrant workers and LGBT rights in the country.
LGBT football fans have expressed fears about travelling to Qatar where its penal code states that those living in the country can be jailed for up to seven years if they are found guilty of committing same-sex sodomy or sexual intercourse. The country’s World Cup Chief, Nasser Al Khater, recently told Sky News that LGBT fans will ‘feel safe’ at the event. Not that this is of any consolation to those who have to follow such strict rules or risk prosecution.
Whilst it is highly commendable that the World Cup has triggered a discussion about the topic, other sports have managed to stage their events in Qatar without having to address these concerns with tennis perhaps being the best example.
Doha, which is the capital of Qatar, has been staging top-level ATP and WTA events since 1993. On the men’s Tour, the country holds a prestigious ATP 250 in January which has been named the best tournament in that category four times between 2015-2021 in the annual ATP Awards. The event has been won by each member of the Big Four at least once and a sponsorship deal with ExxonMobil has guaranteed it will continue until at least 2027.
As for the women, the TotalEnergies Open is categorized as a WTA 1000 event and was won by Iga Swiatek earlier this season. Doha has also staged the WTA Finals three times between 2008-2010.
So is there some hypocrisy surrounding criticizing FIFA for staging its premier event in a country which is hostile to LGBT rights when tennis has faced no such backlash?
“The two are not comparable as the (tennis) tournaments in the Middle East are nowhere near as high profile or prestigious as the men’s football World Cup,” Pride In Tennis founder Ian Pearson-Brown told Ubitennis.
“The process is also very different to that of FIFA’s to allocate the area which hosts the World Cup. In turn, the LTA is working with the ATP to ensure any LGBTQ+ athletes are properly supported to create a healthier environment for players to play as their authentic selves. So I’d be wary of drawing comparisons.” he added
Parson-Brown makes a legitimate point. The 2018 World Cup in Russia had a global audience of 3.57 billion viewers which is more than half of the global population aged four and over, according to FIFA.
“In terms of visibility, we are working with the LTA to improve things domestically like our Friday Pride days during the grass-court season,” he continued.
“It is better for Sport to make a presence in countries where it is illegal to be gay in the hope that the values held by sports international governing bodies contributes to changes to a more progressive culture over time. It’s a better way than to force people to change their cultures after banning, disengaging and cutting ties with them.”
Pride in Tennis is a network supporting all British-based LGBTQI+ tennis players, coaches, officials and fans. The network was officially launched in February 2022 in partnership with the British LTA.
Qatar’s treatment of LGBT people has once again come under scrutiny following a new report published by the Human Rights Network which has revealed that as recently as September 2022, there has been evidence of LGBT+ people being arrested by authorities and subjected to ill-treatment.
Between 2019-2022 HRW has documented 11 cases of abusive treatment. Six of those cases were repeated beatings and a further five were sexual harassment. One woman said she lost consciousness during her beatings. Security officials are said to have inflicted forced confessions and prevented those arrested from accessing legal help. Transgender women were released on the condition they attend a government-sponsored ‘behaviour support’ centre.
“I saw many other LGBT people detained there: two Moroccan lesbians, four Filipino gay men, and one Nepalese gay man,” a Qatari trans woman told HRW. “I was detained for three weeks without charge, and officers repeatedly sexually harassed me. Part of the release requirement was attending sessions with a psychologist who ‘would make me a man again.’“
Rasha Younes is an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch who published the report. In an email exchange with Ubitennis, she said it was the duty of all sporting bodies to ensure that their events are staged in countries which respect human rights.
“Sports’ governing bodies have a responsibility to avoid infringing on the human rights of others and address adverse human rights impacts. This includes staging any major events in countries that do not protect human rights, including the rights of LGBT people,” Younes told Ubitennis.
Tennis’ governing bodies have all previously stated their commitment to making the sport open to the LGBT community. Earlier this year, the ITF told Ubitennis they ‘embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form.’
The WTA, which was co-founded by Billie Jean King, says that their Tour was founded on the ‘principles of equality and opportunity.’ Finally, The ATP has recently launched a multiyear education programme with You Can Play, a foundation which works to eradicate homophobia in sport.
Tennis is in a strong position when it comes to its approach to the issue of LGBT inclusion. However, it is a tougher situation when it comes to staging events. Will the uproar surrounding the FIFA World Cup change things? In reality most probably not. But that doesn’t mean that concerns shouldn’t be raised.
The Generation Inspired By Serena Williams
On Tuesday Williams revealed for the first time that she will begin to step away from the sport after a career lasting more than two decades. Throughout her career she has helped shaped the women’s game into what it is now.
It is fair to say that the landscape of women’s tennis wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for Serena Williams and her sister Venus.
It was during October 1995 that Williams made her WTA debut as a 14-year-old who was thrashed 6-1, 6-1, in her opening match in the qualifying draw at the Quebec Open. As the years passed she went from being an unknown name to one of the most successful female athletes in the history of sport. An athlete can rarely evolve into an entire brand but Williams was one of the few who has managed to do so.
In 1999 she claimed her first of 23 Grand Slam titles at the US Open where she became the first Black woman to win a major tennis event in the Open Era. Before her, the last to do so was Althea Gibson 49 years earlier. Little did she know at the time that among those watching her rise on the Tour would be some who ended up being her rivals.
“Her legacy is more than her being Serena. I started playing because of her. I’m sure there’s so many other girls that started playing because of her, so she literally built champions,” Naomi Osaka told HBO’s The Shop in 2021.
Osaka was one of the many players who managed to take on Williams on the Tour after growing up idolising her. They have played against each other five times with the most memorable clash occurring in the final of the 2018 US Open which was marred by controversy involving Williams and a run-in with the umpire.
“When she broke me in that one game and I had to try and save break points. I was like ‘What would Serena d– Oh, she’s right there.’ Oh wait, what am I doing?” Osaka revealed afterwards.
Williams, who turns 41 next month, was at one stage unbeatable in the sport due to her sheer power. At her highest she won 34 matches in a row during the 2013 season and spent a total of 319 weeks as world No.1. She has won 73 titles on the WTA Tour, including an Open Era record of 48 on hard courts alone.
“I’ve learned a lot from them [Serena and sister Venus]. People always tell me that you’re going to be next whatever blah blah blah and Serena has been considered the GOAT for at least the second half of her career and she never succumbed to that pressure,” America’s Coco Gauff told reporters in Toronto earlier this week.
“I think she overcame it and I think that’s something I take from her and try to learn from it. Not that I’m at her level and experiencing the same pressure she is, but in the moment I try to emulate that.
“For me, I grew up watching her. That’s the reason why I play tennis and tennis being a predominantly white sport it definitely helped a lot because I saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game and it made me believe I could dominate too.”
One of the most striking things about Williams is that her influence on the sport has been in various ways. She inspired many non-white players in her home country to take up tennis. Some argue that the all-African American final at the 2017 US Open between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys was a product of the Williams sister’s effect. Others have been inspired by her ability to form a successful business portfolio outside of tennis, the fact she returned to the sport after becoming a mother or her stance on campaigning for equal rights. The bottom line is that Williams appeals to many people for various reasons which Keys once summarized.
“Venus and Serena Williams were both huge inspirations for me to play tennis. What they’ve done on court is incredible. What they do off court in business, helping other girls and championing for equal pay is also so inspiring. They motivate me to do and be my best,” Keys wrote on Twitter in 2019.
Emma Raducan recently praised the length of Williams’ career. Later this month she will play in her 81st Grand Slam main draw 24 years after making her debut at the 1998 Australian Open. There is almost a 21-year gap between her winning her first WTA title (February 1999) and her last (January 2020).
“It’s incredible her career. She has achieved so much,” Raducanu said. “And to see her around in this US swing is really inspiring. She keeps playing because she obviously loves the game.
“That longevity of a career is something that a lot of the players, me especially, aspire to achieve.”
As the likes of Osaka, Raducanu and others battle it out on the Tour, Williams has taken a backseat in recent months. In an eloquently written article for Vogue Magazine, she explains that the term retirement is a phrase she struggles to use. However, this will most likely be happening at this year’s US Open. She conceded it is time to move on and the desire to grow her family made competing as a professional athlete no longer feasible.
“You know that at one point she’s going to retire. But when she actually is going to announce it, it’s just shocking. Because you think these kinds of players will play forever,” Bianca Andreescu commented.
“She’s not afraid to be herself and to show all her emotions on the court, off the court, what she stands for. I know she’s doing a lot of things off the court as well to help inspire. It’s incredible.’
“I hope that I can achieve maybe half of what she achieved and continue on her legacy in some way.”
Williams was once asked when she thinks about being referred to as the greatest female player of all time. She responded that she would rather be considered as “one of the greatest athletes of all time.” Perhaps her legacy in tennis has nothing to do with what she has won throughout her career. Instead, it is embedded in the generations of players who have been inspired by her.
At this week’s National Bank Open Williams bowed out of the tournament on Wednesday to Belinda Bencic in what was her final match at the tournament.
“I’ve always loved playing here. And, yeah, I wish I could have played better, but Belinda played so well today.” She said during her on-court interview.
“I’m terrible at good-byes. But good-bye, Toronto.”
As for what lies ahead, the American star will play a few more tournaments before saying goodbye to life as a tennis player for good.
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