Howdy. Yesterday, we looked at the mid-season stats pertaining to service game leaders; today we'll take a survey of the return game leaders and numbers. We've seen how in almost any department that involves percentages, large numbers of players are bunched together within a few points of each other - stats that underscore not just the high level of performance in the ATP these days, but also the fact that best players are the ones who win the important or big points, even though there's no statistical category for that most important of elements. That tendency breaks down a bit in the return stats, as we'll see.
I was talking about this issue with the ATP's Greg Sharko in Miami this year, and he asked what stat, if any, I'd like to see measured. While I'm not a stats freak, I suggested that it might be useful to measure success on "critical points." I'd probably designate those points as the ones played at 30-all or later in any given match. Of course, this would fail to track how often a guy wins or loses a game from 40-love up, or down, and various other scenarios. If there's a statistical category you'd like to see, post it in the comments below, or send it to me via the "Contact" tab up above.
So let's get into serve return stats.
Points Won Returning First Serve
As soon as you look at the return game leaders stats, the name jumps right out at you: Andy Murray. It's a name that was almost entirely absent from our service game stats and speculations, which tells you something. Murray is No. 4 in the world, and he wins with his defense. His return game. He's among the top 5 in three of the four categories that make up the stats (and No. 7 in the fourth).
In this category, the rankings ought to be kept in perspective because of the bunching element. For example, the top 7 men here are within two percentage points of Murray's tour-leading 37 percent. Still, would you have guessed that Juan Ignacio Chela and Juan Monaco are at Nos. 2 and 3 respectively? Or that Rafael Nadal would be ranked slightly higher than Novak Djokovic in this department (he's No. 4, Djokovic is No. 5)?
Andy Roddick is ranked No. 58 in this category (at 28 percent), and the two men at the bottom of the list are very familiar ones at or near the top of most serving categories - John Isner (24 percent) and Ivo Karlovic (20 percent).
What I love about this stat is that even though the numbers are significantly smaller than in the First Serve Points Won category, the spread is comparable. The 66 ranked men in FSPW are within 16 percentage points of each other, between 64 and 80 percent. In this first-serve returns won category, the ranked men range between 20 and 37 percent - a 17-point spread. So it gives us a nice sense of how bunched together the leading men are in either a high-conversion stat (first serves won) or a low-conversion department.
Biggest Surprise: It's got to be Fognini.
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This is the first category that finds Nadal on top, and it's a testament to his ability to take advantage of his opportunities. One of the big differences between this and the former return category is that when a big server (or even a decent one) is on his game, there's very little anyone, including Fabio Fognini, can do about it.
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But generally, a receiver gets a look at second serves, and therefore his winning percentage on this balls is a good indication of the quality of his return. For if you're going to win a high percentage of your opponent's second-serve points, you can't just return-you have to return well to start the point on even footing or with an advantage.
Novak Djokovic is No. 2 in this category, and Roger Federer is sitting tight at No. ... 18. That's no typo, and what makes it worse is that the swing here pretty big. Nadal's success rate is 58 percent, Federer's is 51. Federer was No. 9 and very close percentage points-wise in the first-serve return stats, which makes this relatively low success rate in second-serve return an even more significant statistic.
Now consider this: Fognini is pretty much in the same boat as Federer. Fognini is among the top returners of first serves, bur he's way down at No. 27 on this second-serve return list. This suggests two things - that Fognini (and/or Federer) have amazing reaction returns but get themselves sideways when they're looking at make-able second-serve returns. The failure to return second serves, especially important ones, is usually a sign of nerves. Draw your own conclusions.
Biggest Surprise: Tomas Bredych has the fifth-best number in this category, even though he's just No. 16 in first-serve return percentage. Reaction time, anyone?
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It's only fitting that the leader in this category is one of those go-for-broke kind of guys. Xavier Malisse leads the tour with a 50 percent break-point conversion rate. I'm surprised that he's got a better record than Djokovic, but one thing about statistics is that they don't lie. Djokovic is in at 48 percent.
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Nadal follows Djokovic closely, but it's telling that Robin Soderling sits firmly in fourth place, with a 46 percent conversion rate. Incidentally, four players from the USA are bunched in the bottom 10: Andy Roddick (No. 54/37 percent), Mardy Fish (59/34 percent), Sam Querrey (64.31 percent) and John Isner (65.30 percent). The only man ranked lower than Isner is Daniel Gimeno-Traver.
One thing I like about this statistic is that it's a real area of strength - or vulnerability. There's a huge difference between the worst percentage (Gimeno-Traver) and best (Malisse, 30-50 percent).
Biggest Surprise: Andy Murray, No. 4 in the world, No. 1 in first-serve return percentage, is down at No. 7 in break point conversion. Again, the mental game seems to come into play.
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Djokovic and Nadal lead the parade, but Federer, the No. 3 man in any stat that would seem extra significant because it mirrors the rankings (as it did in yesterday's Second Serve Points Won category), is conspicuously absent. He is way down at No. 15, suggesting that, at least these days, breaking serve is his area of greatest weakness. In fact, Federer is in the top 10 in only the first category discussed above, and barely, hanging in at No. 9.
Roger Federer's career highlights
Take a look back at key moments in Roger Federer's tennis career.
Murray's No. 4 position in this category undercuts to some degree his relatively low break-point conversion numbers. Can it be that Murray simply sees that many more break points? I'd rather have a poor conversion percentage (say, 4 of 11 in a five-set match ) than a high rate based on a low number of opportunities (say, 2 of 3 in the same five-setter).
And there's our friend, Fabio Fognini, sitting pretty at No. 6, ahead of such big names as Federer, Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro.
Biggest Surprise: Juan Ignacio Chela is in there at No. 5, which means he's No. 8 or better (and as high as No. 1) in all return categories. I know he's got a big rep as a defensive, return-game player, but the fact that he's just No. 21 in the world despite this defensive prowess tells me that his hold game must be truly woeful.
Bottom line, after two days of stat crunching? Individual categories are most meaningful when paired with other categories, and in all cases they suggest rather than prove, and don't always suggest in the most meaningful way. Still, it would be perverse not to keep these statistics, and their dubious or conditional relevance is a testament to the mental - unquantifiable - nature of the game.
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