Analyzing what serving statistics really mean - NBC Sports

Analyzing what serving statistics really mean
Second-serve points won a better predictor of success than aces?
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Through Wimbledon in the 2011 tennis season, Novak Djokovic (left), Rafael Nadal (center) and Roger Federer had combined for 138 wins, 18 losses and 12 titles.
July 21, 2011, 3:07 pm

We're just a little way past the halfway mark in the year, and I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the ATP statistics. Am I alone in thinking that I'd gladly trade the "Zagat Guide: Best of the WTA" feature on the WTA home page for some ... stats? Surely there's some sponsor out there willing to slap it's logo on a body of statistics - even if it's just a skeletal version of the Ricoh ATP Matchfacts. I mean, wouldn't be fascinating to know which WTA player has been broken the most times (I think we're looking at a 34-way tie, with 300-plus service breaks).

Seriously, though, there's always been a resistance in tennis to statistical analysis, and I'm not really sure it's justified, any more than is the belief that if you just had all the relevant stats, you would know exactly why this or that player won or lost a particular match. Here's but a recent example of what I mean. Rafael Nadal played a great first set against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, but his nerve failed at the critical moment and he literally gave away two points at the climax (both forehand errors) to give Djokovic the chapter, 6-4. Those errors carry no more weight in the stats than comparable ones made at 40-0 at 2-2, or in the 1-5 service game, when all hope for a set is lost.

Nadal made just 15 unforced errors in the Wimbledon final, and he hit 21 winners. Djokovic had a dozen errors and 27 winners. This suggests a very close, high-quality match. But let's face it, the most interesting aspect of that clash is that while the shotmaking was at times breathtaking and the mental stress palpable, it was an epic win rather than an epic match. It was basically a hunt, and the match wasn't too far along when we saw the ending was inevitable.

BTW, there was a lot of discontent in the press corps over the way the stats were kept at Wimbledon, and very little confidence in some aspects of their accuracy. But that's another story. Now, let's look at each category in the Service Game Leaders tab of ATP Matchfacts and see what, if anything, is noteworthy and surprising. Tomorrow, we'll look at the Return of Service leaders.

Aces
Milos Raonic leads the tour with 509 aces, served up in 37 matches. Would you believe that Nicolas Almagro (No. 7 on the list) has hit more aces than Andy Roddick (No. 9)? Almagro has 378 and Roddick 362. But here's the catch - Almagro got his in 48 matches while Roddick played just 27. So right off the bat, we see how deceptive stats can be. Clearly, an aces-per-match stat would be far more relevant, and it could easily be added. Personally, I would rank the players on the basis of APM, so I took it upon myself to do some of the math.

Biggest surprise: Feliciano Lopez has clocked 502 aces, second only to Raonic in sheer numbers. Lopez's percentage is a very impressive 13.2 - almost identical to the numbers posted by Raonic and Roddick.

First-Serve Percentage
This is a valuable, straightforward statistic that needs no tweaking for relevance, and it also establishes a good baseline for performance. As of this moment, only one player is getting more than seven out of 10 first serves in, and that's the leader in this category.

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But there it is. He's serving at 72 percent. Only one other man is getting 70 percent of his serves in, Nikolay Davydenko-and we certainly see where that's gotten him this year.

Here's something: only one of the top 10 ace blasters is in the top 10 when it comes to first-serve conversion rate. Isner, who's got 408 aces in 28 matches, is No. 6 on the ace leader board. He's also No. 3 on the conversion table (69 percent), where Ivo Karlovic is No. 11 (66 percent). Now, Karlovic is averaging almost three aces more per match than Isner, but doesn't Isner's significantly better percentage suggest that he's a more dangerous and effective server?

Well, no. The key there is how closely packed the men are in first-serve conversion rate. Only two are at or above the magical 70 percent mark, but 11 men are at the 65 percent mark or above. So the simple list is deceptive. Isner is serving just three percentage points better than Karlovic. That's negligible.

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And in the good news-bad news department, Alexandr Dolgopolov is No. 12 in aces (320) but No. 64 in conversion rate, with a sorry 54 percent.

Biggest Surprise: Roger Federer is No. 14 on this list, at 64 percent. Given his smooth mechanics and No. 2 ranking in First Serve Points Won (we'll get to that), this tells me that he really goes for it with that first serve (he's also No. 11 on the ace production list). But again, 45 men are serving between 60 and 70 percent.

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First-Serve Points Won
So far, Federer hasn't been in the top 10 in either of the first two categories (Nadal and Djokovic are Nos. 6 and 9 respectively in First Serve Percentage.) The fact that Federer is No. 2 in this category, a mere two percentage points behind ace machine Karlovic (whose conversion rate is 80 percent) tells you how well he plays points.

However, if you want to know who the big servers are, this is the place to go: The top 10 includes (in descending order from No. 1) Karlovic, Lopez, Raonic, Roddick, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ivan Ljubicic and John Isner. That right there is your all-star serving team.

Biggest Surprise: Nadal is No. 27, with a 72 percent success rate. But again, there's a hair-splitting factor at play here, given that the top 45 players are all within 10 percentage points of each other (between 70 and 80 percent).

Second-Serve Points Won
Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are Nos. 1 through 3 respectively. So if you were looking for the stat that is the best predictor for success, this would be it - even moreso than the first serves won stat, where the big serve can cover up a lot of general weakness. Oddly, though, form falls apart immmediately thereafter-what's Janko Tisparevic doing at No. 4? And Tommy Robredo at No. 6?

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Biggest Surprise: I've got to go with the Robredo stat. It's like Tommy just drops out of the sky here.

Service Games Won
A more vivid and accurate name for this category might be Least Often Broken Player. Isner and Karlovic lead the parade here, at 90 percent, but five men are within two percentage points of the leaders: Djokovic, Federer, Roddick, del Potro and Raonic. Nadal is down at No. 11, at 85 percent. That doesn't seem like a big margin of difference, but when you consider that you can win-or lose-matches these days without even a single break for either player (except at majors with no fifth-set tiebreaker), half-a-dozen service breaks make or break a year.

Still, can you see Uncle Toni saying, "Rafa, I looked at the stats and let me tell you, you really need to beef up those hold-game percentages!"

Biggest Surprise: Starace and Davydenko (see above) are at Nos. 43 and 50 respectively. Further proof that first-serve converson rate may not be as important as we think. Or at least, leading that department may not be ...

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Take a look at some well-known fans in the world of tennis.

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Break Points Saved
You can see where Ivo Karlovic and Andy Roddick are Nos. 1 and 3 respectively in this category, because they can (poor) serve their way into desperate situations, and rescue themselves with same (great) serves. But Djokovic, who's tucked into the crowd on most serve-related stats, is No. 2. This says less about his ability to serve his way out of trouble, a la Roddick or Karlovic, than about his guts and ground game-the latter because you need to play break points a little more conservatively than any others, while remaining vigilant for any opportunity.

Nadal and Federer are, surprisingly, outside the Top 10 (at Nos. 11 and 12 respectively) in this category, but both are within five percentage points of the leaders.

Biggest Surprise: Michael Llodra is No. 5 in this department.

The one looming reality here is that the spread among the leaders in all of these service departments is relatively small. So small that you have to wonder how much of a difference the percentage differences really make. But in addition to what I wrote about Nadal's surprisingly low Service Games Won stat, the relatively high overall performance of so many of the men just underscores that in tennis, it's not just about playing well-it's playing well when you most need to.

For more news, go to Tennis.com

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