Category Archives: John Isner

Serve-and-Pray: The Quirks of Isner’s Early Exit

The big story after Steve Johnson‘s upset of John Isner today was Isner’s unhappiness with his court assignment. Still, for those of us more interested in the game itself than in post-match carping, Johnson’s surprise victory was plenty notable.

Almost every Isner match is a serve-dominated, one-dimensional contest. This one was even more unidimensional than usual. Both players won 89% of first-serve points, a combined mark that stands as the most extreme of the season. Two players haven’t combined to win more than 89.2% of first serve points since Brisbane early last season, when Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic combined for an outrageous 94.0% of first-serve points won.

The difference between Isner and Johnson–slim as it was–appears in their success rate on second-serve points. Johnson won an impressive 68% of second offerings, while Isner won only 43%. That typically doesn’t do the job–since 2010, Isner has won only eight of 36 matches when he wins fewer than 45% of second-serve points. Still, he managed to avoid clustering too many of those ineffective second serves, allowing Johnson only two break points.

As bad as that second-serve winning percentage is, it would often by sufficient when combined with that other-worldly win rate on first serves. Taken together, he won 73% of service points, which–barring particularly good or bad streaks–translates to a hold of serve in 93% of service games. That’s Isner’s hold rate for the season so far, and sure enough, it was his hold rate today, when he was broken only once in 16 tries.

While Big John often seems unbreakable, he typically loses a service game or two in every match–even on the days he wins. He’s been broken exactly once in nine hard-court matches this year, and he’s won seven of those matches.  Since 2010, he’s won 45 of the 60 matches in which his opponent broke him exactly one time–many of them thanks to his excellent tiebreak record.

But today, his opponent really was unbreakable. Compared to Johnson’s service numbers, Isner’s look positively pedestrian. Steve won 80% of service points, which–again, barring too much streakiness–translates to a hold of service in an incredible 97.8% of service games. Put another way, that’s one break of serve every eight sets or so.  (For reference, Isner’s 93% season-to-date average is best on tour, and no one topped 92% for the 2013 season.)

Johnson’s not usually that good–Isner’s indifferent return game explains much of the magnitude of these numbers. Still, it’s an extremely bad return performance by any standard. It’s only the fifth time since 2010 that Isner has won so few return points in a match he completed, and it’s only the second time this year he has failed to earn a single break point. Remarkably, that last aspect of return futility isn’t always enough to keep him out of the win column: Three times, he has won a tour-level match without earning any break points.

Today, despite the lack of break points, despite the dismal second-serve percentage, despite winning 12 fewer points than his opponent, he found himself in a third-set tiebreak, two points away from victory. Big John’s game isn’t much fun to watch–while this all transpired, I was across the grounds taking in a doubles match–but on paper, his results are endlessly fascinating.

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Filed under American tennis, John Isner

Duval’s Triumph, Isner’s Breaks, Flushing’s Favorites

17-year-old Victoria Duval, she of six career tour-level matches, upset 2011 champion and 11th seed Samantha Stosur last night.  Leave it at that, and it sounds pretty impressive.

But it doesn’t quite convey how impressive the youngster’s path to the second round has been.  Duval is ranked just inside the top 300–not high enough to get into the qualifying tournament on that basis.  Armed with a wild card, she beat three players, each with considerably more experience than she has.

Reaching a Grand Slam main draw as a qualifying wild card is notable in and of itself.  The only one of this year’s nine qualie WCs to reach the main draw, she’s only the 16th woman to do so at the US Open since 1998 and only the 31st woman to do so at any Slam in that time frame.

As we now know, she didn’t stop there, and that sets her further apart.  Of the 30 women who previous accomplished the feat, only 11 went on to win a match in the main draw.  (Only one of those, Great Britain’s Karen Cross, at Wimbledon in 1997, won two main draw matches.)  And only one of those ladies–Yulia Fedossova, who qualified for the US Open in 2006–beat a seed.  Her victim was the much less imposing 25th seed, Anabel Medina Garrigues.

Every slam has its share of upsets, but this one goes far beyond that.  By beating a former champion and highly-seeded player, Duval did something no woman had done before.

Yesterday was a good day for American men, who went 5-2.  The only victims were Steve Johnson, who struggled with injuries, and junior champion Collin Altamirano, who no one could’ve expected would give Philipp Kohlschreiber much of a fight.

More notable than the simple fact of winning was the manner in which two US men did so.  In the battle of oppositesJohn Isner defeated Filippo Volandri, 6-0 6-2 6-3, and Donald Young knocked out Martin Klizan, 6-1 6-0 6-1.

Isner set all kinds of personal records in the process.  Not known for his return game–to put it mildly–Isner had never won a bagel set on hard courts.  In fact, until beating Adrian Mannarino in Newport last month, he had never won a set of professional tennis 6-0.

Next, also because of that not-so-pesky return game, Isner tends to lose quite a few games, even when he’s winning.  In best-of-five matches, he had never before won a match without dropping at least nine games.  (That was at the French in 2010, when he beat Andrey Golubev.)  Today he won while giving up only five.

Finally, to reach such a scoreline, Isner broke serve a total of six times.  That’s something else he’s never done before.  He’s broken five times on a handful of occasions, but never six, unless he did so in Davis Cup, for which stats are more difficult to come by.

Still, it seems likely that Klizan played worse than Volandri did.  As you might imagine, Klizan has never lost quite so comprehensively, though he did turn in a similarly abysmal performance in New York three years ago, when he lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-1 6-3 6-0.

For Young, it was only his third straight-set victory at a slam, regardless of lopsidedness.  And it was only the third time he won a Grand Slam match having earned his way into the main draw.  His other five wins–all at the US Open–came as a wild card.

Since we’re talking about all these Americans winning in New York, it seems like a great time to point you toward Colin Davy’s recent effort to quantify home-court advantage in tennis.  He finds that home-country players–both men and women–have a slight advantage that cannot be explained by other factors, to the tune of about 2%.

In building jrank, I’ve done some work along the same lines, and arrived at a similar number.  (On my old blog, I posted some very crude attempts, not controlling for things like surface, and claimed a much bigger effect.  I don’t think I’ve published the details of my more recent efforts.)

As Colin notes, it’s a small effect compared to other sports. (Isner’s love of the USA notwithstanding.)  To the extent home-court advantage in tennis stems from officiating bias–a common cause in other sports–the increasing use of Hawkeye would seem to lessen the effect.  And oddly, the practice of putting local players on main courts would turn out to be counterproductive.  By putting locals on Hawkeye courts, you’re taking away at least one slight advantage.

Colin also suggests comparing different stages of the tournament, which may reveal that umpires have a greater or lesser bias as the stakes get higher.  That test occurred to me for a different reason.  Travel-related fatigue is a major factor (again, something Colin acknowledges), but it is one that would likely lessen as the tournament goes on.  A player might still be jetlagged for his first-round match, but if he wins a couple of rounds, that effect is likely gone.

It’s an interesting field of study, one that is particularly tricky to separate from others–such as travel effects, surface preferences, venue familiarity, and so on.  As is so often the case in tennis, it is a topic that has been extensively hashed out for other sports, yet barely researched in ours.

In case you missed it yesterday afternoon, I tracked every point of the Federer-Zemlja match, and came up with some very detailed serve breakdowns for each player.  Check it out.


Filed under John Isner, Victoria Duval

Contrasting Serves, Futile Slams, and (More) IBM Shortcomings

In most of his matches, John Isner makes his opponents look short and their serves look weak.  What happens, then, when his opponent really is short, with one of the weakest serves in the game?

Third up on grandstand today, Isner takes on Filippo Volandri, the man who sets records Isner will never reach.  Three years ago, the Italian failed to hit a single ace for 19 straight matches.  Volandri may not be as short as some players on tour–the ATP site lists him at six feet–but it’s more common for him to fail to hit an ace in a match than it is for him to hit one.

In the last year, Isner has hit nearly 19% of his first serves for aces, good for best among tour regulars.  In the top 50, the other extreme is represented by Nikolay Davydenko, whose rate is just under 3%.  Volandri–despite playing many weaker opponents on the Challenger tour–sits at 0.8%.

The good news for Big John is that the 31-year-old Volandri is a nonentity on hard courts, having not played on the surface since losing in the first round of the Australian. The bad news? He’ll have to hit a lot of returns today.

As my forecast very delicately predicted, Fernando Verdasco didn’t live up to his seed, losing to the barely-unseeded Ivan Dodig yesterday in five sets.  That’s the fourth slam this year in which he’s lost in a five-setter.

Verdasco, with his flashy talent and underwhelming results, comes in for his share of fan mockery.  But this is one time he doesn’t deserve it.  Out of the several dozen players who enter all four slams each year, almost all will lose four matches.  While it may be frustrating to lose in five, losing in five, all else equal, says better things about your game than losing in three.

One of those five-set losses this year was to Andy Murray at Wimbledon; the other two previous contests were against Janko Tipsarevic and Kevin Anderson.  Perhaps Fernando should have finished off at least one of those matches, but none of his four slam losses this year are nearly as groan-inducing as, say, Ernests Gulbis‘s disaster yesterday against Andreas Haider-Maurer.  And his record is nothing compared to Marinko Matosevic‘s streak of 11 losses in 11 slam appearances.

Verdasco is the sixth man in the Open era to complete this distinctive slam feat, and he’s not in bad company. Last year, Isner did it–and added an exclamation point with a five-set loss in Davis Cup.  Before that, the most recent were Fernando Gonzalez in 2006 and Tim Henman in 2000.  Not bad company.

Anyway, if you’re drawn to this unusual feat, don’t miss Steve Johnson‘s first-round match with Tobias Kamke. It’s last on Court 13 today. Johnson is three-quarters of the way to the Fernando slam, losing all three of his matches at majors this year in five sets.  If he completes the set, it will be particularly impressive for at least one man: Kamke has won only two five-setters in his career.

As part of IBM’s ham-handed PR push leading up to another slam, the company gave analyst and coach Craig O’Shannessy some data.  He reported some results on both the ATP site and the New York Times Straight Sets blog.

This is a huge step up from the thinly-veiled advertisement I highlighted yesterday.  But it still, frustratingly, falls short.

One of the major points of Craig’s ATP piece is summarized at the beginning: “Most baseline points are a losing proposition,” and “Approaching the net is a goldmine.”  Later, he continues, “It seems amazing that players don’t venture forward more often to capitalize on the far higher winning percentage approaching offers over baseline play.”

Is this the data-driven, actionable advice I pleaded for last week? Not quite.

As I’m sure Craig would agree, opportunities to come to net aren’t always available, and they don’t arise in a vacuum.  Especially in today’s baseline-focused game, net points tend to occur when one player hits a particularly weak shot.  So if most net points end in victory for the player who approaches, is that because of the choice to come to net, or the weak shot that generated that opportunity?

Think about it probabilistically.  When Djokovic serves against Tsonga, let’s say he has a 75% chance of winning a first serve point.  If Tsonga hits a weak chip return in the middle of the court, allowing Novak to take several steps forward, we could figure that Djokovic’s chance of winning the point increases to 95%–perhaps higher.  When Novak puts away his second shot, he wins the point.  Formally speaking, his chance of winning jumps to 100%.

Now, in that example, what do you credit as the reason for Djokovic winning the point?  Landing a solid first serve, which gives him a 75% chance of winning instead of, say, 60%? A particularly good first serve, which forced the weak return?  Tsonga’s poor return? Or Novak’s “choice” to approach the net?

That final choice is laughable.  And this is the data he’s drawing from.  Aside from a few particularly aggressive players on tour, that’s the profile of a net point in 2013.

So, what’s the actionable advice here?  You probably shouldn’t approach the net without a reasonable opening, so … hit bigger serves to get more weak returns? Hit deep groundstrokes into corners? Take advantage of short balls?

These are the benefits we reap from “Big Data?”

IBM clearly wants to wow us with this stuff.  Yet the “findings” are so elementary as to be useless.  The solution is so simple: release the data, let fans and analysts innovate, and watch the quality of this work go through the roof.


Filed under Fernando Verdasco, Filippo Volandri, John Isner, U.S. Open

John Isner’s Momentary Tiebreak Blip

Tiebreak legend John Isner has now lost four tiebreaks in a row, including a demoralizing two breakers in his match yesterday against 71st-ranked Vasek Pospisil.  Aside from his loss to the Canadian, however, Isner’s sudden tiebreak weakness hasn’t hurt him, nor does it seem to be a sign of poor play or weak nerves.  In fact, he has excelled–as usual–on the North American hardcourts. Twice last week, against both Marcos Baghdatis and Dmitry Tursunov, Isner dropped the first set in a breaker, then came back to win the following two sets with scores of 6-4 or better.

Further, this brief spell of Haase-style tiebreak play follows a much longer stretch of typical end-of-set dominance.  Until losing the first set against Kevin Anderson in the Atlanta final, Isner had won 12 breakers in a row. He immediately bounced back from the setback against Anderson by winning two breakers to claim the match, then won two more in his next match against Alex Kuznetsov.

Summary: The tiebreak mojo is still intact.

At a broader level, Isner has won 70% of his tiebreaks over the last 52 weeks, a rate higher than he has ever sustained for a full season.  Specifically in 2013, he has won 28 of 39 tiebreaks, good for 72%.  By comparison, Anderson has won 57% this season, Roger Federer 59%, and even the inimitable Steve Darcis has never won more than 72% of breakers for a full year.

This isn’t to take away from Pospisil’s achievement, however.  Isner’s career tour-level tiebreak record of 65% suggests that taking two breakers from him in a single match is difficult, and it’s all the more so for a player who most would not consider as Big John’s equal.  In 25 career tour-level tiebreaks before yesterday’s match, the Canadian had won a mere 11.

In fact, of Isner’s 258 career best-of-three-set matches on tour, this was only the seventh in which he lost two sets 7-6.  Given the sheer number of tiebreaks he plays, that in itself quite the accomplishment.  No one had administered such a loss to Isner since last year’s Madrid Masters, where Marin Cilic beat him 7-6 7-6.

When watching the American lose the occasional tiebreak, it’s important to remember that for the vast majority of players, breaker outcomes are essentially luck.  Isner is one of the few players to demonstrate a consistent tiebreak skill, but even that skill can’t prevent the occasional serving outage or an outstanding run of play from a streaky opponent.

With Isner (and by extension, all US men) falling out of the top 20, it’s tempting to point fingers and look for answers.  But don’t blame Big John.  If you must find fault, blame Canada.


Filed under John Isner, Tiebreaks

The Structural Biases of Tiebreaks

There is more to tiebreaks than meets the eye. As we’ve learned recently, big servers don’t seem to have an advantage in tiebreaks over more balanced players, and very few professionals win more tiebreaks than we would expect them to.

In one of those discussions, commenter Håkon Mørk raised a related issue. Is the format of the tiebreak itself biased toward certain types of players? That is: Who benefits by playing tiebreak sets instead of “deuce” sets in which one player must win by a margin of two games?

When we put the question this way, it is straightforward. The primary beneficiaries of the tiebreak format are underdogs.

Think of it this way. The better player is likely to win, regardless of the format. The bigger the margin of victory required, the more likely the better player is to win. If Kenny De Schepper were to play a single tiebreak against Roger Federer, he’d have a decent chance of winning. But in a full-length set, that chance would be much lower. In a best of three match, lower still. Best of five: even lower. Best of five with no tiebreak in the final set: lowest of all.

Any change in the format of a tennis match that causes the match to hinge on fewer points gives the underdog a greater chance of lucking his way into victory.

On average, the underdog’s benefit from tiebreak sets isn’t much, compared to a hypothetical world in which the ATP played only deuce sets. For an individual set in the average tour-level 2012 match, the underdog’s chance of winning was 1.3% higher in a tiebreak set than they would have been in a deuce set.

But there’s more to the story. First of all, matches that are very close (in which both players win about 50% of points) drag down the average, since when the players are evenly matched, the format doesn’t matter — 50% is 50%. Second, matches that are very lopsided also drag down the average–if one player dominates, he has a very high percentage chance of winning a set regardless of the format.

Thus, in a somewhat closely (but not too closely) contested match, the underdog gains quite a bit more from the tiebreak format.

Structural biases

In some of these matches, the gain is much more than in others.

In fact, in six matches this year, the difference between the winner’s chance of winning a deuce set would have been more than ten percent greater than his chance of winning a tiebreak set.

(All of the chances I’m referring to are derived by calculating the winner’s winning percentages on serve and retun points, then running those through my set probability python code, which now provides an option for the probability of winning deuce sets.)

Two of the three most extreme such matches this year (and five of the top 14) were won by–could it be anyone else?–John Isner.

The most extreme case is Isner’s match against Janko Tipsarevic in the London Olympics. Isner won 84.7% of service points and 23.3% of return points, ultimately taking the match 7-5, 7-6(14). Those percentages translate to a 71.1% chance of winning a tiebreak set or an 84.1% chance of winning a deuce set.

If you were Isner, which would you prefer?

Compare that to a match between Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Xavier Malisse at the Miami Masters, which Jo won 7-5 7-5. This match went very differently than Isner-Janko. Tsonga won 68.1% of service points and 43.1% of return points. Those would give the Frenchman an 84.1% chance of winning a deuce set (sound familiar?) or an 82.7% of winning a tiebreak set.

This is just another illustration that fewer pivotal points gives the underdog a better chance. To win a tiebreak against Isner, you need to win one point against his serve (as long as you hold your own). To break an Isner service game, you need to win at least four.

Thus, an extreme big server like Isner appears to suffer from the tiebreak format. If the ATP went back to playing every set as a deuce set, he would have a much better chance of avoiding the lucky upset when he posts stats like those of the Janko match.

The big-serving underdog

There’s still more to this story. As we’ve seen, underdogs benefit from the tiebreak format: A structure with fewer points is more susceptible to luck. And big servers seem to be hurt by the tiebreak format.

What about when big servers are underdogs?

The tiebreak format isn’t biased against big servers, it’s biased against big servers who are better than their opponents. In matches already decided by a small number of points (like a couple of break points or minibreaks in an Isner-Federer match), the underdog benefits from playing tiebreaks.

And when one player has the big-serve/weak-return package, he effectively turns the other player into a bigger server and weaker retuner. We don’t usually think of Philipp Kohlschreiber as a big server, but when he played the serve-and-volleying Dustin Brown in Halle this year, he won 82.1% of service points and only 29.9% of return points. That type of match hinges on a very small number of points, and as such, gives the underdog a greater chance to pounce.

More mathematically speaking, the degree of the advantage given to the underdog by playing tiebreak sets is positively correlated with the overall percentage of service points won.

This presents something a conundrum for the big server. His style of play is beneficial in tiebreak sets while he is the underdog, but it becomes a hindrance once he is the favorite. When so many matches are decided by a single break or even a couple of minibreaks, a big-serving, weak-returning favorite will lose more than his share of matches he “should have” won, simply because of the way he plays.

One solution for such players is to win more tiebreaks than the numbers would suggest they should, as Isner does. Another tactic, of couse, is to hit better returns.


Filed under John Isner, The Rules, Tiebreaks

Daniel Brands and Ace Records in Context

In the Vienna round of 16 last week, Juan Martin Del Potro beat Daniel Brands in a three-set, three-tiebreak match.  The courts are fast, Delpo serves big, and apparently Brands has quite the weapon of his own, as both players hit at least 30 aces.  Brands hit 32.

We can’t help but be impressed at the sheer numbers.  As it turns out, it’s an ATP first, at least since 1991, when the ATP started keeping such stats.  Never before had both players hit at least 30 aces in a three-set match.

Here are the top nine matches in the ATP record books, in which both servers reached a certain ace milestone:

minAces  Winner                 Loser              Year  Event               Surface  Score                 wAces  lAces  
30       Juan Martin Del Potro  Daniel Brands      2012  Vienna              Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(4) 7-6(6)     30     32  
29       John Isner             Gilles Muller      2010  Atlanta             Hard     4-6 7-6(6) 7-6(7)        33     29  
28       Andrei Pavel           Gregory Carraz     2005  Milan               Carpet   7-6(0) 6-7(5) 7-6(3)     28     33  
25       Greg Rusedski          Joachim Johansson  2004  Moscow              Carpet   7-6(5) 6-7(1) 7-6(7)     25     26  
25       Arnaud Clement         Thomas Johansson   2008  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     7-6(4) 6-7(5) 6-3        25     28  
24       Mark Philippoussis     Greg Rusedski      2002  Queen's Club        Grass    6-7(1) 7-6(3) 7-6(5)     25     24  
24       Joachim Johansson      Kristof Vliegen    2006  Stockholm           Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-6(7)     24     24  
24       Andy Roddick           Ivo Karlovic       2009  Queen's Club        Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)            24     26  
24       Richard Gasquet        Joachim Johansson  2009  Kuala Lumpur        Hard     4-6 7-6(1) 6-2           26     24

(There are several matches in which both players hit 23, including two on clay, both from 2011: Isner/Karlovic in Houston, and Federer/Feliciano Lopez in Madrid.  Both went to three tiebreaks.)

Aces in a losing effort

Even independent of Del Potro’s 30 aces, it stands out that Brands racked up 32 aces in a best-of-three losing effort.  But that’s not a record–it ties him for 16th of all time with several others, including Sam Querrey, Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, and Goran Ivanisevic, who did it twice.

Mardy Fish may not be proud of this record, but he simply blows away the rest of the field, having served past the eminently ace-able Olivier Rochus 43 times despite losing to the Belgian.  Though Karlovic may not sit atop the list, he makes up for it by dominating the middle.

lAces  Winner              Loser             Year  Event             Surface  Score                  wAces  
43     Olivier Rochus      Mardy Fish        2007  Lyon              Carpet   6-7(5) 7-6(6) 7-6(15)      2  
37     Yevgeny Kafelnikov  Alexander Waske   2002  Tashkent          Hard     6-7(6) 7-6(5) 7-6(6)      10  
35     Pete Sampras        Goran Ivanisevic  1996  Tour Finals       Carpet   6-7(6) 7-6(4) 7-5         17  
35     Andy Roddick        Feliciano Lopez   2011  Queen's Club      Grass    7-6(2) 6-7(5) 6-4         15  
35     Feliciano Lopez     Ivo Karlovic      2004  Madrid Masters    Hard     6-4 6-7(10) 7-6(5)         8  
35     Yen Hsun Lu         Ivo Karlovic      2012  Queen's Club      Grass    6-7(3) 7-6(6) 7-6(7)       6  
35     Rafael Nadal        Ivo Karlovic      2008  Queen's Club      Grass    6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-6(4)       6  
35     Arnaud Clement      Ivo Karlovic      2004  's-Hertogenbosch  Grass    7-6(8) 6-7(5) 6-3          2  
34     Thomas Johansson    Ivan Ljubicic     2002  Canada Masters    Hard     4-6 6-4 7-6(6)            17  
34     Lars Burgsmuller    Wayne Arthurs     2006  Tokyo             Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(7) 7-6(3)      10  
34     Richey Reneberg     Richard Krajicek  1997  Halle             Grass    4-6 7-6(2) 7-6(6)          6

Total aces in a single match

If there has never been a match in which both players hit 30 aces, a match total of 62 aces must be pretty impressive, right?

Indeed it is.  Del Potro and Brands are now tied for the record, initially set by John Isner and Gilles Muller two years ago in Atlanta.  It’s only the fourth time that two players have combined for 60 or more aces in a best-of-three contest.

totAces  Winner                 Loser             Year  Event               Surface  Score                 wAces  lAces  
62       Juan Martin Del Potro  Daniel Brands     2012  Vienna              Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(4) 7-6(6)     30     32  
62       John Isner             Gilles Muller     2010  Atlanta             Hard     4-6 7-6(6) 7-6(7)        33     29  
61       Andrei Pavel           Gregory Carraz    2005  Milan               Carpet   7-6(0) 6-7(5) 7-6(3)     28     33  
60       Goran Ivanisevic       Magnus Norman     1997  Zagreb              Carpet   7-6(5) 6-7(4) 7-5        40     20  
58       Frank Dancevic         Peter Wessels     2007  Stockholm           Hard     6-1 6-7(7) 7-6(6)        35     23  
55       Jan Michael Gambill    Wayne Arthurs     2002  San Jose            Hard     7-5 6-7(5) 7-6(4)        22     33  
55       Bohdan Ulihrach        Goran Ivanisevic  1999  Rotterdam           Carpet   6-7(6) 7-6(3) 7-5        23     32  
53       Andy Roddick           Wayne Arthurs     2006  Memphis             Hard     6-7(4) 7-6(9) 7-6(2)     20     33  
53       Andy Roddick           Sam Querrey       2010  San Jose            Hard     2-6 7-6(5) 7-6(4)        21     32  
53       Arnaud Clement         Thomas Johansson  2008  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     7-6(4) 6-7(5) 6-3        25     28  
53       Joachim Johansson      Gregory Carraz    2004  Canada Masters      Hard     7-6(4) 6-7(3) 7-6(4)     30     23

The higher bar of ace rate

If you want to set a record in a best-of-three-sets match, getting to those three tiebreaks is a good idea.  The more points you play, the more likely you’ll hit more aces, as evidenced by Fish’s losing performance, where he not only reached three tiebreaks, but played at least twelve points in each one!

For greater context, we should open up the field to all matches regardless of length, and compare them by ace rate.

Del Potro’s 30 aces came in 125 service points, for an ace rate of 24%.  Brands hit 32 in 131, for an ace ate of 24.4%.  It’s not often that one player (not named Isner, anyway) hits nearly one-quarter of his serves for aces, so it is particularly unusual for both players to do so.

In all tour-level matches (including grand slams) since 1991, a minimum ace rate of 24.0% is only good for 17th.  Andy Roddick was particularly adept at bringing about these kinds of matches, appearing in 6 of the top 11 on this list:

minA%  Winner            Loser              Year  Event            Surface  Score                wA%    lA%  
33.3%  Andy Roddick      Ivo Karlovic       2009  Queen's Club     Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)      33.3%  35.1%  
29.8%  Mikhail Youzhny   Ivan Ljubicic      2007  Rotterdam        Hard     6-2 6-4            29.8%  29.8%  
29.2%  Gregory Carraz    Martin Verkerk     2004  Milan            Carpet   6-3 7-6(3)         30.4%  29.2%  
27.3%  Goran Ivanisevic  Boris Becker       1996  Antwerp          Carpet   6-4 7-6(5)         30.8%  27.3%  
27.1%  John Isner        Gilles Muller      2010  Atlanta          Hard     4-6 7-6(6) 7-6(7)  27.5%  27.1%  
27.0%  Robin Soderling   Andy Roddick       2008  Lyon             Carpet   7-6(5) 7-6(5)      27.0%  27.2%  
26.7%  Janko Tipsarevic  Peter Luczak       2010  s-Hertogenbosch  Grass    6-3 6-3            26.7%  27.1%  
26.1%  Andy Roddick      Gilles Muller      2008  Memphis          Hard     6-4 7-6(4)         27.4%  26.1%  
25.4%  Andy Roddick      Joachim Johansson  2004  San Jose         Hard     6-3 7-6(7)         36.5%  25.4%  
25.4%  Andy Roddick      Nicolas Mahut      2008  Lyon             Carpet   7-6(5) 6-4         29.0%  25.4%  
25.3%  Andy Roddick      Feliciano Lopez    2008  Dubai            Hard     6-7(8) 6-4 6-2     26.2%  25.3%

Ace rate in a losing effort

While losers rarely hit as many aces as Brands did last week, losers often hit aces at a much higher rate.  Brands doesn’t register anywhere near the top of this all-time list.

Think of it this way: The shorter the match, the more likely a player will do something off-the-charts, rate-wise.  Karlovic tops this list, with 28 aces in his 70 service points.  Brands didn’t maintain anywhere near the same rate that Ivo did, but Brands did have to hit nearly twice as many serves!  Had Karlovic continued for 61 more serves, he probably would’ve done better than 24.4%, but it is very unlikely he would have continued at a 4-in-10 pace.

This is also a reason why we haven’t seen many best-of-five matches on the ace-rate leaderboards.  Even if one player is acing like a madman while quickly losing, he still has to keep up the pace for three sets.

lA%    Winner              Loser               Year  Event               Surface  Score                     lAces  
40.0%  Florent Serra       Ivo Karlovic        2009  Basel               Hard     7-6(5) 6-4                   28  
37.5%  Alex Obrien         Mark Philippoussis  1996  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     6-4 6-4                      21  
36.6%  Thomas Johansson    Ivan Ljubicic       2002  Canada Masters      Hard     4-6 6-4 7-6(6)               34  
35.8%  Richey Reneberg     Richard Krajicek    1997  Halle               Grass    4-6 7-6(2) 7-6(6)            34  
35.1%  Andy Roddick        Ivo Karlovic        2009  Queen's Club        Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)                26  
34.8%  Paul Henri Mathieu  Ivo Karlovic        2009  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     7-6(9) 6-4                   23  
34.8%  Paul Henri Mathieu  Chris Guccione      2008  Adelaide            Hard     4-6 6-3 6-4                  24  
34.2%  Andre Agassi        Joachim Johansson   2005  Australian Open     Hard     6-7(4) 7-6(5) 7-6(3) 6-4     51  
33.8%  Jonas Bjorkman      Mark Philippoussis  2002  Memphis             Hard     7-6(6) 7-6(1)                26  
33.3%  Thomas Johansson    Wayne Arthurs       2001  Nottingham          Grass    7-6(3) 7-6(3)                24  
33.3%  Yevgeny Kafelnikov  Marc Rosset         2002  Marseille           Hard     6-3 7-6(5)                   19  
33.3%  Andre Agassi        Goran Ivanisevic    1994  Vienna              Carpet   6-4 6-4                      19

Combined ace rate

As you might have guessed by now, 24% isn’t going to be good enough to crack this final all-time list.  Roddick, Karlovic, and Mark Philippousis simply played too many matches to allow that to happen.

Indeed, the Brands/Del Potro combined rate of 24.2% isn’t even close to the top of this list.  To show up here, it’s necessary to come within an ace or two of the 30% mark.  With Andy’s retirement and Ivo’s decline, this leaderboard looks particularly safe at the moment.

totA%  Winner              Loser              Year  Event                 Surface  Score          totAces    wA%    lA%  
34.2%  Andy Roddick        Ivo Karlovic       2009  Queen's Club          Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)       50  33.3%  35.1%  
31.6%  Andy Roddick        Thomas Johansson   2004  Bangkok               Hard     6-3 6-4             31  38.2%  23.3%  
31.6%  Andy Roddick        Joachim Johansson  2004  San Jose              Hard     6-3 7-6(7)          42  36.5%  25.4%  
31.6%  Martin Verkerk      Thomas Enqvist     2003  Milan                 Carpet   6-3 6-4             30  46.0%  15.6%  
30.6%  Robin Soderling     Gregory Carraz     2004  Marseille             Hard     6-3 6-4             30  42.6%  19.6%  
30.4%  Jonathan Stark      Goran Ivanisevic   1997  Indian Wells Masters  Hard     7-5 6-3             34  37.7%  23.7%  
29.9%  Mark Philippoussis  Lionel Roux        1996  Paris Masters         Carpet   6-4 6-4             35  49.1%  11.7%  
29.8%  Mikhail Youzhny     Ivan Ljubicic      2007  Rotterdam             Hard     6-2 6-4             28  29.8%  29.8%  
29.8%  Gregory Carraz      Martin Verkerk     2004  Milan                 Carpet   6-3 7-6(3)          36  30.4%  29.2%  
29.0%  Jonathan Stark      Thomas Enqvist     1993  Halle                 Grass    6-4 6-2             27  37.8%  20.8%  
29.0%  Goran Ivanisevic    Boris Becker       1996  Antwerp               Carpet   6-4 7-6(5)          38  30.8%  27.3%

Andy, we’re missing you already.

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Filed under Andy Roddick, Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, Mardy Fish, Records, Toy stats

Who Can Stop John Isner?

Last week, John Isner beat world number one Novak Djokovic.  Earlier this year, the victim was Roger Federer.  At least year’s French Open, Rafael Nadal had to go to five sets to eliminate the big man.  Between Isner’s massive serve and the general improvement in his game, it seems that he can beat anybody.

To beat big John, you need either a strong return game or solid tiebreaker skills.  Ideally, you’d have both.  (The only alternatives are to catch him on an off-day or to play him on a slow clay court.)  Let’s take a look at how opponents have fared against the Isner serve over the course of his career.

One surprising indicator of return prowess is ace-rate-against.  We tend to think of ace rate as a function only of the server’s ability, perhaps coupled with surface speed.   But returner’s have plenty to say about it, too.  Simply looking at Isner’s 17 tour-level matches this year, we see a remarkable range of ace rates, from 36.6% of points against Gilles Muller in Memphis down to 5.6% against Federer in Indian Wells.  Surface plays a role, as do a variety of other factors (maybe Isner was tired after beating Djokovic in the semifinal last week), but some players are considerably better than others at getting the ball back in play.

A thorough look at that phenomenon is a subject for another day.  There’s plenty to do simply comparing performances against Isner.  As I’ve noted before, a big serve doesn’t necessarily make a player more unpredictable, though of course such a weapon might make him a better player.

63 players have faced Isner at least twice in tour-level events.  Of those, the most effective has been Lleyton Hewitt, holding Isner’s ace rate under 10% and winning almost half of Isner’s serve points.  However, the most recent of those two matches was almost two years ago.  Still, it’s not surprising to see a world-class counterpuncher atop this list–Hewitt limits aces and service holds against just about everybody.

We find more of the same near the top of the list, with Juan Ignacio Chela, Gilles Simon, and Nikolay Davydenko all in the top 10, ranked by the rate of return points won.  Height might also help in handling the physics-defying bounces of the Isner serve: both Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro are among the top 15, though some other tall guys (Kevin Anderson and Ivo Karlovic are shown below) have generally weak return games, so the argument doesn’t seem to apply to them.

The unexpected contrast on this list is to find Nadal several spots below Djokovic, Federer, and Andy Murray.  Nadal allows about the same ace rate as Djokovic and Murray, but he doesn’t perform as well on the balls he gets back in play.  One popular theory is that because of his height, Isner is able to neutralize some of Rafa’s spin.  Regardless of the reason why, it’s even more unexpected to see Rafa so far down the list, since two of the three Nadal-Isner matches have taken place on clay.

Here are some of the raw results for players who have faced Isner two or more times.  I’ve shown the 20 opponents who have won the most return points, along with ten other notable players, whose ranks (out of 63) are shown in parenthesis.

Opponent                 SvPts  Matches   Ace%  SvPtsWon  
Lleyton Hewitt             124        2   8.9%     53.2%  
Tomas Berdych              300        3  11.7%     57.7%  
Thiemo De Bakker*          165        2   9.1%     60.0%  
Mikhail Youzhny            258        2  16.3%     61.6%  
Juan Ignacio Chela         269        3   6.7%     62.1%  
Novak Djokovic             191        2  14.1%     62.3%  
Andy Murray                224        2  13.8%     62.5%  
Roger Federer              243        3  11.5%     63.0%  
Gilles Simon               244        2  15.2%     63.9%  
Nikolay Davydenko          248        3  18.5%     64.1%  

David Ferrer               326        4  14.7%     64.4%  
Viktor Troicki             234        3   9.0%     64.5%  
Juan Martin Del Potro      201        3  16.4%     64.7%  
Robin Haase                233        2  15.0%     64.8%  
Rafael Nadal               336        3  13.7%     64.9%  
Richard Gasquet            221        2  19.0%     65.2%  
Marat Safin                115        2  13.9%     65.2%  
Mardy Fish                 424        4  13.4%     65.6%  
David Nalbandian           259        2  19.7%     65.6%  
Feliciano Lopez            207        2  19.3%     66.2%  

(22) Jurgen Melzer         177        2  16.4%     66.7%  
(25) Fernando Gonzalez     185        2  16.8%     68.6%  
(27) Gael Monfils          651        6  15.4%     69.1%  
(29) Andy Roddick          466        5  20.0%     69.5%  
(32) Jo Wilfried Tsonga    227        2  13.2%     70.5%  
(40) Kevin Anderson        443        6  16.9%     71.6%  
(41) Ivo Karlovic          289        3  15.9%     71.6%  
(46) Lukasz Kubot          167        2  21.0%     73.1%  
(57) Alex Bogomolov Jr     221        3  23.1%     77.4%  
(63) Andrey Golubev        127        2   9.4%     84.3%

(De Bakker gets an asterisk because one of his two matches immediately followed Isner-Mahut, and John was playing injured.)

An interesting avenue for further research is whether return quality against Isner differs much from return quality against players in general.  Sure, Isner wins more points on serve and hits more aces, but looking at the list above, it doesn’t seem to differ much from a ranking of the game’s best returners.  For all of his uniqueness, he’s simply one very big server in a game full of big servers.  As he goes deeper in more tournaments, perhaps we’ll gain a better grasp of what players need to do to stop him.


Filed under John Isner, Research