Remember Roger Federer‘s dreadful performance on break points against Tommy Robredo at last year’s US Open? Of course you do. He had 16 chances to break, converted only two of them, and lost the match in straight sets. Then we all cried.
Yesterday, Federer won in straight sets against James Duckworth, but his break point performance wasn’t much better. Four breaks of serve was all he needed to cruise to victory, but the Australian saved 13 other break chances. In his disappointing loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane, Fed only converted 1 of 10 break chances.
Is this the end? Is a lack of break point conversions the monster that will finally slay the old man?
Not so fast.
To identify how bad (or, possibly, good) Federer has been on break points, we must compare that performance to his record on other return points. Roger isn’t same kind of master returner as Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, so it would be unrealistic to expect him to convert as many break points as they do. To control for general returning ability, we must compare break point conversion rate to winning percentage on all other return points.
Sure enough, 2013 wasn’t a good year for Fed. His break point conversion rate was 8% lower than his winning percentage on other return points. When I ran these numbers after the Robredo match, that ranked 40th out of the ATP top 50.
Most of us, thinking back to Fed’s glory days, surely imagine that this is new. And it’s true: 2013 was a bad year. But watch out for runaway narratives–there’s more randomness here than trend. The graph below shows how Fed has performed each year on break point conversions. A number above 1 is good: He’s winning more break point chances than other return points, as in 2009, when he exceeded expectations by 4.4%. Below 1 is bad: Last year was 7.8% below expectations.
If you see a pattern here, I’m impressed. 2013 was bad, but not as bad as 2003, when 21-year-old Fed performed more than 10% worse on break point chances than on other return points. He also went 78-17, winning seven tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Masters Cup, raising his ranking from #6 to #2.
Last year’s break point record was also comparable to 2007, when he converted 5.9% fewer break points than expected … and won three Grand Slams.
As with so many popular tennis stats, this one just doesn’t have that much of a relationship with winning. Breaks matter, but missed break chances don’t. In Federer’s case, even breaks don’t always matter that much–he’s one of history’s best in tiebreaks.
The bigger picture with break point conversions
Over his career, Federer has been just a tick below average on break point, winning about 1.5% more other return points than break points. The year-to-year fluctuations don’t appear to be terribly meaningful.
That isn’t to say that no player has strong break point tendencies. Nadal has consistently excelled in these clutch situations, winning more break points than expected for each of the last five seasons. He is even better when facing break point, typically winning about 7% more service points in that situation than in others. (Some of that is due to the advantage of a lefty serving in the ad court.)
Novak Djokovic has also been a little better on break points than on return points as a whole. But last year–a season he finished within a whisker of #1–his performance in those situations was almost as poor as Federer’s.
Andy Murray is consistent when handed break point chances–consistently bad. Since 2006, he has only exceeded expectations once. In 2012–a pretty good year from him by most standards–he won 7.3% fewer break point chances than other return points.
David Ferrer? A tick below expectations. 7.7% below other return points in 2013. Juan Martin del Potro? Consistently above expectations, including an impressive +6.8% in 2011. Stanislas Wawrinka? -7.3% in 2011, +7.8% in 2012, then in his breakthrough 2013 campaign, -3.0%.
Constant exposure to break point stats has tricked us into thinking they are particularly meaningful. There are plenty of reasons why Federer is winning fewer matches than he used to–for one thing, he’s almost as old as I am–but break point performance just isn’t that important.