What Tennis Statistics Reveal – and Don’t Reveal

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Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is interesting; what they don’t reveal is essential!”Anonymous

When Andy Murray routed Roger Federer for the Olympic gold medal, he turned the Big 3 into the Big 4. But Murray still hasn’t won a Grand Slam title, while Federer has captured 17, Rafael Nadal 11 and Novak Djokovic 5.

Federer, 31, is five years older than Nadal and six years older than Djokovic and Murray. His three rivals will likely reduce Federer’s lead before and after the Swiss legend retires. Interestingly, Federer has a combined losing 33-39 career record against the trio. Nadal leads Federer 18-10, thanks to a huge 12-2 record on clay. Murray leads Federer 9-8, although Federer has won all three Slam finals. Federer still enjoys a 15-12 edge over Djokovic, but the surging Serb leads 6-2 during 2011−12.

Some pundits contend Federer can’t be rated the “greatest of all time” (GOAT is the strange acronym) because his archrival Nadal holds a big head-to-head advantage. How absurd! This narrow criterion is only slightly relevant. By far, the main GOAT criteria are Grand Slam titles and gold medals won. (Federer was fortunate that he grabbed 12 majors during 2003−07, when aside from Nadal, who was great on clay and emerging on grass, his top 10 opposition was weak.) A player’s Davis Cup record is also important. Finally, the number of years ranked No. 1 should be considered even though both the ATP and WTA ranking systems are flawed significantly.

On the relatively quick US Open hard courts, it may take another super server to stop steamrolling Serena Williams. Consider these eye-popping stats. At Wimbledon, Serena whacked 102 aces (in seven matches), which was 68 more than the next highest player, Sabine Lisicki (in five matches). Serena also held serve on 91% of her service games.

My darkhorse pick to win the US Open is No. 19-ranked Lisicki. The sturdily built 5’10” German belted a career-high 125 mph serve in 2011 and reached 120 mph this year at Wimbledon. When she upset Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3 at Wimbledon, Lisicki recorded three impressive stats: she got 67% of her first serves in, she won 70% of her points at net, and she converted 67% of her break point chances. Those three stats, plus the percent of service games won, will be critical for Lisicki at Flushing Meadows.

In almost every match which respected analyst Justin Gimelstob covers for Tennis Channel, he asserts dogmatically that the single most important statistic is the percentage of second serve points won. When Federer beat Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in the Wimbledon final, he barely led 49% to 48% in this department, even though his second serve averaged 98 mph compared to only 88 mph for Murray. Federer won an astounding 72% of his second serve points in his 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 semifinal victory over Djokovic, normally an outstanding returner. At the Australian Open final, Djokovic took an impressive 63% of his second serves points compared to only 45% for Nadal, yet Djokovic barely prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5.

Since the so-called “single most important statistic” often varies from match to match, the Gimelstob generalization is dubious. For example, points won on second serves matters much less when a player has a high first-serve percentage and/or a high percentage of first serve points won. Second, when one of both players have relatively weak first and second serves, the total number of break points chances and the percent of break point chances converted are crucial statistics. Third, winners, unforced errors, aces, and percent of net approach points won are other important, revealing statistics. Fourth, every match statistic needs to be broken down for each set because lopsided sets often skew the total statistics. For example, if you lose a 6-0 set, that may account for 18 of your seemingly high 24 total unforced errors in a three-set match. Fifth, other variables, such as the court surface, wind, temperature, and an opponent’s playing style and caliber of play, must be taken into account when analyzing match statistics.

Here are some fun stats from the London Olympics that aren’t complicated or controversial. A gold medal is made of only 1% gold with the rest 93% silver and 6% copper. According to NBC Sports, 16% of the medal winners cried on the podium during the awards ceremony, while 44% sang their national anthem.

THE END

Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.

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