Winning Matches With Very Few Return Points

Yesterday in Paris, Gilles Simon won the first set of his match over Nicolas Mahut (a.k.a. Nicolas Massu), doing so with the benefit of a single break.  That’s not unusual, but his return performance in the set was.  He won only four return points in the entire set–all, of course, in that single game.

It’s possible to win a set while claiming only one return point, if you reach a tiebreak and win every point on your own serve.  In theory, then, a player could win a best-of-three-set match while winning only two return points, or a best-of-five with only three.  If no sets reach tiebreaks, a player could win a match with as few as four return points per set, as Simon did in the first set yesterday.

In the last 20-plus years of ATP tour-level matches, no one has ever posted such an extreme win, winning only two return points (or even eight return points in a match with no tiebreaks) en route to victory.  But on several occasions, players have come close.

Since 1991, six players have won matches while winning only ten return points.  The most recent was Philipp Kohlschreiber‘s 6-4 7-6(4) victory over Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy at the 2011 Metz tournament.

More impressive, though, was Albert Montanes‘s 2002 victory over Felix Mantilla in Acapulco.  He won 6-4 6-4 with only ten return points won, meaning that he “wasted” only two of those return points.  Mantilla had ten service games, lost two them, and held to love in at least six of the others.

Record-setting in their own way are two more of these ten-return-point matches: Irakli Labadze d. Justin Gimelstob 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-2 (2001 Shanghai) and Gustavo Kuerten d. Marat Safin 3-6 7-6(2) 7-6(2) (2000 Indianapolis).  These are the three-set matches in which the winner claimed the fewest return points.  It’s possible that Labadze and Kuerten didn’t win a single return point in the sets they lost, but it makes their eventual victory all the more impressive.

The Labadze win is also notable in that it is the only ten-return-points-won match in which the winner won a double-break set.  The Kuerten victory points in a new direction: Safin hit two double faults, so of the ten return points Kuerten won, he only had to make an effort on eight of them.

Remarkably, that’s not quite the record.  At 1992 Queen’s Club, Shuzo Matsuoka beat Goran Ivanisevic 6-4 6-3 while winning just 12 return points.  Five of those were Ivanisevic double faults, so Matsuoka only won seven points in which he returned the big Croatian’s serve.

One more bit of trivia.  At last year’s US Open, Milos Raonic beat Paul Henri Mathieu 7-5 6-4 7-6(4) while tallying only 16 return points (two of which were PHM double faults).  That’s the record for best-of-five-set matches, just barely edging out Jurgen Melzer‘s 2007 victory in Australia over Ivo Karlovic, 6-4 6-4 7-6(6), in which he won only 17 return points (three of them doubles).

Dr. Ivo, as you might guess, has piled up more than his share of this sort of match.  In fact, he has played 65 matches in his career in which the winner won fewer than 20 return points, amassing a nearly even record of 33 wins and 32 losses.  That impressive total puts him in second place among ATPers of the last 23 years, behind Andy Roddick.  Roddick played 69 such matches, winning 54 against only 15 losses.  Fittingly, Roddick and Karlovic played two of those matches against each other … and the American won both.

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One response to “Winning Matches With Very Few Return Points

  1. Tom Welsh

    Goran used to play “tennis, but not as we know it, Jim”. Every match seemed to hang on his racket; the opponent was usually more or less ornamental. Indeed, in some of Goran’s service games his opponent might just as well have remained in his seat!

    So I was interested to see the great man watching from the front row while Marin Cilic played Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round in Paris. One Cilic service game in particular was straight out of the Goran playbook: ace, service winner, double fault, double fault, service winner, ace. Delpo only touched the ball twice! It’s hard to avoid the thought that, if only he could be a shade more consistent, Cilic would be practically unplayable. But the devil is in the details – getting that extra little bit of consistency is devlishly difficult, and you can see the frustration in the eyes and demeanour of players like Cilic himself, just like Goran and other perfectionists like Marat Safin.

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